Reflections on Campaigning in Western Pennsylvania – 1st report

This article was published in The Stand November 2016.

October 30, 2016

I first came to Pittsburgh in 1983 as a representative of the Seattle King County Unemployed Organizing Committee which eventually morphed into the Seattle Worker Center which is part of the King County Labor Council. I was attending the National Unemployed Network national meeting in Erie Pennsylvania. I had lost my job in a vicious union bust and had been out of work for almost a year. We are trying to organize a national fight back against the avalanche of plant closures, mass layoffs that devastated many communities and union busting that resulted in millions losing their jobs. Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania was ground zero of this unjust economic catastrophe. Diane and I have returned to the scene of these corporate crimes.

We are campaigning in Westmoreland County which is about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. The contrast between Seattle and King County is extraordinary. Its population is 357,000 and has declined 2% in the past five years while King County has grown 10%. It is 95% white, 21% are 65 or older and only 26% have a bachelor’s degree or higher. In sharp contrast, King County is 69% white, only 12% 65 or older and 47% has a bachelor’s degree or more. 21% of King County is foreign born, Westmoreland 1.4%. The great wave of immigration has passed this area almost completely. This demographic analysis is not a moral judgment but an attempt for readers far from here to better understand the communities here.

Westmoreland County is located in western Pennsylvania which has seen hundreds of thousands of their high paid unionized manufacturing jobs leave in the past 35 years. I think the greatest export in Westmoreland County and western Pennsylvania is the tragic exodus of their educated young people leaving to find a better future and family wage career employment. The loss of many of these talented young people means they will not use their creativity to revive their ancestral homeland. Cities and towns that sustained multi-generational, inter-generational communities for many decades are seeing their way of life in deep decline. It is painful to see and feel.

This election season has brought out the longstanding frustration and anger over this economic and social decline. The majority of yard signs favor Trump. I seen many homes with big Trump flags, big yard signs and multiple signs. If I was basing the election of yard signs, Trump would be winning 2 to 1.

Our goal here is to narrow the margins of defeat locally to help insure statewide victories and to win state legislative races and perhaps take out a Tea Party U.S. representative. We are not in the comfortable Seattle bubble.

Knocking on doors is both hard, exhilarating and challenging. “I wouldn’t vote for that bitch.” Not Hillary but Katie McGinty running for the U.S. Senate. “She should have divorced her disgusting husband who cuckolded her in from the world and she took it like a wimp.” This is Hillary. Others are appreciative of my bringing more information and hope that we can win the election. Today I approached a very modest working class home and a 80 year old man gruffly confronted me: “What do you want? I would never vote for that whore.” Clinton. “I would never vote for that crook.” McGinty. “I will vote for the Democratic woman, Popovich for the state house. Her opponent is a crook.” I was glad to move on but reflected on the depth of the anger in his response to a very polite person wanting to respectfully talk about this election.

Today Diane and I door-belled in Jeanette, a small very depressed town. We saw two medium sized factories that closed long ago. The town has lost 20% of its population in the past 20 years. We have been campaigning with a veteran trade unionist who lived in Jeanette for many years. He described Jeanette is an economically depressed community that has been unable to restore its long prosperity. He says it is extremely difficult to sell your home because people are not moving in. As we knocked on doors, we saw many abandoned houses that are in severe disrepair. It is painful to walk by these houses as they once were the homes of families that wanted a better future. Where have they gone, how are they doing? I have no idea.

It felt like a town in which some powerful force had crushed its spirit and left so many beat up homes and yet good people are trying to make a go of it. I talked to two progressives, a 28 year old male working as a unionized home health aide and the other a 61 year old white woman struggling to get to retirement. Both were going to vote for a third party candidate. I asked “What happens if Trump is elected?” “Oh god no!!!” “How will your vote prevent Trump for winning?” “It won’t.” I explained that I supported Sanders and was supporting Hillary as critical to stopping Trump. I WAS THRILLED WHEN THEY DECIDED TO CHANGE THEIR VOTES TO CLINTON. WE CAN AND WILL WIN THIS ELECTION ONE VOTE AT A TIME.

This is hard work, and at times, very unpleasant but very educational. Yesterday I was invited into the home of a 80 year old partially disabled black woman who greatly appreciated my coming in and telling her about the U.S. Senate and state house race. Sitting across the room was an early 20s man who appeared to be white. He listened intently. I don’t know how he was related to the older lady. Perhaps he is the child of an interracial relationship.

He piped up that he could not support tearing babies out of their mothers’ bellies 4 days before birth. I calmly explained that no one was proposing or doing this anywhere in the country. I then asked if he had a job and his rate of pay. “He has a great part-time job at Walmart and makes $10 per hour.” I then shifted to Trump saying American workers were overpaid and Hillary wants to raise the minimum wage which would give him a raise. “Well I don’t know.” I had to leave and keep knocking. As I left, I kept thinking “Where is our country going when a young adult in a declining town sees $10 per hour part-time as a good job?”

It is all too simple and easy to chalk up the rise of Trump, Trumpism and right wing populism to the persistence of racism and other forms of bigotry. Racism and bigotry plays an important role but it is critical to try to understand the deep and legitimate grievances that these communities have. It was corporate Democrats and their Wall Street allies that aided and abetted in the flight of capital that has left so many towns permanently depressed. It was Bill Clinton who led the fight for the North American Free Trade Agreement and the repeal of Glass-Steagal and Wall Street deregulation that led to the “Great Recession.” This area was not severely hit by the Great Recession as it was already deeply depressed with the young leaving in droves.

When I ask people how it feels to see their children leaving for a fresh start so many miles away and they will no longer share Sunday dinners and Little League baseball, you can feel and hear the deep pain of the people here. This is true for many people even if they are doing well themselves. This is a decades-long decline that is largely ignored in the once every four year presidential elections. All of the country cannot be high tech centers.

It is not surprising that so many of the people here are frustrated, angry and willing to listen to a ranting demagogue. If those of us in the progressive movements cannot develop a long-term vision and strategy to revive these areas, this discontent will grow and provide fertile soil for increasingly racist, sexist, anti-immigrant attacks and support for other more sophisticated right wing populists who do not exhibit the profoundly revolting behaviors and attitudes of Trump.

What is our answer or do we continue to ignore the tens of millions of downwardly mobile working class people who also deserve a brighter future anchored in hope, equity and justice for all of us? If we want a better America and world these communities need to be part of that better future. I wish I had the answer but I want to raise these questions and participate in helping to find the answers.

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