The chocolate factory that could make things sticky for Democrats

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Kathy Higo has blonde hair bunched up in a net that she isn't going to bother taking off for the quick break she is snatching in the spring sunshine outside the factory workers' entrance. She is a bagger, and those pesky chocolates they make inside don't stop coming just because she is weary.

It is a sharply saccharin smell that wafts from the doors each time they open. But for Ms Higo, there is nothing sweet about the predicament she finds herself in today. Never mind that this plant is the home of the York Peppermint Pattie, maybe the most iconic of American candy bars. Soon it will be shuttered by its owners, the Hershey Company, and the entire operation moved to Mexico.

Exactly when the last small round of dark chocolate with its crispy mint filling will come off the line here, no one in the company has been willing yet to say. It could be August, or maybe December, says Ms Higo. But no one doubts that by year's end the factory will be shut down and all 300 jobs inside lost.

It is no surprise, then, that this plant and the town it sits in, Reading, Pennsylvania, has become a ground-zero for debate about the economy and job losses in the state in the last few days of the presidential primary contest. Barack Obama has been in town, and James Hoffa, president of the Teamsters Union, came to the factory gates a week ago to sell the senator's economic message to the workers.

For Ms Higo it's a double disaster – her husband, Barrie, is also employed here – and there is no mistaking the villain. It is surely Nafta, the free trade treaty with Mexico and Canada that Bill Clinton signed into law. "I have 25 years in this factory and I'm not happy," she says. "I do blame Nafta. It's taking all our jobs away."

That is only one reason why she and Barrie know who they will vote for on Tuesday. "I just don't think she is a decent person," she says of Hillary Clinton. As for the ruckus over Mr Obama's remarks about the bitterness of voters, she says he was spot on. "When you have your job taken away and shipped to a different country, a job you've worked at for so many years, you are going to be bitter."

"I've spent the majority of my life here," adds Barrie. Now 48 years old, he has had 26 years with this one factory. "I work with one guy who's got 47 years, and I thought I would be one of them."

But if Mr Obama, narrowly trailing Mrs Clinton in most polls here, has pointed to the loss of the silver-foiled York Pattie to Mexico in his stump speeches across the state as an example of a trade policy that has gone wrong, not everyone in Reading is prepared to believe that the problem can easily be fixed.

It is not that Lawrence Clay, who at 83 has cast a vote in every Democratic contest since he was 21, is not furious about the closing of the plant, where his grandson, Jeff, pours sugar. "It's very stupid. If Milton Hershey (the company's founder) knew about this, he would be turning in his grave."

Bill Salvatore, 71, has no connection to the chocolate factory but is as sorry to see it close as he was when so many other manufacturing plants in Reading were shuttered before it. The owner of a shoe shop on Reading's main street, Penn Avenue, for 32 years, he now helps out in a dusty bric-a-brac shop a few doors down.

"I don't know if Hillary can really help this town," he says, sweeping his hands towards Penn Avenue, with its neon-lit pizza parlours and dollar stores. "This town needs more than help, it needs security, the people are scared. All the good paying jobs have already left – and they are not coming back."