EASTERN PENNSYLVANIA — Settled in northeast Pennsylvania, Luzerne County is closer to New York City than it is to Philadelphia, although by all signs the regional loyalty splits between the Eagles and the Steelers.
It was once coal country, an industry that brought 440,000 people, mainly European immigrants, to the Wyoming Valley by its peak in the 1940s, waning as energy technology progressed — and dying when the Knoxville Mine Disaster took its shameful place as the last the valley could bear. By the 1980s and ‘90s, labor-cost competition had driven the remaining industries bankrupt, plunging Luzerne into prolonged recession.
In 2016, the county joined a long list of Rust Belt Democratic strongholds that voted for Donald Trump, who won by a hefty 19 points. The president’s reelection campaign will be watching it closely this Tuesday, and despite rows of Covid-smothered downtown businesses, election activity bustles along the Susquehanna River.
The Wilkes-Barre Democratic Party headquarters is a professional operation. Located on the main circle of the county’s city, a security guard site outside the door, a volunteer takes our temperatures when we walk in (the only time this happens in all of Pennsylvania), and Chairwoman Kathy Bozinski sits behind her desk while young volunteers and staffers laugh, give us restaurant recommendations and stack signs after a day at the nearby polling center.
Late Monday afternoon meant one more day to vote early in Pennsylvania. “There were more Trump voters out today,” one of the sign-wavers comments to another, quickly following with an assurance there are still more Biden voters overall.
A polished PR flack and former television anchor, Bozinski shares more in common with a national communicator than the average unguarded county leader of the Rust Belt — it’s the first time we’ve heard “Latinx” used in the wild — and there isn’t an ounce of worry in her assessment of where the county is headed on Tuesday.
Her rise was swift in the party, and a snapshot of a changing Pennsylvanian electorate. Unsurprised by Trump’s 2016 victory — “it was easy to see here in Pennsylvania” — friends convinced her to run for county committee, winning a write-in campaign. Her experience propelled her to vice chairwoman within months, and just one year later, Thanksgiving week 2019, State Sen. John Yudichak left the party he had run locally for decades, announcing he would caucus with the GOP. Resignations and oustings abounded as longtime friends picked sides, but the dust seems to have settled — and a new Luzerne County Democratic Party is back at work, if changed.
Although Bozinski tells us hometown sympathies don’t extend “across the ‘Mason-Dixon'” to the neighboring county former Vice President Joe Biden was born in, Luzerne Democrats came out for their de facto nominee in the primary.
“We had 64 percent Democratic voter turnout by mail,” she beams, even though the battle for the nomination had been decided by June’s vote. “You don’t even sometimes get 64 percent turnout from your parties in a general election, let alone a done-deal primary.”
Dislike of the president “is the big factor. … A lot of people and a lot of the volunteers that we have coming in to work for us full-time lost their jobs due to Covid, so they’re concerned about the economy and they were also concerned about leadership during Covid. But no matter what story they tell you at the end, all roads come back to lack of leadership on the part of the president, the current administration — it’s a common thread through all of them.”
Later that night, across the square from Democrat HQ, the void and vacuum of this election is on display as a small group of union volunteers project a bright, 50-foot Biden-Harris logo on the side of the United Steel Workers building. The bars are closed early owing to Covid restrictions, and we were the only other ones there to enjoy it besides a trickle of passing cars. Like the tiny Biden rallies for tens of people trapped in white circles, it was as if doing something — anything — was better was nothing.
Next door at Frank’s News, a little convenience and beer store on the ground level of the steel union’s offices, Valerie Price works the register. Her grandfather was a city councilman, who along with his wife voted Democrat all his life. The whole family was blue, for that matter, but something her grandmother had told her had stuck with Price, 37: “Before she passed, she told me she was intending to vote for Donald Trump.”
At the time Price didn’t ask why, and her grandmother passed before she had the chance, but it’s haunted her ever since, and with just a week left before Election Day she’s still undecided. “Who is my party?” she asks as we pick up cigarettes and a six-pack at the end of the night.
Professional Republicans, however, seem to be playing catch-up after years of blue victories. While the three young Republican National Committee staff at HQ across the river are friendly and quick to help, the chairman went silent after a few messages trying to set up a call or meeting. At the polling station Tuesday morning, local podcaster and Republican volunteer Corey Camasso is dismissive of the committee’s “couple of kids” across the river, but assures us the enthusiasm of everyone helping out makes up for it.
Just days before we arrived, Trump supporters swamped a Biden rally at a county high school, stealing the show outside and earning honks of approval from passing motorists. And on the polling corner, we can barely hear Camasso over the accented “four more years!” chants from the Japanese church group that traveled to the Keystone State to demonstrate for a president they love for standing up to China.
Across town, Whiskey Business appears as closed as most of the town when we pull up mid-afternoon on a Monday, although the side door doesn’t look bolted. Past a hand-written sign banning sweatpants, a welcomed cloud of cigarette smoke fills the air and pool tables wait for the post-lunch crowd. Jimmy at the nearby high-top is happy to talk country music or his football team (although not yours), but politics are off the table and he’s not about to share what he does for a living (“If you don’t write anything bad about this place, you won’t have to find out”).
Amy is tending bar, and no matter their generation the men she’s serving drinks are both protective and quick with the compliments. She doesn’t want to talk politics either, although a red T-shirt on the wall loudly declares “Wolf Sucks,” a reference to the governor every single person we meet in Pennsylvania seems to hate.
Jimmy puts some cash in the jukebox, buys a round of shots, and tells us to get the wings (they’re amazing). “You guys play pool?” he asks as he hands us a pair of cigarillos. Don, a patron well into his 80s, partners with him to beat us soundly back to back.
Wilkes-Barre doesn’t have the demographics progressives would like to see in a place that can swing a presidential election — it’s overwhelmingly white and Catholic — but that might not be a curse. In many ways these are these voters who make up the old traditional Democratic base, and many across the country have shifted to more progressive positions. The big question for Biden is how many?
Here, there’s a similar but less festive feeling than the New Hampshire primary, with its high hopes and local traditions. Luzerne’s voters — both those who love and those who hate politics — are aware of their importance in the national election, but it doesn’t feel like an honor. In the last week of October 2020, a lot is resting on the shoulders of small, forgotten America.
A scenic 75 minutes south, Northampton County joins Luzerne in holding a key to the president’s reelection in Pennsylvania. Situated on the Lehigh River, just miles from New Jersey and under the crown of Bethlehem Steel, the county is built on industry, and until the 98-year-old cement company shut down in ’82, was the world’s leading producer. Just over 20 years later, Bethlehem Steel followed suit, although today community events are held on its grounds and curious visitors can still tour its soaring stacks and spires.
Just like in Luzerne, Ronald Reagan won here twice and George H.W. Bush once, but while his son came within a point in 2004, Democrats dominated every contest for the next 28 years. It’s a naturally Democratic county — the GOP trails in registrations — but no candidate of either party has won a double-digit victory since 1984. Part of that changed in 2016, when 32 years after the last Republican victory Trump carried Northampton by a single point.
Republican Committee Chairwoman Gloria Lee Snover has been spending her evenings training poll watchers. Excitement and enthusiasm are much higher than in 2016, she says, and the county GOP has a larger and more diverse group of volunteers, but she warns the Biden campaign is far better organized than Hillary Clinton’s in 2016.
Just as we heard in Wisconsin and Michigan, she warns there’s an important part of the 2016 coalition that’s missing: “Suburban white women. They have lost their minds over Covid.”
She’s just as quick to add that those votes can be made up among rural voters, however: She signed up 2,000 new voters just at a demolition derby — including some who wanted to register for “the Trump Party.” Just as elsewhere in the Rust Belt, getting these voters to the polls will be the most important target for the president’s reelection.
Bethlehem, the largest city in the county, was founded by the Moravian Church — a German Christian sect whose Protestant founder was burned at the stake more than 100 years before Martin Luther was born. For years, we’re told, they called the shots around here (including no shots on Sundays), although the strictness of the culture has softened, and today the city pumps soft jazz through speakers it’s installed in the sidewalks.
It is a beautiful place, downtown colonial architecture and brick sidewalks lit by handsome lamp posts and anchored by the 200-year-old Central Moravian Church. At McCarthy’s Red Stag Pub around the corner, Ivan Alicea is still serving dinner when we wrap up our interviews — our final days on the 2020 trail winding down. Ivan, 39, is the assistant manager, working with the team to get the pub through the murky business of surviving in the uncertainty of Gov. Tom Wolf’s Pennsylvania.
He’s a Democrat and always has been, but remembers the party of Bob Casey, a two-term Democratic governor elected in ’86, who stood for unions and against abortion — and was barred from speaking at Bill Clinton’s 1992 convention because of his intent to force a party debate on the issue.
“I’m a working-class, Catholic, pro-life Democrat,” Alicea tells us, “and I don’t know how to vote.”
With a soul patch and a piercing in the top of his left ear, working in a typically blue industry in a deep-blue city, his politics don’t fit into the stereotype, a sentiment that echoes all over eastern Pennsylvania. From coal country to steel town, God is taken seriously, but so is party affiliation. While in some parts of the country parents and children vote differently without a second thought, in Luzerne and Northampton counties, generations of pro-life, pro-labor Democrats feel untethered from once-familiar parties, torn between traditions and beliefs.
“My wife told me, ‘It sounds like you’re going to the other side,'” he says. “But I don’t know what my side is anymore.”
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is poised to be either the Rustbelt keystone that secures a second term for Trump, or the capstone on a one-term presidency. While much of the attention is focused on the riotous streets of Philadelphia and the machine that runs its elections, it’s a decision that might well be made in the places where the sky truly gets dark, the mines lay empty, and the ruins of industry stand cold.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect that George H.W. Bush won Northampton County in 1988.