Reflections on Campaigning in Western Pennsylvania – 2nd report

November 2, 2016

Thanks much for all of your comments on my first report.  Diane and I would love to hear from you again.

JOHNSTOWN.  We have driven through the beautiful mountains and hardwood forests with the stunning changing leaves on the way to Johnstown, the county seat of Cambria County 70 miles east of Pittsburgh.  The city has lost 70% of its population in the past 90 years as the steel and coal industries have largely collapsed.  From the 1870s to the early 1980s, the state was the center of our nation’s steel and coal production.  During World War 2, the state’s unionized steelworkers produced almost as much steel as Germany and Japan combined.  It was the epicenter of the arsenal of democracy that helped crush Nazism and fascism in Japan and Italy.

The city is nestled between rugged mountains and is a beautiful setting but its challenged economy and steady job and population losses has left it a deeply troubled place.  In 1992, Bethlehem Steel shut down its Johnstown plant with job losses totaling 12,000 over the previous 15 years  in a county with less than 150,000 people.  At one time, the local mills produced 2 million tons of steel per year, today 0.  We have come to attend a rally for local Democratic candidates and to help fire up the faithful to stop the surge of Trumpism at the polls. 

We have arrived early so we stopped by the Johnstown Flood Museum.  In 1889, an earthen dam upriver collapsed in heavy rains and the rampaging river swept through the working class neighborhoods killing over 2,200 people.  The cause?  The super-wealthy robber barons of  Pittsburgh had a private hunting and fishing club and lodge on a private lake created by the dam.  They refused to maintain it properly, the corporate dominated federal, state and local governments had virtually no safety regulations and inspections, and the dam was weakened by modifications to allow easier travel across the dam.  Then one day the rains started and soon 2,200 were dead. 

The courts ruled the dams owners (aka the super-wealthy no regulation crowd) were not liable.  So it goes.  Andrew Carnegie was the leader of the club.  During the uproar of anger at the robber barons and the nation’s attention fixated on the “natural disaster“, the  New York Times reported that “Huns” (aka newly arrived Eastern European immigrants) were looting the corpses.  Needless to say, this was not true but it helped divert righteous anger away from the corporate villains.  Two years later, Carnegie built a beautiful library that today houses the museum.  Virtually no one knows the truth behind the “natural disaster” while Carnegie lives on as a philanthropist.  One year later in 1892, Carnegie and the state government and militia crushed the historic Homestead steel strike and the unions.  They were striking against the 6 day week and 12 hours shifts with simultaneous pay cuts.

Johnstown and Cambria County voted for the Democratic candidate for President in all but two elections between 1932 and 2000.  Today Trump is the heavy favorite in the county as the angry right wing surge sweeps through the area. Today, the immigrant-basher and union-buster Trump revels in popularity in Johnstown, a city of descendants of immigrants.

As I am standing in line for a simple dinner at the indoor rally, I began chatting up a 27 year old deputy coroner who is appointed to his position.  I asked how things were going in his office.  He said they are averaging 4 heroin overdose deaths per month in a county of 140,000.  “What is driving this?”  “So many people are strung out of oxycontin and other painkillers and then they graduate to heroin.”  I asked what the economic situation is like?  “Most of the young people I know are leaving or are struggling to find a decent job.”

This is another city that the Wall Street crowd has abandoned after decades of profit-making, profit-taking and no reinvestment.  The working people of Johnstown produced steel and profits for 144 years before the plug was pulled.  Haven’t they earned the right to a well-funded, long-term strategy to rebuild their community? As I sat in the audience, I wanted to hear the candidates talk about their strategies to turn their struggling city and county around.  The local seemed to be looking for votes primarily based on party affiliation rather than real issues of how to revive their declining city and county.  I left saddened and still determined to keep up the fight for a better future for all of us.

If our progressive movements does not develop a broad, realistic and believable vision for economic prosperity that includes the Johnstowns of  America, their working people will move to the right.  We have a great opportunity and a great challenge here.  If we don’t lead, our enemies will.

BACK TO DOOR BELLING.  We have knocked on 225 doors in the past two days in economically depressed working class Jeanette.  I am more encouraged with the responses as we have found many more Hillary supporters who are appreciative of us knocking on their doors and people willing to listen and be persuaded. 

I have hit my stride after days of practice.  My most effective technique is the following:  My name is Mark McDermott. I am a volunteer and hope you will allow me to speak from my heart about I am supporting Hillary and Kathy McGinty.  McGinty is the U.S. Senate candidate who is locked in an incredibly nasty, extraordinarily expensive race with endless negative TV commercials. 

Hillary, Katie and I all believe that if you work full-time your family should not live in poverty.  Do you agree?  Everyone who has given me the time has said yes.  We believe that the federal minimum wage needs to be raised to bring full-time workers out of poverty.  Second, Hillary, Katie and I believe that working class and poor children should all have the chance to get a good education without being buried in student loan debt.  It is wrong that trillion-dollar banks get zero percent loans and our kids and grandkids pay seven percent.  We believe this is wrong and unfair.  Do you agree?  Everyone who has given me the time has said yes.  We also believe that everyone should pay their fair share of taxes including the billionaires and big corporations.  Do you agree?  Everyone who has given me the time has said yes. 

My closer for women is to look them right in the eye and share the following.  My mother and father taught me to respect and treat women and girls well.  I don’t want a President who treats them with such disrespect and contempt.  I don’t want my President to be a national role model for young men and boys to believe that sexual assault, sexual harassment and mistreating women is OK.  Do you?  Everyone who has given me the time has said yes. Even the Trump leaning angry women struggle to stay pro-Trump after this short interaction.  I conclude by thanking them for allowing me to share what is deep in my heart.

THE BIG  CHALLENGE IS KNOCKING ON THEIR DOORS AND PERSUADING THEM TO ALLOW ME TO TALKTO THEM HEART TO HEART.  Many times I am refused before I can get started.  Lost that one but the next door is a new chance to change a heart and mind and win one or more votes.  We change hearts and minds one at a time, face to face.  It is not the only way but it works well.


Today we door-belled in an African-American working class neighborhood in south Pittsburgh.  24 votes for Hillary, 1 for Trump.  The line that worked best today was “I need your help sending Donald Trump to the dumpster.”  “I am down for that.”  “Wait will that make is a toxic waste dump?”  Laughter.

What a shift from angry white working class neighborhoods where their anger is so tragically misdirected and racism and sexism still holds sway with some voters.  Let’s win this election, continue healing our country and move us forward once again.

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