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In Ashtabula, Ohio, Young People Fight For The County's Political Future

A lift bridge in the harbor commercial district in Ashtabula, Ohio. New political leaders in the county hope a younger generation of voters will help decide the 2020 presidential election.
A lift bridge in the harbor commercial district in Ashtabula, Ohio. New political leaders in the county hope a younger generation of voters will help decide the 2020 presidential election.

With less than 100 days until the 2020 presidential election, Ohio's 18 electoral votes are in play.

The state went for President Trump in 2016, and Ashtabula County is one reason why.

A Rust Belt county that was once home to a booming coal port, Ashtabula voters supported Democrats in every presidential election from 1988 to 2012. But Trump carried 57% of the vote there four years ago.

The electorate in this county may be older than the rest of Ohio, but a new crop of political leaders on both sides of the aisle hopes a younger generation will help decide the 2020 presidential election — and Ashtabula's future.

"A lot of people just want change so much"

Longtime residents of Ashtabula have seen the county change a lot in recent decades. Christine Seuffert, 70, says she has even experienced a change in her community since Trump won, especially "in the way that people treat each other. The things that they say out loud that they perhaps were always thinking. Maybe it's good to know where people stand."

Old friends who meet at Ashtabula's Harbor Perk coffee shop but avoid talking politics because they are divided. From left, Donna Rullo, Valerie Rich, Christine Seuffert, Jolene Salo and Kaye Lind.
/ Steve Inskeep/NPR
Old friends who meet at Ashtabula's Harbor Perk coffee shop but avoid talking politics because they are divided. From left, Donna Rullo, Valerie Rich, Christine Seuffert, Jolene Salo and Kaye Lind.

For the past 10 years, Seuffert has met up with a group of friends on many weekday mornings for coffee at the Harbor Perk coffee shop in Ashtabula.

Seuffert and her friends have a lot in common but don't all agree on who to support for president. She and Donna Rullo, 74, a retired nurse, both grew up in union families and identified as "John F. Kennedy Democrats." But as the coal business declined in Ashtabula, so did unions that backed Democrats.

While Seuffert remains a Democrat, Rullo voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to do so again in 2020.

"Whenever Trump talked about getting rid of the alligators in the swamp, that's what sold me," Rullo says. She acknowledges Trump has his flaws: "Trump's a jackass most of the time. I can see why people don't like it. Doesn't mean he can't do the job."

For Seuffert, Hillary Clinton's loss in Ashtabula County was something of a self-inflicted wound.

"I felt the Democrats in the county kind of fell asleep at the wheel or took for granted the influence that they had," she says.

When Ashtabula County Democratic Party Chair Eli Kalil, 23, assumed the role in early June of 2020, there were 56 vacant Democratic precinct chair positions in the county. Now there are none.
/ Da'Shaunae Marisa for NPR
When Ashtabula County Democratic Party Chair Eli Kalil, 23, assumed the role in early June of 2020, there were 56 vacant Democratic precinct chair positions in the county. Now there are none.

But in 2020, that could change. Eli Kalil is the 23-year-old Ashtabula County chairman of the Democratic Party. When he assumed the role in early June of 2020, there were 56 vacant Democratic precinct chair positions in the county. Now there are none. Kalil was able to fill the positions mostly with people in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

He's been busy trying to help the Democratic Party energize its traditional electorate and mobilize new young voters. When Wisdom Davis, one of Kalil's classmates from junior high school, decided to organize a rally for racial justice in Ashtabula, he supported the effort.

Davis, 23, says George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police officers resonated with Ashtabula's Black residents. Black people make up just 3.8% of the county's population of roughly 100,000.

Davis hesitated at first to join the nationwide protest movement, unsure of whether the protests would be peaceful.

"I said, these protests I feel are going to go really bad. It's gonna turn into something that it shouldn't," she says. But after a few weeks, Davis decided it was time. Though she'd never organized an event like it before, she put together a rally at Lance Corporal Kevin Cornelius Memorial Park in Ashtabula on June 6. Hundreds of people — of diverse ages and races — attended. They counted down together the nearly nine minutes that police knelt on Floyd's neck while he died. There was music, food, drinks and a voter registration table.

Cyclists camp outside a local cafe on Bridge Street in Ashtabula, Ohio.
/ Da'Shaunae Marisa for NPR
Cyclists camp outside a local cafe on Bridge Street in Ashtabula, Ohio.

The presidential election of 2016 was Davis' first as a registered voter. She cast a ballot, but not for Clinton or Trump. She says she doesn't yet know how she feels about Joe Biden. But she sees voting in local elections as a key to Ashtabula's future.

"A lot of people just want change so much," she says. But, she says, "they don't know how to take the steps."

"They're motivated"

Republicans in Ashtabula County are also looking to a younger generation of leaders to retain the progress the party made in 2016.

David Thomas, a 27-year-old Republican, is Ashtabula County's auditor. He first won elected office at 22. Thomas says county politics have been revitalized by the participation of people in their 20s and 30s.

David Thomas, Ashtabula County's auditor, first won elected office at 22. Thomas says county politics have been revitalized by the participation of people in their 20s and 30s.
/ Da'Shaunae Marisa for NPR
David Thomas, Ashtabula County's auditor, first won elected office at 22. Thomas says county politics have been revitalized by the participation of people in their 20s and 30s.

"We've got about 10 elected officials in the county who are 35 and under. Just in the past 10 years or so, [there's been] a whole new wave of leaders coming up in the county," Thomas says.

Thomas credits the strength of the Republican Party in Ashtabula County in part to the relative decline of the urban electorate there.

"Prior to 2016, essentially, the votes were in the cities where our population centers were. You had to win them in order to win the county," he says. "Myself, as an example, I lost all three of our cities, but won outside of the cities in some of the suburban areas, but mainly in some of our rural areas, too, that have grown not only in population, but also in voter participation."

And Republicans in Ashtabula County are excited about 2020.

"They're registering their friends. They've never voted before," Thomas says. "They're starting to learn about that process. And they're motivated."

Motivated, according to Thomas, to keep the government out of their lives.

Though their philosophies about the role of government in their community are different, Thomas and Kalil say they see a common goal in their efforts to engage voters.

About six months ago, the two ran into each other while getting coffee at the Harbor Perk coffee shop. A woman approached them and said she was proud of them.

"She told us we reminded her of her son," Kalil says. Thomas notes these kinds of interactions are common. And while some of the county's young people do leave Ashtabula County looking for work elsewhere, Kalil believes, "the folks who do stick around are the ones who are the leaders here. A lot of young folks are leaving, but the ones who are sticking around are making a big difference."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 28, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story misspelled Donna Rullo's last name as Rulla.