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For Democrats, Scranton Is The New 'It' City

The audience listens as President Obama speaks at Scranton High School in Scranton, Pa., on Nov. 30, 2011.
Carolyn Kaster
The audience listens as President Obama speaks at Scranton High School in Scranton, Pa., on Nov. 30, 2011.

For most people, Scranton isn't high on their lists of must-see places. Most people know the struggling Pennsylvania city, if at all, as the nondescript setting for the television comedy The Office.

But politicians can't get enough of the place.

This time, it's President Obama making an appearance, speaking at Lackawanna College on Friday as part of his college affordability tour. He's bringing along Vice President Joe Biden, a native son.

It's not their first visit. Like Rick's Cafe in Casablanca, sooner or later everybody in national politics comes to Scranton. The Clintons, Mitt Romney, John Kerry and George W. Bush have all made appearances in recent years.

"It seems like almost every year they come, sometimes more during an election year," Carl Graziano, Scranton's acting police chief, said this week. "For a city our size, we seem to get them more than usual."

There's a good reason for this.

It's true that the city of 75,000 people has struggled financially since coal mining went into decline. But while Scranton may not be big or rich, it's entirely emblematic of a certain slice of the electorate. Pennsylvania still has plenty of persuadable voters — conservative Democrats who want the government to play a role in boosting the economy, but aren't keen on abortion or gay marriage.

If you're Obama, you can address that type of voter more readily in Scranton than you can speaking to your base in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. It's a white working-class city without enough work.

"They are conservative [Democrats] and they swing both ways," says Borys Krawczeniuk, a political reporter with the Scranton Times-Tribune. "Every once in a while, you have to say hello and convince them you're still on their side."

Something In The Soil

Growing up in Scranton is almost like the 20th century equivalent of being raised in a log cabin.

Biden, who hasn't lived there in 60 years, still refers to it so often and so admiringly as the epitome of working-class values that Saturday Night Live last year tried to imagine him running the place down.

"I grew up there. I love it. It's the single worst place on earth," the Biden character said.

Hillary Clinton's dad played high school football in Scranton and was buried there the first year Bill Clinton served in the White House. She beat Obama in Lackawanna County by a nearly 3-to-1 margin in the 2008 presidential primary.

Her grandfather built a cabin along nearby Lake Winola that her brothers still own. "Thankfully, they have made some improvements," she wrote in Living History, her 2003 autobiography. "A couple of years ago they even put in a shower."

Taking Politics Seriously

Scranton is an especially resonant political town for Pennsylvanians. Democratic Sen. Robert Casey grew up in Scranton, as did his late father, a popular two-term governor.

"You used to have Reagan Democrats," says Krawczeniuk. "Here, they're called Casey Democrats."

Bill Scranton, the former Republican governor and presidential candidate who died last month, was a direct descendant of the town's founder. He started his legal career there and raised his family in Scranton, including a namesake son who went on to serve as the state's lieutenant governor.

It's a city where politics is taken seriously.

"Scranton has had a history of strong machine politics," says Thomas Baldino, a political science professor at Wilkes University in nearby Wilkes-Barre. "This region is well known for its ability to get out the vote."

A Struggling Local Economy

During last year's vice presidential debate, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan sought to get under Biden's skin by noting that unemployment in Scranton had increased on Obama's watch to 10 percent.

It's come down a bit since, but only a bit. The local unemployment rate was 9.5 percent in June. Scranton has had the highest unemployment rate of any metropolitan area in Pennsylvania for 39 months running.

Local food banks aren't able to keep enough food on the shelves to meet demand. A former coal capital, Scranton has struggled to keep up with the knowledge economy.

Household income there is well below the statewide average, while the poverty rate is much higher. "In Scranton, a stunning 41.3 percent of those over 18 have withdrawn altogether from the work force," reports The New York Times.

Perhaps for these reasons, not everyone is greeting Obama with open arms.

"Our families are out of work and poor and all the president continues to do is tour the country like Bruce Springstein [sic], as though seeing his face is some sort of prophetic inspiration," Kevin Haggerty, a local state representative — and a Democrat — wrote on his Facebook wall. "Why don't you spend a few nights here, sit down in closed doors and ensure we don't turn out like Detroit."

Lending A Helping Hand

If Obama represents an America that is more cosmopolitan, educated and racially mixed than Scranton overall, most local officials recognize that their community can use some help from the federal government.

"We're the people who are just making it from paycheck to paycheck," says Evie Rafalko-McNulty, the Lackawanna County recorder of deeds and a member of the Democratic National Committee. "We're really interested in what the presidents or the other candidates have to say because what they say or do affects us the most."

The president came to Scranton in 2011 to talk about the importance of extending payroll tax cuts, and he's back to talk up education and technical training.

The locals aren't just interested in speeches. Lackawanna County recently worked with the Small Business Administration to become the first local government in the nation to extend a program that had been part of Obama's 2009 stimulus package.

For every business that qualifies for an SBA loan, the county itself will now pick up the tab for origination fees that can run as high as $250,000.

"You can't rebuild the country at large in one fell swoop," says Corey O'Brien, a Lackawanna County commissioner and champion of the program. "You need to rebuild the economy one community at a time."

That's just the type of message Obama comes to a place like Scranton to present.

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.

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