Wisconsin's Paper Industry Woes Shape Race

There's a campaign going on in this village of 6,444 in the northeast region of this battleground state.

Lawn signs line the sidewalks and organizers talk on cellphones in a temporary office.

The signs are not part of a political campaign. They carry slogans such as "World class work force" and "Save U.S. Jobs" and are part of an effort to save a paper mill, and maybe a town.

It's the kind of a cause, residents and analysts say, that may steer the presidential race outcome in Wisconsin.

"What's happening here is the disappearance of a way of life for middle-class America," said Jim Dercks, a 29-year millworker.

Dercks was one of about 600 people who lost their jobs last month when Miamisburg, Ohio-based NewPage Corp. closed a paper mill it owned in town.

Shawn Hall, a spokeswoman for NewPage, said numerous factors prompted the closure, including energy costs, import competition and the down economy. The mill produced coated paper for catalogs and magazines.

"When the economy is down, advertising slows up, which is a big part of what our business is," she said.

Dercks says he and his former co-workers know their campaign faces long odds, but he says it's a cause worth fighting for.

Manufacturing cornerstone

Wisconsin's paper industry produces everything from cardboard to newsprint and it has long been one of the state's signature industries. But the industry is struggling under growing pressure from the economy and from foreign competition, according to Jeffrey Landin, president of the Wisconsin Paper Council, a trade group.

In a state like Wisconsin, where presidential races frequently hang on paper-thin margins — Sen. John Kerry beat President Bush 49.7% to 49.32% in 2004 and former vice president Al Gore edged Bush 47.83% to 47.61% in 2000 — the paper industry's decline could be an issue on Election Day.

"We are losing a lot of jobs here and it's symbolic for the rest of the nation," says Wendy Scattergood, an assistant professor of political science at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis.

A Rasmussen Reports poll conducted Oct. 6 showed Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama leading Republican John McCain 54% to 46%.

Papermaking is a cornerstone of Wisconsin manufacturing, with jobs that pay an average of $60,000 a year, Landin says.

It is not Wisconsin's largest manufacturing sector. According to 2007 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, more Wisconsinites manufacture food and fabricated metal products. Dennis Winters, director of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Office of Economic Advisors, says papermaking accounts for about 7% of the state's manufacturing workforce.

Three mills have closed this year in the state and, since 1998, the number of people employed in the paper industry has declined from 51,597 to 34,817.

"It makes people talk about the future and what proposals and what plans will candidates have to address an industry such as paper to protect the jobs that are here," Landin says.

Scattergood says Wisconsin's manufacturing troubles are helping make this battleground state a key stop on the campaign trail.

"Everyone can relate to Wisconsin," the political scientist says.

Mark Jefferson, executive director of the state Republican Party, says the economy is on everyone's minds, not just those who live in paper communities.

He says economic issues can work to McCain's advantage "if he presents a forceful message about what he truly believes and that is that open markets allow for expanded opportunities."

Troubles will play role

Phil Walzak, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, says what is happening in places like Kimberly "really underscores what's at stake in this election.

"Will we have a president who will stand up for American workers and working families," he asks, "or will we have a president who, like we have for the last eight years, will sit back and watch as good paying jobs and a way of life goes down the drain?"

In Kimberly, former mill employee Mark Van Stappen says the paper industry's troubles will likely play a role in his state.

"People around here mostly vote with their belly," he says. "Whoever can do the best for us, to get us working and stay working is going to be how most manufacturing people vote."

Angel Witt of Kimberly, an Obama supporter, thinks economic troubles could work in the Democrat's favor.

Jody Behling of Kimberly, a former plant employee said the candidate with the best solution to economic issues will probably win in Wisconsin. He said that the "jury is still out" with many voters, but he supports McCain "because of his experience."

Jones reports for The Post-Crescent in Appleton, Wis.

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