In Joe Biden's hometown of Scranton, the election is personal

Richard Hall speaks to Biden supporters in his hometown of Scranton, where the former vice president makes a pitch to working class voters   

Tuesday 03 November 2020 18:05 GMT
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Joe Biden (pictured visiting his childhood home back in July) will aim to win the presidency today
Joe Biden (pictured visiting his childhood home back in July) will aim to win the presidency today (Getty Images)

Claire Serowinski’s reason for voting for Joe Biden is both deeply personal, and, due to the unique circumstances of this election, much more than that.

She happens to live in the same neighbourhood where the former vice president grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania. One day 12 years ago, shortly before he was selected as Barack Obama’s running mate, she ran into him when he was visiting the neighbourhood, as he often does. Her father was very sick at the time.

“I told him my dad had pancreatic cancer,” says Serowinski, 51, who has lived in the Green ridge neighbourhood her whole life. “He hugged me because I was crying. Then I told him I lived right down the street and he came to see him on his way out of town.

“My dad passed away a few months later. But he voted for him. It was one of the last things he did,” she says.

At any other time, the story might be lumped in with countless other similar personal interactions that politicians go out of their way to have in the heat of a campaign. But in a year when character and morality are on the ballot, Mr Biden’s empathy has become one of his biggest selling points.

His campaign has drawn from a deep well of these moments and interactions, both public and private, to distinguish him from his opponent in the eyes of voters. For Biden and his supporters, the personal is political.

“He’s thoughtful and caring, and that’s what we need right now. We need someone who is a decent human being to lead our country,” Serowinski says.

It is perhaps no surprise then that Mr Biden’s own story, and his hometown, has taken on an added importance this year. In one of the most contentious and consequential presidential races in modern history, the state of Pennsylvania has emerged as the most likely tipping point. That has put Scranton firmly in the sights of both campaigns: Mr Trump came Monday and Mr Biden will be here on election day for one last stump speech.

Mr Biden has made his upbringing here central to his justification for his presidency, pitching his run for the White House as “Scranton versus Park Avenue.” He has frequently talked of his early life in a struggling working class family in an attempt to win working class voters, pointing to his background as the source of his empathy.  

“No matter where I’ve gone in life, I’ve always been led by the values that Scranton instilled in me at a young age – values of hard work, faith and a commitment to the middle-class,” Mr Biden said during a visit to the town last month.

His campaign even cut an ad with Bruce Springsteen in which the Pennsylvania native narrates over his song ‘My Hometown’: "Scranton, Pennsylvania. Here, success isn't handed down. "It's forged with sweat, grit, and determination. This is his hometown."

But four years ago, paradoxically, it was white working class voters in Pennsylvania and across other Midwestern swing states that made Mr Trump president. That a man who was born rich and became even richer appealed to working class voters shocked Democrats then, and still baffles Mr Biden’s supporters here today.

A statue of union leader John Mitchell stands in the centre of Scranton, Pennsylvania.  
A statue of union leader John Mitchell stands in the centre of Scranton, Pennsylvania.   (Richard Hall / The Independent)

“Working people betray themselves,” says James Mundy, a personal injury lawyer in Scranton. “Instead of being someone who’s for them, they talk about race and they think about all these other issues that are divisive, rather than the person who’s going to save their healthcare.”

Not far from where he speaks in downtown Scranton stands a testament to the town’s proud working class heritage. In front of the county courthouse is a statue of John Mitchell, another hometown hero and former president of the United Mine Workers of America, who led huge strikes and battled to win an eight-hour workday and minimum wage for his members in the early 20th century.

But over the years as industry faded, so did the unions. And as the unions faded, so did the Democratic Party. Mr Trump’s success with working class voters was the culmination of a slow shift towards Republicans for culturally conservative rural populations across the Midwest, whose economic ties to the Democrats had long since faded.  

“There was a time when we stood shoulder to shoulder. We had to, in order to have rights,” says Mundy. “We had strength in unions, we had strength in numbers. That’s all gone now. The difference is that people who don’t have an identity with each other, they don’t think of themselves as being part of a group anymore.”

His partner in law, Jim Powell, says Mr Trump “got in there with a wedge” among working class voters by fuelling racism. “He’s not for them. They think he is, but he’s not for them — he’s an elitist, he could care less about them,” he adds.

James Mundy and Jim Powell, both personal injury lawyers from Scranton, say Trump is an elitist.
James Mundy and Jim Powell, both personal injury lawyers from Scranton, say Trump is an elitist. (Richard Hall / The Independent )

Scranton has changed a lot since a young Joe Biden walked the streets of Green Ridge. It was once a booming factory town, fuelled by Pennsylvania’s prosperous coal and iron industry. Scranton fortunes fell with them. By the time Mr Biden was a young boy, his father, Joseph R. Biden Sr., struggled to find work. When the young Biden was just 10-years-old, the family moved to Delaware.

Today, the town’s population is only half of what it was at its peak in the 1930s, when some 143,333 people called it home. It is a mix of classes, of rural and urban life. And though he was just a young boy when he left, Mr Biden’s supporters here still see their town’s values in him.

“I think Biden understands the people much more,” says David Fallk, another Scranton resident who came downtown to pick up another Biden sign after his was stolen.

“Trump is a New Yorker, Park Avenue guy. He inherited everything and Biden had to work for everything. It’s gonna help him here, it’s gonna help him in a lot of places because people can relate more to his working class background and his empathy for people. Trump has no empathy.”

While Mr Biden is likely to win a good majority of voters here in Scranton, it’s the rural areas of Pennsylvania where his opponent draws his strength. If Mr Trump wins the state, it will be because they turnout for him in large numbers.

Mr Trump’s Midwest campaign four years ago was filled with promises to bring back coal and steel and revitalise declining industry. In fact, coal production in the US last year sank to its lowest level since 1978. Mining jobs have decreased by nearly 10 per cent since he took office, and there were more mine closures during the president’s first two years than there were in Barack Obama’s entire first term. That doesn’t appear to have harmed his appeal in places like Johnstown, a smaller town in the more rural western part of the state, and others like it.

That is something that troubles Biden supporter Serowinski, too.

“I think when he first ran, he represented someone who was not a politician. Out of the box. That’s what drew them, and I can understand that in a way,” she says.  

“But four years later, everything that he’s done and mismanaged, it’s harder to understand. It almost comes down to a cult. It’s groupthink and they can’t break out of it.”

In Pennsylvania at least, this election may come down not to Scranton vs Park Avenue, but Scranton vs Johnstown.

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