BACK TO PENNSYLTUCKY: Some politics in the wasteland between Philly and Pittsburgh
"Shortly after [Barack Obama] had finished his speech, I drove to Allentown, just north of Philadelphia, to gauge local reaction," wrote the BBC's Jamie Coomarasamey yesterday.
"It is an old steel town, made famous by a Billy Joel song, where around 70 percent of the population is white.
"That reaction wasn't always easy to find.
"While a Democratic presidential candidate may have decided it was the time to address the race question head on, plenty of ordinary Americans still prefer to keep their opinions on such a sensitive topic to themselves; or - at least - not share them with my recording device."
Coomarasamey made a small but common mistake.
While Allentown was, and to a certain extent still is, home to many old white steel works men, the heart of the local industry was in its neighbor, Bethlehem to the east. And since the closing of steel production in Bethlehem, the two cities have diverged significantly.
In the late Eighties, the very center of Allentown was a burned-out slum worked by a significant mixed criminal element. Since then the slum has only expanded.
In the late Eighties, the south side of Bethlehem, where the dead steel works was located, was also a slum, abutted by Lehigh University, dug into the hillside of South Mountain. The south side of Bethlehem was a place of crappy diners and even crappier dive bars operating for the benefit of Lehigh's student body binge-drinkers and the almost down and out. Cheeseburgers, pizza and hot dogs were the finest fare.
The dive bars -- The Funhouse, The Four G's -- catered to the Lehigh Valley's independent music scene. Bands played for just about nothing in an area where no one cared about noise violations and drunks spilling into the street.
A Lehigh prof owned Wally's, a decrepit wood ballroom often leased out for punk rock shows.
It featured exposed wiring and holes in its roof.
After your friendly host wrote about one icy New Year's gig there with The Blissters, a local rock group, a show in which rain poured in through the ceiling and the heating failed, the city came in and condemned the place.
However, while the interior of Allentown continued to deteriorate, Bethlehem experienced a turnaround. Yuppies working in metropolitan New Jersey and in suburban Philadelphia found it a conducive place, way out -- for them -- in the green fields of Pennsylvania. Bethlehem had good schools, some amenities and a world class university. It was ripe for development. And big things
were subsequently slated for the site of the old Bethlehem Steel. Called Bethworks, it has spurred a windfall for the city and brought in Sands for the installation of a casino.
This is a far cry from a time in the Eighties when one of the city's key southside intersections, known as Five Points, was just a junction where one could find a couple gas stations, crumbling apartments used for student housing, and a seedy adult bookstore directly adjacent to a seedy strip club.
With the upwardly mobile economics and demographics of Bethlehem, it is hard to know exactly who would vote for Barack Obama and who for Hillary Clinton. To be sure, the city now has progressives and one might think they would be more in tune with Obama. (Update
: But perhaps not the mayor of Bethlehem, John Callahan, who introduced former Bill Clinton campaigning for his wife in a recent stop in the Lehigh Valley. See below
"I was sure that I was going to vote for Obama," one woman told the Beeb's political reporter. "But [the race thing] has made me think again."
"Others agreed - although the senator did score marks, amongst some, for refusing to do the politically expedient thing and throw his former pastor overboard."
However, the Beeb reporter was in Allentown, an entirely different kettle of fish.
If there are a significant number of Democrats in Allentown, from my experience living in the place, you'd be hard-pressed to find any willing to vote for an African American, something in-line with exactly what Pennsy governor Ed Rendell told a newspaper about the state a few months ago.
North of the Allentown and Bethlehem axis, you have communities like Palmerton, Slatington, Nazareth, Penn Argyl, Lehighton and Jim Thorpe. With the exception of Nazareth, home of Martin Guitars and the Andretti racing clan, these are fairly dire and depressed places.
Palmerton is a small town irreversibly polluted by zinc smelting. It's better known now as the Palmerton/New Jersey Zinc Superfund site.
Jobs at the Palmerton smelter were almost as good as those at Bethlehem Steel and the community sacrificed its future and health on the altar of corporate American metal refining. It would be a challenge to find a progressive voter in Palmerton. If plants from the mountainside colored purple by the smelter could participate, they might vote for a Democrat, but they're all dead.
In the rest of Pennsylvania, the big swath between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the Democratic candidates are faced with a state that's the equivalent of a red southern one, except with a great white majority living in a poorer and older than typical economy.
It's strongly to overwhelmingly Republican and those Democrats who do get elected to office -- Tim Holden and Chris Carney of the House come to mind -- are fundamentally Republicans in sheep's clothing. They've been seen as preferable to local competitors on the other side of the political fence only because the other party has been successful at creating the impression it's a haven for even more undisguisable demons and devils.
Both Holden and Carney are Bush Dog Democrats who've simply spent their time enabling all the policies of the Republican right as quickly as possible. The progressive left led by Jane Hamsher has targeted Carney for removal but, in this region of the state, these are tough battles to win. For example, there simply aren't any progressives to speak of in Holden's district and one is not elected if one espouses even the slightest adherence to progressive and/or populist beliefs.
Holden represents Schuylkill County, where DD was born. Growing up in Pine Grove, I only knew a handful of adults who vaguely admitted to being Democrats. They were all teachers who worked for the school district. (Note this website for Schuylkill Democrats.
The descriptive "pathetic" doesn't really do it justice.)
If Obama campaigns in Pennsyltucky counties from the big middle -- places like Schuylkill, Lebanon, Carbon, Lycoming, Perry, and so on -- it's a waste of his time. Paradoxically, the recent pastor Jeremiah Wright flap shouldn't have hurt him at all. Most citizens from the interior were never going to vote for him, anyway.
"[Stumping] for his wife in Wilkes-Barre, [Bill Clinton] told wildly cheering supporters in a high school gymnasium: 'You have been so good to her and I am grateful beyond my ability to say. We love Pennsylvania,' " reported the Allentown Morning Call here
"Hillary Clinton is expected to do well in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton region because of her family ties to the area, and because it has a large population of older, blue-collar, culturally conservative voters," continued the newspaper.
Readers are advised "older, blue-collar, culturally conservative voters" in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton mostly means "Republican." If one thinks of Democrats, they would be Dems in the pre-1963 Strom Thurmond sense, not the 2008 sense.
The Clintons know this and it's why Bill Clinton was campaigning ala Republican-lite in the eastern part of the state.
Bill Clinton told the locals what they wanted to hear and was applauded for it.
Take, for instance, this howler: "Hillary Clinton's plan to ... promote development of renewable energy would begin to restore the country's economic health, Clinton said."
This is a statement of virtually no value to Lehigh Valley voters, although it might sound good. There is no significant opportunity for renewable energy in Pennsylvania, period.
There is only waste coal and plans to capitalize on it under "clean coal" business initiatives.
"The New York senator would 'roll' through the remaining primary elections, Clinton said, if Pennsylvania voters deliver her a decisive win on April 22," reported the Allentown newspaper.
The newspaper noted that the Lehigh Valley can be a bellwether region in a general election. It is an area which was formerly solidly Republican but which is now ups for grabs, not guaranteed to either party.
One of the older central dilemmas of the citizenry in the Lehigh Valley has to do with the fact that it was strongly blue-collar and pro-union because of the steel industry. Paradoxically, these voters trended Republican, traditionally rewarding only those political leaders with beliefs and policies which stood directly against the way their livelihood was protected.