Why a Democratic Ohio steel town might vote Republican


Top row, from left to right: Nelson Fontanez, Jessica Rucker, Joe Rice. Bottom row, from left to right: Carlos Hernandez, Julio Mendiola, Nancy Tolliver.

CBS News

LORAIN, Ohio -- This city on Lake Erie outside of Cleveland used to be called Steel City. Now, there's no steel mills left.

Two of Lorain's largest factories, Republic Steel and US Steel, idled mill operations over the last year -- ultimately closing. Hundreds of workers were laid off, or had their hours significantly reduced. A town that was once bustling is now on indefinite pause.

Lorain County is traditionally Democratic during presidential elections, but workers there are now feeling angry, confused, and left behind by the political system. Many are considering voting Republican -- for Donald Trump -- for the first time in their lives.

CBS News traveled to Lorain to speak to some of these voters about the struggles they are facing, and how those struggles will impact who they vote for in November. Watch the interviews -- and how their thinking has changed in recent months -- here.

Nelson Fontanez

Nelson sits in a diner across the street from Republic Steel, which he says used to be full of customers. Now, the business is struggling. CBS News

Nelson Fontanez is a 44-year-old divorced father of three, including a disabled teenage son. He has spent his entire life in Lorain, Ohio and was first hired at Republic Steel twenty years ago. Over the last couple of years, Fontanez saw his hours reduced until his job was eliminated in March 2016, when Republic Steel shut down. At his height, Fontanez earned a six-figure salary, but he's now had to declare bankruptcy. Fontanez is working again, but after paying for gas for his long commute he is making only a few hundred more than what he made on unemployment. He has voted Democrat for the last twenty years, and used to be a Hillary Clinton supporter, but is now considering voting for Donald Trump.

Nancy Tolliver

Nancy Tolliver CBS News

Nancy Tolliver, 60, was born and raised in Lorain. She worked at a local steel plant since 1977, and is a third generation steel worker. She made good money, and believed business was picking up at the plant two years ago when they built a new furnace -- only to find the plant idled two years later. She is now unemployed at age 60, and trying to reinvent herself later in life. At her age, Tolliver feels the only jobs available are minimum wage positions, so she is attempting to go back to school for medical coding. Tolliver's husband was also laid off from the plant, making their financial situation particularly hard. She will vote for Hillary Clinton in November.

Carlos Hernandez

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Carlos Hernandez is a 56-year-old grandfather caring for his wife and two of his grandchildren. He is a U.S. citizen who was born in the Dominican Republic. He has worked at a mill for the last 28 years, after moving to Lorain from Philadelphia. Hernandez took tremendous pride in his job, and felt like he was doing something to help his country. But now he feels let down by a nation he loves. His unemployment checks are only a quarter of what he once made, and he felt he had no choice but to take the buyout or lose everything. The money from the buyout, after taxes, will cover six mortgage payments. After that, Hernandez does not know how he will meet his $650 payments each month. He is now going back to to school, and is undecided about the election but leaning towards Donald Trump.

Joe Rice

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Joe Rice, 53, is a father of six, with one of his daughters and his wife currently in college. He worked at Republic Steel for 17 years. He took the $25,000 buyout from Republic because he felt he wouldn't be able to survive until he received his pension, and he needed to be able to afford health care. He is currently working in a temp position, barely making it by. Rice says he is the most conflicted he has ever been in presidential election, and is not happy with either candidate.

Jessica Rucker

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Jessica Rucker is a 39-year-old mother of four who was laid off from U.S. Steel in March of 2015. She spent nine years at Ford before U.S. Steel, but took an educational buyout when that plant closed down. When she was laid off she was receiving unemployment, but that soon ran out. Though Rucker has since found employment, she is now making less than half of her former nearly six-figure salary. She's had to refinance her home just to make ends meet, and one of her cars is in jeopardy of being repossessed. Rucker is an independent, and undecided about who she will vote for in the fall.

Julio Mendiola

Julio with his newborn daughter outside of his home in Lorain, Ohio. CBS News

Julia Mendiola, a 48-year-old father of three, was born and raised in Lorain in a family of steel workers. He feels like his town will never rebound. "It's a bad sign when Dollar General stores can be seen everywhere," Mendiola said. He felt pride in his job at Republic Steel, and like others, wanted to see the plant succeed. But he has struggled since losing his job, as his income is now half of what he earned. He took the buyout for the health insurance and other needs, and says he felt like he had no other option. He was forced to rent out his home, and is back at a smaller house in Lorain. Mendiola -- a Democrat who has campaigned for Gore, Kerry, and Obama -- is vehemently opposed to Trump, who he said is not a union supporter. He will be voting for Hillary Clinton in November.