His Kind of Town
Scranton Loves Biden, but Can It Warm to Obama?

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?

"It's like learning to walk with a limp," says Tom Bell. "After a while, you don't even know you're limping."

Tom Bell runs an insurance firm, and the hunt for policyholders has grown more difficult as the years have gone by. Tom Bell is also a childhood friend of Joe Biden's, and the hunt for something to say about politics is not so difficult for him.

Of Obama, Bell says: "He's got to be tougher. He's got feet in both camps. But too often he seems to speak from his Ivy League, Chicago law firm camp." Of his schoolboy pal, Bell says: "Joe Biden represents my type of Democrat." Of Obama, Bell says: "I think sometimes he is, I hate to use this word, too nice." Of Biden, Bell says: "Joe is very well-known and very well-liked in this area." Of Obama, he says: "I think Obama comes across as a little too sophisticated."

And so it goes. Not that Tom Bell isn't for Obama. Of John McCain, he says: "I think something is wrong with him. I'm telling you -- something is wrong with him. Instead of him running for office, everybody should chip in and get him some therapy."

But Bell worries that Democrats have an energy policy "that is imaginary," an insecurity about their identity that is palpable, and not enough fight in them. "I'm very worried about this election," he says. "It would be hard for the Democrats to blow this election. And you know what? They're doing it."

Scranton was Biden's first stop after the Democratic National Convention, just as it was Kerry's first stop in 2004. He spent the afternoon at his old home on North Washington Avenue, a two-story gray Colonial with black shutters and a carpeted porch, now owned by Anne Kearns. It was here that the young Biden and his family lived with his grandparents, the Finnegans.

Biden spent nearly three hours with Kearns and her family and neighbors and a smattering of politicos, speaking in the back yard, where grilled hot dogs and hamburgers were served. Biden at one point was led up to the attic, where the bed he slept in as a boy had been kept all these years. "You're kidding me?" he said. At the request of the Kearnses, he signed his name on the wall with the inscription: "I am home."

Kearns was reflecting on this visit the other day, thinking that Obama is going to make it, with Joe's help. She is still the only one with an Obama yard sign in the neighborhood. Having taught for 20 years at Marywood University in the neighborhood, she has learned to listen to the kids. "When I saw all the young people going for him, I thought: That's what this country needs. I saw something new in Obama."

Jim Kennedy sat on the porch of the home he grew up in and spoke of the old. He was facing Kearns's back yard, with his white, blue-striped pants hiked up, pointing to the paved street that was once a dirt alley. That's where he and Joe played growing up. "For entertainment, we used to take popsicle sticks and weave them together and make rafts and sail them down the gutter in heavy rain. It was fun, man. It was fun."

Kennedy is an elected magistrate judge with an eighth-grade education, one of the city's colorful characters, now in his 33rd year on the bench. A record, he notes. He has remained a good friend of Biden's, and doesn't hesitate to tell all the childhood stories: about Joe's stuttering problems, about eating Joe's ice cream when Joe got his tonsils removed, about Joe's crush on the blonde next door.

Kennedy would sometimes pin Joe down and put spit on his hairy arms and rub the hair hard and make it curl up. "Little small ways of getting him." The sum of Kennedy's message: Joe is tough, authentic, irrepressible. Excellent vice presidential material. And most important, a real, native son.

* * *

Anyone who has ever stayed three nights in Scranton qualifies for hometown consideration. At Pat McMullen's bar, they have fun with this. The parents of Emmy-winning actor Jeremy Piven are from Scranton. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's wife. Judy McGrath, the MTV chief executive, is from Scranton. And Robert Reich, the former labor secretary. Let's not forget former Syracuse basketball star Gerry McNamara, a Scranton favorite. And the writer William Kotzwinkle, who collaborated on the novelization of "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" -- he's a Scranton kid.

"Everybody's from Scranton," says Pat Sweeney, one of McMullen's bartenders, who happens to be off-duty this night. A good thing for him. This is an especially raucous night, as the Cowboys-Eagles game on "Monday Night Football" is airing on all TV sets. And strangely enough, virtually the entire crew of regulars is rooting for the Cowboys and not Pennsylvania's own team. What's that about?

Bars in general, and Irish bars particularly in this town, are the political trash-talking equivalent of the barbershop. Nothing is off limits in the bar, especially insulting Sarah Palin.

"If she loses, she's in Playboy a month later," says Sweeney dismissively. Seriously, though. "Can she run the country? Maybe," Sweeney continues, "but I'm going to go with Joe Biden. He's got more experience."

McMullen's is adorned with miniature helmets, political posters from the Kennedy era, sports jerseys, photos of notables, including a signed one from Biden. The ceiling is covered with vinyl placards containing messages like this one from Henny Youngman: "When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading." As the night was winding down, Sweeney yelled out: "Hey, Joe Biden called! Everybody gets a free drink." To which the regulars heartily cheered. It was a setup for his punch line: "Sarah called, too. Everybody gets a free photo shoot!"

Chris Doherty likes jokes and guffaws as well as the next man. But he is also the mayor of a city that needs help. For him, this election is utterly serious.

"Cities like Scranton do not have the money to pay for all these infrastructure bills we have to pay." Street pavement, bridge replacement, water lines, making an older Northeastern city attractive so that it can compete for business with the newer Southwestern cities and remain vital. "We need the federal government to play a role in our lives," he says. "Republicans don't believe that. Democrats do."

He needs Barack Obama to win, but he worries. He has told Obama's staff that the candidate needs to do more retail campaigning here, not closed events like the one at the area glass factory recently. "He needs to be out."

Joe Pusateri, who works for a Wise potato chip distributor -- "I deliver chips" -- has a different view of the electorate here and a different feel for this election. "I think Obama's gonna win. Honest to God. Why would I lie? I'm not gonna lie."

When he is not delivering chips, he works for the Arena Football 2 league. Being around football, he says, has helped him to see equality better. "It's about time we had change in the country -- that we look at each other as Americans. Not black, white, Asian," he said. "We're all Americans. That's what we are. When 9/11 happened, all folk died. Right?"

He had just finished a delivery at Hank's Hoagies. He called Obama a fresh face, an educated man, somebody special. "This guy is not off the streets." And he is concerned, quite frankly, that McCain is "getting up there in age."

So he's going to vote for Obama then?

Joe Pusateri paused for a few seconds. No, he wasn't quite prepared to go that far.

"It's up in the air," he says. "I can't lie."

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