In Pennsylvania's coal country, President Trump is still seen as a savior | Mike Kelly
Supporters of President Donald Trump in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania hope to get the president re-elected. NorthJersey.com
Pennsylvania is a key to victory for President Donald Trump and for former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party challenger. Veteran USA TODAY Network Columnist Mike Kelly and Visual Journalist Chris Pedota are visiting three Keystone State regions to assess voters' sentiments before the Nov. 3 election. This segment — the final installment of a three-part series — looks at Pennsylvania's coal country and why voters there support Trump.
POTTSVILLE, Pennsylvania — Rick Watcher wears his coal scar like a badge of honor.
It stretches like a battle-worn scimitar from the thick muscle behind his right thumb through the soft tissue that connects to his right index finger. The scar is purple now. But his thumb is still numb. Thirty-nine stitches will do that.
Watcher, 52, doesn’t mind. He’s a coal hauler, the proud son of a coal mining father and grandfather.
Each day, as he shovels the shiny, midnight-black anthracite rocks into the bed of his Chevrolet Silverado pickup and delivers them to homes and businesses in this hilly pocket of northeast Pennsylvania, he reminds himself that coal is his family’s lifeblood. And that scar, which Watcher has borne since his right hand clipped a sharp edge of a coal chute two months ago, reminds him of why he plans to vote for President Donald Trump next week.
“This is the blood that supplies the heart of Pennsylvania,” Watcher says of the coal he shovels — and the scar that symbolizes his back-breaking work.
Here, in the heart of America’s coal mining culture and among its overwhelmingly white working-class residents, Trump is still embraced as a holy savior.
No matter that Trump has stumbled in his efforts to organize America's battle with COVID-19. And no matter that the nation's economy has stalled as a result. In 2016, Trump pledged to revive the dormant coal mining industry. And while Trump’s promise hasn’t come true, many here commend him for at least paying attention — not like Democrats, who predict that coal mines and fracked oil and gas drilling will eventually shut down.
To understand why Trump, a bombastic reality TV star and self-proclaimed billionaire who ran through his father's fortune like a biblical prodigal son and never got his hands dirty fixing transmissions or digging ditches, is so beloved by America’s white working class, you need to listen to the voices here in Pennsylvania's coal country.
What you hear is an angry chorus that speaks of a piece of working-class America that has long felt forgotten and overlooked by Democrats. Trump stepped into that void in the 2016 presidential election, winning Pottsville and surrounding Schuylkill County with nearly 70% of the vote. By contrast, Democrat Hillary Clinton mustered only 27% support.
That 43% bulge in Schuylkill County and similar margins in other, mostly white communities across Pennsylvania helped Trump take the state and its 20 electoral votes by just 1% — and eventually propel him to the White House.
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2020 looks a lot like 2016
A similar strategy by Trump is at work in this election campaign against former Vice President Joe Biden: Win big in Pennsylvania’s white, working-class communities and offset Democratic tallies in the state's cities and suburbs.
In many ways, Trump’s Pennsylvania strategy mirrors his national efforts.
“Pennsylvania remains, in our calculations, the tipping-point state,” said Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Poll, which has consistently placed Biden ahead of Trump in recent surveys of Pennsylvania voters.
G. Terry Madonna, who runs the Franklin & Marshall College poll, agrees. “If you win Pennsylvania,” he said in an interview, “you probably win the 270 electoral votes” needed to secure the presidency.
Both Trump and Biden seem to know that. As a result, both campaigns have devoted increased efforts to the state in the final stretch of the campaign.
Biden spent most of Saturday courting swing voters in Pennsylvania’s Bucks and Luzerne counties.
Clinton won Bucks County in 2016 but by a mere 1% — a major blow to her campaign which expected a much higher tally there. She lost Luzerne County, normally a Democratic mainstay, by a shocking 20%, or about 26,000 votes — another major defeat.
On Monday, Trump stumped across Pennsylvania, with outreaches to his working-class base — and swing voters — in Democratic Lehigh County, where he lost by less than five percentage points in 2016. He also returned to Republican-dominated Lancaster and Blaircounties. Also, on Monday, Biden made a surprise visit to Chester, Pa.
The dueling strategies, while similar in their efforts to bring in swing voters, offer insights into how the Trump and Biden campaigns plan to win in Pennsylvania.
Biden is counting on high vote tallies in the Democratic bastions of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and suburbs like Bucks County, campaign strategists say. At the same time, Biden wants to cut into Trump’s margins in Republican rural strongholds in the middle of Pennsylvania, especially in coal mining towns in the northeastern and southwestern corners of the state.
That’s where Schuylkill County comes into play.
Once known as the setting for John O’Hara’s best-selling 1934 novel, “Appointment in Samarra,” the county now looms as a barometer for this year’s presidential election.
Biden’s goal is not so much to win Schuylkill County but to cut Trump’s victory margin. Trump, in turn, aims to widen that margin, from his 43% bulge over Clinton in 2016.
“If there is a smallest defection from Trump, that would affect how Pennsylvania goes,” said Paul Starobin, a Massachusetts-based writer who chronicled Schuylkill County’s attempt to revive coal mining in an essay for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal earlier this year.
On a recent morning, John Leshko, 41, a warehouse logistics manager, drove from his home in Middleport to the Schuylkill County Republican headquarters on Pottsville’s South Centre Street to pick up a half-dozen Trump campaign signs.
Leshko, who formerly worked for Christmas Tree Shops in Paramus, New Jersey, voted for President Barack Obama in 2008. Leshko was impressed by Obama’s promise to revive America’s dormant economy and especially America’s working class, whose wages stagnated for nearly a decade.
But Leshko said Obama disappointed him.
“Obama talked about change, but he didn’t deliver,” Leshko said.
In 2016, he voted for Trump.
“The economy drives everything,” Leshko said of Schuylkill County and its coal mining history. “It’s a blue-collar area. There are hardworking people here. They’re tired of politics.”
At the same time, Schuylkill County is trying to grapple with economic change — and its harsh impact on its way of life, not to mention its history. Or as Dennis Wiessner, 73, a Democrat-turned-Republican who is now mayor of Mahanoy City, noted: "This is where the industrial revolution started."
But this is where that old industrial revolution is meeting a new technological revolution.
Along the road from Pottsville to the coal mining enclave of Mahanoy City, a dozen wind turbines sit like a menacing posse atop a ridge dotted with the yellow, red and orange hues of autumn foliage. At the bottom of the ridge sits the massive Blaschak coal mine.
A conveyor belt runs over a nearby hill, carrying anthracite nuggets to a coal breaker that stands next to a pile of black rocks that await trucks to carry them away.
All day, dump trucks rumble down Mahanoy City’s Centre Street, passing by the front porch of Thom Maziekas and his Trump “Keep America Great” flag.
Like many voters here, Maziekas, 69, supported Obama. After all, Maziekas saw himself as a loyal Democrat. Even today, he keeps a letter in which Obama wrote to congratulate him for his election to the Mahanoy City Council.
But in 2016, Maziekas dropped his Democratic affiliation and supported Trump.
“I’m tired of drinking the Kool-Aid that the Democrats are giving out," Maziekas said as he sat on his front porch with a pack of Kool menthol cigarettes on a nearby table and a silver crucifix hanging from a silver chain around his neck. "They’re talking with four tongues.“
Maziekas compares Trump to the Jimmy Stewart character in the 1939 film “Mister Smith Goes to Washington.” Like Trump, Stewart did not play by traditional political rules — a tendency that Maziekas finds deeply appealing.
“He’s not a politician,” Maziekas said of Trump. “He didn’t need this crap. The people in America said enough is enough and we’re going to get a non-politician there.”
What Trump has done for Mahanoy City, however, is dubious. Even Maziekas concedes that.
Once a booming center of the region’s anthracite coal mining industry, with nearly 16,000 residents in 1920, Mahanoy City has seen its population shrink to fewer than 4,000 — and one-third live below the poverty line. Nearly every block has several abandoned homes. The homes still occupied seem run-down, coated with soot from the nearby coal mine.
And yet, the coal mining tradition — with its working-class roots — is still something of a religion here. In 2002, the town even erected a statue that depicts the hanging executions in 1877 and 1878 of 20 members of the Molly Maguires, an Irish secret society that was linked to a series of murders as it sought to improve working conditions and wages for coal miners in Schuylkill County.
'Tired of his tweeting,' but GOP is for 'working people'
Sitting on her stoop across Centre Street from Maziekas, Bonnie Craig, 67, said she voted for Trump in 2016 but now plans to support Biden.
“I’m tired of his tweeting,” Craig said of Trump's habit of sending irreverent Twitter messages. “He contradicts himself too much.”
Such sentiments appeared to be clearly a minority view in Mahanoy City — and across Schuylkill County. Trump’s promises of a coal revival haven’t come true. But many believe the president will deliver in a second term. Or as a billboard on Route 61 just north of the sprawling Cabela's hunting and fishing store proclaims: "God, Family, Schuylkill County and Trump."
Ben Wiessner, 23, grew up in Mahanoy City, the son of the town’s mayor. He doesn’t want to leave.
After graduating from high school, Wiessner landed a job at a local factory that made plastic medicine containers. He started at $19 an hour, with a promise of getting $27 an hour within three years.
But the factory shut down and moved to Portugal. Wiessner now works as a security officer at the Mohegan Sun Pocono casino in Wilkes-Barre. He also followed his father into politics, landing a seat as a Republican on the Mahanoy City Council.
“We don’t want to move,” Wiessner said. “We want to bring this town back to what it used to be. You have to start off small.”
He believes the first step is reelecting Trump.
“Trump is more focused on creating jobs and keeping jobs in America,” Wiessner said. “People respect the heck out of that idea.
“The Republican Party,” Wiessner added, “is more for the working people.”
Such sentiments run counter to the message that Biden — indeed, the Democratic Party — is trying to put out in this election. After Clinton’s devastating defeat in 2016, Democrats sought to reclaim their hold on America’s working class.
In Schuylkill County, however, that reclamation project seems to be advancing at a snail’s pace. No matter, though. If Biden is elected, many here feel the Democratic Party has become even more progressive — and may try to curtail coal mining and fracking drilling operations with increased regulations.
Biden denies this. But many here don’t believe him. They also fear that a Democratic-controlled White House and Congress would usher in more controls on firearms while also relaxing curbs on abortion rights.
“We have a lot of Democrats here, but they are not your left-leaning Democrats,” said Schuylkill Republican Chairman Howard Merrick. “They are the conservative Democrats who are like dinosaurs in their party.”
Late on a recent afternoon, Merrick and about 50 other Trump supporters gathered on a corner in Pottsville near an Exxon Station and a Dunkin Donuts. They carried "Trump for president" signs and flags. Many wore red baseball caps that proclaimed Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan: “Make America Great Again.” None wore facial masks to curtail the spread of COVID-19.
One man set up a sound system and played songs by Elton John and the Rolling Stones. Another flew a small drone overhead with a Trump flag dangling below.
"This is coal country," said Carolyn Bonkoski, 75, who held a "Women for Trump" sign. "People talk about electric cars. Don’t they realize that it’s the coal burners that make the electricity? Electricity doesn’t just happen."
Rick Watcher drove up in his Silverado pickup and got out. He adjusted his red “Make America Great Again" baseball cap and walked toward the group, carrying a "Trump for president" sign. Another man walked by carrying a coal shovel and a sign that proclaimed: "Trump digs coal."
Watcher stopped for a few minutes. The group cheered as an 18-wheeler swept past, blowing its horn, and cars passed sounding their horns or revving their engines to signal their approval of Trump.
Trump will win, Watcher said. He’s sure of it.
Then he remembered his coal mining father, who helped him get into the business of hauling coal to local homes and businesses.
Watcher’s family had been Democrats. It was a way of life among Schuylkill County’s mining community. But the Watchers never voted. Watcher said they just did not want to bother.
All that changed in 2016.
The Watcher family supported Trump.
“Around here, we have hardworking people,” Watcher said, as a pickup truck swung by, blasting its horn, and a man with a Trump flag walked into traffic. “Look at our hands and see how hard they are.”
When Trump won, Watcher’s father told him to set off some fireworks.
Watcher did just that.
On Election Day next week, he hopes to set them off again.
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.