Women in Pittsburgh's wealthy suburbs could help Biden beat Trump in Pennsylvania

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Activists with the group Progress PA demonstrate on Route 19 in Wexford, Pa., on Sept. 18, 2020. - TOM GRALISH/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

McCANDLESS, Pa. — Like so many other women in suburban America, Alison Duncan was horrified by Donald Trump’s election and decided to get off the sidelines.

Duncan, a 46-year-old graphic designer who hadn’t been involved in activism or politics since college, joined a progressive group and ran for a spot on nearby Pine Township’s moribund Democratic committee. “I didn’t even really know what the job exactly was,” said Duncan, who moved to Southwestern Pennsylvania with her husband and two children nine years ago from Portland, Oregon.

“I just had to do something,” she said.

So there she was early on a Friday evening last month, standing on the side of a highway a half-hour drive north of Pittsburgh with a dozen other sign-waving Democratic organizers.

“HE KNEW HE LIED,” her sign read. “200,000 PEOPLE DIED,” read another, marking the toll of the coronavirus pandemic.

There were honks of approval as traffic made its way through Route 19 in front of Wexford Plaza, a shopping center with a Whole Foods, a furniture store, and a Halloween costume shop. But there were also obscenities and shouts of “Trump 2020!” A couple dogs barked out windows, perhaps detecting a relatively new scent in an area known as the North Hills: the Democratic Party.

The suburban revolt from the Republican Party during Trump’s presidency, part of a political realignment that had been building for years, has been solidified by elections following 2016. But the Democrats’ inroads have varied by region, and the party faces a new test as it tries to expand its coalition to the largely white, affluent, and well-educated stretch of towns here that make up Pennsylvania’s 28th State House District.

Republicans have held the seat for decades, most recently by Rep. Mike Turzai, an ardent fiscal and social conservative who rose to speaker of the state House — and became public enemy No. 1 to Pennsylvania progressives for his efforts to restrict abortion and block a tax on natural gas drilling. In 2012, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won the district by 26 points.

In a sign of just how much Trump has scrambled electoral politics, Democrats are confident Joe Biden will win the district. They point to growing — albeit modest — racial diversity, Trump’s abysmal approval ratings among white voters with college degrees, and the party’s strong performance here in 2018 statewide elections.

Democrats face a hostile political environment in much of Southwestern Pennsylvania, which has a high concentration of white voters without college degrees, a key pillar of Trump’s support in a critical battleground state. To counter Trump’s strength there, and in rural areas and small towns across the state, Biden is hoping to fare better than Hillary Clinton did in Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located — much as he wants to post big margins in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

“If he’s able to convert the communities like McCandless, which historically voted Republican, I just don’t think anything Donald Trump does in the rural parts (of the state) will offset Biden’s gains,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist based in the Pittsburgh area.

Republicans laugh at the suggestion that Biden could carry the district, which Trump won by 9 points. Republicans still outnumber Democrats in the 28th District, which is also less racially diverse than Philadelphia’s collar counties.

“Western Pennsylvania is broadly, across the board, more culturally conservative,” said Mark Harris, a Republican strategist advising Rob Mercuri, a bank executive who attended West Point, served as a military intelligence officer in Iraq and is running to succeed Turzai.

Democrats like their chances in the House race, a key part of their bid to take control of the 203-member chamber before the critical decennial redrawing of congressional and legislative district lines. They’ve been organizing since 2017, building the necessary infrastructure to do so. Duncan’s group, ProgressPA, worked to help elect U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb and other Democrats in Pittsburgh’s southern and western suburbs.

Mercuri is running against Democrat Emily Skopov, founder of a nonprofit that donates educational and art supplies to marginalized communities, for the seat left vacant this year by Turzai’s retirement. (He took a job in the private sector.)

In an interview, Mercuri acknowledged “the politics of the region have moved a little bit,” but said that “people are just as excited as they have been in this area about conservative principles” toward economic growth and jobs, public safety, and education.

As he knocked on doors in late September, Mercuri stopped by Bob and Jan Howard’s house in Marshall Township. “How many times do I get to vote for a West Point grad?” Bob Howard, a retired marketing executive, Army veteran, and local GOP activist, told Mercuri.

Howard, a Trump supporter, said of the president: “I want somebody who’s going to push back and defend our country and our values.”

Two doors down, L.N. Blackburn, 56, a local Democratic activist, has lived in the area for 30 years. Pointing to houses on the block where new neighbors had moved in, she said it used to be known as “the Great White North.”

Diversity is “bringing more people and ideas from outside the region,” said Blackburn, a doctoral student in sustainability who prefers “any sane adult” over Trump.

Unlike much of the region — where decades of population decline dating to the collapse of the steel industry has helped reshape politics — the 28th District has seen growth in recent years, driven in part by people moving from out of state. More young families are attracted by new upscale developments and jobs at Pittsburgh’s higher education and health care institutions, as well as satellite campuses opened by tech giants like Google. A few miles north in Cranberry Township, nuclear energy company Westinghouse Electric employs a few thousand people in Butler County.

Median household income is about $106,000, compared with $59,000 for the state, and 66% of those 25 and older have college degrees, compared with 31% statewide, according to census estimates. The district is still overwhelmingly white, but has a growing Asian population.

Among the relatively new nonwhite residents is Jaskiran Geadhoke, 48, of Wexford. A computer programmer, she moved here 2 1/2 years ago from Colorado when her husband got a new job. She said that her top concern is getting the pandemic under control, and that she will vote for Biden.

“I think he’s more honest,” Geadhoke said as she loaded groceries into her car outside Whole Foods. “He has a plan for everything on his website.”

It’s not just newcomers supporting Biden.

Mike Henry, a retired railroad worker, said he admired how Biden, as a senator from Delaware, used to take Amtrak every day to Washington and “ride with the people.”

Henry, 69, said he usually votes for candidates in both parties, including Turzai. But he’s voting straight Democratic this year. His wife has a lung disease, so he doesn’t leave the house much during the pandemic. He motioned toward the garage: “I got a Harley sitting in there that’s barely used.”

When he does get out, he visits his five sisters in nearby Sharpsburg. They all support Trump. “One thing I keep bringing up to them: I ask them to Google ‘What’s the death toll in South Korea?’” (Less than 400, he recalled accurately.)

“They get angry,” he said.

For all the Democratic energy, the continued GOP strength is hard to miss. And support for Trump feels like part of the cultural fabric.

Lynn Pusateri, 60, was watching her grandchildren at their home in McCandless when she opened the door to speak about the election. Before she could offer her assessment, one of her grandsons yelled out: “Trump 2020!”

A sign out front says “We Support Our Police,” and Pusateri’s husband was a cop.

“Thank God he’s retired,” she said. “They’re just walking up and killing them.”

Another grandson came home from school.

“Who are you voting for, Leo?” Pusateri asked playfully.

“For what?” he asked.

“President.”

“Trump!” Leo said.

While the GOP has lost support among many women, some are uneasy about the Democrats.

Kristen Stoltz, 42, of McCandless, said she was frustrated by both parties and doesn’t think Trump has gotten a fair shake from the news media.

“I think Biden’s a little bit too old, and I think his mind is going,” said Stoltz, who was watching her daughter play soccer on a Saturday morning.

Stoltz, a real estate agent, said she’s heard from Black customers who say they’ve been discriminated against. “I feel Black lives matter, absolutely,” she said, but added that calls for racial equality have been drowned out by looting.

Stoltz said racial divisions existed before Trump took office and wasn’t sure “if he’s made it better or worse.”

In the parking lot adjacent to the soccer field, Skopov, the Democratic House candidate, was addressing a dozen supporters as they prepared to drive around the district. She had just arrived from a funeral for her friend’s 21-year-old daughter, who struggled with depression and addiction.

“I don’t think there’s anyone out there right now who doesn’t have some version of depression or anxiety or unbelievable amount of stress,” Skopov told the group. “There’s like a toxic vibe in the air because there’s so much tension between people.”

She said it was important to elect a candidate “who actually demonstrates some sort of compassion and commitment to truth” and “people of all parties.”

But healing those divisions isn’t easy.

When Skopov dropped off a campaign flyer at a house with a Trump flag, a man opened the door and declined the literature, explaining he wasn’t a fan.

“I don’t like the things that you stand for,” he told her.

They spoke privately for a few minutes. Skopov tried to challenge his assumptions about her positions on taxes and police funding, but he only grew more frustrated with each answer. “He had already made his decision on where I stood,” she said, “and he really was bothered by the idea that he might have been wrong.”

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer