His Kind of Town

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Joe Biden was born at Mercy Hospital, went to school at St. Paul's, played baseball at Maloney Field, scrapped with local toughs, skinned his knees on the dirt roads. When he returns to his old Green Ridge neighborhood, where he spent the first 10 years of his life, he likes to pick up a "regular hoagie," the one with the special sauce, at Hank's Hoagies.

This has now become part of the official Democratic narrative for a prized city in this swing state. Scranton as Bidentown. Biden as Pennsylvania's third senator, not Delaware's senior one. This city of working-class charm and struggle has become a microcosm of all the fears and hopes and restlessness of Democrats who believe they should win this presidential election but are not convinced they will. Yesterday, John McCain brought his show to town and expressed doubts similar to Barack Obama's about the proposed massive government bailout. Someday soon, running mate Sarah Palin may show up nearby.

"It's unbelievable how close it is," says Mayor Christopher Doherty, a Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton in the primary but is backing Obama now. "I'm surprised. The country's in terrible shape, and it's a dead heat."

In talking to folks about Obama, Doherty has concluded: "He hasn't made the connection. They don't know him. Who'd you want to have a beer with? Who'd you leave your kids with? John McCain is winning that test."

Scranton embodies the strange mix of doubt and possibility that hangs over Obama's campaign, the sense that he is this generation's John F. Kennedy but hasn't yet closed the deal. In the primary, the state's political machinery was behind Clinton, who had the added benefit of having family roots in Scranton. And while Democrats outvoted Republicans nearly 6 to 1, Obama was drubbed by Clinton in northeastern Pennsylvania by margins that make some Democrats uneasy, especially in a battleground state seen as essential to retaking the White House.

Biden promised the Pennsylvania delegation at the Democratic National Convention that he would sell the ticket hard in this state, that Pennsylvania would get "an inordinate amount of resources" and that he himself would be a forceful presence here. "We cannot win without winning Pennsylvania," Biden said. "It is that simple." In 2000, Gore defeated George W. Bush in Lackawanna County, where this city is the county seat, 60 percent to 36 percent, and in 2004, John Kerry beat Bush, 56 percent to 42 percent.

The campaign even ran an early ad in this market emphasizing Biden's roots here. But those roots may not cure all in a region where Obama's top campaigners, a couple of popular Lackawanna County commissioners, received hate mail during the primary just for backing the Illinois senator. More than is sometimes acknowledged, residents say, this is a region wrestling with bitterness and backwardness, the kind that Aunie Frisch, who has Chinese ancestry, sometimes finds maddening.

"There have been several elderly people who have come up to me asking me, 'What nail salon do you work for?' I'm polite. I'm not going to scream at an old lady. But this is 2008," says Frisch, a 22-year-old graphic design major at Marywood University.

Many Scrantonians would like to believe in Obama, just as they would like to believe that their town is on the rise -- they've got the sizzling Triple-A level Yankees to be proud of, a downtown incubator center for start-up companies, the first medical school being built in the state in 50 years. They've got "The Office" to be proud of, NBC's hip, culty sitcom about the quirky cubicle life inside a fictional Scranton paper company.

But the bleak portraiture from a glorious past still darkens the cityscape -- the once teeming rag factory that no longer teems, the wallpaper factory that's now shuttered. No coal to talk about anymore, no iron. Just last month, Boscov's, described as the nation's largest family-owned department-store chain, filed for bankruptcy. Though its store in Scranton's Mall at Steamtown will remain open, Boscov's financial woes only added to the city's economic anxiety.

Despite $400 million in construction projects over the past seven years, Scranton is still a "did-you-know" kind of town. As in: Did you know that Scranton once produced virtually all of the country's silk? Did you know that the now-defunct Scranton Button Co. was once among the largest in the world? Did you know that Scranton has lost nearly half its population since Franklin Roosevelt was president?

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