Sunday, August 31, 2008

Scranton never leaves you

After taking our daughter to Miami to start college last week, we spent a few days with my brother and his family in South Florida. His mother-in-law was also visiting and like us, his wife's family is also from Scranton, so we all got a kick out of all of the homage paid to The Electric City after the selection of Joe Biden as Barack Obama's running mate. See The Message. His wife's family are Irish Catholics from Green Ridge, not far from where Biden was born, while our family lived a few blocks from the Hillary Clinton's father's home. see e.g., All Roads Lead to Scranton.

All of us are political junkies, so we spent some time watching the Democratic doings (thank god for TiVo), which was all the more entertaining since the news stories were interspersed with Scranton references. We've all been gone from Scranton for over 20 years (his mother-in-law lives in Arizona and even voted for McCain in 2000), but Scranton is still home for us all. We should have thought to play a beer game every time the city was mentioned, as suggested by Dan Rubin. Scranton, Jewel on the Lackawanna.

Of course, the Scranton connection is politically advantageous for Obama/Biden to emphasize, given the importance of Pennsylvania in the upcoming election. As described in a piece in Politico, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Scranton):

Joe Biden lived in Scranton, Pa., only until he was 10 years old, but you wouldn’t know it lately from listening to him, his running mate Barack Obama and their surrogates.

Since Biden began campaigning as the Democratic vice presidential candidate, he and campaign aides have spent as much, or more, time talking about his ties to the hardscrabble former coal town nestled in the hills of northeastern Pennsylvania as they have about his connection to Delaware, which Biden has represented in the Senate for more than 35 years.

Introducing Biden as his running mate Saturday, Obama called him a “scrappy kid from Scranton who beat the odds,” while Biden said he agreed to run partly “for everyone I grew up [with] in Scranton, Pa., who’s been forgotten.” Both men mentioned Scranton well before either Claymont, Del., where Biden's family moved when he was 10, or Wilmington, Del., where his family lives now.

In the last few days, Biden has called Pennsylvania “home,” a spokesman has attributed his penchant for shooting from the hip to his Scranton roots and the campaign proclaimed him "Pennsylvania's third senator" in an e-mail to Keystone State press.

“I am so proud of representing my state, and it is my state and I love it,” he said of Delaware during a Thursday breakfast speech to Pennsylvania convention delegates. “But, you know, Scranton never leaves you. And Pennsylvania never leaves you,” he said, drawing the biggest applause of the morning.

The Scranton love fest is more than just idle nostalgia, though.

The city is the biggest population center in a key swing area in a key swing state with 21 electoral college votes — seven times as many as Delaware.

But perhaps more significant than Scranton’s impact on the Pennsylvania results is the potential for the city to lend the Obama and Biden ticket some of its unquestioned blue-collar creditability. That could boost the ticket’s appeal nationally to the type of older, white, working-class, socially conservative Democrats who dominate the voter rolls in Scranton and nearby Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton — and who are expected to be much fought over in Obama’s battle against Republican rival John McCain.
Another Scranton native, Mark Jurkowitz, wrote for Real Clear Politics about the city's resurgence -- at least in the news, if not in reality. He notes, in How Scranton Became the New Peoria:

As a native of Scranton, it's fun to see a hot network sitcom that celebrates, or perhaps mocks, the quirky ordinariness of Scrantonians. And don't think we're not proud (The local newspaper website has an interactive "Office Tour of Scranton" to identify local hotspots ranging from a coal museum to the kosher deli.)

But the "Office" renaissance is nothing compared to what happened in the 2008 campaign. In the past few months, this hard-bitten city, known to millions of passing motorists for the junkyard that loomed above Rte. 81, has become the new Peoria--ground zero for old-fashioned American values, the psychic heartland.

It really began with Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. As she began to focus on connecting more with regular folk, she embraced her Scranton roots--her father grew up in the city and she spent time there as a child--as a symbol of her grit and everyman empathy.

* * * *

With its population of socially conservative voters who tended to be Democrats by birth, Scranton has been a kind of political bellwether in national elections. But for all the city's attempts to to "get back up," as Clinton would say, no one could have envisioned its emergence as a full-blown icon in this campaign.

In an election in which economic hardship and working class anxiety are crucial issues, Scranton has somehow become a symbol of both the ills and resilience of our society as a whole. And for the candidates, a Scranton background is a badge of honor, a way of saying "I am one of you."

In an interview with the Scranton Times shortly after the announcement of his selection as VP on the Democratic ticket, Biden had this to say about Scranton:
I never left Scranton, as you know. Scranton never leaves you. Scranton is part of your heart. It becomes part of who you are. And I know you probably think that’s crazy, but call guys like BillyKotzwinkle, who wrote “E.T.” (novels), call people who have gone on here, the McGowans . I remember sitting with him and talking with him about building blocks in Scranton. Scranton never leaves you; it’s in your blood. The other side of it is, even though I moved out of Scranton and moved down to Wilmington because there’s no work for my dad back in the mid-’50s, I came home. I spent my summers there with my friends . . . . I mean, I really mean it. Wilmington may have had my head, but Scranton’s always had my heart.
See ‘Scranton never leaves you’.

Now, I don't doubt for a minute that all of the Scranton talk is intended for the points the Democrats hope to score in the election and yet, as cynical as I can be at times, I also believe that what Biden says is true about the fact that Scranton never leaves you. I have been away from Scranton longer than I lived there, yet Scranton is the place that comes to mind when I think of "home."

Scranton's glory days had long passed well before I was born, but the people of Scranton, despite being "scrappy," are still proud, warm-hearted and full of humor. In part, there is some influence that emanates from the proximity of the city to New York and Philly, yet the small town, ethnic character is the strongest reflection of the people of Scranton. It's a good mix. Philly has a lot of ex-Scrantonians (of course, not surprising because there aren't a lot of jobs left in Scranton) living here and we immediately develop a kinship when we meet based upon our shared past.

It can be seen in the first Biden ad, "Scranton" -- playing in Northeast PA:

As Ben Smith of Politico says:
The campaign will run the ad, which ties Biden's biography to Obama's and stresses the Delaware senator’s Scranton roots in northeast Pennsylvania. Biden provides the testimonial as images of Obama with his mother and his grandparents flash on the screen, followed by a shot of him on the trail leaning in to listen as an older white woman says something to him.
The only other note I'd add is that Jurkowitz talks about memorializing Scranton in a song, saying:
The way things are going, Bruce Springsteen will probably write a song about Scranton. (Billy Joel did "Allentown," but he was off by about 50 miles.) All that will be needed to complete Scranton's improbable rise as the touchstone of this year's election will be for a candidate to utter the cliche, "Today, we are all Scrantonians."
He must be too young to remember that Scranton was the subject of a Harry Chapin song in 1974. The song, 30,000 Pounds of Bananas, was about about a trucker carrying 15 tons of bananas who crashed coming down the Moosic Street hill in 1965.

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