CARBONDALE, Pa. — Mayor Justin Taylor sat in his office in the century-old brick City Hall building overlooking downtown Carbondale, a framed photo of him with former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell on the wall. Taylor became mayor in this small city of 8,000 when he was 25, just a few years out of the University of Scranton.
Now, 18 years later, Taylor is a husband, a dad, and an owner of multiple businesses (small-town mayors don’t make much). He has also, like so many of his constituents, jettisoned whatever ties he once felt to the Democratic Party — even if he hasn’t formally changed his registration.
“I’m honestly amazed at myself that I haven’t switched yet,” Taylor said in an interview in late July. “I don’t get the Democratic Party anymore. They’ve moved so far left and it seems like it’s all about getting as many votes as possible, not about being the party of the working class.”
This (technically) Democratic mayor of a traditionally Democratic town off the I-81 corridor has shifted right along with Carbondale, Lackawanna County, and much of northeast Pennsylvania. While Democrats still outnumber Republicans in the state by about 780,000 voters, that edge has narrowed over the last four years as the GOP gained ground in once-safe Democratic bastions in northeast and southwest Pennsylvania. And if President Donald Trump wins the state again in November, it will be partly thanks to smaller cities like Carbondale scattered across Pennsylvania.
“We were always a Democratic town, always,” said Lorraine Tomaine, 73, as she left a park where she’d gathered for a book club meeting. “But the town has become very, very conservative.”
Tomaine, a retired math teacher, recalled the famous adage by the Democratic strategist James Carville, who once described Pennsylvania as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in the middle.
“I really feel like I live in Alabama now,” she said.
While Trump has collapsed in the polls in Pennsylvania and nationally following his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, the race is likely to tighten in its final weeks. In a pivotal state Trump won by less than 1% of the vote in 2016 — partly because of voters in Lackawanna County and bordering Luzerne County — even small shifts in his favor in places like Carbondale could have outsized importance. And interviews with 20 residents and political operatives in the northeast suggest that places like Carbondale are trending even more pro-Trump than four years ago.
To understand Carbondale’s political transformation, you need to go back to its roots. Residents proudly boast that Carbondale helped launch the Industrial Revolution. The country’s first underground mine started here in 1831, and a railroad system followed to transport coal to Philadelphia and New York. The Democratic Party was an early backer of labor unions, which fought for fair wages and safer working conditions for miners.
As industrial jobs left, Carbondale’s population shrank. And in more recent years, political allegiances started to erode.
“My father was a lifelong Democrat, 46 years in the union, and he said, ‘You’re going to register as a Democrat.’ And I said, ‘OK,’ “ recalled Mike Mazza Jr., a 55-year-old carpenter. “I would say right now if my father was alive I truly think I could swing him to vote Republican.”
Mazza switched this year. He’s always been more conservative on issues like abortion and gun control, he said. He thinks his former party gives too many handouts.
“I’m just sorry I didn’t wake up soon enough to vote for (Trump) the first time,” said Mazza, who sat out the 2016 election.
Carbondale is a white, working-class community with a largely older population. Main Street is lined with public housing and vacant stores — some shuttered before the pandemic, others since. There’s still a family-owned bakery and restaurant, a coal-themed hotel, a YMCA, and an antiques shop. Many residents work about 20 miles away in Scranton, Joe Biden’s childhood hometown, or for nearby companies like the Hendrick metal plant or the military equipment manufacturer Gentex.
The city is home to the type of voters who have gravitated toward Trump: The population is 92% white, according to Census data, with a median family income of $40,000, 20% of the population living below the poverty line, and about 18% with college degrees. In recent years, some Black and Latino residents have moved in from New York and New Jersey.
“This area is mostly older residents on fixed income. Then you have a lot of people who are under- or unemployed,” said Rob McDonnell, the owner of McDonnell’s restaurant. “I think the left has gone too far left for older people in communities like this.”
Democrats still outnumber Republicans by about 2-1 in Carbondale, but that’s down from 4-1 a decade ago, and several Democrats described themselves as Trump supporters who haven’t bothered to change their registration.
“I knew this was coming, but I didn’t think it would come this soon,” said Maria Gillette, Carbondale’s GOP chair. “The Democrats, they’ve just gone wild.”
Carbondale has endured its share of mockery over the years, slapped with the nickname “Garbagedale” as corruption scandals and weird crime stories made regional news. Taylor said Trump connected with people here who felt looked down upon.
“We’ve been called the armpit of Lackawanna County,” Taylor said. “Trump supporters have been called white trash, the rednecks, and the hillbillies. And now they’re like, ‘Yeah, OK, we are. And, you know what? We just registered Republican and we’re gonna vote.’ “
Taylor, who plans to vote for Trump, acknowledges the president has stoked racism. At a Black Lives Matter protest in June, a white man showed up with a gun and a Confederate flag.
“I’m not a fan of that,” Taylor said. “I’m not a fan of forcing people to pick sides and to push them into those far-reaching corners.”
For Maria Lawler, who grew up in Carbondale, the Trump signs and conservative rhetoric feel foreign. Lawler volunteers planting flowers and trees around town, but getting people involved has become harder, she said: As politics have become more divided, so has the town.
That goes for her own house. Lawler is a Democrat and plans to vote for Biden. Her husband was a lifelong Democrat until Trump.
“No one talks to each other anymore,” said Lawler’s daughter, Amanda Fuerstenberg. “Unless it’s on Facebook and then it’s just people attacking one another.”
While the town was settled by different immigrant groups working together in the mines and on the railroads, they lived on different sides of town, with their own churches, and, at one time, even their own fire departments. Some say the legacy of that persists.
“My heart hurts for the minorities in this town because I don’t feel like they’re treated properly,” Fuerstenberg said.
In nearby Olyphant, Dave Mitchko’s home has become a warehouse for people to pick up Trump signs in Lackawanna County. The Trump campaign gave him more than 14,000, which he distributes out of his garage.
Olyphant, like Carbondale, is a former coal town where Democrats are losing voters, including Mitchko. He became a Republican last year, after he and his wife lost their jobs at WEA Manufacturing, which produced CDs and DVDs. The factory was the largest employer in Olyphant before the company closed it in 2018 and shifted production to Mexico.
As Mitchko, 53, talked about how his family struggled with the layoffs, a neighbor across the street returned home, Latin music blasting from the car.
“They call me fat racist,” Mitchko said, gesturing across the street to the house where Black Lives Matter and Mexican flags hung outside.
Brittany Babcock lives there. She said the Black Lives Matter flag sparked arguments with her landlord and neighbors. She called the police after an argument escalated, she said, and her landlord later asked her to move out.
“I want to go, though,” said Babcock. “My anxiety is through the roof. I don’t let my kids outside to play anymore. I keep both my doors locked. I never thought in 2020 that it would be like this, we would be racially profiled. All over a flag.”
Babcock, 26, registered to vote for the first time this year and said she’s voting against Trump.
“I don’t like Biden, to be honest with you,” she said. “But Trump is making this country worse every day.”
With roots in working-class Scranton, Biden has cast himself as the candidate who can win back voters who supported President Barack Obama before swinging to Trump. Polls and interviews show he doesn’t generate the antipathy among white voters that Hillary Clinton did in 2016.
Lackawanna County is the second most Democratic county in the state by percentage of registrations. Obama carried it by 27 percentage points in 2012, but Clinton, who also has ties to Scranton, won by just 3 points in 2016. Trump also picked up a huge haul of voters in Luzerne County, trouncing Clinton there by more than 26,000 votes, more than half of his margin of victory in the state. Obama won Luzerne in 2012.
Lackawanna County is still almost entirely represented by Democrats in Harrisburg and Washington, and progressives have made other gains in local elections in the region. But even Biden supporters are nervous.
“I do look at the registrations and do worry,” said Scranton Mayor Paige Cognetti, who endorsed Biden last week. She thinks Biden “should” win Lackawanna, “but I don’t think it’s a given.”
Frank Truman, a retired social studies teacher, thinks there are a lot of silent Biden voters in Carbondale. He happens to be a vocal one.
“I have no problems going up to a guy, 6-foot-5, a big goofy red hat on him, and telling him: ‘What’s a matter? Are you stupid?’ “ Truman said at McDonnell’s restaurant, wearing an American flag face mask. “There’s a certain amount of dignity that has to come with an executive office. And he doesn’t have it.”
For some residents here, Biden’s ties to nearby Scranton, which his family left when he was 10, actually make him less appealing.
“If he was crossing the street, I wouldn’t cross it to say hello to him,” said Nancy Free, a former editor of the Carbondale News who now works at the Gentex plant. “What has he done for this region in 40 years in Washington?”
In interviews with a dozen Obama-Trump voters in the region, none planned to vote for Biden. Several are former elected Democrats who left the party.
“It used to be a much more moderate, big-tent party,” Pat Rogan, the ex-president of Scranton’s City Council and a Democrat-turned-Republican, said. Rogan pointed to immigration and trade as issues that have particularly motivated people to switch parties.
“There are very few people in this area who don’t have a family member or who haven’t themselves had a job go overseas,” he said.
©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer