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Newton, Iowa: Between the pain of de-industrialization and the elections

US ELECTIONS (ADDS VIDEO) | 02 de febrero de 2020

Newton, Iowa: Between the pain of de-industrialization and the elections 

Former Vice President Joe Biden campaigns to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee at the Legacy Plaza Building in Newton, Iowa, 30 January 2020. The first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses are on 03 February 2020. EFE/EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

By Beatriz Pascual Macias

Newton, Iowa, Feb 2 (efe-epa).- When the Maytag washing machine factory closed its doors in 2007, hundreds of Newton, Iowa, residents put their homes up for sale and left the area. Now, the town is beginning to recover its breath and is hopefully awaiting the political primaries that start on Monday in the Midwestern state.

Patience is the way that Marcia McFall, a campaign volunteer for former Vice President Joe Biden, fights the tension of the countdown to the Iowa caucuses. She spends her time reading a novel in "Joe's" offices in downtown Newton, waiting for someone to come in the door and show an interest in picking up campaign literature on the Democratic presidential hopeful.

She likes to chat and, when EFE asked her about Maytag, McFall sighed with resignation.

"A lot of the people that graduated the same time I did. They went from high school directly to Maytag to start their career there," she said. "And no one in town ever expected ... Maytag to just pull up and leave. And it was devastating to the town, the community, because so many people in the community worked here at Maytag."

"I mean, they had started at Maytag right out of high school, and here they were in their 50's, you know. Who's gonna hire them? There weren't any other places you (could) find a good job," said McFall, seated in a chair with a big hole in it and trying to keep calm, even though her hands were trembling.

Maytag was the "soul" of Newton, and in its heydey it employed 3,000 people, or one of every five residents, and even today there is a public swimming pool, a park and a hotel bearing the company's name. The hotel was the first to have air conditioning west of the Mississippi River.

Maytag was Newton and Newton was Maytag. They were almost the same thing: the company had forged the city's identity.

But when the plant closed, "People put their houses up for sale. You could hardly go a block without seeing at least one house for sale. But it's been very nice to see the community come back. It's still not you know 100 percent like it was but it's really made a good comeback. There's not as many houses that are for sale and the community just came together and united," she said.

Now, the unemployment rate in Newton is 2.5 percent, which is considered to be "full employment." That figure is considerably better than the 10 percent unemployment rate for the city in 2010, after Maytag left and right in the middle of the Great Recession after the 2008 economic crisis, the worst economic period the US had experienced in eight decades.

Hundreds of people moved away from the town, and they have been replaced over the years by newcomers who have arrived looking for job opportunities.

On the streets of Newton, there are still a few signs that read "For Sale" or "For Rent," but the city's downtown area is full of businesses, modern cars and a colorful mural reading "Welcome to Newton."

Farther out from the center of town, the red brick building - the old Maytag factory - remains standing, but it has been converted into an event center and, on its ground floor, a beer brewery and two bars have been installed. In one of them, the blue telephone still hangs on the wall that Maytag workers used to make calls.

Despite the fact that life has returned to the old factory, most of its rooms and offices remain vacant, the only occupants being rows and rows of empty cubicles.

The people in charge of taking care of the old factory are Frank Liebl, the CEO of the Newton Development Corporation, and Kim Didier, a former Maytag employee who now also works for a high school. Both are trying to bring in new businesses to fill the empty space in the factory.

"We've attracted 14 new companies to our community, and those 14 new companies now employ 2,000 people," said Liebl.

In 2016, Republican then-candidate for president Donald Trump captivated Newton residents by promising that his "America First" policy would bring jobs back to the local manufacturing sector. In Jasper County, which includes Newton, he raked in 56.2 percent of the votes, against 37.9 percent for his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

Will Trump win the county again in the November election? "I don't know," said Liebl. "I think when you look at Iowa, you know, it's been over the last four or five presidential elections. It's split. And then Jasper County, used to be a strong Democratic community and in the last ... eight years it's been a split. It's been real close to ... 50-50. So it's hard to hard to say."

Liebl said that he was going to be supporting Biden, the candidate who - this time around - seems to have attracted the majority of voters here because of his more centrist policy proposals.

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