Excerpts from this lengthy article:
At milepost 70.7 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Lehigh Tunnel ducks under the Blue Mountain ridge. It’s a portal into Northeast Pennsylvania, a sprawling region where old industrial cities tuck themselves into the valleys of the rolling Poconos. To many residents, the tunnel is also something of a time warp. If a nuclear device were to hit the Eastern Seaboard, the local joke goes, it would take 20 years for Scranton and Wilkes-Barre to feel the blast.
The tunnel also became a political boundary stone in November 2016. To its south, from Lehigh County to the Philadelphia suburbs, Hillary Clinton won. To the north, Trump took Carbon County and, more notably, Luzerne County.
With 318,000 residents, Luzerne County is the most populous in Northeast Pennsylvania. It voted Democratic in presidential elections for 20 years. President Barack Obama won by ten percentage points in 2008 and again in 2012 by more than five percentage points. But then it swung drastically in favor of Trump, who took the county by 20 percentage points. His margin in Luzerne nearly equaled his total winning margin in Pennsylvania.
This result is all the more remarkable because Luzerne County is rock-ribbed Democratic. Most local officials are Democrats, and party affiliation is passed on as a birthright. For the past two months, guided by Third Way, I’ve driven the back roads of Luzerne County, pored over economic and social indicators, and conducted more than two dozen interviews in hopes of understanding this electoral outcome.
What happened in Luzerne County in 2016 is as much a part of a national story—echoing trends that occurred around the country—as it is an intensely local story, marked by values and history. As Democratic leaders seek to rally the party around a new, distinct economic message, the story of Luzerne underscores the challenges they face.
Economy: Decline and Despair
By the numbers, Luzerne County is not the worst in Pennsylvania. There are counties with higher unemployment rates and others with lower levels of educational achievement. In fact, Luzerne has assets that could be the envy of other Pennsylvania counties. Its location is ideal for outdoor recreation; it’s a transportation intersection located two hours from the major metro areas of New York and Philadelphia. It has a solid health care infrastructure, with two major hospital systems and a concentration of quality higher education institutions.
But it’s also a county with a history of struggle. First a vibrant coal mining center whose industry disappeared in the 1950’s, the county saw a short-lived textile industry, devastation from natural disasters, and a series of benevolent but corrupt politicians, which left the region struggling, nostalgic, and not particularly healthy…
Class Resentment and Distrust of Government
Luzerne County’s unemployment stands higher than the state and national rates at about 5.8 percent now. Its per capita income of nearly $26,000 is 15 percent lower than Pennsylvania’s. No doubt, Trump’s full-throated promise of “JOBS, JOBS, JOBS” resonated here. Yet, even Trump supporters insist it’s not just about jobs…
Immigration: An Ugly Side of Hazleton
Intimately connected with Luzerne’s economic challenges is another flashpoint in the area: immigration. Though 1,800 miles from the Mexican border, Trump tapped into this grievance that erupted over the last decade…
Rogue politicians are part of Luzerne County history, and these local experiences surely inform how residents feel about national politics. The infamous Rep. Dan Flood resigned in disgrace in 1980 after pleading guilty to accepting payoffs. In 1992, federal prosecutors indicted Rep. Joe McDade for taking bribes; he was acquitted.
The most recent blow came in 2009 when federal investigations ended the careers of three county judges, two state senators and a local school superintendent. In the biggest scandal, two judges were convicted of accepting $2.8 million in payments from the builder of two private juvenile detention centers.
Since then, the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania has prosecuted 31 individuals on charges involving political corruption in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
For many voters here, “Crooked Hillary” was not just a Trump insult on a bumper sticker. It was a reflection of their local experiences with crooked politicians.
What’s more, Luzerne County is fragmented into four cities, 35 boroughs, 36 townships and 12 school districts. It’s a recipe for inefficiency that can impede everything from regional planning to residents’ health. Nothing illustrates this more succinctly than the area’s poor oral hygiene.
A recent report this year from the Institute of Public Policy and Economic Development at Wilkes University found that tooth loss and decay is higher in Luzerne than national and statewide rates. High tobacco use was one leading contributor. The other, more surprising, was lack of fluoridation.
Only one community in the region—Hazleton—has fluoride in its water. The county’s balkanized system means “any one municipality not wanting to do it represents a veto for the entire region having fluoridation,” according to Dr. Steve Scheinman, the dean of the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine who conducted the institute’s study.
When it comes to fluoridation, “we’re well over 20 years behind the rest of the country,” Scheinman said.
Sadly, the opioid epidemic has ravaged the county. Last year, Luzerne hit a record of 140 overdose deaths, twice as many as three years earlier. In 2015, Pennsylvania’s overdose death rate stood at 26 per 100,000 residents; Luzerne’s was 30. In 2016 it climbed to 44 per 100,000…
** This piece was commissioned by and produced in close collaboration with Third Way.
** Original article online at http://washingtonmonthly.com/2017/08/14/this-county-was-a-democratic-stronghold-then-came-trump/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+washingtonmonthly%2Frss+%28Political+Animal+at+Washington+Monthly%29&utm_content=NewsIsFree