MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This past week, NPR launched a new project called Where Voters Are where we travel across the country to speak to voters about the issues that are shaping their choices this election year. Next week, we will be headed to Southern Washington State to hear from voters there. And just a few days ago, my ALL THINGS CONSIDERED co-host Ari Shapiro kicked off our series in Pueblo, Colo. Today, Ari brings us his conversation with one of the city's leaders.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Pueblo, Colo., was built on waves of immigration over more than a century. Today, the city is 50% Hispanic. There are Italian markets that have been in the same family for five generations, Slovenian bars that still pour ice-cold shots of slivo - plum brandy, slivovitz - that'll make your head spin.
Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar traces his family back to Slovenia. He's a Democrat, 70 years old. And like most of the other immigrants who came to this town, his ancestors were drawn here by the steel mill, whose smokestacks still define Pueblo's silhouette.
NICK GRADISAR: People came to Pueblo from all over the world to build this steel - to make the steel that built the American West. So those people - at one time at the mill, there were 40 different languages that were spoken at the mill, 24 foreign-language newspapers in Pueblo. So Pueblo has that kind of proud history. And all those people who came from all over the world built our neighborhoods, our churches - those kind of things. And while Pueblo was changed, those neighborhoods and those identities still remain.
SHAPIRO: Even the mayor himself spent summers in college working at the steel mill. Today, a quarter of the people in Pueblo are below the poverty line. As I sat in Pueblo City Hall talking with Mayor Gradisar, I was distracted by a piece of artwork hanging behind him. And finally, I had to ask him about it.
There's an incredible photograph behind you that I've just been looking at as we do this interview. And it shows somebody in a steel mill with a red-hot band of metal coming out, and he's grabbing it with metal tongs. Do you know what year this was taken?
GRADISAR: You know, that's my dad.
SHAPIRO: That's your father.
GRADISAR: Yeah, that's my dad. So that photo was taken, I think - no, not - he was 38 years old when that was taken...
GRADISAR: ...So that's...
SHAPIRO: Younger than you are now.
GRADISAR: Oh, yeah - way younger than I am now.
GRADISAR: But yeah, he was a catcher. That was - that work was called a catcher. And what happens is it's a rolling mill, a 10-inch rolling mill, so that that rod comes out of one end, and you put it back in the rollers and send it back the other way. And it reduces it - the diameter - every time it goes through. We've had that black-and-white photograph in our family for a long time.
SHAPIRO: On the description next to the photograph, it says he was the son of Slovenian immigrants and didn't learn English until he started grade school.
GRADISAR: Right. Yeah.
SHAPIRO: So this is your family history and the city history.
SHAPIRO: And now we're looking out over one of the main streets in Pueblo. And I'm just seeing - you know, there's an outdoor store. There's a bar. There's a thrift store. It's a completely different town.
GRADISAR: Right. No, it's gone through a lot of changes.
SHAPIRO: I mean, I guess the question that I have to ask is, since that photo was taken more than 50 years ago, do you think Pueblo has changed for the better or the worse?
GRADISAR: Oh, I think it's changed for the better. I think it's changed for the better.
GRADISAR: Yeah. I do. I do. Back when that photo was taken, the black smoke coming out of the mill was horrendous. I mean, we didn't appreciate it at the time, but, I mean, it was polluting the atmosphere something fierce. And since that time, obviously a lot of changes have taken place in terms of the environment, those kind of things. So I think Pueblo is better than it was 50 years ago.
SHAPIRO: We talked to one of the union presidents in town, and he said his membership is down about 90% from when his parents and grandparents worked at the mill.
GRADISAR: I agree with that, and I think that's one of the problems with the economy we have - not only in Pueblo, but in the country. That when we had good, strong unions, they were able to bargain collectively with their employers and share that wealth. Now there's nobody that can bargain collectively. There's no effective method of getting them to share that wealth.
SHAPIRO: You think this election's going to turn it around.
GRADISAR: Well, I hope it'll be the start. I hope it'll be the start. I think people recognize that it's out of balance. You know, it has to be in balance. The labor can't be too strong, and capitalism can't be too strong, but there needs to be that balance. And right now, it's out of balance.
MARTIN: That was my ALL THINGS CONSIDERED co-host Ari Shapiro talking with Nick Gradisar, mayor of Pueblo, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.