On this day, Mitt Romney continues his tour of Ohio, heading from the Columbus area to Bedford Heights and then across the state to Toledo. He wants the votes of Ohioans, no Republican having captured the presidency without taking the state. He should know that part of winning hearts and minds here involves paying attention to the Great Lakes, a natural treasure and engine of the regional economy.
You say, Duh? After all, Romney spent much of his youth in Michigan. Disappointing was his campaign’s conspicuous absence two weeks ago at the annual Great Lakes Restoration Conference in Cleveland. Here was a gathering of hundreds of environmental activists, scientists, business leaders and government officials to discuss the future of the lakes. Carol Browner, a former EPA administrator, represented the Obama White House. The Romney team didn’t send a representative.
A campaign spokesman explained to the Associated Press that scheduling conflicts prevented an appearance. He offered soothing words about Romney continuing restoration efforts and wanting to accelerate the examination by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of ways to separate the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River basin, blocking a destructive invasion of the Asian carp.
Better to have someone there in person. Recall the dynamic of the 2008 presidential race. John McCain expressed his support of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Barack Obama said me, too, and then pledged to invest $5 billion during the next eight years. As it is, the president has delivered $1 billion. Browner emphasized that the president would push ahead with the restoration.
In these difficult budget times, advocates for the lakes have been seeking a commitment of $300 million a year to $450 million a year. Heartening has been the bipartisan support, Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, Steve LaTourette along with Democrats in the House delegation. What they understand is the details matter. Continued backing of the restoration is good. At what level, exactly?
In this instance, the incumbent carries an advantage. The president has committed real dollars, albeit at a slower pace than promised. The investment already has begun to pay dividends through such projects as restoring habitats, dredging waterways, removing dams and discouraging runoff that fuels harmful algae blooms.
What Romney would do well to see is the economic factor, so central to his campaign. Lake Erie alone sustains more than 114,000 direct jobs, generating $10 billion in activity, much in the form of recreational fishing. Hard to talk in this part of the state about Ohio moving ahead without acknowledging the essential role of Lake Erie and the rest of the lakes. So today, the candidate has an opportunity to fill in the element missing in Cleveland two weeks ago. What about the Great Lakes?