Bowling for Pennsylvania

Bowling for Pennsylvania

Can Barack Obama get racially mixed communities in Pennsylvania’s small towns to bowl together?



When Barack Obama went bowling in Altoona, Pennsylvania, on March 29, his opponent was Senator Bob Casey Jr., the son and namesake of a popular former governor whose coal-mining pedigree had made him a hero of the white working class. Casey Junior had just endorsed Obama, and the presidential candidate, wearing blue-and-white Velcro shoes and a tie, bowled gutter ball after gutter ball and lost the game. But Obama wasn’t at Pleasant Valley Lanes to knock down pins; he was there to win over white blue-collar voters and thus prove to Democrats that he is “electable” in November.

In the iconography of the campaign, bowling might have been a bid for some cred with the white working class, but it also signifies community ties of the kind eulogized by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone. Putnam mourned the fact that while more Americans are bowling, fewer are doing so in leagues, a sign of a breakdown in civic bonding and engagement. Recently, Putnam put forward evidence that diversity hurts social capital: that residents of mixed-race communities trust one another less, volunteer less, vote less and hunker down more in front of their televisions. Whether or not Putnam’s dystopian theory holds true will be crucial to Obama’s chances in Pennsylvania and perhaps in a general election contest against John McCain. Do people in checkerboard communities turn inward and away from one another, and does that make them more susceptible to campaigning that plays on racial and ethnic divisions?

The primary results so far suggest that Obama’s challenge lies in diverse states. He has scored victories in overwhelmingly white states, such as Idaho and North Dakota, and states with black populations large enough to tilt the race, such as Mississippi and Louisiana. But Hillary Clinton has prevailed in places like New Jersey and Massachusetts, where the black population is large enough for race to be regularly injected into the political discourse but not large enough to decide the vote on its own. Pennsylvania fits that profile. Eleven percent of its population is black, and 4 percent is Latino. Bookended by the heavily minority cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, its vast middle is what James Carville once called “Alabama in between.” Obama was referring to this stretch of farmland and former coal and steel towns recently when he said, “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and…the jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years, and nothing’s replaced them. It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Both Clinton and McCain promptly labeled him an “elitist” for these remarks, but whatever the fallout, his comments underscore a key task ahead. Can Obama overcome that “antipathy” and get mixed communities to bowl together?

Hazleton, a working-class town of about 25,000 in the foothills of the Poconos, is just the sort of place to tell. Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one, and unions run as deep as the disused mine shafts in the now-fallow fields of anthracite coal surrounding it. The region gave birth to the Molly Maguires, the infamous secret organization of Irish-Americans that organized miners to strike after the Civil War (and murdered their opponents in the police). But this Democratic stronghold has a Republican mayor: Louis Barletta, who ran against himself for a second term in 2007. He was his own party’s candidate, and he won the Democratic primary as a write-in.

Barletta’s cross-party popularity stems from his national headline-grabbing response to recent demographic changes in Hazleton. In the late ’90s, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans from New York City started moving in, often next door to the grandchildren of immigrant coal miners from Italy, Ireland and Germany. The Latino newcomers, who now account for 14 percent of the school population, remade the town into a cultural crossroads, a place that recognizes the first day of deer season as a formal work holiday but also boasts a botanica on the main drag. In the eyes of some residents, they also brought big-city problems such as drugs, crime and overburdened schools and hospitals. The backlash found expression in a town ordinance that banned hiring or renting to illegal immigrants, though hard figures on the numbers of the undocumented there have never been presented. Dozens of cities across the country copied the law, and media outlets across the world descended on Hazleton to cover the apparent trespass on federal turf. The ordinance, which also made English the town’s official language, drove a wedge between the mostly white, long-term residents and the Latino transplants, both white and black.

Support for Hillary Clinton may straddle the immigration divide. Her father’s family, the Rodhams, have had ties to nearby Scranton for generations, and the region views her as “a hometown girl.” More important, Hazleton’s population base overlaps with her political base: the elderly, Latinos and the working class. The median home price in the city is $67,000, the median household income is $28,000 and only 11 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree. One-fifth of the county works in retail or food services, at an average annual salary under $20,000. Two major industrial parks–home to warehouses and a Cargill meat processing plant–anchor the local economy with low-wage jobs staffed significantly through temp agencies.

In this hard-bitten terrain, there is profound nostalgia for Bill Clinton’s presidency, when, as one resident put it, “the economy was as good as it’s ever been.” José Perez, a cashier at Quisqueya Restaurant on East Broad Street, emigrated from the Dominican Republic during the Clinton years. A new citizen, he will vote for a President of the United States for the first time this year. He’ll probably choose Hillary Clinton. He saw an ad for her on Telemundo, and, he said in Spanish, “I liked her husband.”

A mile up the road, at the Bowl Arena, a truck driver with Eastern European coal miners in his family tree said virtually the same thing, but in English: “I like what Bill Clinton did. Bill can have a big part in being First Man.” The truck driver, Jason Yost, is a Michael Moore look-alike, bespectacled and overweight, with a baseball cap pulled over strings of brown hair and a gold cross hanging over a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt. He goes to the same church that Perez does: St. Gabriel’s, located in what was once an Irish, now Latino, enclave. But the two men attend separate masses, one in Spanish, the other in English, with choirs set at two different tempos. And they stand on opposite sides of the battle over the local immigration ordinance–Yost supporting it from the sidelines, Perez feeling like an indirect target of it.

If Clinton defeats Obama in Pennsylvania, towns in the middle of the state that are, like Hazleton, grappling with rapid changes in hue may make the difference. Nationwide, there have already been disturbing signs of diversity’s discontent. A Pew poll conducted at the end of March suggests that anxiety about race and immigration underlies the attitudes of white Democrats who dislike Obama. One in four white Democrats with a negative opinion of him believes he is Muslim. (Despite the highly publicized comments by Jeremiah Wright, his pastor from Trinity United Church of Christ, 10 percent of all voters believe Obama is Muslim.) And white Democrats who don’t favor him are much more likely than those who do to believe that interracial dating is wrong, that immigrants pose a threat to American values and that equal rights for minorities have been pushed too far.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a Clinton backer, cued this part of the state’s electorate in comments to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in February: “You’ve got some conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate.”

Consider one stark example from another corner of Pennsylvania that, like Hazleton, has seen both diversity and its backlash: South Philadelphia, home to Geno’s, the neon-lit cheesesteak emporium that posted signs at its takeout window reading, “This is AMERICA. WHEN ORDERING please ‘SPEAK ENGLISH.'” At a cafe a few blocks away, a regular asked about Obama replied: “Who is he? Where did he come from? What was he? In South Carolina, picking cotton?” A construction contractor who gave the name Mike Giordano said he did not watch Obama’s speech on race after the Wright controversy broke because “I don’t listen to those people. They don’t make sense when they talk.” And he summed up the presidential contest this way: “They put a senior citizen for President, a woman and a black man. What do you got? Nothing. But that woman’s got balls.”

Obama is expected to carry Philadelphia as a whole, but it is less clear how South Philadelphia will vote. As in Hazleton, mixed demographics could determine the course it takes. The neighborhood is the turf of Rocky, the white working-class icon co-opted by the Clinton campaign despite the fact that his alter ego, Sylvester Stallone, backs McCain. Its row houses are also populated by a cross section of classes, ethnicities and tenures in the neighborhood: African-Americans; old-timers descended from Italian and Irish immigrants; new migrants from Mexico, Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia; and gentrifiers ranging from young professionals to retired empty nesters.

The National Civic League designated Hazleton an All-America City in 1964, and it is still home to churches and other institutions that, Putnam argues, are key to building trust among neighbors. Truck driver Yost, for instance, does not bowl alone. He belongs to a league, known as The Food League because most members wait tables at Applebee’s and other area restaurants. A banner subtitled “Bowl for Kids” advertises a fundraiser for the Big Brothers/Big Sisters organization, and an American flag hangs beside the bowling pins. Despite these signs of a healthy civic life, a report by pollster John Zogby, commissioned after the immigration issue erupted and based on interviews with almost 200 residents, concluded that Hazletonians “perceive a loss of community over the past several decades” that mirrors the national retreat to backyards and TV rooms. Zogby’s survey also laid bare a belief among local Latinos that they are racially profiled and discriminated against in schools, for jobs and by the police and news media.

With Barletta running against incumbent Democrat Paul Kanjorski for Congress in a race that has generated more heat and attention locally than the presidential contest, immigration is likely to be on the minds of primary voters on April 22. Clinton and Obama have virtually identical stances on the issue, but it still has the power to divide voters along the lines of race. A chasm of mistrust and self-censorship has opened up between residents, says Anna Arias, a social worker for the Diocese of Scranton. Her outspoken opposition to Barletta’s ordinance–“If you pass this,” she told the City Council, “you will [make this] the first Nazi city in the country”–cost her friends. Arias was a child in the Dominican Republic when dictator Rafael Trujillo was assassinated. A parrot in the house had been trained to squawk “Viva Trujillo!” and it continued to swear out its loyalty even after the dictator’s burial. She remembers that Dominicans behaved like that parrot for a long time, though the despot was dead. “There wasn’t a lot of trust,” she says. “People were still afraid to speak their true sentiments.” The immigration ordinance in Hazleton has brought that parrot back to her vividly. “It became the unspoken topic,” she says, “because you don’t know who agrees and who disagrees, and you’re kind of afraid to find out.”

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’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.”

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