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David Giffels went on a journey to understand America, and for the Akron-based writer, that started in Ohio. Giffels, the author of Furnishing Eternity, The Hard Way on Purpose, and All The Way Home, travelled around the state, working on his new book, in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election. Every month, WKSU's Andrew Meyer checked in regularly with Giffels to talk to him about what he's learned along the way.

To Understand Ohio: The Message in Tim Ryan's Bid for the White House

photo of Tim Ryan, Ray Mancini
Congressman Tim Ryan, talking with Ray "Boom-Boom" Mancini at the Youngstown launch of Ryan's presidential bid.

A lot of people are looking to understand the forces that may be at work in this year’s presidential election. Author David Giffels believes Ohio holds the key to that. For his next book, he’s been travelling the state on his own listening tour.

This month, To Understand Ohio, we spent some time talking with Giffels about Congressman Tim Ryan’s short-lived bid for the White House, what that says about the Mahoning Valley and how that relates to the rest of the country.

Giffels was in Youngstown last spring when Ryan announced he was going to seek the Democratic presidential nomination. He says the timing was interesting given the announcement from GM that it was ceasing production at its Lordstown assembly plant.

"The event itself was kind of heartwarmingly Ohio-esque," Giffels said. "It almost felt more like a small-town rally than the launch of a big presidential campaign."

Giffels says many of the people attending were attuned to what was going on at the moment, with the GM announcement and the echoes of the forces going back a generation to the closure of the steel mills and the beginning of the Rust Belt in the Mahoning Valley.

Giffels says so much of what he heard in talking to people was this warning that 'if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.' Ryan’s message was that he was speaking for the voiceless, not just in Ohio but across the country.

Post-campaign reflections
Giffels finally got a chance this year to sit down with the congressman to talk about his presidential run.  He says there were two takeaways from that conversation. "He knows what’s it like not to be heard. And that means as an Ohioan, someone from a flyover state and as the son of a steelworker." Giffels says he could feel that frustration from Ryan.

The other takeaway for Giffels was that Ryan found "how strongly resonant his Ohio experience was in other places he went.  In Iowa where he found the same concerns of health care, opioids, downtowns that are struggling to maintain their identities." Another common theme was people feeling they were working harder for less "against this uber-narrative from the president that everyone is doing better economically." Giffels feels that Ryan really brought those messages back with him.

Ryan and the dignity of work
Giffels points to Ryan getting his start as an aide to former Youngstown Congressman Jim Traficant where he could witness first-hand "this political talent." And then, at a young age, Ryan himself stepped into that role. Giffels says one of Ryan’s strengths is having "a fully formed sense of the working person."

'Ryan's message was that he was speaking for the voiceless, not just in Ohio but across the country.'

Early in the campaign last year, Senator Sherrod Brown conducted a listening tour around the country as he considered his own possible run for president.  He called it his dignity of work tour. When Brown decided not to run, Giffels says it seemed unintentional but "simply by virtue of living in the same region took that dignity of work message as the heart of his campaign."

Giffels believes what the rest of the country can learn from this is the theme of the working person that’s always "paraded out," but nobody seems to know what that is.  He says Ryan knows what this is, and if nothing else, "He's frustrated by the coastal elitism that has drawn the Democratic Party’s identity more recently, and he wants to…understand the unheard voices of the Mahoning Valley, of Iowa, and the South and of the places he connected with."

WKSU is touching base with David Giffels each month as part of an ongoing series, To Understand Ohio. Giffels’ new book about this travels around the state, Barnstorming Ohio, is due out in August.

Andrew Meyer is the deputy editor of news at Ideastream Public Media.