One heritage, two paths: Americans with similar backgrounds have different ideas about which party best represents them

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MCLEAN, Va. -- The dream is entwined in the American DNA. With hard work followed by more hard work, anyone can prosper.

Republicans and Democrats see it in different ways. Even with the same blood and the same roots -- such as those shared by two cousins with ties to the Mon Valley -- the political perspectives on the nation's key social and economic ideals differ elementally.

John Kovel was born in Pittsburgh to Belarusian immigrants, served in World War II, then went into construction in Western New York state. On the day before his 1981 retirement, he was crushed to death at a work site. It was also his wedding anniversary.

His son Robert started out sweeping floors at a large Jamestown, N.Y., ball bearing plant, went to night school and after many years became one of the top administrators at the company. For 30 years, he and his wife raised three children in the home he bought for $16,000 in 1973.



"My Republican views go back as long as I can remember," said his son John, a financial analyst named after his grandfather, who went from a Jamestown community college to working at an investment firm on the Washington, D.C., beltway.

"Remember the character from 'Family Ties,' Alex P. Keaton? When I was a kid growing up watching I'd say, 'Hey, that's me.' "

Mr. Kovel is a boyish 40, with a bushy head of dark hair. He was wearing a Keaton-ish oxford shirt and pants to a post-work dinner at the upscale Tyson's Galleria mall, where he ate lasagna near the Salvatore Ferragamo and Ermenegildo Zegna menswear shops.

"I liked all the stuff about being a businessman and making money. To me, that's what made me proud to live here and grow up here. You could do whatever you wanted and you couldn't do that anywhere else on the face of the earth."

Nick Kovel was another of immigrant Larivon Kavalov's sons and a bricklayer at U.S. Steel. His son Bill was a laborer for them, with a second job as an auto-body man. His son Kris -- John Kovel's second cousin -- is a machinist for Wabtec, the Wilmerding locomotive products company that still works out of the building George Westinghouse built in 1889.

Kris Kovel covets the memories passed down from his grandparents and parents from the post-World War II days, when traffic came to a standstill after the mills let out in West Mifflin, and his family was filled with pride knowing the country was built on their labor.

So was the Democratic party.

"My grandfather always said the best president he had ever seen was FDR," Mr. Kovel said. Being a Democrat is "just something that I've always seen as part of the working class and I've known. Sure, there might be candidates you have a difference of opinion on, but generally if you're a Democrat, you should have the interest of the working class and that's the way it always was."

While his cousin could be a character from a Reagan-era sitcom, Kris Kovel looks like an extra in a country music video: black Steelers hat, black union T-shirt with a bald eagle and American flag on the back, jeans, worn work boots. He has a John Wayne 1892 model rifle mounted in his den in North Huntingdon, he bow hunts for deer and he is chief steward of his United Electrical Workers local.

He also likes Barack Obama, and wants the federal government to push more spending and programs to boost jobs.

Democrats "need to get back to their roots," the 37-year-old father of two said. "Look at what FDR did -- he basically created the middle class. From the Conservation Corps camps to everything he did ... The guy made Social Security, you know."

"Obama was handed a lot of problems when he came into office and I think he's doing the best he possibly can. That's a lot of weight to carry on your shoulders."

Income and party affiliation

In three decades after World War II -- from 1949 to 1979 -- family incomes in America rose evenly for every segment of wage earners, from the bottom 20 percent through the top 20 percent. In the three decades following, after-tax income for the top fifth of earners went up 103 percent, according to a study from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, while they increased 40 percent for the middle three-fifths of earners and just 18 percent for the bottom fifth.

Studies consistently show divisions in party affiliation are tied to income -- with low-income voters being more reliably Democratic and high-income voters reliably Republican -- with those earning middle incomes identifying with both. The same goes for views of the American Dream.

A 2004 Syracuse University study asked respondents nationwide if everyone in American society has an opportunity to succeed. Among middle class participants, 29 percent said everyone had opportunity, and 20 percent said "just some." A reliably down the middle 50 percent said "most" had opportunity. The differences were stark when broken down by party affiliation: 20 percent of Democrats said everyone has a chance to succeed, while twice that number (43 percent) of Republicans did.

Republicans have a clear view and argument for how economic life in the United States operates: If one works hard and is frugal, free of outside interference, that will reward initiative and lead to success, which is good for the country and the economy. Democrats -- reflected in their opposing belief that opportunity is not equal for everyone -- urge government to play a bigger role in helping people succeed, and get better wages, medicine and education, which is good for the country and the economy.

"The Republicans have mastered the ideal and myth of American society. Democrats are down there mired in reality," said Jeffrey M. Stonecash, a Syracuse political science professor and expert in class and politics. "For a lot of people in the middle, as I listen to them, they both appreciate the lack of opportunity but they appreciate the ideal and aspiration and the norm of the hard work ethic."

How do people pick parties?

John Kovel spent two years at Jamestown Community College, then followed a friend to the University of South Florida in Tampa. He got his business degree in 1995 and went to work for a T. Rowe Price call center there, talking to people about mutual funds.

It was a good job but on a burnout track answering the phone seven hours a day, so he started studying to get the financial licenses to sell securities. He then got a job closer to home, in Cleveland, doing comprehensive financial planning for another major firm, Lincoln Financial. Five years ago he transferred to a job in northern Virginia.

Mr. Kovel is single and makes about $100,000 per year. People like him who were raised in the middle class but who question if success is still possible need to look to themselves for an answer, not the government, he said.

"This is one of my favorite questions I ask people all the time: What motivates you? And I always get a different answer," he said. "I was always happy to live in America and have all this opportunity. I loved business and wanted to be a business guy. But what motivated me to do work to do that? I was always afraid to fail."

"Therein lies the answer to the other question of why don't people have individual responsibility. You have to ask them what motivates them. If they can't answer then they're not being motivated," he said.

He and his cousin Kris, who lives in North Huntingdon, talk regularly and often rib each other about politics.

"I think people choose their affiliation based on what appeals to them most. So it doesn't surprise me that Kris is that way -- unions and manufacturing jobs is his hot button issue," he said. His own interests, John Kovel said, are "national security, making sure we're safe, making sure this country is No. 1 economic power in the world. That's my hot-button issue, not Kris's, and that's what makes me a little bit more Republican."

Unions and respect

Kris Kovel grew up in Monroeville. As a teenager he worked in a machine shop for a couple of hours after school every day, and already had a job before graduating from Gateway High School in 1992. He hopped from job to job while completing the apprentice training to get his journeyman papers, and joined Wabtec in 2000.

At one time Wilmerding and other Mon Valley towns were solidly Republican. Democrats took over rapidly during the Depression years in the late 1930s with the help of organizers from the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and packed the governments of industrial towns with Democratic officials attuned to the needs of the swelling working class.

"All of that made it possible for a mill worker in places like Braddock or Clairton to feel he had equal political standing with the mill superintendent. And that sense of liberation, as it truly must have been, did a lot to sustain grass-roots support of the Democratic party until recently," said Peter Gilmore, a historian and former United Electrical Workers official.

"If you made steel, man, you were tops. It was like being a doctor today," said Mr. Kovel, chief steward for UE Local 610 at the Wabtec plant. "When unions got strong that got workers respect, equal respect on the floor. Along with respect comes dignity."

He and his wife have two kids, ages 10 and 14, and she does clerical work to help make ends meet. Between them they make -- like his cousin -- about $100,000.

"I think nowadays if it's a family both people have to work -- they have to," he said. His mother stayed at home when he was growing up and his father "was a good provider for us, and that's something instilled in you. You know that's your job to do, you've got to be a provider."

Like many other dyed in the wool Democrats, Mr. Kovel thinks the federal government should do more to protect U.S. manufacturing and give people opportunities to work.

"I think there needs to be somebody out there who has that old school mentality of what's best for the working people. ... All the way from the farmers to the truck drivers to the doctors and nurses in the hospitals working, that's what drives this country. To me, I think the [Democratic] party could probably step it up and take interest in what's best for us."

He said party leaders could start by pushing for burdensome taxes on overseas products, forcing corporations to buy more U.S. products. He can see domestic production is down -- it's right outside the window.

There are Norfolk & Southern train tracks running past Wabtec and his nearby union office in Wall. When the recession was in full gear in 2008 and 2009 there was low traffic. Now the lines are running heavy again, showing the economy is picking up. The problem is most of the rail cars -- the kind of cars with hoses, compressors and brake cylinders made with his own hands -- are carrying shipping containers filled with foreign goods.

"It's all being manufactured overseas," Mr. Kovel said. "First it was Mexico, now it's China. Sooner or later there will be another Third World country that will make it cheaper."

Tim McNulty: or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.


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