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Sutton Counts on Blue-Collar Brigades in Ohio Re-Election Fight

AKRON, Ohio — Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) does not exactly look the part of a union folk hero.

At a United Steelworkers fundraiser Friday evening for her re-election campaign, the fashionable Sutton could have easily been mistaken for a real estate agent, ambling among the callused, sunburned and potbellied attendees who ate pizza and drank draft beer under the hum of florescent lights.

Even the perpetually preppy Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Sutton’s predecessor in this northeastern Ohio district, dressed down for the occasion, sporting a denim shirt to an event where visitors were greeted with a sign warning, “Do Not Park Your Foreign Vehicle In Our Union Parking Lot.”

But appearances mattered little to the 50 or so union members who traveled from across the region and paid the fundraiser’s $25 minimum. In less than two terms, Sutton has become their protector in the House, criticizing free-trade deals and backing proposals intended to boost the hard-hit domestic manufacturing sector in the Midwest and elsewhere. Succeeding Brown, the boilermaker’s daughter has also become the go-to House Democrat for national union leaders on legislative and regulatory matters.

“Her middle name is Labor,” said Tom Morneweck, the president of a local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who was on hand for last week’s fundraiser.

Now, amid an unexpected challenge from Republican candidate Tom Ganley, many union leaders say her re-election is organized labor’s No. 1 priority this fall. Underscoring union concerns about her chances, Sutton’s recent fundraiser was headlined by Leo Gerard, president of 1.2 million-member United Steelworkers, who told Sutton’s campaign manager before Friday’s event that the matter was personal.

“I really want to kick this guy’s ass,” Gerard told a small group.

Ganley’s car dealerships have made him a household name across the state. He also had a 4-to-1 cash advantage against the incumbent as of July 1, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Gerard told the half-empty union hall that they should be prepared to financially support her campaign.

“I’m going to come back before November,” Gerard said. “And I want this room filled.”

In speech delivered in the shadow of Goodyear Tire Co.’s world headquarters, Gerard also called Sutton “the “conscience of the House,” pledging that his organization will “do everything we can do to help her win.”

While providing few specifics about the union’s possible support in the next 10 weeks, Gerard said a November loss in the heavily Democratic district, which President Barack Obama won by 15 percentage points, would be a symbolic defeat for organized labor nationwide.

“There is a history in this district, it isn’t just about Betty Sutton,” Gerard told the crowd. “I’m embarrassed at the very thought that on our watch that we could lose the most progressive Congressional district in the country, if we don’t get off our feet.”

Tim Waters, another steelworkers official, called the district “ground zero” for unions this cycle, saying “it’ll be a sad, sad day for labor” if she loses.

“She’s done an amazing job for us,” he said.

Still, there is nearly unanimous agreement that lethargic Election Day turnout by union households may go a long way in making Gerard’s worst political nightmare come true. By one estimate, active union families and retirees make up more than 25 percent of the voting population in the district, which takes up parts of the Cleveland suburbs and Akron.

“Sutton’s job is to get people excited, our job is to get people to the polls,” Brown said in his speech.

But Republicans are betting against a big turnout. In a re-election cycle featuring GOP-leaning statewide races, highly motivated local independent voters and Ganley’s expected burn rate, Ohio state House Republican Leader Bill Batchelder predicted the GOP has more than a long-shot chance to take the seat.

Batchelder, who is active in the Cleveland-area Tea Party grass-roots movement, said Democrats are underestimating electoral frustration in this part of the state, and said Ganley and other Republicans will have no difficulty convincing the area’s union voters to switch sides.

In an interview last week at his Medina office, Batchelder said deficit spending is a particular concern because voters are worried “it’s going to cost them their jobs.”

“When and if they balance the budget,” he said, “they’re going to take money away from working people.”

Local union leader Gary Laston, a Democrat, said the frustration is apparent every time he discusses politics with the roughly 60 union members he represents at Akron-area Parker Hannifin Corp.

As president of a United Auto Workers affiliate, Laston said in an interview last week that his peers are impatient about the lack of obvious results from the $787 billion stimulus package, the health care overhaul and other Democratic initiatives during the past two years.

“They want a quick fix,” Laston said as he sipped iced tea at a local Eat’n Park restaurant. “They’re not seeing the whole picture.”

So far, Sutton’s opponent appears to be keeping a low profile, undoubtedly letting the tough electoral landscape wreak havoc on his opponent. For most of last week, Ganley declined to grant Roll Call access to his campaign events.

But in a Thursday interview, Ganley said his campaign will have no difficulty mining union support for his bid. He said his office has received “a lot of calls” from individual union members, as well as “disaffected Democrats.”

“My message resonates with the rank and file,” he said. “It’s time for a businessman to get involved and straighten out this mess.”

Ganley also showed signs of his inexperience on the campaign trail. In response to a Pew poll out last week, he told Roll Call he did not “have a position on whether” President Barack Obama is a Muslim. Ganley later clarified his remarks through a spokeswoman, saying in a statement, “according to the White House, our President is a Christian and I have no reason to believe otherwise.”

After loaning his campaign $6.5 million, Ganley had $2.7 million in cash as of July 1, according to FEC records. Ganley declined to say how much money he is willing to pour into his election efforts.

“Everyone has a limit as to what they’re willing to spend, but I’m not willing to disclose that,” he said.

In contrast, Sutton had $593,000 in cash on July 1, having raised only $930,000 all cycle. According to a tally by CQ MoneyLine, more than 20 percent of her fundraising came from union political action committees.

Brown acknowledged that fundraising is a major obstacle in this district, an economically depressed area with double-digit unemployment. Before running for the Senate, then-Rep. Brown raised nearly $1.1 million for his 2004 re-election contest in the district and $1.2 million two years prior.

“It’s hard to raise money in this district,” he said.

In what is likely to be a barrage of negative ads in the Cleveland-area TV market, unions are expected to tar Ganley as a ruthless businessman who made his riches by allegedly swindling area voters.

Throughout August, AFSCME has been running $750,000 worth of TV ads in the same media market that criticize Republican Jim Renacci, a one-time car dealer who is challenging freshman Democrat Rep. John Boccieri in an adjacent district.

In an interview before last Friday’s fundraiser, Sutton was blunt about her strategy for the final weeks of the campaign.

While a campaign aide declined to indicate when her campaign will begin airing TV ads against Ganley, Sutton called him a “dishonest car salesman who made money on the backs of families.”

“As long as I have enough to tell that story,” she said. “I feel good about this race.”

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