Voters in Scranton just look for some hope



SCRANTON -- The illuminated rooftop sign towering over the downtown says this is "The Electric City," but tracing the political circuitry lighting up the voters this primary season is a street-level exercise in paradox.

• A pro-life Casey Democrat talks rapturously of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose husband Bill kept the city's standard-bearer, Gov. Robert Casey Sr., off the platform at two conventions.

• A self-proclaimed right-wing Republican of 18 mulls the option of voting for Sen. John McCain or Sen. Barack Obama, leaving open the possibility she'll share a vote with the two Democratic county commissioners, both Obama men.

• A 95-year-old merchant shells out rafts of lottery tickets in his shop downtown and wonders if anybody can bring the place back to what it was.

"They just don't want to be disappointed again," said Mayor Chris Doherty. "Whether it's the economy or war or health care, it doesn't seem there's anywhere you can say, 'Well, that's really working out.' "

Disappointment has been this town's lot over the decades. Once abuzz with industry when anthracite coal was pulled from the nearby hills and fed to locomotives that carried goods from its factories and dress shops, Scranton and its neighbors have scratched about for decades in search of a new model on which to grow.

"Scranton's two hours from the world," said Artie Wageman, 35, an electrician who moved here from Brooklyn, two hours to the east. The town's spiritual connection with New York is evident at almost every turn. The New York Yankees farm team is based here.

The Steamtown Mall downtown sells shirts celebrating the Giants upset victory in Super Bowl XLII. At newsstands, the New York Post and the Daily News sell alongside The Scranton Times.

For a spell, the region was coming back. Of late, the numbers have augured ill.

For Mr. Wageman, the cloud on the horizon brings the rain next year. The rate on his subprime mortgage balloons in 2009.

"Everybody's getting killed by the adjustable rates," he said. "Hopefully, it's gonna get refinanced at a fixed rate."

With that hope comes the reality that Mr. Wageman, like many others, borrowed against his first mortgage.

He owes $130,000 on a house that was valued at $110,000. Its worth now is a guess as real estate prices tumble.

Unemployment in the region spiked in January to 5.7 percent -- nearly a full percentage point higher than a year ago.

At Frank's News, Morris Goldstein, a bow-tied and bespectacled nonagenarian, dispenses cigarettes and lottery tickets from behind the counter. He remembers when the electric trolleys still cruised the streets and when he cast his first vote -- for Franklin D. Roosevelt. Now he frets at an abrupt drop in trade.

"Since the first of the year it fell down. But it fell down with everybody, not just us," Mr. Goldstein said. "People don't have as much money to buy cigarettes or lottery as they used to have. Money's tight."

As Mr. Goldstein's lottery machine spit out an inch-thick sheaf of tickets for one of his regular hopefuls, Bradley Ralston walked in to pick up a newspaper.

"I'm here today because I'm laid off," said Mr. Ralston, whose wood-products plant has been faltering in the face of foreign competition. "Most of the stuff I used to make is all going to China or Mexico. It's all going overseas. They can do it cheaper there."

The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre metropolitan area has, in fact, seen some signs of progress, according to an analysis by PNC Financial Corp. Its unemployment rate, while now above the state average, has tracked closer to the national figures than in years past. Housing prices have dropped but stayed buoyant compared to the rest of the country. Local residents now earn close to par with the rest of the country.

But the region is split economically, with nearby Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton struggling, while Scranton, the hub of it all, remains the thermometer by which progress is gauged. Whatever the progress to date, locals are withholding any exhibition of euphoria, and the January figures, released last week by the state Department of Labor and Industry, dampened expectations of a quick turnaround.

"The space I'm in, there's been three or four different stores," said Kendra McHugh, who works at a Starbucks downtown.

Like so many others here, Mr. Goldstein and Mr. Ralston and Ms. McHugh are Clinton supporters. That is to say, they voted for Bill Clinton and feel not just a comfort with his wife, but also a connection. She's a woman who lays claim to many hometowns; her father, Hugh Rodham, was raised and is buried here.

The family summered at nearby Lake Winola.

The Obama campaign has yet to make a sizable presence known, although the two Democratic county commissioners, Corey D. O'Brien and Michael J. Washo, have publicly endorsed Mr. Obama.

"I'm not going to lie to you -- this is definitely one of the tougher towns we've had to do," said one Obama organizer.

This would explain why Messrs. O'Brien and Washo are, for now, the loneliest men in Scranton's political universe. Mr. O'Brien, 34, and Mr. Washo, 63, broke with local orthodoxy and endorsed Mr. Obama, setting them apart not only from Mayor Doherty but also from the majority of their townsmen.

"The easy decision would have been to be with Hillary Clinton," said Mr. O'Brien, whose office carries a telling visual hint of what animates the two men. On one wall near his desk hangs a sign: Kennedy/Johnson.

The Obama mystique, as captured by the Kennedy family's large-scale endorsement of a month ago, speaks to the aspirations of two politicians who say they want something larger than what has come their way the past 20 years.

Mr. Washo was 15 when John F. Kennedy came to Scranton, spoke in the town square, and inspired him to follow government and its possibilities.

"It's an intangible, but it's proved its worth," said Mr. Washo. "The same old same old doesn't work anymore."

In the dollars and cents department, the two men say they want jobs that pay enough to keep Scranton's young people at home and to accommodate the expected 15 percent population growth in the next 15 years as New York's population spills into the state and some of its jobs follow.

Mr. O'Brien, who was 14 when Bill Clinton first gained the presidency, feels little connection with that era.

"Drive around this town and see if you find anything with Clinton's name on it. What's he delivered for this area?" he asked.

That being said, the two know they're in a singular spot. Mrs. Clinton's strength in Pennsylvania is formidable. Her strength in Scranton is immense.

There is, in all of the enthusiasm for Mrs. Clinton, an irony that burns as brightly but, like the Electric City sign, no longer draws remarks unless it's asked about by outsiders.

Scranton has for 35 years been the epicenter of Pennsylvania's anti-abortion movement. Its most famous hometown boy was Gov. Robert P. Casey Sr., an ardent liberal who found himself on the outside of his own party because of his ardent pro-life stand. It was the Clinton forces in 1992, and again in 1996, who denied Mr. Casey the right to speak at his own party's national convention where he wanted to deliver a pro-life speech.

"Oh, he was a doll. He was very nice," said Arleen Vancosky, a Casey Democrat in her 70s and, as it turns out, a Clinton enthusiast.

"Oh, I'm drawn to him. And Hillary as well. And Chelsea, oh my God, is she an intelligent young woman," said Mrs. Vancosky.

The irony of this stand is not lost on her, nor on her daughter, Karen Evans, a Republican who plans to back Mrs. Clinton.

"I'm a Catholic and I'm still a Roman Catholic," Mrs. Vancosky said. "I'm older and I have older views. And I was for Clinton, even though he didn't let Casey have the podium. I am definitely a Hillary girl."

There is no guarantee this sense of connection will translate with every pro-life voter here, allows Mrs. Evans. Her own daughter and a longtime boyfriend drifted apart, she said, at least in part because of differences over abortion and other political matters.

But for Mrs. Vancosky and Mrs. Hughes, mother and daughter are ready to put aside on core issues in favor of change.

"I'm going for the whole picture and I'm willing to look past the pro-life," Mrs. Hughes said.

Patrick Casey, the late governor's son and brother of the state's junior senator, has heard the political talk about Mrs. Clinton and credits a single factor.

"I think it's the local connection," he said.

It isn't working for everybody. Mr. Wageman, the electrician with the ballooning mortgage, leans toward Mr. Obama.

Others, such as Breana Kime, 18, about to cast her first vote, leans less toward Mr. Obama than away from Mrs. Clinton.

Ms. Kime's major objection to Mrs. Clinton is that the candidate is a woman.

"I'm very conservative, right wing and I believe it's been a man's job since the country started. If we expect anything to get done in the Middle East as far as some of these countries go ... they don't respect their own women. Why should they respect ours?" she said.

While a registered Republican, Ms. Kime said that if she decides to join locals switching to vote in the contested primary, her ballot would go to Mr. Obama.

Come November, if it's Obama-McCain, she "would have to do some soul-searching." Ms. Kime is worried about the Republican's age.

Her big issue is the Iraq war, something she'd like to see end. It's a signature issue for Mr. Obama, and Ms. Kime was able to tick off a list of friends and relatives of friends now overseas.

The Clinton forces have started a campaign to lure their Republican neighbors into the Hillary fold.

Standing outside the jewelry shop where she works, a place that shares a hallway with the Clinton headquarters here, Ms. Kime was on the cell phone to a friend registering her outrage as locals gathered to hear a speech by Chelsea Clinton, the candidate's daughter.

"I'd move to Canada if she becomes president," she snapped into her phone.

A Clinton volunteer standing nearby kept a safe distance. She would fish in friendlier waters.


Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965. First Published March 17, 2008 4:00 AM


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