By MICHAEL RUBINKAM
Towns along the Susquehanna River are filled with people whose grandparents worked in coal mines, garment factories and small manufacturing companies. But those jobs are long gone in Luzerne County, and Wilkes-Barre, the county seat, has seen its population drop by more than half. Dozens of public officials have fallen to scandal.
All of which helps explain how Ed Harry — who, at 70, has spent most of his working life as a union president and a Democratic party activist, running phone banks for candidates and even serving as a delegate for Bill Clinton in 1992 — became an unlikely apostle for Donald Trump.
When the billionaire businessman and reality TV star entered the presidential race, “I laughed, like everyone else,” Harry says. Then he took note of Trump’s opposition. “The Rs said they hated him, the Ds wanted no part of him, the lobbyists didn’t like him. China came out against him, India came out against him, Mexico came out against him.
“And I said, ‘I think I might have a candidate.'”
Harry, who had grown disillusioned with what he saw as Washington’s broken and corrupt politics, switched parties, publicly endorsed Trump and resigned his labor post. He expects the new president to renegotiate trade deals and reduce corporate taxes, which he believes will help lure back manufacturing jobs. And he is not alone.
In Luzerne County, Trump crushed Hillary Clinton by 20 points — in no small part because lifelong Democrats like Harry believed she was the candidate of Wall Street, ignoring the working class while taking its vote for granted. As Trump enters office, these largely older, white, blue-collar voters want him to keep his promise on manufacturing jobs, rebuild deteriorating roads and bridges, crack down on illegal immigration and “drain the swamp.”
“There’s no hope the way things were,” Harry explains. “It had to be something different.”
And listen to Tom Pikas, who is also counting on Trump to bring change. The 61-year-old Wilkes-Barre native remembers a time when you could easily get a decent-paying job right out of high school. He worked in a shoe factory, then for an electrical contractor, and downtown Wilkes-Barre pulsed with life. “This used to be a nice town,” Pikas says.
More recently, Pikas has toiled in a series of temp jobs, the last one paying $8 an hour. Now looking for work, he found himself at the unemployment office this month, enrolling in a jobs program for seniors. The waiting area was packed.
He has faith that Trump will find a way to turn things around, but also counsels patience. “Some people expect he’s gonna do miracles the first month,” Pikas says. “No. No. You gotta at least give the guy a year.”
At a bar up the street, William Chase, 55, a construction foreman recovering from surgeries to his back and both knees, says most of the people in his circle are as hopeful about the future as he is.
“I want to be proud of my area again,” he says.
But just 90 minutes or so down the road, one hears a very different set of voices.
In the wealthy Philadelphia suburbs, where million-dollar homes are advertised for sale and luxury cars fill the parking lot of an organic grocery, the pocketbook issues raised in Luzerne County take a back seat for many.
As Inauguration Day draws near, many people in Chester County — Pennsylvania’s richest, where Clinton won by roughly 9 points despite a Republican majority — remain unsettled by Trump’s volatility, demeanor and offensive comments about women, immigrants and others.
“He kind of frightens me,” says business owner Keely Comstock Shaw, 34, who voted a straight Republican ticket, except for the top office.
“I see him as really breaking all the rules, throwing them all aside, and that’s what is scary to me,” adds Kate Young, a 43-year-old Democrat and stay-at-home mom who lives in West Chester, a bustling college town.
The 2016 election compelled Young to become politically active for the first time. Upset that her candidate won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote, she joined an organization that’s fighting to end gerrymandered legislative districts.
Young predicts Trump will ignore global warming, roll back environmental protections and create a hostile environment for women and minorities. She also doubts he will be able to produce the manufacturing jobs that voters in places like Luzerne County say they want, citing the rise of automation.
“If that’s what people were hoping to get,” she says, “I just think the world economy is moving in a different direction.”
Associated Press news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this story. Follow Rubinkam on Twitter at https://twitter.com/michaelrubinkam
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