Life Gets Ugly for Turncoat In Coal, er, Clinton Country

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

MOOSIC, Pa., April 22-- Lackawanna County Commissioner Corey O'Brien had barely put down his box of Dunkin' Donuts when he encountered Gary Bonk. It was not a pleasant encounter.

Bonk had been driving around parts of Northeastern Pennsylvania since 5:30 a.m., dropping off Hillary Clinton signs at polling locations. This was his 27th stop, a fire station that happened to be the commissioner's home precinct. It was now 7:40. As Bonk was wheeling out of the parking lot, he spotted the cheery, gladhanding O'Brien, and the sight apparently was too much for the senses. He yelled through his open window to the rookie commissioner: "I don't know how you could have done that!" And by that, he meant support Barack Obama for president.

Bonk's rant continued, about how this county was 80 percent for Clinton, about the gall of this upstart pol defying the wishes of the people. O'Brien went over to the car and tried to calm Bonk down: "Are we going to be together after this race?" But Bonk wanted nothing of that question. "I don't know how you could make this kind of mistake," he continued. "Why did you break away? Lackawanna County is Clinton country. You slapped all of us in the face. You should have supported the hometown girl."

Most of the turncoat stories of this campaign season have centered on black backers of Hillary Clinton, notably those prominent elected officials who have been hounded as race-traitors for trying to block the first African American to have a serious shot at the presidency. Less publicized have been the tales of white Obama supporters in places such as Lackawanna, which is 96 percent white and where only 20 percent of residents 25 and older have a college degree. You might call it the white blue-collar backlash against Obama supporters.

When O'Brien was elected to the three-commissioner board last year, a Clinton administration appointee who had come home, he looked like some kind of world-beater politician on the up. He and fellow Democrat Mike Washo slew their primary opponents and ran as a team in the fall, carrying all 163 precincts in the county of about 210,000. But as the Bonk episode illustrates, the intersection between national and local politics is sometimes difficult to navigate, if not downright ugly. As the Democratic presidential contest drags on and on, tensions are rising over who will win and how. And elected officials such as O'Brien and Washo are feeling pressures they have never felt -- they read derogatory things about themselves in letters to the editor, they get challenged on the streets. Even though his reelection bid is four years away, O'Brien wonders if he and Washo could become casualties of their primary presidential preference.

"It will be very interesting to see how this impacts us in 2011," O'Brien said, "because it will impact us."

Just ask Bonk. "It's going to be hard for them to get my vote," he promised, contending that he has heard the same thing from many others.

But Bonk had more than politics on his mind. He was clearly unsatisfied with his life, having obtained degrees in political science and public administration and only working part-time as a landscaper. He has had a trail of bad luck, he said, spending the last 15 years taking care of sick relatives and attending to deaths in the family.

"So you can see the bitterness," O'Brien said.

Lackawanna County is mostly a mixture of small suburban boroughs, such as Moosic, and scattered agricultural towns approximately two hours north of Philadelphia and west of New York City. It still boasts the largest vein of anthracite coal in the world, though the Knox Mine disaster that killed 12 in 1959 pretty much sealed the fate of the mining industry here. Today, white-collar jobs can be found in the universities, hospitals and banking industry. Much of the blue-collar work is in plastics, small machine shops, and military supplies and equipment.

Clinton stumped in the county seat, Scranton, four times; it's where Hillary Clinton's father, Hugh Rodham, was raised and where her grandfather worked in the lace industry. The area's identification with struggle and the Rodham family's working-class roots combined to make her the favorite daughter here in Tuesday's presidential primary and earned her more than 70 percent of the county's vote.

"When you're in a town with known economic deprivation," Commissoner Washo said, "there is star power in having someone from your community who has made it. She's saying, 'I am one of you. I am a Scrantonian.' "

This was what O'Brien and Washo faced as they made their rounds across the county on Tuesday, urging constituents to vote for Obama, who was described by some as a strange outsider. "I don't know Obama," said John Segilia, who has been mayor of Moosic for 29 years. "He just come out of the woods from somewhere."

O'Brien, 34, is a relatively recent returnee to this place where he grew up, having done his stint inside the Beltway at the Agency for International Development and getting his law degree from Catholic University. Before running for office here, he hosted a public affairs television show. People are hurting, he said, and he understands their frustration. John Banick approached him at one stop, remembering O'Brien's news-conference defense of Obama's comments about the bitterness of working-class whites in small towns who "cling" to guns and religion as expressions of their pain. O'Brien had spoken about his own bitterness over the direction President Bush has taken the country. Banick, a retired teacher and self-described "pro-lifer," didn't think much of that and told him so. How could O'Brien even invoke the word "bitter" when he lived in a "fancy area" and was doing well economically?

"It's unseemly to say you're bitter," said Banick, who noted that he had voted for Ron Paul this time around and would vote for Alan Keyes in the general election.

O'Brien shrugged off Banick's complaint. "Three dollars and fifty-one cents, unleaded, regular, at the Exxon in Moosic," O'Brien said after Banick had left. "That makes you bitter and frustrated over the policies of the last eight years."

On the drive to Dunmore Community Center, in the largest voting precinct in the county, O'Brien talked about why he had decided to stick his neck out for Obama. "I just think right now in our country we need two things -- unity and a fundamental change in our politics." After doing side-by-side comparisons of the candidates' position papers, O'Brien said, he determined that not much separated their policies. Which left an important intangible. Who could best bring people of different ideologies together? "I just fear that the polarization, if the Clintons get back in there, will drown out any opportunity to get major legislation through Congress. That window of opportunity is brief at best, but you have to have a window."

Yeah, he expected some blowback, O'Brien acknowledged, "but you have to have conviction. People elected us to lead, not to follow. If it costs us, I'm okay with that. What kind of example would I be setting for my kids if I took the easy way out?"

O'Brien grew up not far from the Dunmore Community Center, which he helped create. As a senior in high school, he formed a community development board and started lobbying for a place where students could hang out and avoid getting arrested, as some were, for loitering on public streets. He was a Penn State freshman when then-Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.) telephoned him in his dorm room. The center had received a $600,000 federal appropriation.

Standing outside the sandstone building on Tuesday, with an Obama Hope sticker on his shirt, O'Brien seemed to know everyone. June Burch, a local political activist, bent his ear on county issues. She was wearing a Hillary T-shirt. "We need a woman president! This country has been wracked and ruined by men." O'Brien listened for quite a while. Then there were the Loughneys, Nancy and Joe, both Clinton supporters. This is how it went for much of the day: O'Brien outnumbered.

"Yeah, he's getting a lot of grief," said Nancy Loughney. "But everybody should be able to do what they think is right."

Will there be a price to pay?

"Not in my eyes," she said. "I think he is a great commissioner."

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