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Mitt Romney’s support for an Ohio law eliminating most collective bargaining rights for teachers, firefighters and other public employees drew a sharp rebuke Friday from Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), a populist 15-term incumbent, who told The National Memo: “He doesn’t understand — he grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth.”

The front-runner in the Republican presidential primary — who was the son of a prominent auto executive and Michigan Governor — bumbled through a confusing week where he seemed to rapidly flip from not wanting to take a position on Republican Governor John Kasich’s Senate Bill 5 to coming out emphatically in favor of it.

The bill, which affects an estimated 350,000 workers, drew such an uproar from the Ohio Democrats and union workers that voters will have a chance to reject it via statewide referendum on November 8.

“I guess he’s confused,” Kaptur said about Romney. “And we don’t need anybody [as our next president] who has an element of confusion about what’s happening to middle America. We need someone who will stand tall with the workers of our country, with the people who are struggling.”

The battle for workers’ rights in Ohio, which follows an attempt by Wisconsin Democrats to recall state senators who voted for a similar union-busting law, has emerged as an interesting test of whether the “Occupy Wall Street” and other anti-inequality protests from across the country can translate into political action. “It’s the scrimmage line here in the Midwest for the rights of the middle class versus the rights of the corporate elite,” Kaptur said. “This is where we draw the line.”

A senior member of the House Appropriations Committee who represents the rust-belt city of Toledo, Kaptur is among the most populist members of Congress. She voted against the bank bailouts during the financial crisis and the North American Free Trade Agreement, championed by President Bill Clinton, in 1993. Her general election opponent in next year’s election will likely be the 2008 campaign conservative folk hero Joe “Joe The Plumber” Wurzelbacher, who John McCain celebrated as an example of the over-taxed everyman even though his income bracket would not be exposed to any of the Obama administration’s proposed tax hikes. (He is also not actually a licensed plumber.)

“I am proud to have had the endorsement of the plumbers and pipe-fitters union since my very first race for Congress,” Kaptur said, before throwing a little jab at her challenger. “They are licensed.”

The push to save labor could prove crucial in the race to capture Ohio’s electoral votes in next year’s presidential election. The state is a must-win for a Republican hoping to unseat Obama, who swept the Midwest in 2008 on the back of union support.

Kaptur, who warned that Republican austerity plans that lay off police officers and downplay the need for more teachers are key ingredients in “a recipe for a nation in decline,” is not alone among Ohio Democrats in driving home the importance of the referendum.

“Ohioans face a fundamental question with Issue 2 of whether they believe police, firefighters, and other public servants deserve basic respect,” Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan told The National Memo. “We’re determined to win this fight because for the sake of working class Ohioans, we must.”

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