In Ohio, Vance faces backlash in Ukrainian community over war stance

Photo for The Washington Post by Megan Jelinger
Originally from Ukraine, Irena Stolar typically votes Republican but says she refuses to support J.D. Vance.
Photo for The Washington Post by Megan Jelinger
Originally from Ukraine, Irena Stolar typically votes Republican but says she refuses to support J.D. Vance.

PARMA, Ohio – Irena Stolar has voted Republican for over half a century, from Richard M. Nixon to Donald Trump. But in the midterms, Stolar, 73, said she will cast her first vote for a Democrat. Originally from Ukraine, Stolar refuses to support J.D. Vance, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Ohio, who has said he wants to cut off aid to the war-torn country.

“Definitely not this year, with J.D. Vance saying that Ukraine doesn’t matter,” said Stolar, during a break from her shift as host at Olesia’s Taverne, a busy Ukrainian restaurant. She recalled being upset earlier this year, when Vance said on a podcast interview just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “I gotta be honest with you. I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.”

Vance later recalibrated, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin “is the bad guy” and “we want the Ukrainians to be successful.” But for Stolar, the damage was done. “If he said one thing, then backs down on it, you can’t trust someone like that,” she said. “I’d like our senators to continue supporting Ukraine, sending arms as much as they can.”

Stolar was one of 15 Republican voters or elected officials The Washington Post interviewed this month here in Parma, a city of 80,000 near Cleveland that has one of the largest Ukrainian American populations in the state. Many said they would not vote for Vance. In a tight contest, such sentiments could have far-reaching implications.

Polls show that Vance and Rep. Tim Ryan (D) are in close competition as the race nears its conclusion, and with Democrats trying to retain their narrow Senate majority, the stakes are especially high. There are about 41,000 people with Ukrainian heritage in Ohio, according to the Census Bureau, and many have felt the effects of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine more acutely and personally than most Americans.

While the war in Ukraine has not been the central focus of the race – a recent candidate debate focused on other topics, such as the economy, immigration, and moderation vs. extremism – it is one that has stirred impassioned responses that loom large over the final weeks of the contest and future showdowns in Congress over funding for Ukraine.

The clashes here come as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) recently signaled that if Republicans win the House in November, the GOP is likely to oppose more aid to Ukraine in its war with Russia. In recent years, a growing number of Republican lawmakers and candidates have embraced a more nationalist and isolationist foreign policy, a Trump-era shift from decades of more consistently hawkish and interventionist leanings in the party.

Vance and his allies are wagering that a sharp focus on improving life in Ohio and a critique of investments abroad will resonate in a state Trump carried twice. The author of “Hillbilly Elegy” and a Trump critic turned supporter, Vance has embraced some of the “America First” leanings that have become cornerstones of the pro-Trump movement. He has said he believes the United States has spent enough helping Ukraine and should instead channel funds toward blocking the flow of fentanyl across the Mexican border.

“We’ve got to stop the money spigot to Ukraine eventually,” Vance said in an interview with an ABC News affiliate in September. “We cannot fund a long-term military conflict that I think ultimately has diminishing returns for our own country.”

Vance’s campaign did not make him available for an interview for this report. It suggested The Post speak to Republican state Rep. Jay Edwards, who was critical of the federal government for sending aid abroad at a time when many Ohio residents are experiencing economic struggles.

Ryan has positioned himself as a moderate Democrat who is willing to criticize President Biden, but he has been supportive of sending more arms and economic assistance to Ukraine, as well as applying further sanctions against Russia.

Speaking in a phone interview from his campaign bus, Ryan said he felt that attitudes about the war and the candidates’ positions “could swing the election.” He pointed to other Eastern European communities in the state and added, “It’s going to be much broader than just the Ukrainian vote.”

Parma, near where Stolar lives, is home to Ohio’s Ukrainian Village, where the fire hydrants are painted blue and yellow and every storefront contains a display of solidarity for the home country. Ukrainian flags are flown from the butchers to the funeral parlor.

State Road in Parma has four Ukrainian churches, two cultural schools and many regional stores where residents can buy fresh kielbasa, homemade pierogi, deruny potato pancakes and Ukrainian ketchup. Behind St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, there’s a wooden road sign pointing to Kyiv – 4,896 miles away.

These days, many of Parma’s residents wake every morning to updates from family members in Ukraine. Some are sheltering in bunkers; others are preparing to fight.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Orest Liscynesky closed the Cleveland Selfreliance Credit Union in the Ukrainian Village after he found his employees crying at their desks.

“Their mother, their brother, their sister and cousins are back there,” said Liscynesky, manager of the credit union. “These people can’t work. All they’re thinking about is bombs and people being killed, what’s happening to their families.”

One of Liscynesky’s employees used to text their best friend in Kyiv every day. Last month, he said, the replies stopped.

“She was killed,” he said. “You’re always thinking, back there, what’s happening?”

Liscynesky’s family had to flee their homes twice after bombings, he said. Most recently they were seeking refuge in Ternopil, the sister city of Parma, which was recently hit in Putin’s bombardment of at least 14 regions.

“My father’s 97, and he’s on a computer trying to find out where all these cousins are,” Liscynesky said. “He goes, ‘This is like World War II.'”

Liscynesky has shelved his political alliances in light of the war. “I’m a Republican, but I’m backing Biden’s efforts in Ukraine,” he said, withholding his voting plans for this election.

The Ukrainian population of Ohio has traditionally leaned Republican because of the party’s forceful criticism of communism. But that could change this year.

Anna Barrett, president of the credit union, said she will vote for a Democratic candidate for the first time in her life. “I certainly could not support Mr. Vance based on what he has said,” she said. Like others, Barrett has been working around-the-clock to fundraise and send supplies to Europe.

Photo for The Washington Post by Megan Jelinger
Michael Dobronos is a second-generation Ukrainian American living in Parma, Ohio.

Michael Dobronos, a second-generation Ukrainian American, has brought the war home to Parma, taking in 10 relatives who arrived as refugees in recent months. Dobronos, 56 and a lawyer, met his extended family last year when he spent a month traveling in Ukraine with his two children. Now, five women and five children are living in his house in Cleveland.

“They’re traumatized,” Dobronos said at Rudy’s Strudel, an Eastern European bakery next to the Ukrainian Village. “They remember hearing bombs dropped, artillery, the difficulties when they lived in camps with pallets and air mattresses.”

A staunch conservative, Dobronos said he is troubled about the upcoming elections. “I voted for Trump twice, but I cannot believe the Republican Party has abandoned Ukraine and its fight for freedom,” he said. “I’ve always voted for conservative candidates. However, I will break that tradition in this midterm. I cannot support J.D. Vance because of his anti-Ukrainian views.”

At the Lviv International Food Store around the corner, Veronika Pagsanjan, 50, was buying supplies for her growing household: Her mother and brother moved from Ukraine earlier this year.

“I’m not happy that [J.D. Vance] says he doesn’t care about Ukraine much,” said Pagsanjan, who emigrated to the United States when she was 30. “But I don’t think his opinion about Ukraine will affect the whole of America, so I’m okay with him to be in the Senate. I’m a conservative. I will vote for him. Maybe he’ll soften his stance on Ukraine.”

Vance and Ryan are competing to replace retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who visited the war-torn country earlier this year. Portman has met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky numerous times and has visited Bucha and Irpin, sites of Russian atrocities.

Portman, who has endorsed Vance, is co-chair of the bipartisan Senate Ukraine Caucus. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) co-chairs the U.S. House equivalent and is up for reelection against Republican J.R. Majewski, who is also against sending more arms to Ukraine.

“We’re all very supportive of Ukraine and our efforts to oppose the Russians,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “Everybody I know is, except J.D. Vance. For whatever reason, Vance is on the wrong side, and I expect it to cost him votes.”

Parma residents repeatedly mention the Ukrainian Independence Day Parade on Aug. 27, which was attended by Portman, Ryan and Republican Gov. Mike DeWine.

“J.D. Vance has not come out,” Roman Fedkiw, chairman of the Ukrainian Village, said at a local tavern. “The Ukrainian community’s going to look at that and take it into consideration when they’re voting.”

Stolar, a retired cardiologist, moved to the United States at age 9 with her parents following the Soviet Union’s violent suppression of the Hungarian Uprising. Her family members in Ukraine are among the 14 million people internally displaced by the war.

“My cousin and her husband were driving when a rocket went right past them,” Stolar said. “Tim Ryan says Ukraine matters – and it does. We’re the country that is saving Europe from Russian aggression.”

A different perspective was evident at a clambake in Strongsville, Ohio, about 10 miles southwest of Parma, where a couple hundred Vance supporters pulled clams from their shells under a marquee. They clapped as Vance told them that the fighting spirit he wants to take to Washington came from his grandmother, who he said had 19 loaded handguns around her house. In a speech, he said he wanted to crack down on crime and Mexican cartels. He slammed Ryan and sought to link him to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

While many in Parma took issue with Vance’s stance, at the rally, there were clear signs of agreement with his position on Ukraine. “We’re putting a lot of money that we don’t have out there,” said Doug Cooper, 65. “We’re spending way too much money and being way too far in debt.”

Afterward, supporters lined up to take photographs with Vance. Numerous requests for an interview with The Post were declined, with his team saying he was too busy with voters. Asked if he had a comment for Parma’s Ukrainian voters, his team did not respond. But his campaign noted that Vance won Parma in the Republican primary.

Edwards, the state lawmaker whom the Vance campaign suggested The Post speak with, lives on the other side of Ohio, in Athens. A moderate Republican, Edwards said it’s “disgusting” how his part of Ohio has been forgotten by the federal government.

“People don’t have food to eat and we’re sending billions of dollars to someone else,” Edwards said. He is supportive of Ukraine and appreciates that the United States wants to be a leader, he said, but first he wants to see safe drinking water, affordable gas prices and stocked shelves in the Appalachian area of Ohio.

Photo for The Washington Post by Megan Jelinger
Manus McCaffery, 21, traveled to Ukraine in March and joined a troop of American and Georgian Legion fighters.

But for Manus McCaffery, funding the Ukrainian effort is a moral obligation. The 21-year-old lost his sight in one eye in a strike by a Russian precision-guided missile in southern Ukraine.

Having grown up in Parma with Ukrainian friends, McCaffery said he couldn’t sit back and watch the war unfold without helping. In March, he traveled to Ukraine and joined a troop of American and Georgian Legion fighters. With four years experience in the military, including time in Afghanistan last year, McCaffery said, he took up the responsibility of manning an antitank missile system in Ukraine.

In May, his battalion was hit and McCaffery was temporarily blinded by shrapnel. Since returning home, he has regained sight in one eye, but the emotional wounds run deep.

“I wish I could be there,” McCaffery said, breaking into tears.

One of his sharpest memories is Bucha after Russian troops withdrew. “Women were raped; there’s a lot of women missing and a lot of dead children,” he said, tears falling onto his shirt. “[The Russians] were only there hours before and they left behind some horrific stuff. It was extremely gruesome.”

Although he has leaned Republican in the past, he said he will vote for the party that will supply ammunition and funds to Ukraine.

“It’s obvious who I would vote for at the moment: Tim Ryan,” he said. McCaffery will split his ticket and vote for DeWine.

He has co-founded a nonprofit called The Victory Team, which is raising money for his battalion.

“Our hero,” Seven Hills Mayor Anthony Biasiotta said of McCaffery as soon as he walked into a tavern in the Ukrainian Village the next day. “I find him very inspiring,” added Biasiotta, who identifies as a Republican.

Thinking about the midterms, Biasiotta said he is on the fence because of how disappointed he has been with Vance’s position on Ukraine. “I’m undecided,” he said. “You’ve got to evaluate a candidate on many issues, but I absolutely would disagree with [Vance’s] position on Ukraine.” Later in the month, he said he planned to vote for Vance, despite his disagreement with him on Ukraine.

Earlier in October, after Americans woke to news of Russian airstrikes across Ukraine, Vance and Ryan squared off in their first debate. They both denounced Putin’s violence and celebrated the resilience of the Ukrainian people. But they fought over the role of the United States.

“We’ve got to have a strong military and make sure we can push back people like Vladimir Putin if they try to invade a freedom-loving country,” said Ryan.

Vance reiterated that he wants to put the United States first. “The Biden administration seems to be sleepwalking into a nuclear war,” he said. “I would put my money at the southern border, instead of launching tons of money into Ukraine.”

“J.D. is going to have to prove himself to the Ukrainians,” said Strongsville Mayor Thomas Perciak, a Republican, at the clambake after Vance left. “I stand by the Ukrainian community, and they know it.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Megan Jelinger
A Ukrainian flag is flown in Parma, home to one of Ohio’s largest populations of Ukrainian Americans.