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Boccieri Battles Anti-Incumbent Fervor, Sluggish Local Economy

CANTON, Ohio — $1.50 still gets you a day of downtown parking in this rusty town of 78,000 residents, where the unemployment rate hovers well north of the national average and local business leaders say there are few reasons to be optimistic.

“We’ve come out of the recession, but we haven’t had a dramatic uptick,” Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce executive Steven Katz said in a recent interview at his Main Street office. “We’re really still hunkered down.”

Such sentiment from the local business community is complicating freshman Democratic Rep. John Boccieri’s 2010 re-election chances in this historically Republican district. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, narrowly won the district, and Republicans represented the district for 58 years before moderate Rep. Ralph Regula (R) retired two years ago.

After casting tough “yay” votes for health care reform, energy and spending legislation, Boccieri acknowledged that there will be one thing on his constituents’ minds when they head into the voting booth Nov. 2.
“It’s about the economy,” he said in an interview. “They want to know about jobs.”

The downturn in this area has been a long time in the making. While the Pro Football Hall of Fame may attract a steady stream of tourists, this Buckeye State town has only two-thirds of the permanent residents it had in 1950, when Cleveland — an hour’s drive north — was the nation’s seventh largest city and a key stop along a Great Lakes shipping corridor that stretched from Buffalo, N.Y., to Detroit to Chicago.

And plenty of overgrown lots, abandoned factories and rows of decrepit trailer homes in Canton reveal few signs of a burgeoning rebirth. Katz said there isn’t much evidence in the local economy of the roughly $127 million in stimulus money that Democrats have directed to Stark County.

“I’m not sure how much filtered down to the business community,” he said. “Businesses in general are worried about the uncertainty coming from Washington.”

At a roundtable with voters Friday morning, Boccieri repeated the White House’s line that Democrats inherited the economic mess from the previous administration and that it will take years to reverse it. Still, he poked his party leaders for over-promising the immediate effect of legislation such as the stimulus bill, which continues to work its way through the economy.

“When I walked through the door on day one, we were losing 750,000 jobs a month,” Boccieri told the dozen or so constituents who joined him at Luna’s Restaurant & Deli in his hometown of Alliance, Ohio. The stimulus “wasn’t the economic panacea some people claimed it was. I never sold it that way.”

Boccieri’s years as an Air Force pilot and athlete are obvious on the campaign trail. Although he lets an occasional “awesome” slip, the lawmaker appears to be a disciplined campaigner who sticks to his script. In this GOP-leaning district, he also accepts that unpopular votes on the final health care bill, as well as a proposal that would cap carbon emissions, may cost him his job.

“If I’m not elected again, I’ll do something else,” he told a crowd of mostly seniors that gathered for the morning question-and-answer session. “I’m not here to warm a seat.”

In Boccieri’s district, even the local community center is having difficulties keeping the lights on. As he led a tour of the Foltz Community Center of Eastern Canton, retired IBM executive Dale Brunner said the recession forced the organization to lay off its only full-time manager. There’s been no significant rebound to the nonprofit organization’s outlook in recent months.

“Quit spending money,” Brunner told Boccieri during the tour. “We’re at the point where we’re like Italy, Brazil and Argentina.”

Boccieri’s challenger, local businessman Jim Renacci (R), agreed that the stimulus’s questionable effects and a continued lack of jobs in the area are fueling the anti-incumbent fervor in this Congressional district. Chatting with a reporter during a recent Stark County Republican Party barbecue, Renacci said local voters are miffed that Democrats keep chasing bad financial decisions with even more of citizens’ tax dollars.

“You can’t spend your way into prosperity, whether you’re in government, business or a family,” he said. “They’re fed up with big government.”

But the lesser-known Renacci may need to spend mightily to make his challenge known in a district where candidates have to fork over $250,000 a week on television ads to get their message out. In an interview, Renacci declined to say how much of his personal money he’s willing to devote, but the National Republican Congressional Committee is expected to run ads on his behalf in the expensive media market.

“As the election moves forward, we’re going to do what’s necessary to win,” Renacci said last week.

Still, Boccieri has proved to be an apt fundraiser in his first term, raking in an impressive $1.4 million for his re-election bid as of July, including $772,000 from political action committees and his Democratic colleagues in the House, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

After loaning his campaign $305,000, Renacci had $663,000 in cash as of July 1, FEC records show. This month, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees plunked down $750,000 for two rounds of television ads that hit Renacci on taxation issues.

“Renacci hid $13 million and was forced to pay $1.4 million in back taxes and penalties,” a narrator says in one AFSCME ad. “What do you think?”

The Republican challenger, who is suing the union for defamation over its ad, also plans to make Democratic leadership a key plank of his midterm election challenge. At the recent Stark County GOP gathering, the one-time local mayor said Boccieri’s bid this fall is a mandate on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and her leadership in the House.

“Vote to remove your Representative: Nancy Pelosi,” Renacci told the crowd last week.

Also on hand for the GOP gathering was Boccieri’s predecessor, Regula. An 18-term GOP moderate who called it quits by not running in 2008, Regula said voters in Ohio’s 16th district are worried about recently passed Democratic initiatives in the House, particularly an environmental cap-and-trade measure.

“Our industries use a lot of electricity,” Regula said.

The former lawmaker also agreed about the role the economy will play in this election. He added that there’s an enthusiasm gap for his successor this year.

“Turnout is going to be the key factor,” Regula said. “They’re distressed with the way things are going, and they’re concerned with the way we’re spending money.”

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