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Postman on Politics

Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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February 27, 2008 5:57 PM

A political walking tour down Gallia Street

Posted by David Postman

PORTSMOUTH, Ohio - Harold Adkins hasn’t voted since 1972 after returning from Vietnam as a freshly minted 21-year-old. He voted for Republican Richard Nixon’s re-election. It wasn’t meant as any comment on the war he had been fighting.

“It seemed like everybody was voting for him so I figured I would, too,” he told me this afternoon. And after Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment, Adkins gave up on politics.

Harold Adkins

He believes all politicians are crooks and the only reason anyone would want to be president is to get rich, or richer.

You’ve got to understand Bush. He’s an oil man. That’s why gas is so darn expensive. He wouldn’t ever cut his own throat.

He’s the first Ohioan I’ve talked to who not only didn’t feel at least a little excited about the March 4 presidential primary, but said he hasn’t heard anyone talking about it much. Adkins, 55, is a retired heavy equipment operator who owns two computer repair shops in Portsmouth. He was born here and lived nearly all his life here, except for the years he had to go elsewhere to find work.

Portsmouth is in south central Ohio where the Ohio River separates the state from Kentucky. Portsmouth used to be a lot of things. It was a busy port as the area began to be settled. It was a center of shoe manufacturing and later steel manufacturing.

Portsmouth is the Scioto County seat, a county poorer than the state average, and where 33 percent of the population gets some sort of public assistance, compared to 17 percent statewide. Unemployment is the 11th highest out of 88 counties in Ohio.

“I have a heck of a time finding people to work,” Adkins said. “They don’t want to work.
They get free welfare. If they lay a sob story on, they can get free health care and a check. I can’t afford health care for my workers.”

He has no interest in registering to vote in the hopes of changing any of that. But he has an idea in his head of the sort of candidate he’d vote for, if he voted.

They need to put someone in office who has had to struggle to keep a farm going or had to keep a business open. Then everything will get back to normal. You’d see business coming back here.

Not far beneath his cynicism is a fear of what the system he has rejected could bring to the world.

Some day someone will get an attitude, pull the trigger on a nuclear weapon. I hope that doesn’t happen in my grandchildren’s time.

On my way out of his small, neat shop, Adkins tells me, “Now you be careful in this town.” I laugh but he doesn’t, until I tell him if I run into any trouble I’ll just say I’m a friend of his.

Walking down Gallia Street you can see across the Ohio River into the hills of Kentucky. You can also see the evidence of a struggling town that has seemingly left every other storefront vacant.

In a small barbershop on the other side of the street, Joe Vicars sits in his nearly 100-year-old barber chair. He hops up in the hopes of a customer but then seems just as happy to talk.

He votes and is a registered Republican who keeps the shop’s small TV tuned to the cable news channels. But he can’t decide what to do in the primary. He’s not a fan of Sen. John McCain.

“We don’t have much to choose from,” he said. “I’ll probably just end up closing my eyes in the polling booth and see what happens.”

He has lived in the area his entire life. He was raised by parents who are both Democrats.

I always ask my dad who he’s going to vote for and then I figure I can vote to cancel him out.

Joe Vicars

How’d he end up a Republican?

Just to stir controversy with my dad; so I had something to argue with him about.

Vicars used to run restaurants. But three years ago he took up barbering. He moved into the downtown shop when the previous owner - the third generation of a family to cut hair there - ran into financial problems and had to give the place up.

He points out the front window to an empty lot we can just barely see. He said it once was home to a massive shoe factory - seven stories tall and a block long. It was demolished about four years ago, but the block still sits empty.

Portsmouth is obviously a town with what politicians would call “economic challenges.” Locals are encouraged that Shawnee State University, which is right along the river, is the fastest growing four-year school in the state.

Despite Adkins’ warning that sounded like something from a spaghetti western, everyone I ran into was friendly. There were a few who didn’t want to talk, but given that I had walked into their offices or stopped them on the street, they were pretty nice about it.

Kathy Howard was in a hurry to get to the bank before closing but agreed I could ask her some questions if I walked along with her. She’s another Republican unhappy with the choices she has.

I asked her what she didn’t like about McCain.

“I’m seeing the start of this on the Internet,” she said, “about favoritism or an affair.” She was referring to the New York Times story of last week that quoted unnamed sources saying McCain had an inappropriate relationship with a female lobbyist.

“We don’t need another Bill Clinton in there,” Howard said.

Howard, 47, is a payroll clerk. And like everyone I spoke to today she has lived in this part of the state her entire life.

Might she vote for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee?

“I heard he was a Christian so I might vote for him if he had a chance,” she said.

Huckabee would bring change to D.C., something Howard says Republicans want as much as Democrats.

I think people mainly want to get out of the war. But is that wise to do? I don’t know. That’s when you have to follow the word of the Lord.

A remnant of Portsmouth’s past.

On Gallia Street, sometimes it was hard to tell whether a store was in business and had just closed, or had been left in that sort of haphazard way years ago. Window displays seemed to be the only thing left of what I think was once a head shop.

Allegro Music was bustling, though. There were people dropping off and picking up instruments and a young guitar student coming in for a lesson. Behind the counter was a banged up electric bass and a baseball bat that serves as the store’s anti-theft system, said co-owner Mark Teeters.

Teeters, 48, is an undecided Democrat.

“I’m leaning a little toward Hillary because of her experience,” he said. That may sound like it came right from a Clinton sound bite. But Teeters has been influenced more by his brother, an avid Clinton backer who said she has been preparing to be president all her life.

Mark Teeters

“Things were pretty good when her husband was president,” Teeters told me, “and if they’re like any other couple, she had something to do with it.”

He’d like to see Clinton and Obama on the same ticket. But he said, “I doubt that’ll happen after the last couple of weeks.”

Matt Schackart was sitting on a large speaker in the store. He’s 31, a real estate agent and property manager. He was raised Republican, but is intrigued by Obama.

“A lot of people have the sense that the government is such a massive machine they want to see what would happen by throwing Obama into the works,” he said. Schackart said that young people in particular seem willing to take a chance on Obama and are not discouraged by what Clinton, and Teeters, see as the candidate’s inexperience.

Besides, he said he heard Ann Coulter say that voting for either Democrat would be better than voting for McCain.

Schackart and Teeters said the economy here seems to be perking up a bit this year. But the past several years have been particularly bad. Schackart said homes that sell in the area go to people working in either the health-care industry or government.

He’s on a committee working to preserve parts of the historic core of Portsmouth. He hopes that happens. But he worries about his hometown slipping into decay.

“It’s getting worse,” he said. “There’s not a place you can go where you don’t go through some blight.”

The Ohio primary may not seem like a big deal after a walk down Gallia Street. The closest a presidential candidate will get here will probably be Clinton’s appearance later this week in Chillicothe, about 50 miles north of here.

There was some excitement Monday. Teeters saw out behind his shop a lot of commotion, a line of police cars and “a guy in a suit.”

“I thought they were arresting somebody,” he said. But it turned out to be Bill Clinton, showing up at the college to speak on behalf of his wife.


The new U.S. Grant Bridge opened in 2006.

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