By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 19, 2008
CHARLEROI, Pa. -- Sitting with friends over 74-cent cups of coffee at the McDonald's here, Bob and Michael Jeanmenne can see more than a few things that might affect their moods.
The Monongahela River, which runs cleaner than when they were young (not a good sign); the trains, which rumble along the river but don't stop, since the station was replaced by a Rite Aid years ago; and the main drag, McKean Avenue, where the streetcar is long gone, half the storefronts are vacant and many others are on the verge of shuttering.
"You couldn't walk down one block without bumping into 30 people. Now you walk down three or four blocks at 8 at night and you won't run into anyone," said Michael Jeanmenne, 80.
Yes, the Jeanmenne brothers concede, they are somewhat "bitter," the word that Sen. Barack Obama used at a San Francisco fundraiser to describe small-town Pennsylvania, in a riff that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton seized on to cast him as elitist. The steel mill where Michael worked as a stenciler is slated to shut down this year; the GM parts manufacturer where Bob worked is also on its last legs. All eight of their children have left town. "There's an awful lot of resentment around here," said Bob Jeanmenne, 84.
And no, they do not agree with the rest of Obama's analysis: that voters in distressed towns "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment as a way to explain their frustration."
Yet they find it hard to get worked up about the comments -- as do other Pennsylvanians, judging by polls that so far show little damage from an episode Clinton has worked hard to exploit. Years of watching the decline of the town they have lived in since their family arrived from France in the 1920s has, they suggested, provided perspective that keeps them from getting caught up in 24-hour cable and Internet outrage.
Bob Jeanmenne almost always votes Republican (though he's a Democrat) and Michael almost always votes Democrat (he hasn't decided whom to support next week). But both doubt that Obama's remarks will affect the primary.
"He overstepped his statement, and didn't realize what he was saying. It was a Freudian slip -- he said what's in his mind," said Bob Jeanmenne. "But I don't think it will make much difference."
This town 30 miles south of Pittsburgh illustrates the challenge Obama faces with older, blue-collar Reagan Democrats in the Rust Belt -- a weakness Clinton backers warn may yet hurt the Democrats if he is the nominee. Most Democrats interviewed here said they would vote for Clinton, citing her experience and their fondness for her husband's administration, as well as their unfamiliarity with Obama. Some said they will vote for Obama if he is the nominee; others weren't sure.
Yet while questioning elements of Obama's remarks, residents showed little personal offense. Some, including potential Clinton supporters, questioned her claim to be a grittier alternative to Obama, noting her personal wealth and her husband's signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, blamed for job losses.
"She'd be okay, but he's more for the people," said Teena Papa, 39, a restaurant worker who appreciates Obama because he was raised by a single mother, which she is.
Most of all, residents noted the irony that -- after years of neglect -- they are having their innermost feelings argued over by presidential candidates and pundits, all because of a two-sentence gaffe.
"I didn't pay too much attention to it," said Donna Horan, 68, the wife of a retired steelworker, who supports Clinton. "He's going to put his foot in his mouth and so does she. They're both going to say things that just come out."
"It's petty squabbling," said George Watkins, 57, a postal worker.
"The whole thing is ridiculous. It's quite comical, actually," said Bruce Arnoldt, 45, co-owner of one of the few large employers in town, a company that makes components for heating and cooling equipment. Arnoldt, a Republican, said he would consider voting for Obama in November, but not Clinton.
At the Chamber of Commerce, it has become a source of banter. "I say, 'I can't do this or that today, because I'm bitter,' " said the chamber's director, Debra Keefer. "I feel bad -- they have to speak a million words a day, and then they say something and they have it blown out of proportion."
Such bemusement has been in short supply in Charleroi (pronounced Sharla-roy), once part of a cluster of thriving towns in the Monongahela Valley whose residents worked in the steel mills and lived on the steep slopes above the river. Its name ("Charles the King," borrowed from the Belgian city) bespoke its high ambitions; by 1940, its population was more than 11,000 and it had four movie theaters.
The decline began in the 1960s with the rise of foreign competition and automation. In 1982, the owners of the Allenport steel mill just south of town, which employed 3,000 at its peak, sold the plant's hot rolling mill for making steel tubes to a company in the Philippines. Now in its final months, the mill makes only coils and employs fewer than 300.
The population dropped to less than 5,000 in 2000 (among the many who left was Deborah Jeane Palfrey, better known as the D.C. Madam, convicted this week for running a prostitution ring in Washington).
A third of Charleroi's children live in poverty. At the social services center, Sharyn Giovannelli, 60, who backs Clinton, has to tell elderly residents needing home attendants that there is a waiting list. "It's a disgrace. How do you tell people, 'I can't help you?' " she said.
As Charleroi and the rest of Washington County has shrunk, it has also tilted more Republican. Though Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans in the county, it split evenly between President Bush and Democrat John F. Kerry in 2004. In his San Francisco remarks, Obama paraphrased author Thomas Frank, who argues that many low-income white voters have been distracted by such social issues as same-sex marriage into voting Republican and thereby, he argues, against their economic interests.
Residents took issue with that, noting that it was hardly irrational for them to put less stock in economic planks, given that such promises produce so little. Watkins, the postal worker, said he agrees with Democrats on the Iraq war, but he also puts a premium on a candidate's opposition to abortion, and so would vote for the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain.
Also confounding the stereotype was George Guzzi, 75, who lives opposite the Allenport mill, where he worked as a millwright and machinist. Taking a break from weeding his yard, nursing a can of light beer, he said he is a lifelong hunter and churchgoer. But he usually votes Democratic, and did not agree with Obama's generalization.
"People are sort of bitter, but they're not carrying around guns and causing crimes like he specified," he said.
That said, while he will vote for Clinton next week, Guzzi said he is willing to excuse Obama -- "everyone makes mistakes" -- and said he would vote for Obama against McCain. Then he turned to look at the mill across the empty street.
"It used to be," he said, "that around 4 o'clock, you had to wait 10 or 15 minutes to cross the street here, because everyone was driving back and forth."