U.S. Senate candidate Ted Strickland, center, during a talk with labor supporters in The Plains, Ohio. Photo by D.C. DeWitt

U.S. Senate candidate Ted Strickland, center, during a talk with labor supporters in The Plains, Ohio. Photo by D.C. DeWitt

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland took a tour of Appalachia earlier this month, throughout which he emphasized that he comes from Appalachia and will work hard for the region if elected to the U.S. Senate.

Strickland, a Democrat who grew up in Scioto County, is challenging Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, of Cincinnati, in the Nov. 8 general election.

“I’m trying to reach out to Appalachia and say that I’m on your side and he is actually hurting you,” Strickland told a group of about 20 people during a round-circle discussion. “He is taking actions – his votes – that are actually hurting people. I want to win this seat and I need the help of Appalachia.”

Strickland pointed to Portman’s votes supporting turning Medicare into a voucher system, supporting former President George W. Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security, opposing President Barack Obama’s auto-industry rescue, and voting against five different bills to address pay inequity for women.

Strickland said that while Portman received the endorsement of the United Mine Workers union earlier this month, he actually voted against mine safety in U.S. Congress.

“He doesn’t know a damn thing about these Appalachian communities. It’s not where he’s from,” Strickland said. “But suddenly he’s very concerned. So I’m going to expose this guy for what he really is – he’s a pretender.”

The meeting was attended by all three Athens County Commissioners, state Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, various local union representatives, township trustees, and mayors from villages around Athens County.

Strickland said that southeastern Ohio is very special to him because it’s where he comes from.

“I’ve come to know the people in these Appalachian communities. Many of them struggle with great difficulty, but they’re good, honest, hard-working people,” he said, adding that the only thing that’s lacking is opportunity.

He recalled the story of a football player from McArthur, Ohio, who, because of his athletic prowess, was able to get into the U.S. Naval Academy and play football after attending a prep school that provided him the type of education he wasn’t able to get in Appalachia.

“I think to myself, how many kids in Appalachia have dreams, like Jason had a dream, but weren’t able to play football and they never get a chance like Jason got,” he said. “That’s how I feel about Appalachia. There is incredible potential in this part of the state, wonderful young people, dedicated moms and dads. What they want – what we all want – is to have a decent middle-class life.”

There once was a time, Strickland said, when people worked hard and productivity went up, and wages went up with it. But over the last three decades or so, he said, people are working hard and productivity is going up but wages have flatlined.

“That’s a big problem,” he said. “Today we have this big gap between the very wealthy and the working class. It’s the biggest gap since the 1920s.”

Meanwhile, he said, the costs of education, health care, housing, food, retirement security and transportation have gone up while wages remain flat.

“Working people are feeling squeezed and it’s got to change,” he said. “We’ve got to have an economy that gives regular working people a chance to have a decent life.”

That’s especially true, Strickland said, in certain areas of our country that haven’t seen economic growth the way other areas have.

“I came from Appalachia and I care about Appalachia and I’m running for this seat because there’s a big difference between me and the guy I’m running against,” he said.

Strickland noted that the moneyed interests that oppose unions are pouring a lot of cash in the race to try to defeat him. He said that the Koch brothers through super PACs have spent $19 million against him in the race so far, and are now spending around $1 million a week to defeat him.

“Their goal is to diminish and destroy labor unions,” he said. “They are literally trying to buy our democracy.”

Gentile praised Strickland’s tenure as governor, saying he had a vision that included equitable school funding and help for seniors and working families.

“We have had a senator for six years and nobody knows his name,” Gentile said. “And he doesn’t remember Appalachia. He doesn’t know Appalachia.”

AFSCME’s Tom Ritchie said that when Strickland was governor local communities didn’t have to beg for money for city services, pointing to cuts to local government funds in the past several Ohio budgets under now-Gov. John Kasich.

“We need to get people elected who represent the working families of this country,” Ritchie said.

David DeWitt is a writer and man of sport and leisure based out of Athens, Ohio. He has also written for Government Executive online, the National Journal’s Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. DeWitt is the Associate Editor of The Athens NEWS. He can be found on Twitter @DC_DeWitt and on Facebook here.