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Trump and Biden both need northeast Pennsylvania to win. Here's why it may be close | Kelly

Mike Kelly
NorthJersey.com

Pennsylvania is a key to victory for President Donald Trump and for former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party challenger. Veteran USA TODAY Network Columnist Mike Kelly and visual Journalist Chris Pedota are visiting three Keystone State regions to assess voters' sentiments before the Nov. 3 election. This segment looks at Luzerne County in Northeast Pennsylvania and efforts by Democrats to lure conservative "purple" voters who might ordinarily swing to Trump.

WILKES-BARRE, Pennsylvania — Bill Barrett readily admits he ought to be voting for President Donald Trump.

After all, Barrett fits the profile of so many Trump supporters in the rolling hills of northeast Pennsylvania: He’s white, 70 years old, an Army veteran and a lifelong police officer who is angry at the clarion call by Democratic progressives to defund police departments because of their treatment of Black Americans. 

A “thin blue line” pro-police flag flutters from a pole by the garage of Barrett’s home on the outskirts of this former coal mining town. A “Back the Blue” sign sits on his weed-free front lawn.

But Barrett, who rose to become chief of the 100-officer Wilkes-Barre department before retiring to supervise security at a local community college, plans to vote for Democrat Joe Biden. Next to his pro-police lawn sign sits a “Biden-Harris 2020” sign.  

“I’m actually somebody who should have a Trump sign out front,” Barrett said on a recent morning. “But that’s not me.”

Former Wilkes-Barre Police Chief Bill Barrett and current member of the Wilkes-Barre city council. Democrats talk about their party’s chances in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania in this year’s presidential race. The county was won by Donald Trump in 2016.

The high-stakes battle over votes in this corner of Pennsylvania looms as one of the most significant in the national presidential campaign. For Democrats — and Republicans, too — voters like Bill Barrett, who also serves as a Democrat on the Wilkes-Barre City Council, may be a key to victory and Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes. 

Yes, Barrett adheres to several distinctly “red” Republican views, especially in his backing of police and the constitutional rights of citizens to own guns. But he also ardently supports some “blue” Democratic principles such as the need for expanded health care and a ban on military-style assault rifles.

Call him a “purple” voter.

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In this key battleground state, with its voter-rich “blue” cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and vast stretches of  “red” small towns in between, “purple” may be the color of victory.

In 2016, with nearly 6 million Pennsylvanians going to the polls, Trump won the state by only 44,300 votes — a margin of less than 1% over Democrat Hillary Clinton. But most of Trump’s winning margin came from Wilkes-Barre and Luzerne County, where he beat Clinton by more than 26,000 votes.

It was a stunning upset in what Democrats viewed as a reliable stronghold. 

This year, Luzerne County — and neighboring Lackawanna County, which includes Biden’s boyhood home of Scranton and where Clinton won by only 3,600 votes  — again shapes up as a critical skirmish line in the fight for Pennsylvania. 

For months, polls have shown Biden with a steady lead across Pennsylvania. And just last week, in the wake of Trump’s disruptive performance in the first presidential debate against Biden and his COVID-19 diagnosis, the Monmouth University poll reported a 12-point lead for the former vice president while a similar survey by Quinnipiac University found a 13-point bulge.

The story continues below the gallery.

Trump voters are not deterred. Many here predict another whopping win on Nov. 3.

“There’s a lot of silent majority in this region,” said Joseph Yannuzzi, a former Republican mayor of Hazleton who is a leading Trump advocate.

John Keegan, a Hazleton pharmacist and ardent Trump supporter, agreed. The president, Keegan said, can count on many secretly conservative Democrats voting for him because they don't like the progressive drift of the party of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

“The Democratic Party lost conservatives,” Keegan said. “They lost me a long time ago.”

In 2016, the Clinton campaign did not see — or ignored, in some cases — widespread signs that conservative Democrats and even moderates might flee into the arms of Trump. This year, the Biden campaign has developed an entirely different strategy, promoting the former vice president as a lifelong moderate who can bring America’s disparate factions together.

Joe Biden's strategy: lean to the center

At the heart of the Biden strategy are voters like Bill Barrett.

Barrett's narrative may prove emblematic for Biden. He is a lifelong Democrat who might easily have flipped for Trump, especially amid so much criticism of police from progressives, but who is nevertheless turned off by what he calls Trump's disjointed leadership style and confrontational personality.

“The country is in chaos,” Barrett said as he sat on his back porch and sipped coffee. “I just don’t like the divisiveness I’m seeing. This country is being ripped apart from the inside out.”

Barrett is quick to say he does not fault Trump for all of America’s schisms.

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“But we have to do something as a country to unite us,” Barrett said. “Everybody matters, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican. I just think that a lot of people feel that Biden better represents the heartland.”

Across town, past a factory that makes Pennsylvania Bluestone patio pavers, the Lion Brewery and the McCarthy Tire warehouse, Kathy Bozinski huddles over a desk at the Luzerne County Democratic headquarters. Behind her stands a life-sized cardboard cutout of a smiling Joe Biden and his running mate, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California. Across the room, rows of “Biden-Harris” yard signs are stacked, awaiting requests from supporters to fetch them.

Bozinski, a former journalist who was furloughed last summer from her marketing job at the local United Way, was so distraught by Clinton’s defeat in 2016 that she called the Democratic Party and asked to help. She had no idea what she was getting into. 

Two years later, Democratic leaders asked Bozinski to run for the local party committee in her neighborhood in Hanover Township. She won the seat, after a campaign on Facebook, tallying just six votes — hers and five write-ins.

With the party’s leadership in Luzerne County in a shambles from the 2016 election debacle, Bozinski, with her speaking and marketing talents, was promoted to vice chair of the county party. Soon after, when the chairman left, she landed the top job.

Now, at 62, she’s running her first presidential campaign in a county that could decide the presidency.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Bozinski joked. Her tone quickly turned serious, however, as she considered the current stakes of the campaign, especially in Luzerne County.

“I woke up the day after the 2016 election, and I was upset that Hillary lost,” Bozinski said. “But I was also upset for what Trump would mean for our nation. Those initial thoughts have been exceeded a hundredfold. This is not the country I was raised in by my parents to live in.”

Donald Trump's alluring promises

Outside Bozinski’s storefront office in downtown Wilkes-Barre, the signs of why Trump won in Luzerne County are easy to spot.

Once a bustling centerpiece of Pennsylvania’s vibrant coal mining industry, Wilkes-Barre has become like so many towns of America’s Rust Belt. Its central business district of small offices and mom-and-pop stores seems hollowed out and empty of people — especially now, amid the restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The local theater sits vacant. Signs advertise available office space and apartments. A dozen or so homeless men sit in the city's main park. A few days earlier, a man was shot to death and two women wounded in what some say may be a gang-related assassination.

Bozinski concedes that Trump’s promises in 2016 of an economic resurgence offered hope to many in Wilkes-Barre who yearned for the days when the town was a nexus of commerce and culture.

“There was no question of Trump’s appeal to older white voters,” Bozinski said. “There are a myriad of reasons for this. Manufacturing jobs went away. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, people here were still making good money. They could buy a nice house. They could take their families on a vacation to the Jersey Shore. Suddenly, it was 2015, and and they couldn’t afford the vacation at the Jersey Shore anymore.”

Another persistent issue was immigration. With an influx of meat-packing plants and warehouses near Hazleton, Luzerne County attracted large numbers of Hispanics — many from Paterson, New Jersey. Each day, several jitney buses take Hispanic workers from Paterson to Hazleton.

Older whites who once backed Democrats felt their party had catered too much to the new wave of immigrants. Many ended up voting for Trump. 

That trend may continue. Since 2016, Republican voter registration increased by 12% in Luzerne County, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State. In Luzerne County, Democrats still lead the GOP with nearly 105,000 registered voters. But Democrats have lost more than 3,000 members since 2016, while Republicans picked up more than 9,000.  

“The Democrats became complacent, especially in this area,” said Patrick Ward, 44, who grew up in West Hazleton and now works as a firefighter on a nearby military base.

Ward’s goal in this election is simple, he said: “I try to vote for my paycheck.”

Another concern is Trump's combative style and chaotic messaging on all manner of topics. 

Each day, Bozinski finds new volunteers pushing through the doors of her party headquarters, asking how they can help to defeat the president.

“Older voters worry about the Social Security,” Bozinski said. “The younger ones are worried about the future of our country.”

Bozinski’s goal is to flip Luzerne County back to the Democrats.

“But I don’t know if it’s realistic,” she said, adding that it may be too difficult to make up the more than 26,000-vote margin in Trump's favor in 2016. 

Instead, Bozinski is hoping to trim that margin substantially.

“If we break even, that’s a huge improvement over 2016,” she said, “and that sets up Biden-Harris statewide.

“I’m shooting for the stars,” Bozinski said. “If we hit the moon, that’s OK.”

Ruth Mierzwa may be one reason Bozinski and the Democrats reach at least the moon in Luzerne County — maybe the stars, too.

On a recent afternoon, Mierzwa, 71, who describes herself as a “former hippie” who embraced a decidedly conservative outlook as she grew older and even voted for the Libertarian presidential ticket of Gary Johnson and William Weld in 2016, drove from her home in Nanticoke to fetch a “Biden-Harris” yard sign at Bozinki’s office. 

Later, back at her home, where Mierzwa runs an online quilting pattern business, she explained that she is not a full-fledged convert to Biden and the Democratic Party.

“He’s a little too wimpy for my taste,” she said of Biden.

But Mierzwa bears an intense, gut-level dislike of Trump — so much so that she now proudly displays her “Biden-Harris” sign in a neighborhood filled with Trump banners, flags and signs.

“I don’t think you could find anybody worse than Trump,” Mierzwa said. “It’s just a question of the lesser evils.”

Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

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