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  • José Luis Villegas / jvillegas@sacbee.com

    Lynette Ratzlaff, owner of a property management firm, calls President Obama's supporters to urge them to volunteer in his campaign in Reno on Tuesday. Ratzlaff disputes claims that passion for the president has cooled in a slow economy.

  • José Luis Villegas / jvillegas@sacbee.com

    Alex Bacchus, a voter registration coordinator at the Washoe County Republican Party headquarters, hopes the region returns to its traditional role as a GOP bastion.

  • José Luis Villegas / jvillegas@sacbee.com

    Wayne Spatz, 46, a former construction worker, walks through downtown Reno on Tuesday. Washoe County has endured double-digit percentage unemployment for more than 40 consecutive months, hammered not only by the recession and housing bust, but by the expansion of Indian casinos in California.

  • José Luis Villegas / jvillegas@sacbee.com

    Homes continue to be built by Lennar Homes in the D'Andrea subdivision of Reno's neighbor Sparks. "It appears that the worst of the great recession is coming to an end," Reno's city manager, Andrew Clinger, said this month.

  • José Luis Villegas / jvillegas@sacbee.com

    A billboard offers a possible path forward to underwater homeowners in Reno. The housing market has shown signs of stabilization recently. But the area is still dogged by a glut of foreclosed homes, and vacant storefronts.

Reeling from recession, Washoe County weighs whether to back Obama again

Published: Sunday, Jul. 29, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Monday, Jul. 30, 2012 - 1:48 am

RENO – President Barack Obama left town, Mitt Romney was due the next day, and just up the road from a billboard advising Nevadans to abandon their underwater homes, the conservative group Americans for Prosperity inflated a giant Uncle Sam.

The occasion was an anti-Obama rally in a strip-mall parking lot, the headliner Herman Cain.

He called Obama supporters the "stupid people," who at the moment were making telephone calls for the president at a campaign office about two miles away.

Elsewhere in Washoe County on this drizzly afternoon, Obama and Romney advertisements ran wall-to-wall on TV.

It is only midsummer, but in the swing county in a swing state, the presidential campaign is fully under way. The election here is a closely watched test of Obama's ability to repeat his victories four years ago in areas of the country still reeling from the recession.

Like elsewhere, the economy is the focus of the campaigns. On a wall in the Obama office hangs a chart suggesting the jobs outlook was even worse before Obama was elected, and Apple Inc. announced last month it will build a $1 billion data center here.

But vacant storefronts, high unemployment and a glut of foreclosed homes remain.

"Your home is upside down," says a billboard not far from where Obama and Romney both spoke last week, to the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "Dump it."

In his convincing victory in Nevada in 2008, Obama became the first Democratic candidate for president to carry Washoe County since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

This year the county of about 425,000 people on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada is once again in play.

Nevada's unemployment rate, 11.6 percent, is the highest in the nation, and Washoe County has endured double-digit percentage unemployment for more than 40 consecutive months. At the Food Bank of Northern Nevada, demand has risen 70 percent in five years.

"I don't think I'd ever known of a parishioner who had to declare bankruptcy," said the Rev. Carl Wilfrid of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in downtown Reno. "But in the last five years, we've had a few who have had to, and a few who have lost their homes."

Before the recession, when a roar of construction promised to rebuild Reno's downtown, Wilfrid's church hired a second pastor. When she leaves the church next month, she will not be replaced.

The county's economy, heavily reliant on Californians visiting its casinos and casino hotels, was pulled under not only by the recession, but by the proliferation of Indian gambling in California. It is a lasting problem.

"Twenty years of the writing on the wall is really hitting us," said Brian Bonnenfant, a researcher at the Center for Regional Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Dave Maher, who arrived at the Cain rally with an "Obama sucks" sign on his 1995 Chevrolet Astro van, said small companies whose fire extinguishers he services regularly go out of business.

"The economy hurts, man," the 52-year-old said.

Yet even in Reno, the economy is not without signs of improvement. In November, the Washoe County area posted its first month-over-month increase in employment since 2007, according to the Center for Regional Studies. Hiring has picked up slightly in parts of the leisure and hospitality industry.

"It appears that the worst of the great recession is coming to an end," Reno's city manager, Andrew Clinger, said in his State of the City address this month. "We've hit the bottom, and we'll now start our slow climb back."

When Obama won Washoe County in 2008, he relied on a wave of enthusiasm and a massive voter registration effort.

"Obama's ground organization, grass-roots organization was just outstanding," said Eric Herzik a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. "I mean, my God, the Obama people were everywhere. You couldn't walk across campus without, 'Are you registered?' "

The effort put Democrats ahead in Washoe County, but Republicans have since retaken a voter registration lead. The margin is slight, however, and Herzik said he has "no idea" who will win.

For Obama, he said, "a lot of the enthusiasm's gone," while Romney's local organizing is far better than the effort Republican John McCain made four years ago.

"Mitt Romney never really stopped campaigning in Nevada," Herzik said. "He put an infrastructure in place, he kept it in place, he visited regularly … He did about everything that John McCain never did do here."

Washoe County includes only about 220,000 registered voters, and a Democratic candidate can win Nevada without carrying the county. Bill Clinton did in 1992 and 1996.

For a Republican, however, Washoe is considered critical to offset the influence of Democrat-heavy Las Vegas and Clark County.

Lynette Ratzlaff, who owns a small property management business and volunteers for Obama, said she sees signs of an improving economy when she walks door to door for the campaign. People in Reno keep their lawns neater than they used to, she said, and remodeling projects abound.

"It just seems like things are getting better," she said.

Ratzlaff, 56, disputed that enthusiasm for Obama has waned. If anything, she said, Obama's organizing effort was frustrated by a late, unseasonably cold winter. Now it is picking up.

Meanwhile, the candidates' messages are on TV, and their surrogates are calling on the phone. Brent Boynton, a former aide to former Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons, said he received two robotic telephone calls from Herman Cain encouraging him to attend the Americans for Prosperity rally.

"My friends who work for commercial broadcast stations are really thankful," Boynton said of the barrage of advertising.

For anyone else, it can be a bit much.

"Voters do get tired of it," said Boynton, now news director for the local PBS affiliate. "It feels like Nevadans have heard an awful lot from the candidates, but we have heard little of substance."

Some prospective voters have already tuned out. In a state employment office in a mall across the street from the convention center where Romney and Obama spoke, Carlos LeCroy has been looking for steady work for six months.

LeCroy, 42, works part time for a company conducting telephone surveys, some of them political. But he says his hours have been cut.

"I couldn't care less about who wins," LeCroy said. "I don't think either of those guys is doing anything to help the people in this room."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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