A Pennsylvania county voted for Obama twice. But it's 'Trump Country' now

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Joe Biden supporter Tom Bindus, 63, down the road from where Vice President Mike Pence held a campaign rally Tuesday, September 1, 2020 in Exeter, Pennsylvania. - STEVEN M. FALK/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

EXETER, Pa. — As traffic made its way down Schooley Avenue on Tuesday, the giant Trump signs on Jeff Davis’ porch were impossible to miss. “Make America Great Again,” one read. “No more bulls —,” proclaimed another.

Vice President Mike Pence would hold a rally down the road a few hours later in this former coal mining town, but Davis wasn’t going. He suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and says his immune system is “down to nothing.” Standing on his front lawn, Davis, 57, motioned to his wife and daughter on the porch.

“I’m still very leery on the COVID thing,” he said. “Mostly, they go food shopping.”

But the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t moved him away from President Donald Trump. A retired plumber, Davis used to vote for Democrats supported by his union, including Barack Obama in 2008. He soured on Obama four years later, and voted for Trump in 2016. He plans to do so again.

“If it wasn’t for the corona, look how good this country was doing,” Davis said, citing a strong economy, Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods, and a new deal that replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement. “We got to worry about here, the United States, not Iran and Saudi Arabia, kissing their butts. We got to worry about us.”

And he gave Trump strong marks for his handling of the pandemic: “Everybody says the corona, ‘Oh, well, he could’ve done better.’ Nobody knew. Nobody knew what was going to happen with that.”

Voters like Davis were key to Trump’s narrow win in Pennsylvania four years ago. Luzerne County was one of three in the state that twice supported Obama before flipping to Trump. And Trump’s 26,000-vote edge over Hillary Clinton in Luzerne accounted for more than half of his total margin of victory in the state, which he won by less than one percentage point.

Even Democrats don’t expect Joe Biden to win Luzerne County. But as in other parts of the state where Trump ran up the score in 2016 with support from white, working-class voters, the party is hoping Biden will narrow that advantage. Democratic groups have been airing TV ads in the media market that covers Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, featuring testimonials from people who voted for Trump but now oppose him.

It remains to be seen whether that message will prevail. But interviews with more than a dozen voters in Luzerne County suggest Pence may well be right that, as he said Tuesday, Northeastern Pennsylvania is “Trump Country now.”

There are other signs that this former Democratic stronghold is becoming more Republican. GOP registrations are up by 11,600 voters in the last four years, while Democratic registrations have stayed flat. Republicans took control of the county council last year, while a prominent Democratic state senator became an independent. And a Muhlenberg College/Morning Call poll last month suggested Northeast Pennsylvania is Trump’s strongest area of support.

Voters in both parties agreed that the country is deeply divided and that things aren’t heading in the right direction. Many said they lamented the coarsening of the civic discourse.

“We’re in such a bad place, my team vs. your team, as we’ve ever been,” Michael Kolojejchick, a 70-year-old financial planner who supports Trump, said during a haircut in downtown Wilkes-Barre.

Back in Exeter, Barbara Pazdziorko was meeting with fellow Democrats across the street from Davis’ house. Biden supporters had set up something of a command post, complete with a cardboard cutout of the former vice president and Scranton native. Pazdziorko said the United States is “in deplorable shape.”

“You see that banner hanging there on the pole?” Pazdziorko said, pointing toward a telephone pole down the street. It was a remembrance of her uncle, John Makstutis, a Marine sergeant who was awarded a Purple Heart for his service in the Korean War. He lost an eye and kidney in the war, she said.

“That man was such a moral man,” she said. “If he was living now, and he saw the things that Trump was doing, I think he would die of a broken heart.”

Pazdziorko and her friend Beverly Dulny, a retired teacher from nearby Duryea, were still scratching their heads over how Trump won Luzerne. “Nobody knows,” Dulny said, though she suspected sexism played a role. They said that Trump was rooting for violence in the streets and that he visited Kenosha, Wis., this week to divert attention from the coronavirus. Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot seven times in the back by a white police officer in Kenosha last month, and in the ensuing unrest, a 17-year-old Illinois Trump supporter allegedly shot and killed two protesters.

Pazdziorko described Biden as a “gentleman,” and dismissed Trump’s argument that Biden is a failed career politician. “He has been in government for 47 years, and he knows government,” she said.

Armonde Casagrande, a county Democratic activist, said Trump had exploited “the vestiges of racism in this area.”

The county is whiter than Pennsylvania as a whole, according to census data. About 23% have college degrees, compared with 31% statewide, and median household income is lower. Non-college whites are a key pillar of support for Trump.

Casagrande said Biden would fare better than Clinton. “Democrats have become the new silent majority,” he said, adding that friends are afraid to put Biden signs in their yards “because they’re intimidated by their neighbors.”

Trump supporters were certainly more vocal here Tuesday. They said the president has been unfairly criticized for the pandemic, credited him for the economy, and shared his opposition to abortion rights.

Some who said they were unsure about Trump when he first announced his candidacy now fully embrace him.

“At first I thought he was a wack job,” Michael Winsock, 56, of nearby Wyoming, said as he waited for Pence. “I think he represents us well.”

Winsock, who is semi-retired and worked in electrical sales, said he was a lifelong Democrat until 2016, though he didn’t vote for Obama. “Our whole country in general was going downhill till (Trump) got here,” he said. “The whole world lost respect for us. Trump brought it back.”

Cynthia Liberski, 72, said civil unrest in Wisconsin and Portland, Ore., was “being created by Democrats,” and warned of the dangers of socialism.

Others said they were doing well financially under Trump. There were 257,000 non-farm jobs in the Wilkes-Barre-Scranton-Hazleton metropolitan area when Trump took office in January 2017. That increased to about 260,000 by February 2020 — or by 1.2%, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. But the pandemic wiped away those gains: As of June, there were fewer than 230,000 jobs.

Fact-checking Mike Pence’s claim that Trump has added thousands of manufacturing jobs in Pa.Mark Diamond, 27, waited 2½ hours to get a glimpse of Pence, holding a “Keep America Great” banner. He graduated from college in 2016 and soon got a job as a marketing manager. In Northeastern Pennsylvania, he said, “jobs like that don’t come around very often.”

Trump has boasted that while labor leaders endorsed Clinton and now Biden, rank-and-file members in areas like this support him.

Not all blue-collar Democrats have left the fold. “I’m tired of the division. I’m sick of it,” said Nancy Nice, 56, of Swoyersville, a construction inspector who was a member of the Carpenters union for seven years. Her sister, a Trump supporter, hasn’t spoken to her in four years. People have thrown beer bottles and other garbage at her Biden yard signs, she said.

Jay Notartomaso, 59, owns a record store in downtown Wilkes-Barre. “Everything I cherish as an American I feel is in jeopardy under Trump,” said Notartomaso as he asked a customer to pull up his face mask.

The previous night, he said, someone wearing a Trump hat used the N-word in his store. “This is what Trump empowers,” Notartomaso said.

But Trump’s appeal to disaffected former Democrats may have staying power. Gary Oakes, 50, does electrical work and plumbing. He’s been out of work for five months, lost his home, and recently moved into a homeless shelter in Wilkes-Barre with his family.

Oakes is still waiting to receive unemployment benefits and a stimulus check authorized by the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package.

His appraisal of the Democrats: “Whole bunch of promises, nothing being kept.” He thinks Trump can turn around the economy. “He’s unpredictable and I think that’s what the country needs,” Oakes said.

Back on his lawn in Exeter, Jeff Davis was asked if Trump could have a calming effect on the unrest roiling places like Kenosha.

“I don’t think he’s good at that. I really don’t,” Davis said. “I think he kind of puts fuel on the fire, just in his words, you know. Some of the stuff he says.”

But he doesn’t think Biden could do any better, and fears a President Biden coming for his guns. (Biden says he wants to ban assault weapons and require those who already own them to register with the government, not confiscate legally owned firearms.)

“As far as who could quiet this whole rioting and everything down,” Davis said, “buddy, that’s a hard one.”

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Donald Trump supporters wait for Vice President Mike Pence, who held a "Workers for Trump" campaign event in Exeter Pa. on Tuesday, Septemeber 1, 2020. - STEVEN M. FALK/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS