Donning a blue collar to win Northeast Pa.

In once-thriving Scranton, Clinton, Obama go after working-class vote

Election 2008

April 23, 2008|By Faye Fiore | Faye Fiore,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SCRANTON, Pa. -- After six weeks of testy campaigning by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama for the affections of this working-class city that has seen better days, voters streamed to the polls yesterday. And if people such as Simon Lipchus were any indication, the television ads, interminable robocalls, bad bowling and whiskey sipping didn't make a whole lot of difference.

Lipchus, the 64-year-old proprietor of Simon's Restaurant on Market Street, a little place with a screen door and great omelettes, knew more than a year ago that he would vote for Clinton. It was personal: She's from here. No Obama miracle or Clinton mistake would budge him.

"When her dad passed away, we were down on Court Street at the Methodist church to see her at the funeral," said Lipchus from behind the counter, wearing, as was his entire staff, a Hillary T-shirt.

Once a thriving industrial town of silk mills and coal mines, Scranton has fallen on hard times. Its population, a little more than 70,000, is half of what it was after World War II. There are not enough jobs. Children grow up and leave. And at places like Simon's, it's bad news when the cost of eggs doubles and Lipchus can't raise his prices without losing customers.

But this small Northeastern Pennsylvania city had its month in the media sun, thanks to a Democratic nominating contest that has lasted longer than anyone expected. Scranton served as the improbable battleground for the sort of voter Obama needs to win and Clinton needs to keep -- hard working yet still struggling.

Both multimillionaire, Ivy league senators set out to channel their inner working stiffs, which was sometimes painful to watch. (Recall Obama's abysmal attempt at bowling and Clinton's regarding a shot of whiskey as though it were a glass of bugs.)

She mused about her grandfather toiling in a Scranton lace mill at age 11, and the happy summers she spent at the family cottage on Lake Winola. Obama set one of his many ads here, won the endorsement of native son Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., and ate pancakes at the landmark Glider Restaurant.

For their part, Scrantonites thoroughly enjoyed the attention. It was the first time in a generation anyone cared what they had to say in a presidential primary, and if things go the way many want, this morning they will pat themselves on the back for giving Clinton's campaign yet another reprieve.

"This felt good," said Frank Tunis, 60, a Republican who switched parties just so he could vote for Clinton.

In Philadelphia, of course, it was a different story, with upscale college-educated voters and young people turning out in droves for Obama, who, even in Hillary's Scranton, managed to marshal his biggest rally crowd to date -- 35,000.

But the Scranton voter is a crucial Democratic constituency Obama will need to win in a November matchup with the presumptive Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain. And for all the Hillary worship that was going on Tuesday, there were signs that Obama had made inroads, though some felt uncomfortable acknowledging it.

Annamae Collins, 83, walked out of Fargione's Auto Shop, her polling place, and whispered: "I went for Obama." She would not be sharing that news with her best friend, Delores. "I think she would be mad."

There is a lot of pressure in Scranton to back the girl with the local roots, even if she did grow up outside Chicago.

Tim Maloney, a 47-year-old manufacturing plant manager, figured as recently as two months ago that's what he would do. But Tuesday morning, in the privacy of the plastic booth, he didn't. "I didn't know until I got in there. But Obama just seems so natural, so comfortable. He reminds me of a young Kennedy."

Would he tell his friends of his decision? "If they ask. But I won't advertise it."

But it wasn't all about economics and ancestry. An undercurrent of race ran through the decision-making here and most people interviewed acknowledged that some in Scranton, as in many American places, will not vote for a black man.

"It's my generation and older, it's not the kids," one 40-something man said. Another woman dropped her voice and admitted, "I don't think this country is ready for a black president."

If Clinton fails to win the nomination, what will her devoted Scranton following do? This is a population that has become so comfortable with the Clintons' attentions that phrases such as "Where is Bill today?" roll off the tongue.

Some said they would seriously consider voting for McCain, and Lipchus of Simon's restaurant said he would stay home if he couldn't vote for Hillary. But many other Democrats said they would stick with their party's choice.

That all of this attention would end was evident even before the polls closed and the candidates blew town. They left the echo of promises to rescue troubled places like this one. Voters said they appreciated the sentiment, but did not expect the new president to pass through Scranton anytime soon.

"Not until the next election anyway," said Farigone, who owns the auto shop that doubled as a polling place with one booth and a box of Krispy Kremes.

He grew to like Obama, but he voted for Clinton because his wife wants to see a woman become president. And, he thought, given that politicians come and go with the season, sometimes it's just better to opt for the goodwill gesture.

Faye Fiore writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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