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Issue #83: The Ohio 13th - My Mother's Home
A girl from Akron
As election results began to pour in across the country a few weeks ago, there was one non-Florida race I was watching more than any other. Up in Northeast Ohio, the 13th Congressional District was the site of a major battleground race. The district, which narrowly leans Democratic, covers all of Summit County, a sliver of Portage, and part of Stark. The city of Akron sits its center.
The seat had backed Biden by 5%, but with midterms tending to hurt the party in power, it was believed the GOP had a good chance at taking the district. The race was between Democratic State Rep Emilia Sykes and Republican Madison Gesiotto Gilbert, a first time candidate and former Miss Ohio USA.
So why was I so focused on this race? Well, for one, my family on my mother’s side traces its roots to this area; with several still living around there. In fact, in the closing weeks of the election, I was up there - making a long drive from Tallahassee to Akron just two weeks before the midterms.
Many asked me - why was I traveling so close to the midterms? Well only a few people would know why.
The trip I was making was to see my mother, who was in hospice.
Akron, Rubber, and my Family
The story of my family on my mother’s side is to take a page right out of the American history books. My mother and her brothers were raised in Akron, Ohio in the 1960s and 1970s. My grandfather worked for Firestone Tire - one of the biggest rubber companies. For decades, Akron was the Rubber Capital of the World. The city, which sits south of Cleveland, wound up being the perfect location for the growing rubber industry in the early 1900s due to its access to rivers and rail-lines. The region also benefitted from being close enough to the other major industrial cities - which were already clogged with production of other materials - namely steel.
My grandfather, who had attended school with the GI BILL after serving in occupied Europe after WWII, worked at Firestone. In 1960, when my mother was four, the family moved to Liberia for two years. Why? Because Liberia was home to massive quantities of raw rubber.
Firestone had a deal with the Liberian Government, which while not Democratic, was one of the more stable and successful modern states in the region. The Firestone-Liberia relationship was FAR from perfect - and this ‘Empire of Rubber’ book is something I really want to give a read. But to be clear, my grandfather was not some major executive - he was a manager helping set up the production and plants over there. The family spent two years in Liberia. Though she was young, my mother always retained memories of Liberia, and always felt a connection to the area. The stories I would hear about their time with native population. Their experiences - aside from a snake almost getting my grandmother once - were positive. It made me view Africa as this cool far-off place even when I was very young.
The coups and civil wars that destroyed the nations growth, which I covered along with their transition to democracy in this article, hurt my mother. She always wanted to visit again, but circumstances never allowed it to happen. When I was growing up, the nation was under the tyranny of the infamous Charles Taylor.
My grandmother represented the nexus of the shifting gender roles in America. While she took care of the home for many years, she also eventually entered the work force to help the family. This led to my mother, the oldest child, taking up responsibilities as well.
If anyone is wondering where I get my politics, you can thank (or blame) my mother. Again to take a page from any history book, my mother by the early 1970s was a classic feminist and liberal - much to the chagrin of my Eisenhower-Nixon style grandparents. She gave them plenty of heartburn. In 1972, at only 16, she couldn’t vote, but did volunteer for the George McGovern campaign. A year or so later, the family went on a trip to Washington DC. While on a white house tour, my mother left a McGovern button on a side desk in the oval office.
After the shooting at Kent State University, my mother made it clear that is the college she wanted to go to. My grandparents, who were going to be paying for most of the education bill, had reservations - but my mother won out - and she attended Kent State in the middle/late 1970s.
AGAIN right out of the history books - this midwestern family began to migrate to Florida. By this time the rubber industry, and the entire auto industry, was in decline. Work dried up and the beginning of the infamous Rust Belting began. My mother moved to the sunshine state in the 1980s. She moved to Okeechobee City for a teaching job. Her focus was always on education and social work; something my sister has taken up in her adulthood.
Eventually relocating to Broward County, she would meet my father, who himself hails from Toledo, and they would marry. I was born in 1986 in Florida, making me the first of the next generation of the family, and the first born in Florida. My sister was born four years later, and we both were raised without knowing the wonders of a snowy Christmas.
Eventually, my grandparents and youngest uncle also migrated to South Florida; with only extended family remaining in the north. This again reflects the migration patterns we saw in the 1980s. Florida was the growing hotspot, while the Rust Belt declined. Incidentally the 1997 World Series between the Florida Marlins and Cleveland Indians really divided family members. While my sister and I were 100% Marlins fans, my mother wanted Cleveland to win. She did take me to Game 1 of the World Series.
By the 2010s, largely retired, my mother ended up back in the Akron area. While the region had seen decline with the rubber industry, the region has revitalized itself in recent years. It has become a great area to raise a family, with affordable houses that date back to the 1960s, and a growing white collar sector. Florida, meanwhile, is not an ideal place if you want to work to help people. I saw first hand, as a child, as my mother lost a social work job (where she worked with mentality disabled adults) when the state cut off the funding after Jeb Bush and the GOP took full control of government. It was through these moments that my politics were solidified - as I saw what an uncaring government can do.
My mother would eventually move into a 55 and up community in Kent, the town of her alma mater. It felt like her life went full circle. Granted as a steadfast Democrat, she clamored to move out of rapidly reddening Ohio. Sorry mom.
Then, in 2021, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. In many ways this was not a surprise. Both my mother and grandfather were heavy smokers. While lung cancer did not get my grandfather, the damage smoking did to his heart and veins did eventually lead to his death. My mother’s illness was not caught until Stage 3 (unlike hypochondriac me, she was never great about taking care of herself). While she had success with chemo and radiation, the cancer could not be eradicated, just contained.
Just a few months ago, the outlook downgraded. The cancer was spreading and treatment was not going to help. At that point it was just about goodbyes and comfort. I made a drive to the Akron area in late October. I drove into an area filled with yard signs and overflowing in political mail.
The Ohio 13th
When I arrived in Ohio, it was just as the midterms were hitting their climax. I gotta say, the Summit County area loves its yard signs - I saw WAY more up there than I did in Tallahassee.
Summit County makes up almost 70% of the votes to come out of the 13th district, and my family has ties to many parts of it. For an idea of Summit and its politics - here is the 2016-2020 swing in the county.
Back to those family ties. My mother grew up in Akron. Family lived/lives in Copley and Cuyahoga falls as well. Fairlawn and Tallmadge are the homes to old family cemetery plots. Just about every township, city, and village has a story from my family’s past or present.
Back to politics. The projections that Republicans would take the 13th were based largely on a firm view that the midterm would be a good night for the GOP. However, the GOP did not have a good night - losing several house races that should have been easy pickups in the case of a red wave. Democrat Emilia Sykes racked up a solid 24,000 vote margin in Summit County - too much for Gilbert to override. With all votes in, Sykes kept the district in Democratic hands
The city of Akron gave Sykes her biggest margin. However, the solid margins in the suburban communities - like Stow and Cuyahoga Falls - were also critical for a Democratic win. Meanwhile, Stark was not nearly as red as it needed to be, with Sykes racking up a good 60% of the vote in Canton.
Compare to the Sykes win to the Biden win from two years earlier. Sykes largely outperformed the President across the district; doing worse in only a few towns/townships.
The same day Sykes won, Tim Ryan defeated JD Vance by just under 6 points in the district. In the Gubernatorial race, Republican Mike DeWine secured a 14 point win margin over Nan Whaley.
Sykes and Ryan were largely within a few % of each-other across most regions of the district, with Ryan doing notably better in the more rural communities. Sykes, meanwhile outdid Whaley across the district by large margins.
The DeWine margin, I feel, makes sense considering the Governor was viewed as a Trump antagonist by this point. DeWine’s unwillingness to go along with Trump on the election lies - as well as his more aggressive pushes for COVID mitigation - led to two right-wing primary threats earlier in the year. DeWine would fend off these threats, winning re-nomination with 49% - benefitting from a split opposition.
A suburban-aligned district like the 13th is the exact kind of seat that would love to split its tickets. I believe these primaries helped cast DeWine in a moderate light - allowing many voters to say “those MAGA Republicans are nuts - but that DeWine talks straight.” Of course DeWine is actually very conservative, but to me that vote seemed more about sticking it to the MAGA side.
Never underestimate the power of the narrative voters have in their heads.
The results in the Ohio 13th were, personally, incredibly gratifying. Unfortunately, my mother never got to see it. After everyone had a chance to travel and visit her, it was only days before she began to slip further out of consciousness. She was, by this point, in an assisted living facility in Stow - in Summit County. Doctors have talked about the phenomenon of patients seeming to hold on long enough for people to have a chance to say goodbye. Well, make of that what you will, but it happened here. Once the visitors had been seen, she began to slide. She passed away on Saturday, November 5th, days before the elections.
Today is her memorial service. It is being held back down here in South Florida - at the Lutheran Church she took me and my sister to every Sunday for well over a decade. We waited to everyone could travel and be in one location.
We will be scattering her ashes in the Ocean - which she loved. She will continue a recent tradition in the family of forgoing burial for cremation. This is - again - reflecting broad societal changes.
Below, from Fairlawn, if the family plot for my mother’s mother’s side of the family.
I could fall down a tangent really easily about graves, cemeteries, and religion. Family plots were important - you had to be buried “together.” There can be some very literal interpretations around the notions of death and resurrections in Christian mainline traditions. But newer generations don’t focus on the ideas of cemeteries and burial so much. When my mother’s parents passed, they did not get buried in the old family plots. Their ashes got buried in a veteran cemetery in Palm Beach. Cremation was also something that they both also had to talk to our pastor about to make sure that was ok.
For my mother, like myself, and a younger generations of Christians (yes we exist) - this is about taking a less literal interpretation about resurrection. I mean, are you telling me the creator of the universe can’t reassemble my mother’s ashes from the ocean? Get real.
So while the era of family plots is like coming to an end in the west, it isn’t entirely due to a decline in religious belief. Those of us who carry the faith look at this passage from 1 Thessalonians 4 and see a promise that isn’t contingent on keeping any body in any exact spot.
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
If that all sounds too “churchy” for you kids - then just listen to this Johnny Cash song.
I think ending this on a Johnny Cash note makes the most sense. After all, I saw ‘Walk the Line’ with my mother when I was down for Christmas break from FSU in 2005.
I’ll always miss my mother. But I know she is in a better place. And I can also think that maybe as she left us - she spread a little of her goodness across the Ohio 13th.
If you have no idea what this is a GIF of - then shame on you for not watching ‘The Good Place.’