The Memo: Ohio Dem says many in party ‘can’t understand’ working-class concerns

A Democratic colleague of Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) recently suggested a simple solution to the economic problems afflicting the industrial Midwest.

“ ‘Well, Congresswoman Kaptur, the answer is: Leave,’ ” Kaptur says she was told by the Democratic member, whom she declined to name.

Kaptur, whose district includes her hometown of Toledo, where she grew up the daughter of a union organizer, was appalled.

“They just can’t understand,” she told The Hill. “They can’t understand a family that sticks together because that’s what they have. Their loved ones are what they have, their little town, their home, as humble as it is — that’s what they have. Respect it. It was so insensitive.”

The story is part of a bigger narrative for Kaptur, the longest-serving woman in Congress.

She fears that her party is increasingly dominated by members representing affluent districts — and that the social mores of rich coastal cities are sidelining kitchen-table economic concerns.

In terms of senior leadership, “it’s been very hard for regions like mine, which have had great economic attrition, to get fair standing, in my opinion,” she says.

Asked if she feels like a minority in being a Democrat representing a working-class district, she replied, “Yes, I do.”

Kaptur shared with The Hill a chart ranking congressional districts by median household income, and their party representation. Of the top 20 wealthiest districts, 19 are represented by Democrats. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) district is the fourth-richest in the nation, according to Kaptur’s data.

Democrats also dominate the upper half of the nation’s districts by a clear margin, with the bottom half disproportionately choosing Republicans as their members of Congress.

Kaptur’s district, a strip stretching across the northernmost part of Ohio from Toledo to greater Cleveland, ranks 418th.

“Several of my colleagues who are in the top ranks have said to me, ‘You know, we don’t understand your part of the country.’ And they’re very genuine,” Kaptur says. “You can’t understand what you haven’t been a part of.”

Kaptur is careful, over the course of two interviews with The Hill, not to blast any of her colleagues by name. She didn’t criticize Pelosi, for example. The 74-year-old legislator also steps past any specific admonishment of prominent left-wing members, even as she makes plain her impatience with a certain brand of identity politics.

“I think that economics can bind us. I think that when we divide up into too many subgroups, we lose the overarching theme,” she said. “We have so many caucuses in the conference, it is hard to go to every meeting.”

The Democratic Party’s divisions were laid bare immediately after the election, when relief that then-President Trump had been defeated by President Biden was mingled with disappointment about mediocre results in congressional races.

During that period, moderate members like Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) insisted Democrats “need to not use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” while prominent figures on the left fought back, urging the party to not take its base for granted.

Kaptur, who volunteered to speak with The Hill, is hard to place on that spectrum. While her focus on “bread and butter” issues over identity politics might be thought to put her broadly in the centrist camp, she also endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

Ohio, having been carried twice by President Obama, went for Trump by significant margins in both 2016 and 2020. Kaptur says she understands Trump’s appeal in regions like hers, even as she dislikes the former president, calling him “dangerous” and “unbalanced.” Clinton and Biden easily won Kaptur’s district in 2016 and 2020, respectively, though Trump attracted nearly 40 percent of the vote there in 2020 — 9 points more than Mitt Romney received in 2012.

To explain Trump’s appeal, she cites the example of a constituent who had been a steelworker in the greater Cleveland area, moved to Kansas having been laid off, and later moved back to Lorain, only to be left jobless a third time.

“He was about 48 years old at that point. How do you think he feels? When Trump comes out there and gives these explosive, defiant speeches … that’s how people feel. Not everyone, but enough,” she said.

Ohio’s increasingly red tint will be put to the test in 2022 now that Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has announced he will not run for reelection.

Asked if she is interested in trying to move to the upper chamber, Kaptur says she hasn’t “given thought to that at this point.”

She won’t be drawn, this far out, to talk about Democrats’ overall chances of taking the Senate seat, but frets about issues like voter suppression when the Republican Party “controls all the levers of power in Ohio.”

Despite having seniority on the House Appropriations Committee, Kaptur has been passed over for the gavel. She is known for speaking her mind, especially when she pushed for leadership elections to be postponed after Democrats got shellacked in the 2010 midterm elections. Kaptur maintained the party needed to assess what happened and why. Pelosi didn’t heed the request, and she remained in her position as top House Democrat. Eight years earlier, Kaptur mounted a long-shot challenge to Pelosi’s bid for minority leader.

Kaptur’s position on abortion, meanwhile, has been nuanced. She supports abortion rights but has opposed federal funding for abortions. Kaptur was part of a small group of Democrats who held up the Affordable Care Act from passing until the White House made concessions on abortion language.

Kaptur’s first interview with The Hill took place on the morning of Jan. 6, just hours before a mob stormed the Capitol. She later described the chaos of the day.

“You couldn’t really see. You could hear what was happening and you could hear this din of shouts and banging on doors. You knew something was really awry in the outer corridors. I did not hear any gunshots, but there was so much noise I couldn’t distinguish between gunshots and some of the banging that was going on,” she says.

She was eventually evacuated safely. But questions linger about the law enforcement response.

“The chain of command for whatever reason was not prepared. … I just assumed there was a perimeter around the building. That always happens. But it didn’t happen this time. Why not? … How is that possible?” she asked.

Kaptur insists that “the truth will come forward over time” as to what happened that day, as congressional inquiries proceed.

But it is the economic issues that really animate Kaptur — and the fear that her party is losing its ability to grasp the problems confronting the heartland.

Asked what the party should do, she replies emphatically: “Understand what has happened economically in these places, for heaven’s sake!

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Abigail Spanberger Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Marcy Kaptur Mitt Romney Nancy Pelosi Rob Portman

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