Wednesday 24 May 2017

Angry blue-collar workers switching political colours

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is introduced by former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight during a campaign rally at the Deltaplex Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan on Monday. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is introduced by former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight during a campaign rally at the Deltaplex Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan on Monday. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Nick Allen in Pennsylvania

Nestled beneath verdant hills in a bend along the Monongahela River, the small city of Monessen looks idyllic from a distance.

However, driving into town it soon becomes clear that, like much of the rest of Western Pennsylvania, Monessen is dying.

Along the potholed roads, abandoned clapboard houses are barely visible through the weeds. A large former sewing factory stands empty, all of its 20 windows smashed. Half the shops in the high street are derelict.

At an abandoned, rotting bar called Billy T's, a faded 'Obama 08' poster hangs limply on the wall. In their heyday, Pennsylvanian cities like Monessen, an hour south of Pittsburgh, were industrial powerhouses. They provided steel for the Empire State Building and US wars abroad.

But the steel plants have closed and now many voters in these former Democratic bastions are intending to do the unthinkable - vote for Donald Trump.

In order to win the White House, he needs to flip at least one reliably Democrat state, and he believes it could be here.

Pennsylvania has gone Democrat in every election since 1988 and Hillary Clinton has already spent $14m (€12.7m) on television advertisements trying to defend it.

With a week to go polls show Mrs Clinton leading by 5pc, mainly due to her advantage in the city of Philadelphia. But in blue-collar Monessen, many Democrats said they are switching sides. In a nutshell they are angry about the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).

Signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Nafta established an open trade zone between the US, Mexico and Canada. Mr Trump repeats endlessly at rallies that it was the "worst trade deal ever" and a "disaster for Pennsylvania" that led to a massive loss of jobs.

Whether or not Mr Trump overstates the case, that is how they feel in Monessen.

The city's population, once 20,000, has fallen to 7,500 since the closure of its main employer, the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp plant.

The life story of Blake Simon (62) is typical of a Monessen Democrat who has travelled the long road to voting for Mr Trump.

For 20 years, he worked at the steel plant. When it closed he tried to retrain as an X-ray technician, but the college closed down before he could finish.

He worked in the local museum but it lost funding. "Nickel and dime" jobs followed, but he couldn't pay the mortgage and lost his home. His wife left him.

"Now I don't really do much of anything," said Mr Simon, speaking near a dollar store. "I want to work. There are a lot of people in the same boat. This used to be a jumping town but there's nothing here for people. It's dead. Everybody here wants Trump. Running the country is like a business and to me Trump's tough, he'll bring the jobs back."

Along Monessen's sorry high street, many businesses have tried and failed. Three months ago, a pawn shop opened but quickly shut down. People had little left to pawn.

In reality, people in Monessen are aware that Mr Trump cannot magically bring the steel plants back, or the coal mining industry for that matter. But his attacks on Nafta have clearly resonated, and they believe he at least cares about their declining industries.

In his modest office, the Democratic mayor Lou Mavrakis was, to put it mildly, disillusioned with President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

He was in the process of trying to sell the concrete bunker that is City Hall to help plug Monessen's $13.5m debt. Mr Mavrakis (79), a former steel union official, liked Mr Trump's policy of "America First" a lot better than Nafta and what Mrs Clinton was offering.

Having previously worked for Mr Obama's campaign, Mr Mavrakis recently wrote three desperate letters for help to the White House. He never even got an acknowledgment.

In exasperation, he contacted the Trump campaign. Mr Trump duly swung by Monessen and gave a speech in June.

"He was extraordinary," said the mayor.

"He gave people a shred of hope. Will he win Pennsylvania? I don't know, but it's going to be very close." (© Daily Telegraph London)

Irish Independent

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