This County Was a Democratic Stronghold. Then Came Trump.

The story of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania reflects the uphill battle of winning back Trump supporters.

At milepost 70.7 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Lehigh Tunnel ducks under the Blue Mountain ridge. It’s a portal into Northeast Pennsylvania, a sprawling region where old industrial cities tuck themselves into the valleys of the rolling Poconos. To many residents, the tunnel is also something of a time warp. If a nuclear device were to hit the Eastern Seaboard, the local joke goes, it would take 20 years for Scranton and Wilkes-Barre to feel the blast.

The tunnel also became a political boundary stone in November 2016. To its south, from Lehigh County to the Philadelphia suburbs, Hillary Clinton won. To the north, Trump took Carbon County and, more notably, Luzerne County.

With 318,000 residents, Luzerne County is the most populous in Northeast Pennsylvania. It voted Democratic in presidential elections for 20 years. President Barack Obama won by ten percentage points in 2008 and again in 2012 by more than five percentage points. But then it swung drastically in favor of Trump, who took the county by 20 percentage points. His margin in Luzerne nearly equaled his total winning margin in Pennsylvania.

This result is all the more remarkable because Luzerne County is rock-ribbed Democratic. Most local officials are Democrats, and party affiliation is passed on as a birthright. For the past two months, guided by Third Way, I’ve driven the back roads of Luzerne County, pored over economic and social indicators, and conducted more than two dozen interviews in hopes of understanding this electoral outcome.

What happened in Luzerne County in 2016 is as much a part of a national story—echoing trends that occurred around the country—as it is an intensely local story, marked by values and history. As Democratic leaders seek to rally the party around a new, distinct economic message, the story of Luzerne underscores the challenges they face.

Economy: Decline and Despair

By the numbers, Luzerne County is not the worst in Pennsylvania. There are counties with higher unemployment rates and others with lower levels of educational achievement. In fact, Luzerne has assets that could be the envy of other Pennsylvania counties. Its location is ideal for outdoor recreation; it’s a transportation intersection located two hours from the major metro areas of New York and Philadelphia. It has a solid health care infrastructure, with two major hospital systems and a concentration of quality higher education institutions.

But it’s also a county with a history of struggle. First a vibrant coal mining center whose industry disappeared in the 1950’s, the county saw a short-lived textile industry, devastation from natural disasters, and a series of benevolent but corrupt politicians, which left the region struggling, nostalgic, and not particularly healthy.

Free trade deals get much of the blame for the most recent losses—a television production plant that relocated to Mexicali, Mexico, in 2001, or a cathode-ray tube plant that closed in 2004.

“We had a pretty nice, diversified job base here,” Ed Harry, a former labor official and Trump voter, told me. “Then with NAFTA and GATT, all the jobs started leaving. Union members no longer had jobs. They said, ‘I used to have a job that had a living wage. Now, I have to have two or three jobs to do what I have to do.’ They just got pissed and they went for a gamble.”

Rep. Matt Cartwright, the Democratic congressman who represents Wilkes-Barre, conceded that—in the aggregate—free trade is a benefit, and that specific regions of the country would have received a tremendous boost from the Trans-Pacific Partnership from which Trump withdrew.

“If your life isn’t working out the way you wanted it to, if your standard of living doesn’t seem as high as your parents, if you’re working two service jobs in the place of your father’s manufacturing job, you vote for the change candidate,” Cartwright said. “The economy hasn’t changed that much around here in the last 10 years. People who were hurting in 2008 were still hurting in 2016.”

Today, the main employer is the federal government, due to Tobyhanna Army Depot—a logistics center for the Department of Defense. A recent growth in warehousing—thanks to the proximity to two interstates and some generous tax breaks from local governments—provides thousands of jobs. The Geisinger and the Commonwealth hospital systems round out the top five employers in the county.

Yet, many of those employed in warehouse or health care jobs earn wages that cannot sustain a family. Whatever recovery Luzerne County has seen from the 2008 financial crisis, it hardly matches that of other parts of the state.

After decades of economic struggle, what the county could use is a boost in esteem. For all its assets, many locals wonder why anyone would want to live here.

Maureen Danko, a 52-year old single mom, said that after her son obtained his electrician’s license, she was thrilled for him. The certification offered the promise of good wages, and, as important to her, portability.

“Get out of the area— that’s the best advice I could give a kid,” she said.

A survey last year of students in 10 local colleges and universities found that only one third were willing to stay if they could find work, an improvement over the 27 percent who had said they would stay in 2015.

Sue Henry is a talk radio host on WILK-FM. She’s heard the voices of despair calling in; she has seen the loss of pride. Imagine, she said, workers in their early 40s at the start of the financial crisis in 2008. At the peak of their earning potential, their wages suddenly flatlined or reversed. They had to dip into their 401Ks just to buy groceries. Nine years later, they are still suffering an economic hangover.

“So when Donald Trump talked about the forgotten man or woman in America,” she said, “they felt like, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s dialed in to me.’”

Class Resentment and Distrust of Government

Luzerne County’s unemployment stands higher than the state and national rates at about 5.8 percent now. Its per capita income of nearly $26,000 is 15 percent lower than Pennsylvania’s. No doubt, Trump’s full-throated promise of “JOBS, JOBS, JOBS” resonated here. Yet, even Trump supporters insist it’s not just about jobs.

Danko works as a clerk in the Luzerne County District Attorney’s office. She comes from a long-time Republican family; her grandfather was once county Republican chairman. Though she would have considered voting for Clinton in 2008 if she had won the Democratic nomination, she has voted Republican in the last three presidential elections. As for Trump—she was with him almost from the start.

A few years ago she was laid off from her job for four months. She received unemployment assistance, and qualified for various forms of government aid. “Oddly enough, when I was laid off I did much better financially,” she said. Although Danko acknowledged the lifeline these government programs provided, she reached a more sober conclusion: “I could see why people choose not to work. You can’t afford to work with jobs in this area that pay pennies. Because the minute you do, you lose any help that you can get.”

She was hardly alone. Embedded in numerous conversations I had was a resentment of social programs that benefit the poor while the working class struggles. Joan C. Williams captures that zeitgeist in her book White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. “Because America is particularly testy about the kinds of taxes that many European countries take for granted, these programs are not universal,” she writes. “Instead, they are limited to those below a certain income level, which means they exclude those just a notch above. This is a recipe for class conflict.”

wilkes barre factory

An abandoned factory in Wilkes-Barre.

These working-class men and women and small business owners believe that, in leveling the field for the disadvantaged, government has left them behind. In their view, they are trapped between smug elites and poor Americans who have no skills, no work ethic and no qualms about accepting benefits paid with the tax dollars of others.

Joe Valenti owns Waste Reduction Recycling and Transfer just southwest of Wilkes-Barre. He employs 15 workers, seven of them drivers with a starting wage of about $50,000 a year.

Politicians, business leaders and academics, he said, will make a case for the need to attract jobs. “What they don’t tell you is there’s no bodies to fill them. What keeps me up at night are employees. Having them show up every day, having them be able to pass a drug test at any given point in time—it’s an insurmountable task.”

When he bought the business four years ago, he had five full-time drivers. Since then he has gone through three dozen candidates to fill two more slots. “We’ve created a generation of dependency,” he said. “There’s too much free stuff given away.”

Mike Lombardo knows the sentiment well. He is a Democrat who worked for former Gov. Ed Rendell and served as mayor of Pittston, a city of 10,000 on the east bank of the Susquehanna River.

Lombardo, who is running unopposed to regain his old mayor’s seat, is a member of the local housing authority. “Do you know how many senior citizens come to us and ask us for help on their house, and they can’t get it because they are $12 over the income threshold?,” he said. “That’s ridiculous. But yet someone who makes no effort can get windows, siding, roofs.”

These stories sound all too familiar to David Simas, the former political director in Obama’s White House and current CEO of the Obama Foundation. He’s been taking the pulse of voters for years, and after the election, he conducted focus groups in counties in Iowa that—like Luzerne County—pivoted from Obama to Trump.

“I heard what you heard,” he told me. “That notion that ‘I’m working two jobs. I’m sick and tired of paying for benefits of people who don’t want to work.’”

These were voters who simply blamed Washington for this perceived unfairness. They viewed both Obama and Trump as outsiders, and Trump’s call to drain the swamp echoed what they had liked about Obama’s anti-lobbyist, anti-special interest rhetoric.

“Men and women in these groups said they hated Trump and they hated Clinton,” Simas said. “They voted for the outsider they hated over the insider they hated.

Immigration: An Ugly Side of Hazleton

Intimately connected with Luzerne’s economic challenges is another flashpoint in the area: immigration. Though 1,800 miles from the Mexican border, Trump tapped into this grievance that erupted over the last decade.

Hazleton is an old industrial city of about 25,000 residents. In the 1980s, the city lost a bidding war for a Saturn plant—it was a bitter blow. Then in 1998, it tried to attract a major warehouse and distribution center for Target. It lost that, too. So the city turned to one of its remaining assets—tax-free development. With that push, the state of Pennsylvania granted Luzerne County the most enterprise zone acreage in the state. Soon, big box warehouses, distribution centers, and a Cargill meatpacking plant moved in.

The availability of low-skill jobs, cheap housing, and proximity to New York and Philadelphia served as a draw for Latinos, especially Dominicans, living in more expensive locations in New Jersey and New York.

In 2000, Latinos accounted for just under five percent of Hazleton’s population; today they are nearing half. That influx accounts for Luzerne County being one of the fastest growing Latino populations in the country—from about 5,000 countywide in 2000 to 29,000 in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center.

The growth of this population unsettled some in the county’s older white population. “My son voted for Hillary,” a third-generation retired Italian-American from Avoca told me. “He said, ‘Ma, how can you vote for Trump? He wants to build that wall. How can you, when your grandparents came off the boat?’ I said, ‘When they came off the boat, they worked. They didn’t get anything for free.’ What I don’t like is they’re bringing all these immigrants in and they’re getting free health care, free this, free that. You’re not helping your own people.”

A 2006 murder brought local-immigrant tensions to a boil and made Hazleton—Luzerne County’s second largest city—the national epicenter of anti-illegal immigrant sentiment. Then-mayor Lou Barletta pushed through the City Council an ordinance that would have imposed English as the official language and penalized renters and employers who associated with illegal immigrants.

Peruvian-born Amilcar Arroyo, who came to Hazleton as a tomato picker nearly three decades ago and now runs the town’s Spanish language newspaper, said the tensions of 2006 unleashed an ugly side of Hazleton he had not previously seen. Walking on the street, he would encounter drivers who would slow down to yell: “Go back to Mexico!”

Bob Curry, a community activist who has worked to bridge the differences, remembers the mindset: “If your skin was a different shade, you must be illegal. If you spoke with an accent, you must be illegal. The Latinos who had been in the community were deeply hurt and deeply affected with this new rift with their neighbors.”

The nadir came in 2008, when a group of white high school football players in neighboring Schuylkill County beat to death an undocumented Mexican immigrant. Eventually, the U.S. Justice Department stepped in, convicting two of the teens of hate crimes.

Meanwhile, the Hazleton ordinance, challenged immediately, never took effect. In the summer of 2007, a federal judge declared the law unconstitutional. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling and the Supreme Court in 2014 denied Hazleton’s request to hear the case. By then, Barletta, the Hazleton mayor, had been elected to Congress.

Today, tensions have subsided, to a degree. Hazleton’s Latino population has grown as older whites moved to the suburbs. Chicago Cubs Manager and Hazleton native Joe Maddon created the Hazleton Integration Project to attempt to repair the community and foster cross-cultural unity.

Still, difficulties remain. Following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education, the Hazleton School District agreed three years ago to take corrective measures to better educate the 1,300 students in the district for whom English is not their first language.

And despite their numbers, Latinos in Hazleton lack political clout. They vote in presidential elections, but less so in municipal contests. This affects schools, police forces, and other public institutions that have virtually no Latino representation.

Even though Trump’s appeal and anti-immigrant stance did not fully rekindle the tensions, his build-a-wall rhetoric resonated beyond the city, and the old resentments towards the area’s newest residents resurfaced in the voting booth.

“If a politician is coming out and telling people that there’s this frightening ‘other’ who is here to commit crime and take their stuff and so on, that sticks,” said Jamie Longazel, the author of Undocumented Fears, a book that explores the causes and conditions that led to the passage of Hazleton’s 2006 illegal immigration ordinance. “This idea of ‘Make America Great Again’ speaks to a time when people felt more economically stable.”

Obama Foundation CEO David Simas knew this was dangerous for Democrats. “There is no issue that triggers cultural and class resentment like immigration. None. Zero,” he said. That’s why Obama often stressed that his immigration policies would require people to pay taxes, to register, to obtain work permits.

“Those folks you’re talking to, the folks I talked to in Iowa, they feel as if they’re being taken advantage of,” he told me. “Trump spoke to that and Hillary was stuck…talking about implicit bias. You can’t do that.”

Local Challenges

Rogue politicians are part of Luzerne County history, and these local experiences surely inform how residents feel about national politics. The infamous Rep. Dan Flood resigned in disgrace in 1980 after pleading guilty to accepting payoffs. In 1992, federal prosecutors indicted Rep. Joe McDade for taking bribes; he was acquitted.

The most recent blow came in 2009 when federal investigations ended the careers of three county judges, two state senators and a local school superintendent. In the biggest scandal, two judges were convicted of accepting $2.8 million in payments from the builder of two private juvenile detention centers.

Since then, the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania has prosecuted 31 individuals on charges involving political corruption in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

For many voters here, “Crooked Hillary” was not just a Trump insult on a bumper sticker. It was a reflection of their local experiences with crooked politicians.

What’s more, Luzerne County is fragmented into four cities, 35 boroughs, 36 townships and 12 school districts. It’s a recipe for inefficiency that can impede everything from regional planning to residents’ health. Nothing illustrates this more succinctly than the area’s poor oral hygiene.

A recent report this year from the Institute of Public Policy and Economic Development at Wilkes University found that tooth loss and decay is higher in Luzerne than national and statewide rates. High tobacco use was one leading contributor. The other, more surprising, was lack of fluoridation.

Only one community in the region—Hazleton—has fluoride in its water. The county’s balkanized system means “any one municipality not wanting to do it represents a veto for the entire region having fluoridation,” according to Dr. Steve Scheinman, the dean of the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine who conducted the institute’s study.

When it comes to fluoridation, “we’re well over 20 years behind the rest of the country,” Scheinman said.

Sadly, the opioid epidemic has ravaged the county. Last year, Luzerne hit a record of 140 overdose deaths, twice as many as three years earlier. In 2015, Pennsylvania’s overdose death rate stood at 26 per 100,000 residents; Luzerne’s was 30. In 2016 it climbed to 44 per 100,000.

A Geisinger staffing assessment on meeting outpatient and inpatient mental health and substance abuse needs concluded that Northeast Pennsylvania would have to increase the number of psychiatrists by 40 percent to meet current demand.

These overwhelming problems added to a pervasive feeling of despair and exasperation that exposed itself on election night.

Hope

Amid the bleak economic picture, a counter-narrative is emerging in the region.

Though modest, the tech sector is growing at a faster rate than the two biggest employers in the region—health care and warehousing, according to Teri Ooms, the executive director of the Institute of Public Policy & Economic Development at Wilkes University.

At the center of the nascent tech industry cluster stands Kris Jones. The 40-year-old Wilkes-Barre native broke into the tech industry and built a small fortune with Pepperjam, a company that helps brands simplify and manage app-to-app and mobile purchases. The company employs 120 people locally, and late last year, it announced it would add another 50 to 75 jobs locally over the next 18 months—positions that would pay a handsome average salary of $60,000 a year.

The state is offering its own encouragement with a $2 million grant to fund a public-private tech venture in Wilkes-Barre.

“This region has for so long been apologetic,” Jones said. “Too often the stories that are told are old stories that can easily be replaced by stories of success of companies like Pepperjam.”

But the trend doesn’t make up for a population that is over the median age, is aging rapidly and is primarily blue collar. Entry level jobs in warehousing pay $11.25 an hour and average pay for laborers and packers is about $12.90. The Institute of Public Policy & Economic Development estimates that the living wage in the region for a single parent with one child is $20.40.

“They are working 40-50 hours a week,” Terri Ooms said, “and they are still struggling.”

These were the conditions that were in play last November when Trump managed to turn Obama’s 5-point victory in the county in 2012 into his own 20-point sweep in 2016. Even if some indicators showed improvement, a powerful demand for change dominated the county’s electorate.

Six months into Trump’s presidency, his voters see a leader who has lived up to his anti-globalist agenda, ending multi-national trade deals, pulling out of the Paris climate agreement and dialing down regulations. And they cheer his Twitter-finger and pugnacious style.

“I find President Trump’s tweets mostly amusing and I completely understand why he chooses to bypass the media and use social media to get his message straight to the people,” Maureen Danko, the county worker and single parent, said. “It makes his supporters feel more engaged with him directly, like he is on our side.”

Joe Valenti, who had seen premiums rise for some of his employees under the Affordable Care Act, puts the blame for a stalled replacement health care bill squarely on congressional Republicans. “They can’t get their act together.”

How long Trump’s backers afford him impunity remains an open question. For now, they’re too invested in him to cut him loose.

But as one retired long-time Democrat who voted for him told me: “You can’t give the guy 100 days, or five or six months. You’ve got to give him at least a good year, or two years. We need a change. Then we’ll ditch him, if he doesn’t do anything.”

This piece was commissioned by and produced in close collaboration with Third Way.

Jim Kuhnhenn

Jim Kuhnhenn is a former reporter with the Associated Press.