Rust Belt finding no shining knight in White House joust

Some voters ask: Why bother?

  • Cleaning lady Deloris Lease of Steubenville, Ohio, takes a cigarette break while she cleans up an old Hardy's fast food building to get it ready to be used as a new call center in downtown, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)Cleaning lady Deloris Lease of Steubenville, Ohio, takes a cigarette break while she cleans up an old Hardy's fast food building to get it ready to be used as a new call center in downtown, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
  • Arial view of downtown Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)Arial view of downtown Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
  • Deloris Lease of Steubenville, Ohio, is hired to clean up an old Hardy's fast food building to get it ready to be used as a new call center in downtown, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)Deloris Lease of Steubenville, Ohio, is hired to clean up an old Hardy's fast food building to get it ready to be used as a new call center in downtown, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
  • A boot hangs from a highway sign exit for downtown Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)A boot hangs from a highway sign exit for downtown Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
  • Joseph Drake and his girlfriend Danielle Sadler of Steubenville, Ohio, eat dinner together at Froehlich's Classic Corner, Steubenville, Ohio, Friday, October 26, 2012. Drake says finding work has been hard and hasn't been working for over a year. Sadler said she is just getting by with a waitressing job in town. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)Joseph Drake and his girlfriend Danielle Sadler of Steubenville, Ohio, eat dinner together at Froehlich's Classic Corner, Steubenville, Ohio, Friday, October 26, 2012. Drake says finding work has been hard and hasn't been working for over a year. Sadler said she is just getting by with a waitressing job in town. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
  • Debi Froehlich looks at a large mural of the untouched original landscape of the town of Steubenville, Ohio, Friday, October 26, 2012. Debi, who owns Froehlich Classic Corner restaurant with her husband Greg, also owns the much larger building the restaurant occupies which was at one point the electric company for the town. This room used to be a Jaguar automobile museum and is now used as space for parties and weddings. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)Debi Froehlich looks at a large mural of the untouched original landscape of the town of Steubenville, Ohio, Friday, October 26, 2012. Debi, who owns Froehlich Classic Corner restaurant with her husband Greg, also owns the much larger building the restaurant occupies which was at one point the electric company for the town. This room used to be a Jaguar automobile museum and is now used as space for parties and weddings. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
  • Steve Gagliardi of Steubenville, Ohio, second from right, and Paul Grant, third from right, talk together at the bar at Froehlich's Classic Corner restaurant, Steubenville, Ohio, Friday, October 26, 2012. Of the election Gagliardi says, "I'm a Romney supporter. I've been a banker all of my life and the debt of this nation will cripple us." Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)Steve Gagliardi of Steubenville, Ohio, second from right, and Paul Grant, third from right, talk together at the bar at Froehlich's Classic Corner restaurant, Steubenville, Ohio, Friday, October 26, 2012. Of the election Gagliardi says, "I'm a Romney supporter. I've been a banker all of my life and the debt of this nation will cripple us." Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
  • A few cars pass through downtown Steubenville, Ohio, Friday, October 26, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)A few cars pass through downtown Steubenville, Ohio, Friday, October 26, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
  • A closed steel mill owned by dozens of companies over the years sits closed and rusting, far left, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)A closed steel mill owned by dozens of companies over the years sits closed and rusting, far left, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
  • A natural gas hydraulic fracturing site run by Chesapeake Energy sits in operation a few miles outside of Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)A natural gas hydraulic fracturing site run by Chesapeake Energy sits in operation a few miles outside of Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
  • A small town election day reminder sign hangs in a suburb outside downtown Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)A small town election day reminder sign hangs in a suburb outside downtown Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
  • A closed steel mill owned by dozens of companies over the years sits closed and rusting, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)A closed steel mill owned by dozens of companies over the years sits closed and rusting, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
  • Closed steel mills owned by dozens of companies over the years sits closed and rusting, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)Closed steel mills owned by dozens of companies over the years sits closed and rusting, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
  • Scott Dressel who has put most of his retirement savings into buying and restoring homes in Steubenville, Ohio has partnered with others in the city to buy and renovate the Grand Theatre in downtown to help spur economic development, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)Scott Dressel who has put most of his retirement savings into buying and restoring homes in Steubenville, Ohio has partnered with others in the city to buy and renovate the Grand Theatre in downtown to help spur economic development, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
  • Scott Dressel who has put most of his retirement savings into buying and restoring homes in Steubenville, Ohio has partnered with others in the city to buy and renovate the Grand Theatre in downtown to help spur economic development, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)Scott Dressel who has put most of his retirement savings into buying and restoring homes in Steubenville, Ohio has partnered with others in the city to buy and renovate the Grand Theatre in downtown to help spur economic development, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
  • Scott Dressel who has put most of his retirement savings into buying and restoring homes in Steubenville, Ohio, walks past an old poster of Dean Martin, who's hometown was Steubenville, along with Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra, in the front lobby of the old Grand Theatre  with citizens have partnered together to buy and renovate to help spur economic development, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)Scott Dressel who has put most of his retirement savings into buying and restoring homes in Steubenville, Ohio, walks past an old poster of Dean Martin, who's hometown was Steubenville, along with Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra, in the front lobby of the old Grand Theatre with citizens have partnered together to buy and renovate to help spur economic development, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
  • A large mural painted in homage to the steel workers and the steel mills for which the city of Steubenville's main source of jobs came from, is visible in downtown, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)A large mural painted in homage to the steel workers and the steel mills for which the city of Steubenville's main source of jobs came from, is visible in downtown, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
  • J.J. Alexander of Steubenville, Ohio, walks past an old Hardy's fast food building which will be used as a new call center in downtown, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Alexander is a dishwasher for the local Smokey Bones and Robinson Restaurant and has been able to find regular work but says he has friends and family members who are struggling. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)J.J. Alexander of Steubenville, Ohio, walks past an old Hardy's fast food building which will be used as a new call center in downtown, Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, October 27, 2012. Alexander is a dishwasher for the local Smokey Bones and Robinson Restaurant and has been able to find regular work but says he has friends and family members who are struggling. Once a productive steel town, Steubenville, Ohio's population has contracted faster than anywhere else in the country between 1980 and 2000 as their steel plants shut down. The area has seen a drop in unemployment in recent years due in part to the prospects of natural gas but the city still has a long way to go with unemployment figures higher then the the rest of the state and the country. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — Scott Dressel has risked his life savings to help rescue this struggling old steel town that is still plagued by double-digit unemployment and banking on a natural gas boom that has yet to materialize.

He has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore rental properties and to open a quaint bed-and-breakfast in the historic district. He uses his free time to tackle a massive rebuilding project at Steubenville’s Grand Theater, a dilapidated downtown structure that used to be the pride of a city that is the birthplace of Rat Pack legend Dean Martin.

“It’s worth saving,” the soft-spoken 51-year-old entrepreneur said, outlining the years of work that remain to get the theater back in working order. “What concerns me is not being able to get it done in time. I’d like to get it done before I die.”

Like other towns throughout the nation’s Rust Belt, Steubenville is mired in an uphill battle to regain the economic prosperity of decades ago, when a thriving steel industry fueled growth and created wealth.

Steubenville’s decline has been extreme — unemployment topped 15 percent two years ago, and population has dropped every decade since the 1950s — though the struggle is mirrored in towns across eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania and New York.

Now, with both presidential candidates promising revival, residents are left weighing the promises.

“One crook, the other crook — they’re all going to steal our money from us,” said 54-year-old Peggy Murphy, a longtime resident of Johnstown, Pa., about two hours east of Steubenville.

“I tell my son all the time to get out of this town,” she said in between taking orders at the city’s Coney Island restaurant, where her son also works because he is unable to find a better job.

Johnstown, too, has seen its vibrant coal and steel industries disappear, though for years it had a guardian angel in the form of Rep. John P. Murtha, a Democrat whose position on a defense spending subcommittee in Congress helped him pump tens of millions of dollars back to the city. But with Mr. Murtha’s death in 2010, the money is drying up.

President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney have some explaining to do to voters here, too.

During the 2008 race, Mr. Obama infamously said voters in rural areas are “bitter” about the lack of economic opportunities, and so they “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” Earlier this year, Mr. Romney committed his own misstep by declaring that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government help, and therefore are unlikely to vote for him — a statement that covers many in the Rust Belt who are in poverty and eligible for welfare assistance.

The statements have left the people of Steubenville and Johnstown feeling forgotten, not fully trusting that either candidate will make a real difference in their lives.

“I don’t think it will make a difference for me personally,” Mr. Dressel said of the election’s outcome, though he already has cast a vote for Mr. Obama. The people of Steubenville “are frustrated, so why bother voting? I hear a lot of that. There’s a lot of apathy. People are very pessimistic here. When you’re negative in your mind for 20 years about an area, it’s hard to turn around.”

He based his vote mainly on the fact that he thinks Mr. Obama hasn’t had enough time to turn around the economy and argues that the hardships in Steubenville and surrounding areas aren’t the president’s fault.

“I don’t think he’s ruining the country any worse than anybody else did,” Mr. Dressel said.

Steubenville is seeing some improvement. Its unemployment rate is down from its high of 15 percent in 2010 to 10.6 percent as of September.

How the region will vote next week remains unpredictable. Steubenville’s Jefferson County is a historically Democratic area, a party allegiance created by labor groups representing the steelworkers of decades past. But in 2008, the county split almost evenly between Mr. Obama and Republican John McCain. It was a similar story in Johnstown’s Cambria County, a Democratic stronghold but one that went for Mr. Obama by 1 percentage point, with 49.6 percent of the vote to Mr. McCain’s 48.5 percent.

Mr. Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, visited New Philadelphia, Ohio, about an hour west of Steubenville, last weekend and promised that help is on the way if the Republican ticket wins the White House on Nov. 6.

“We want to wake up that morning [after Election Day] and know that our coal jobs are coming to eastern Ohio, that our natural gas jobs are coming,” he said, speaking to a crowd of supporters at a local business.

Mr. Obama has made a similar pitch to those in areas where economic despair has led many voters to outright political disinterest and fomented doubt in political leaders of both parties.

For restaurant and bar owner Greg Froehlich, who runs one of Steubenville’s nighttime hot spots across town from Mr. Dressel’s bed-and-breakfast, neither candidate fully understands the challenges he faces to make it each month.

“They don’t have a clue,” he said as he sat back in his office chair in a back room at Froehlich’s Classic Corner, as a local musician serenaded about 20 patrons with classic rock tunes in the bar.

“They don’t know that I’m fighting a labor force that knows they can sit at home and make as much money through entitlement programs, rather than coming to work for me. Washington doesn’t know that,” he said.

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