This is coal country, even if there’s hardly any coal anymore. The elders can name the coal veins and describe their dimensions. People will still say, “I grew up in the patch.” That means they were raised in a cluster of company houses back in a hollow near the mouth of a mine. The kids would play king-of-the-hill on gobheaps of broken slate and mining waste.
The company houses are still there, but the gobheaps are overgrown. Hidden in the brush are the ruins of the beehive ovens that turned coal into coke and blackened the skies along the western slope of the Alleghenies.
The big play now is natural gas. Fayette County, which borders West Virginia about an hour’s drive south of Pittsburgh, is in the heart of the Marcellus Shale. Civic leaders hope that fracking — the hydraulic fracturing of the shale rock to liberate the gas in its pores — can reverse the fortunes of this depressed region.
This part of Pennsylvania is a political and economic battleground, a transitional place loaded with history, with memories of prosperity but also of vicious poverty. It’s on the front line of America’s economic doldrums, and it is not incidentally a swing county in presidential elections.
John Kerry carried Fayette County in 2004, but four years later John McCain squeaked by Barack Obama. McCain’s margin, 25,669 to 25,509, represented barely enough voters to fill half a basketball court. No one would call Fayette a bellwether, but it represents one very vivid brick in the foundation of American political and economic life: the rural industrial region in a post-industrial age.
This is an overwhemingly Democratic county by party affiliation, but it is politically conservative. It’s full of prototypical Reagan Democrats. That said, Obama has the lead in Pennsylvania polls and handily won the state four years ago. It’s not clear whether it’ll be as competitive as Ohio next door or some of the other swing states.
But the president faces headwinds here. Fayette County’s unemployment rate is higher than the national average. And the memory of coal and the dream of gas will not help Obama as he mines votes in this part of Pennsylvania.
The administration has touted its support for natural gas drilling, but many people here see Obama as unfriendly to fossil fuels. They cite his blocking of the proposed Keystone pipeline in the Great Plains. They talk about the administration’s tougher regulations on pollutants from coal-fired power plants. They’re wary of environmentalists who view fracking as a threat to the water supply.
The amount of anti-Obama sentiment is striking — especially among lifelong Democrats. Robert Schiffbauer, who for 34 years has been a supervisor of South Union Township, is one of those Democrats who thinks the party has lurched to the left.
“We’re talking socialism. Literally,” Schiffbauer said. “I fear what its going to be like if Obama’s reelected. The reins are going to be taken off.”
It’s unclear how many conservative Democrats will embrace Mitt Romney. Mark Rafail, who hosts a talk show on the local AM radio station, says of Obama and Romney, “They’re both elitists.”
Tim Mahoney, a Democrat who represents this part of the state in the legislature, says Romney’s corporate persona will sink his chances: “He doesn’t know the race car driver, but he knows the guy who owns the team. That stuck around here, that really did.”
Many people here are union members. Mike Mercadante, 43, a registered Democrat who voted for McCain four years ago, doesn’t like Obama’s health-care plan. But he said his union, the Communication Workers of America, is negotiating a new contract with Verizon.
“The billionaires in our company, they’re Republicans,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. Either way, I lose.”
For Obama, nearly every path to victory this fall presumes a win in Pennsylvania. To hold the state, he has to keep his big margins in the cities and minimize defections by conservative Democrats in the rural areas such as Fayette County.
People here say it’s been a Democratic county as long as they can remember. Republicans were the capitalists; mine workers registered as Democrats. Schiffbauer, the township supervisor, explains why he hasn’t become a Republican: “I’d be a fool. For every four voters in my township, three of them are Democrats.”
“If you want anything done in the county, if you’re a business owner, you have to be Democrat,” said Beverly Novotny, 57, who used to own a landmark restaurant in Brownsville. “You can be Republican in your heart.”
Many voters interviewed recently indicated only a passing interest in the presidential race. Some shrugged and said their vote wouldn’t make any difference. Tina Palko, 40, a high school employee shopping at the mall, said, “I think they spend too much time fighting over things that don’t really matter.” She said she had no idea how she’d vote.
This is Whiskey Rebellion country. Many of the first white settlers were Scots-Irish immigrants who filtered through the mountain passes to reach what was then the frontier near the forks of the Ohio River. They bristled at the tax on whiskey, the most profitable product of the rye they grew. The rebels posed such a threat to federal authority that President Washington himself saddled up in 1794 and marched at the head of an army to suppress the insurrection.
“Demographically, Fayette County is more like West Virginia than like the rest of Pennsylvania,” says Debra Rhodes, a psychologist and Republican who has spent years restoring a splendid Victorian home in Uniontown.
During the era of King Coal, trolley cars linked the patches and you could zig-zag by rail all the way to Pittsburgh. The steel mills on the Monongahela River were fueled by the coke.
“When I was a little kid, all I could see was black smoke and fire,” said Gary Smitley, 62, a disabled Vietnam veteran who lives in a leafy declivity known as Yaugher Hollow. He’s voting for Obama, saying the president has helped veterans. “And I’m not prejudiced. Too many people are prejudiced.”
But just down the road, Tom Nicholson, 51, who sells used cars, laments what he sees as the “communism” of Obama.
“We’re workers. We always worked for what we got. We don’t expect no handouts,” he said.
This is one of the poorest counties in the state. Locals bemoan a culture in which too many families are broken and too many people have drug dependencies or are living off disability payments in what ought to be the prime of their working lives.
“It’s degenerating from a working-class area to a government-dependent area. There’s a lot of scars on the land, and there’s scars on a lot of families,” said Jeffrey Golembiewski, a lawyer who some years ago upset his parents by announcing that he was switching from Democrat to Republican.
County Judge Ralph Warman, 68, paused while ambling home at lunchtime to water his newly seeded lawn. He named the various veins of coal, including the Pittsburgh Vein, famously nine feet high.
“The nine-foot coal was mined out in this county,” he said. “We’ve been in economic decline ever since.”
Everyone here talks about the Marcellus. Energy companies pay landowners for mineral rights, pumping money into the economy. Derricks rise from rolling farmland, towering over grain silos. Trucks carrying waste water roll down the highways. Workers from out of state keep the motels full along Route 40.
But natural gas prices are low right now, and that has taken away some of the frenzy that surrounded the fracking boom. So far, the Marcellus Shale has brought more money into other parts of the state, further west and north.
There are other economic drivers. Despite its hard edges and rust, Fayette is a tourist destination. Whitewater rafters flock to the mountains, where rivers tumble off the Allegheny Plateau. Tourists from around the world visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, Fallingwater, and American history buffs check out Fort Necessity, where the young colonial officer George Washington met disaster in a battle with the French in 1754. Not far away, just up the National Road, is Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa, a major county employer.
Like so many places in contemporary America, many of the new jobs are in retail. South Union Township is where you find the retail corridor — the Uniontown Mall, Wal-Mart, Target, Lowes, K-Mart.
“Good tax base,” says Schiffbauer, the township supervisor. “We get the mercantile tax, the real estate tax, the wage tax.”
Schiffbauer takes a reporter on a tour of a park built in what used to be a patch. Along one side of the park is a hill with a walking trail. The hill is actually a gobheap; Schiffbauer planted it with pines and hybrid poplars that can grow on anything.
Then he drives up the mountain and veers down a narrow road that he hacked through the woods. He comes to a clearing with a large house that he built years ago. It has a spectacular, panoramic view of Uniontown and much of Fayette County. Standing on a deck, surveying his township, Schiffbauer becomes momentarily rhapsodic about the lights at night, the clouds, the fogs, the storms rolling in. And then he turns philosophical.
“This country’s not run by the politicians. It’s run by the money,” he says. He talks about conspiratorial forces running the world — the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the banking system.
“We’ve got a mess on our hands. We’re heading down the wrong road. The system’s broke,” Schiffbauer says. “In some regards we need a revolution.”
Back down the mountain, driving through the retail corridor, he suddenly brightens.
“We’re getting an Olive Garden,” he says, and laughs. “We’ve made it.”