September 24, 2008
Photo: Rick Kimbrough, retired Aliquippa Steelworker
Our Beaver County:
A Rural Slice
of a Big State
[I'm the Tina Shannon quoted in this article. All of us gave the writer a little help finding people to talk to, but he was a great door-knocker all on his own.]
By MICHAEL POWELL
New York Times
August 21, 2008
RACCOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Wander up a gravel road and ask George Timko about Barack Obama and John McCain and he wrinkles his nose. Neither of those guys strikes him as a prize.
Mr. Timko is a burly fellow, with close-cropped white hair and a Fu Manchu mustache, and a gold necklace that rests on his bare chest. “Barack Obama makes me nervous,” said Mr. Timko, a 65-year-old retiree with a garden hose in hand. “Who is he? Where’d he come from? ”
As for Senator McCain? He shook his head. “He keeps talking about being a prisoner of war back in Vietnam: Great. The economy stinks; tell me his plan?”
To roam the rural reaches of western Pennsylvania, through white working-class counties, is to understand the breadth of the challenge facing the two presidential candidates. But this economically ravaged region, once so solidly Democratic, poses a particular hurdle for Senator Obama.
Type rest of the post hereFrom the desolation of Aliquippa — where the Jones & Laughlin steel mill loomed at the foot of the main boulevard — to the fading beauty of Beaver Falls to the neatly tended homes of retired steel workers in Hopewell, one hears much hesitating talk about Mr. Obama, some simply quizzical or skeptically political, and some not-so-subtly racial.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York ran ahead 40 percentage points over Mr. Obama here during the Democratic primary. With its enclaves of white working-class laborers and retirees and fraying party loyalties, it has become a most uncertain political terrain and an inviting target for Mr. McCain — and one that could tip the electoral balance in Pennsylvania, a place packed with electoral votes.
Labor operatives line up behind Mr. Obama, and about a third of the 35 white voters who were interviewed leaned toward him. But no one feels confident predicting how many white Clinton voters will transfer their affections to Mr. Obama.
Raccoon Township sprawls atop a hill in Beaver County, a 92 percent white and deeply blue-collar province. For a century it formed a stud in the Steel Necklace, a stretch of Pennsylvania and Ohio defined by belching steel mills and robust union wages. But as the mills shuttered, voters tipped Democratic by ever- narrower margins: Al Gore bested George W. Bush by eight percentage points in 2000; John Kerry took Mr. Bush by less than three percentage points in 2004.
Political scientists tend to paint Pennsylvania in broad swathes: There’s Philadelphia and its liberal-to-centrist suburbs; the middle of the state, which is rural, gun-loving and rightward leaning; and the western third, which, except for Pittsburgh, tends to hold ever-so-tenuously to Democratic loyalties.
The Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., in a poll conducted last week, found Mr. Obama piling up big margins in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but lagging in these working-class counties.
“This is not an easy land for any candidate, and you might say a black one has more trouble than most,” said G. Terry Madonna, the center’s director.
To what extent white voter concern has become a surrogate for racial anxiety is unclear..
Many voters talk of reading a stream of false and shadowy rumors purveyed by e-mail: Mr. Obama does not put his hand on his heart during the national anthem, he is a Muslim, he did not say hello to enlisted men in Afghanistan. Some disregard these rumors; some do not.
Mr. Obama is an Ivy League-educated lawyer campaigning in towns where an eighth-grade education and a sturdy back once purchased a good life. And he talks of soaring hope to people mistrustful of the same.
“People around here want pragmatic, practical language,” said Tina Shannon, the 49-year-old daughter of a steel-mill worker and a liberal activist. “They don’t want high-flown talk.”
This said, Mr. McCain quickens few pulses. Vietnam, where he served in the military and was held captive for more than five years, seems distant. And not all laugh at his commercials poking fun at Mr. Obama’s “celebrity” status.
Fifty yards down the gravel road from Mr. Timko’s home, Brenda Goff, 55, a pharmacy worker who describes herself as a “Hillary girl” but is fine with Mr. Obama. As for Mr. McCain?
“I don’t like his commercials — it’s like he thinks we’re stupid,” Ms. Goff said.
Issues might seem to break toward Mr. Obama. Only two of 38 people interviewed — most in random door-knocking — favored remaining in Iraq. (Mr. Obama advocates a 16-month withdrawal timetable; Mr. McCain vows to stay until the war is won but suggests that he would have troops out by 2013.)
Few want a handout, but fewer want government to abandon them. A simmering hurt suffuses their words, a sense that neither hard work nor their unions could save them.
James Stanford, a retired and still heavily muscled steel worker, stood behind his screen door and spoke of a pension that evaporated. “Obama got one thing right,” Mr. Stanford said. “We are bitter here.”
John Sylvester, 76, remembers when you could not find a parking space in Beaver Falls. You danced Saturday night at the Sons of Italy Club and drank with Dutch Town and River Rat neighborhood boys.
Mr. Sylvester labored in a steel mill for 42 years. Then the mill owner declared bankruptcy. Now he was bent over a chipped fire hydrant, putting down a coat of yellow paint for $7 an hour.
His blue eyes were piercing beneath a white sun visor. “I got a little money in the end but nothing to speak of,” he said.
Decades of job losses have created a youthful diaspora — you can knock on many doors without finding anyone under age 45. Declining enrollments forced Raccoon Township to close its elementary and middle schools. Political wisdom holds that such fractures favor the Democrats.
But Mr. Obama does not sound like a sure bet.
“Obama’s very charismatic but if you listen closely, he hasn’t said a whole lot,” Mr. Sylvester said.
In Raccoon, Kelly Dobbins, a middle-aged factory worker, offered the same. “I’m like a duck in the water — I float there but underneath I’m paddling hard as I can go,” Mr. Dobbins said. “What’s pushing me toward McCain is Obama. Who is he? Where does he stand?”
Such questions hint at a cultural disconnect. Mr. Obama would invest tens of billions of dollars in retooling mills and factories to fashion windmills and solar panels. He notes that Denmark and the Netherlands have grown fat off the new energy economy.
But environmentalism holds little attraction in a county where soot-covered stoops and dirty rivers were accepted as an unfortunate tradeoff of a prosperous industrial age.
“Until people see a factory transformed, they really don’t put much store by this talk,” said the Rev. Henry Knapp of First Presbyterian Church in Beaver.
Still, two-thirds of Pennsylvanians surveyed in the Franklin & Marshall poll ranked the economy as their No. 1 concern.
Hookstown sits surrounded by emerald fields near the West Virginia border. White-haired Art Seckman stepped gingerly off his porch.
Mr. Seckman puts no faith in Mr. McCain. “He looks tired, and he’s gung-ho about war,” Mr. Seckman said. “I was a Hillary guy, but Obama sounds honest and he’s young and he understands the modern economy.”
He paused, and laughed, “Maybe, funny as it sounds, it’s time for a black man to fix this mess.”
For a century, Aliquippa formed the primal heart of Beaver County. There was the mill, the company store and the Italian Renaissance library built by the daughter of the mill founder.
Ethnic communities occupied each hill. Croats, Slavs, Italians, Irish and blacks worked, fought, and drank together. Now the downtown offers swaybacked homes and boarded storefronts, and rubble. Aliquippa is 35 percent black, the highest percentage in the county. Glenn Kimbrough, 65, with a silver-tipped goatee and a neat Afro, came out of the mills after 37 years.
Mr. Kimbrough is an Obama supporter but he would not hazard a guess as to how his white buddies will vote. He said economic disaster had exacerbated racial tensions. With the mills closed, the work force is resegregating.
Carl Davidson, a white friend and an Obama supporter, sat in Mr. Kimbrough’s living room. “My father voted for Edwards in the primary and now he wants McCain,” said Mr. Davidson, whose father and grandfather labored in the mills. “Without realizing it, he’s wrapped up in white-identity politics.”
Sorting out white-voter discomfort with Mr. Obama is tricky business. Most speak of unease with his newness. But one in five primary voters surveyed in the Edison/Mitofsky exit poll in Pennsylvania said race was a factor.
Ivan Stickles, a carpenter, worked on his motorcycle in his driveway in Hopewell. Mr. Stickles, 57, is not taking what he sees as a gamble on Obama.
“There’s this e-mail that he didn’t shake hands with the troops,” Mr. Stickles said of a false rumor. “I don’t have the time to check out if it’s true, but if it is, it’s very offensive.”
In Hookstown, Kristine Lakovich, 48, works the counter at Kiner’s Superette. She likes Mr. Obama, a preference she keeps to herself. “If you ask people around here, he’s not exactly the right answer,” Ms. Lakovich said. “People are split between their politics and their prejudice.”
Nationally, the Obama campaign shies from talk of race, preferring to argue that the poor economy will dominate this election. Such delicacy holds no purchase here. An organizer with the United Steelworkers met with 30 workers in Beaver. He could not have been blunter. Mr. Obama, he told them, stands for national health care, strong unions and preserving Social Security.
“Some of you won’t vote for him because he’s black,” the organizer concluded. “Well, he’s a Democrat. Get over it.”