Bowling for Pennsylvania
Latinos nationwide have backed Clinton in such large numbers that Obama's local volunteers did not push hard to register new Latino voters here by a late March deadline, although they actively courted other groups. But Arias is backing Obama, partly because he represents the kind of bridge-building she says needs to happen in Hazleton. So is Agapito Lopez, a retired eye surgeon from Hazleton and another brawler against the local immigration ordinance. Lopez says that Obama "has gone through lots of discrimination himself, and he would better understand the way immigrants feel when they are discriminated against." Both Lopez and Arias doubt that local whites will vote for Obama because of the racialized tensions facing their once homogeneous town. Rocky Brown, manager of radio station WAZL, "The Voice of Hazleton," agrees. "The Illegal Immigration Relief Act very much polarized this community, to the point where I think those who would find Lou Barletta acceptable may very well find Hillary Clinton acceptable," he said. By this logic, Barletta backers who believe he was trying to defend the town against outsiders of a different ethnicity would vote for Clinton simply because she is white like them. And they would never send a half-black man who also happens to be the son of a foreigner to the White House.
There are indications, however, that Hazleton can transcend balloting by identity politics. Jack Mundie, a councilman who voted for the immigration ordinance, will also vote for Obama because he sees the Illinois senator as a unifier. Another supporter who might bewilder the pundits is Pearl Gobrick, a carpenter's widow in her 80s who was learning how to merengue with other elderly whites at a Hazleton restaurant one night in late March. "I just like the guy," she said. "Hillary will do anything to get there [to the White House]. Right now, she's trying to knock him down.... He had that nice speech about the colored, and not knocking people down." The volunteers who started an Obama office in downtown Hazleton are almost all non-Hispanic white. They include a Republican mortgage broker who, angered by the war in Iraq, said she thinks Obama represents an end to twenty years of Bushes and Clintons. The support from unlikely quarters appears rooted, at least in part, in Obama's charisma. Never mind that "Obama Girl"--the model who stars in barelypolitical.com's tongue-in-cheek music video "I Got a Crush on Obama"--grew up in Hazleton. The Pew poll in late March--the same one that reported racist and anti-immigrant views among Obama's detractors--also found that large majorities of white Democrats nationwide like him better than they like Clinton: more view him as honest, inspiring and down-to-earth.
A day after the (unofficial) local Obama headquarters opened in late March, a passer-by walked into the beige clapboard house donated by a realtor and plastered with Irish-Americans for Obama fliers picturing the Kennedys. "How youse doin'?" he greeted Bob and Elaine Curry, the team leaders for the office. "You're husband and wife, right?"
Jimmy, the owner of Babe's II Bar and Restaurant, asked for buttons and fliers. He asked Bob if his sister was the Curry who used to live down by the junkyard. And he told Elaine, a medical librarian and president of the Hazleton area school board, that she was doing a good job. "All my friends are going with Clinton, but I'm turning the coat," said Jimmy, who is white. He left with an Obama poster to hang in his bar.
The Currys received two anonymous letters by mail the week the office opened. One chided: "You should be supporting Hillary. The Clintons have been good for this country." The other accused Obama of being unpatriotic, citing the American flag pin missing from his lapel. But the couple are convinced he will do much better than anticipated in Hazleton.
"He's still up against it in this community," said Bob Curry, the manager of a Barnes & Noble in nearby Wilkes-Barre. "But people are still conscious of the difficulties their grandparents had. Not everyone whose grandfather was called a dirty wop will make the connection [to racism against African-Americans or new immigrants], but enough of us do make the connections.... It would be a mistake to sell them short."