Politics & Government

Pa. voters weigh change vs. tradition, Obama vs. Clinton

NANTICOKE, Pa. — This old mining town, like much of the rest of Pennsylvania, has two kinds of Democratic voters: traditionalists like Mary Lou Pomicter and boat-rockers like Amanda Carannante.

Pomicter, 52, likes Hillary Clinton. "I just don't know Barack Obama's mind-set," the deli owner said, "but I know Clinton's."

Carannante, 30, helps run a pizza restaurant across Main Street. "I like Hillary, but I appreciate how Obama will not take lobbying money. He can really change things," she said.

Walk up and down Main Street in this north-central city of about 10,000 and it's easy to pick out who's for whom in Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary. The under-40s want this economically distressed town to change, and fast, and they see Obama as an important catalyst.

The over-40s fear the younger candidate. Nanticoke's last coal mine closed in 1973, and the population has plunged from 27,000 in the 1930s, but the older folks still like their city and want only to tinker with it, not blow it up.

"There's this sense that the past was better," said Randall Miller, a history professor at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, a feeling present in many similar cities across the state.

Pennsylvania is so big and diverse that it's hard to characterize. "No one has a clear definition of what a Pennsylvanian is," said Harold Cox, a professor emeritus of history at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre.

Analysts joke that the state is America's Yugoslavia, a whole of rival parts, or two big industrial cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between.

In fact, Pennsylvanians include the descendants of Eastern European families who grew up working in Pittsburgh's steel mills; small farmers in the south-central region; the tough sons and daughters of coal miners up north; and the multi-racial, intellectual mix that is Philadelphia anchoring the southeast corner.

While there are pockets of rapid growth and prosperity, notably in the Philadelphia area, communities elsewhere are searching for new sources of jobs without losing their deep-rooted family and neighborhood communities.

That's why former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy figures the successful candidate is the one who best tackles this question: "How do you talk about change and still give people comfort?"

As Obama and Clinton visit a lot of these struggling towns before Tuesday's important primary, they'll find a lot of voters who became "Reagan Democrats" in the 1980s, largely because of the Republican emphasis on social conservatism. Many, however, are now inching back to the Democratic fold, frustrated by the slumping economy and the costly Iraq war.

The older folks are still conservative Democrats. They know that change is inevitable, but they want it done right. Obama is too new for them, too different.

"We're not prejudiced," said Pat Archacavage, 49, a restaurant worker in Nanticoke, "but if you have an unskilled black and an unskilled white, the black will get the job. If Obama gets in, will he say, 'We're black, now we're in charge — time for payback?' "

"I don't like Obama," said Betty Tomcho, a Nanticoke retiree. "There's going to be trouble because there will be a lot of colored people around."

Mary Krett, a Belle Vernon teacher, had schools on her mind. She fumed that under the

2002 No Child Left Behind education law, "all the schools want you do to is teach to the test," since tests are now the key measure of educational accomplishment. When Bill Clinton was president, she said, there was more sensitivity to teachers' needs, and his wife seems to understand the nuances, too.

Michael O'Donnell, a 25-year-old warehouse supervisor, sat on a Main Street curb reading the local newspaper. He pointed to a picture of Obama taken at Wednesday's debate.

"I'm going with him," he said firmly. "I've lived here 25 years, and nothing has changed. We have to have change."

Some doubt that Obama is experienced enough. Clinton may not have all the answers to the region's economic woes, said Brenda Ryan of Connellsville, but she at least knows how to try. "Whoever gets in, they have to pass whatever they can," she said. "Clinton understands that."

Perhaps most important, many of these small-town people have been comfortable with Clinton for years.

Pomicter is the classic small-town Clinton voter. She worked at the local garment factory

for 14 years, until it closed. She got a job at the Uni-Mart, a convenience store, which lasted 10 years until a new owner took over. Now she runs a deli, where she said with a laugh: "I have zero customers."

Clinton, Pomicter said, has thoughtful, doable remedies for people like her. She pays

$648 a month for health care — "and even getting that is tough," she said — and she thinks that Clinton could help bring that cost down.

To younger folks, though, such thinking is just taking a bad situation and throwing a spoonful of sugar on it. "Obama's more up to date," said Steve Davis, 21, who's unemployed.

Obama's best chance of winning Tuesday is to get people like Davis and Amanda Carannante in these smaller communities out to vote.

"This city has never really made it out of the Depression," Carannante said. "I don't care about race or gender. I don't care if we have a purple president."

Why not take the chance, she wondered, and try something completely new?

Related stories from McClatchy DC

  Comments