A Democrat in Trump Country: The Waltham Review interviews Ohio’s Senator Capri Cafaro

The traditional Democratic stronghold of northeastern Ohio has emerged as an area of strength for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, scrambling the traditional party allegiances that have long governed politics in the area.  Democratic Senator Capri S. Cafaro has served Ohio’s 32nd Senate district, in that part of the state, for the last 10 years.  Between 2009 and 2012 – a period that includes the peak of the state’s budget crisis – Senator Cafaro served as the Minority Leader of the Ohio State Senate.

Senator Cafaro, who has worked closely with Republican Governor John Kasich and has campaigned for Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton, noticed early on the appeal that Trump had for many of the constituents of her district.  The Waltham Review spoke with Senator Cafaro about her ten years of service in the Senate and her views on the rise of Trump and other recent political phenomena.  This interview is part of our work to gain a better understanding of the Trump phenomenon and the appeal that the candidate has for many Americans.

The conversation with Senator Cafaro is below:

WR:  You are at the airport on your way to Iceland right now, as we conduct this interview.  You are planning to come back, right?

CC: I mean that’s debatable.  But right now my plan is to come back on Thursday.  Unless I change plans and become a research academic on the Icelandic sagas I will be back.


WR:  A lot of evidence is suggesting that Donald Trump is performing very well in your traditionally Democratic district in northeastern Ohio.  Is that consistent with what you are seeing on the ground?

CC: 100 percent, and I actually spoke about this today on Fox News twice, in the context of the “basket of deplorables” comment that came from Hillary.  So, in northeast Ohio, we have a lot of non-college-educated white males who feel as if for the last twenty-five years Democrats have come in and promised the world, but haven’t delivered.

These folks are attracted to Trump’s plain talk and his message on trade in particular, and also the fact that he is politically incorrect.  So what I was saying today on Fox – there are people in my district who four years ago had my yard sign in their yard.  These folks were my supporters, and now they have Trump signs in their yard.  I think that’s very telling.


WR: You say that Trump’s political incorrectness is part of the appeal.  Does that appeal reflect some sort of racism on the part of people who are attracted to this kind of talk? 

CC: No.  It reflects the frustration of people that have been left behind by the traditional political and economic structures.  People who see traditional politicians as people who talk down to them, who don’t respect them, and who don’t listen to them.  Because of Trump’s presentation, he comes off as someone who is relating to them.


WR:  An industry now seems to have emerged within the mainstream media, trying to explain the roots of Trump’s support in places like your home district.  What is the mainstream media getting right, and what is it still getting wrong about the story of Trump’s support?

CC: I think that there are these broad brushes – “rust belt” –  words used to describe individuals who relied on high paying manufacturing jobs that have been lost due to these trade agreements.  So that is something the media has gotten right.  Trump supporters in my area feel as If they have lost their jobs due to trade.  They feel that because Trump is a businessman – someone who they think can create jobs – he is really going to do what he says he is going to do.


WR: What would you say the media is getting wrong about the Trump phenomenon?

CC: I think that the media is getting wrong that only men support Donald Trump.  There are women too – they are more few and far between, but there are absolutely women who support Donald Trump.  Not as many, but they do exist.  The other thing I would say, when you read stuff like what has been in the New York Times about Youngstown and Trump, they paint Youngstown as this absolutely downtrodden community that has nothing to offer.  That is not necessarily the case.  We have had 35 years of empty promises, but we have made some progress, due to the auto bailout, increasing investments, some business incubators.  The media is getting wrong that we are just some “rust belt” community that no longer has anything to offer.


WR:  What advice would you give to Hillary Clinton’s team as they try to win votes in your district?

CC: I would say, in some ways, it’s too little, too late.  But she has done some of the things I would have advised already.  Joe Biden was in my district last week.  He is the perfect surrogate for her in a district like mine.  The whole “Joe from Scranton” – he has the same attributes that attract Democrats to Trump – they see him as someone who calls it like he sees it.  But Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton.

There are challenges for her when it comes to authenticity and veracity, and fifty days out from an election, I don’t know how you fix that.  Now, what she has done – which for someone like me is effective – she has provided policy details when she comes to the community.  But people want to see and hear their emotions, frustrations, and dreams reflected back.  That doesn’t happen with policy white papers.


WR:  Some of Trump’s support has appeared immune to the types of apparent missteps that might have hurt the candidacies of more traditional politicians.  What type of misstep could Trump make that would actually cost him the support of the people in you district who back him now?

CC: I think two things here.  One being that this is a very different election year.  Because the level of frustration with traditional politics is like nothing we’ve ever seen.  Which is how Trump has gotten as far as he’s gotten.  In any other election year, Kasich or Bush would be the nominee.  But I think that as far as losing his current support, I think it’s locked in.

The question is “how does he get people who are on the fence” – particularly Republican women who are not convinced by Hillary, but they are not necessarily comfortable with Trump.  Not comfortable with either choice.


WR:  A traditional, if not always accurate, stereotype has been that the Republicans have been the party of capital and the Democrats have more of a labor tilt.  These traditional orientations are now becoming somewhat scrambled.  How would you define today’s Democratic and Republican Parties?  Where do you see them headed?

CC: Well, I think that their nominees – neither nominee is reflective of the majority of the party establishment, or where the party is heading.  For example, in the context of Trump, there are only very few Republicans who align that way on trade – even those Republicans that have good relationships with the building trades, who are traditionally toward the labor-allied extreme of the Republican Party, who see themselves now painted in the same light as Trump and his stance on trade, which is more extreme than theirs.  Then you have the more traditional, pro-growth, fiscally conservative Republicans.

Conversely, I think that the Democrats are becoming much more progressive as the millenials are becoming engaged.  Hillary Clinton, truth be told – and I think that she’s a much more attractive candidate as a moderate, to me, because I am a moderate – but as a party, the Democrats are becoming much more progressive.  Hence the Bernie movement.

So – the Democratic and Republican parties are going through two sides of the same coin.  The Republicans have a nominee that is blazing a trail different from most of their traditional party values.  But at the same time, Hillary is trying to adapt her moderate views to what is becoming a much more progressive Democratic Party.


WR:  Turning away from Trump for the moment, in 2013 you sponsored Ohio SB 248, known as Teddy’s Law.  This bill was intended to place safeguards to prevent abuse of children who are being homeschooled.  Evidence of abuse is often uncovered in school, and there does seem to be a need to protect homeschooled children from ongoing undiscovered abuse.  What happened to that law and why?  What does it tell us about the current Zeitgeist?

CC: You probably know from the articles that you’ve read that this kid Teddy died because of the abuse from his mother’s boyfriend.  He was not traditionally home-schooled, he was basically e-schooled.  They took him out of a traditional school because of mandated reporting.  It was a way to circumvent mandated reporting.  My heart broke for this family.  I wanted to find a way to get a legislative solution.  My thought was – narrow it down, get at the issue.  My intent was never to attack home schooling.  The intent was to give address the problem, give families ample time to comply.

But the bill comes out, and the Home School Legal Defense Association was very opposed.

The home school league basically picked this as an opportunity to say that the government was trying to use this as a ruse to come into their homes.  That was absolutely never the intent – my sister was even home-schooled for a few years.  But we were getting hundreds of calls a day.  My staff was threatened.  This was one of only two times that I have cried on the job.

It’s fine to threaten me, but a whole other thing to attack my staff.  And the family was getting threats.  The family and I got together, and we realized that it wasn’t going to pass.  And Teddy’s legacy was being hurt.  So I used a procedure to withdraw the bill, but then reintroduced a bill that enhances our statewide child abuse reporting processes and databases.


WR:  As the former minority leader of the Ohio state senate, you worked closely with Governor Kasich, on the other side of the aisle.  What can you tell us about him that would be surprising to our readers?

CC: OK – one of the most important things for me is his taste in music.  He loves Pink Floyd and Electric Light Orchestra – two of my favorite things in life.  We came in as allies on classic rock.  So there is that.


WR: That’s awesome!  

CC: It’s the truth!

Here are a few other things people don’t know.  He’s very committed to issues of mental health, because of his experience with his brother who struggled with mental health.

He was raised Catholic, but his faith was tested when his parents were killed by a drunk driver.  Here is one thing that I wish more people knew now.  A lot of people – John Kasich was the last person to drop out.  And there are people who thought he was a sore loser.  But he is not a sore loser.  He sincerely believed that the Lord’s purpose was for him to run.  Agree or disagree with him, he believes in what he does.  He is an honest person, and he has always been a straight shooter with me.


WR:  I understand that you are proud of both your American identity and your Italian ancestry.  Is there anything that the Italian-American history in this country can tell us as we look toward becoming an even more diverse country – with the ongoing arrival of people from around the world?

CC: Curveball – I am Italian-American but also Ukrainian.  That’s almost more interesting.  But in regards to being Italian American, we as an immigrant group, in many ways are no different from current immigrants.  We had our own neighborhood – speaking our own language.  My grandparents were born here, but my great-grandparents came over.  From what I know from my grandparents, there was always an emphasis on both holding onto your ethnic identity, but also fully embracing being an American.


WR: Do you feel like it’s somehow different today?

CC: It’s different for a number of reasons.  Predominantly because of technology and transportation – options that were not available back then.  But there are some things that are the same – reliance on small business and entrepreneurship are certainly the same.  And frankly, the prejudice that exists today was the same then as in some respects now.  The Irish came before the Italians.  The Irish were very vocal about not giving jobs to the Italians.  Everybody who gets here before the next person tries to hold their jobs from the next guy.  That still goes on – the desire to “hold onto territory” is the same as it was at the beginning of the 20th century.


WR: Last question.  What trend in our society, arts world, business world, or culture brings you the most optimism right now? 

CC: Sadly, I am not really sure. I think what I would say is two things.  One, when I first started office 10 years ago, I was only 3 years older than the people on my staff.  So I have gotten older, but people on my staff are still in their 20s.  They continue to be optimistic about government, about policy.

The other part is that I have actually gotten things done.  Because I have had an opportunity to co-author Medicaid reform.  I sponsored and got passed the rape kit reform bill.  I helped pass the most comprehensive reform of health care prior authorization.

So while I don’t like politics as a process – we need campaign finance reform, electoral reform.  But in the last 10 years I have had a chance to get things done.  Both in terms of policy and for individual constituents.  So I am optimist based on that experience – I have lived the fact that you can get things done in the political arena.


WR: Thank you so much for your time.  All the best for the future, and safe travels today. 

CC: Thank you!


(Artwork: Hieronymus Bosch (Dutch, 1450-1516) The Haywain Triptych 1516)


  1. Surprised to hear that northeast Ohio is strong for Trump–my family still lives in Cleveland, along with many of my best friends, and a student now associate dean at Youngstown State: I haven’t heard about it, though I saw them all in June. Thanks for the warning! But I’d like to know more about the senator’s view that there isn’t racism involved–can you ask her? Politicians always say their constituents aren’t racists, but the US is an intensely racist country: the Movement for Black Lives did not invent the structural racism that mars and stunts the lives of people of color. These supporters of Trump are “attracted to his political incorrectness”–which is all about excluding Mexicans and Muslims, keeps company with white supremacists, and sports anti-Semitic signs in ads: how is that not racist? I’m curious about what she means when she says that. This is not a rhetorical question.

    Liked by 1 person

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