LORDSTOWN — The crowd erupted in applause and chants of "Bernie" as Sen. Bernie Sanders entered the Lordstown High School auditorium Sunday to discuss campaign promises and to criticize the closing of the General Motors plant last month.
The Democratic presidential hopeful opened his remarks before a crowd of about 100 by saying the situation in Lordstown should be part of a national conversation because plants have shut down across the country. He told those in attendance they must decide if they will allow companies to close down profitable plants, ask for tax breaks and dictate trade policies.
He also mockingly called President Donald Trump a "tough guy" for shutting down the government which denied federal workers paychecks. Along with challenging Trump to no longer give federal contracts to GM, Sanders added he and others would make it illegal to do stock buybacks unless a company respects and protects the jobs of its workers.
"To him I say, to Donald Trump, you're really a tough guy to shut down the federal government,” Sanders said. “You're really a tough guy to deny tens and tens, hundreds and thousands of workers a paycheck. Let's see how tough you are. Tell General Motors today 'no more federal contracts.' "
Opponents of Sanders, however, questioned the truthfulness of his promises. In a news conference outside the high school before Sanders’ appearance, Ohio Republican Party Chairman Jane Timken called the senator from Vermont out of touch. State Rep. Don Manning, R-New Middletown, said Sanders' “socialist” plans would harm millions of workers.
"We are now enjoying the lowest unemployment rate in almost 50 years," Manning said. "We now enjoying 2.6 million jobs that were created in 2018 alone. We are enjoying the strongest economy for manufacturing in decades. President Trump remains focused on prioritizing jobs for communities across the nation and across Ohio."
Sanders shared the stage with members of the American Federation of Teachers, Ohio Federation of Teachers and Hedge Clippers, a group which scrutinizes the way hedge funds influence corporate decisions.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, recalled how GM said retrofitting the Lordstown plant to manufacture SUVs would cost $100 million. She said compared to how much GM spent in stock buybacks and how much of a profit it made last year, that number seems insignificant.
"It's a drop in the bucket next to the $50 billion dollar bailout that the American taxpayers did to keep GM whole in 2008," Weingarten said. "It doesn't seem so much when you consider the $11 billion in profits GM made last year or the money it just made because of the tax cut that President Trump bequeathed on it."
Weingarten said that more than job losses are felt in a community when an industry leaves. Anxiety is raised, she said, and difficult choices must be made about moving.
Before asking the audience for questions, Sanders said he was against the new NAFTA. Though not against trade policies, he said the United States needs deals that protect all American workers.
Alyssa Brookbank, an intervention specialist at Lordstown Elementary and president of the Lordstown Teachers Association, said she has seen children struggle emotionally because of the plant closure, as well as from the opioid crisis. She asked Sanders what he would do to support students across the country in similar situations.
Sanders responded by saying that America needs to give adequate funding to education, make public colleges free and lower student debt.
Another man asked what Sanders would do to give equitable funding to schools
Sanders said he would recommend reducing military funding so more money could go toward providing children a better education to compete in the global economy.
Despite the growing political divisiveness nationally, Sunday’s event in the Mahoning Valley offered a moment of civility.
During the Ohio Republican Party news conference before Sanders’ appearance, Katie Fallo, a Sanders supporter and educator from Niles, hugged one of the Republicans in the group.
Standing in the cold with her son, Ben DeLong, and holding a sign reading "Moms for Bernie," Fallo said she did it because she believes politics have fluidity and are not as rigid as some may believe.
"At first I was really agitated by them and my gut instinct was to chant and to say things, but then I thought, 'That's just making it worse and it's dividing us more,' " Fallo said. "I just called her over and I gave her a hug and I said, 'You know, I think you and I are on the same team.' We're all here, we're all part of the same country and she was kind."
Fallo got the chance to ask Sanders a question during the rally. After sharing that her son's father was laid off and may have to move, she asked Sanders what he will do to bring people of multiple political backgrounds together. He concluded that raising the minimum wage, calling health care a human right and investing in education can put people on a more level field.
"Our job is to bring people together around an agenda that works for all of us," Sanders said.
Reporter Kaitlyn McGarvey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-298-1127.