SCRANTON, PA — President Donald Trump has chalked up his upset 2016 victory to America’s “forgotten men and women,” but in this northeastern Pennsylvania city, voters take that theme more literally than most.
In many cases, their feelings about the election boil down to which candidate forgot them. Was it Donald Trump, who promised the region an economic renaissance that never materialized, or Joe Biden, who grew up here from birth until the age of 10 but has since spent his career in the upper echelons of the Democratic Party?
As Biden frames his campaign as “Scranton Versus Park Avenue,” while Trump claims his challenger “abandoned Scranton” — a characterization the Philadelphia Inquirer called a “distortion” — the question has become something of a running issue here. Trump threw more oil on the fire with his comment in Thursday’s debate that Biden “didn’t come from Scranton. He lived there for a short period of time before he even knew it and he left. And the people of Pennsylvania will show you that. They understand.”
Biden’s supporters, however, fondly recall years of surprise run-ins with Biden at restaurants downtown and the calls he made to sick or grieving locals. His detractors scoff that he’s a fair-weather friend to Scranton, and, besides, only lived here something like eight years, or a few years, or in one case “six months.”
“The naysayers are saying he hasn’t been here,” said Evie Rafalko-McNulty, a local Democratic activist. “That’s a lie!”
Rafalko-McNulty recalled Biden checking in with her late husband, former Scranton Mayor James McNulty, on regular swings through town, and a campaign stop he made on a steamy 3rd of July in 2012. She credited Biden with helping steer funding to Steamtown, a railroad museum downtown, and for calling to offer condolences when her husband died in 2016.
“Joe’s a Scranton guy,” vouched Russell Preno III, a restaurant proprietor, whose family has known Biden’s at least since Preno’s grandfather and Biden’s father became friends before Biden’s birth.
Preeno, 38, recalled Biden stopping in regularly at his family’s restaurant over the years to pick up tomato sauce. Preno said that in the middle of a 2013 fundraising event Biden attended at his restaurant, the then-vice president learned that Preno’s Aunt Peggy was dying of leukemia. Biden, he said, cut out of the event to make a 10-minute phone call to her. When Preno’s own father died a year later, Biden called three times in two days, and had Preno email over the eulogy he delivered, he recalled.
Not everyone is moved. “He only comes here when he’s pandering for votes,” said Marc Pane, a mechanic, pausing from work on a Honda Accord on a dreary Columbus Day afternoon.
“He left and never came back to give us jobs,” said Thaz Whalen, 41, a server at Backyard Alehouse downtown.
Accusations of abandonment and fears about false friends are the very visible residue of decades of unrelenting loss of blue-collar jobs. Once a thriving industrial center for coal mining, manufacturing and railroads, the Scranton area — nestled in the Lackawanna Valley — has been one of the nation’s prime victims of economic change. A handsome and imposing 19th century courthouse downtown hints at its prosperous past. But even in the tonier sections of town, most of the houses are modest, and some cry out for a new coat of paint.
As of August, the area had an 11.7 percent unemployment rate, among the worst in the state.
That may prove a bigger liability for the incumbent. Trump made big promises about reviving the region’s economic vitality at rallies here in 2016, proclaiming “we are going to put the miners and the factory workers and the steel workers back to work,” the day before the election. But the results have been middling. As of August, the state had fewer coal mining jobs than when Trump took office, despite his efforts to relax environmental restrictions.
“He got a lot of these people convinced that our companies were going to come back, that he was going to get places like Scranton back on their feet, that he was going to bring our jobs back. But that was a lie,” Scranton voter Roberta Sepkowski told a POLITICO reporter this summer. “I knew it was a lie. It’s worse than ever.”
Joe Biden’s immediate family left Scranton for Delaware in the early 1950s, but he has regularly come back to visit with family and friends throughout his life. He returned two months into his first Senate term in 1973 to speak at a Saint Patrick’s Day dinner put on by the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, and continued to make visits in the intervening decades, including about a dozen public stops during his vice presidency.
Former mayor Jim Connors — who served terms as both a Republican and a Democrat and was a delegate to this summer’s Democratic National Convention — said Biden returned for Little League opening days and to stop by Joyce’s, a bar run by Connors’ cousin.
Connors’ wife, Susan Blum Connors, provided old photos of Biden visits, the cut of the suits testifying to their ’70s and ’80s vintages. She recalled a fundraiser for Biden at Fox Hill Country Club in nearby Exeter last October, where the candidate insisted on making a phone call to her 96-year-old mother. “He really is a mensch,” Blum Connors said, echoing the theme of a letter to the editor she recently published in the Scranton Times Tribune.
Soon, vote tallies will show whether all those decades of schmoozing have paid off. Public polling in Pennsylvania gives Biden an edge, while voter registration trends in the state have been favorable to Republicans. Biden’s ability to run up the score in Scranton, part of Lackawanna County, and cut into Trump’s 2016 margins in neighboring Luzerne county, or even flip it, will be critical to his statewide fortunes.
Like other Trump backers here, Pane — who recently appeared in an ad for the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action — said support for Trump in Scranton was less overt than it was for the hometown candidate, but he spoke of a “huge silent majority.”
In this overwhelmingly white county, Black Lives Matter yard signs are a rarity, far outnumbered by signs of support for local police departments, which share lawns with both Trump and Biden signs.
On North Washington Avenue in the Green Ridge section of town, on the block that Biden grew up, pro-Biden signage, including “Scranton Loves Joe!” signs, far outstrips visible support for Trump.
Some in town, though, who are not lifelong Scrantonians, are not even aware of the connection. Despite living in the area for about 20 years, Alejandro Caraballo, a 45-year-old subcontractor at work on a house across the street from Biden’s childhood home, said he was unaware that Scranton was Biden’s hometown. “Actually, I heard Trump was from here but I knew it was a lie,” said Carabello, a Trump supporter, citing the real estate mogul’s well-known New York upbringing.
As if to clear up any misunderstanding, the Times Tribune weighed in in August with a front page declaring, “THE ROOTS ARE REAL,” featuring testimony from locals who have stayed in touch.
Biden’s late mother, Jean Finnegan Biden, had Scranton roots stretching back to the 19th century, and several relatives remaining in the area buttress those ties. Despite a report that Biden’s Scranton relatives had gone for Trump in 2016, cousin Ambrose Finnegan, who now lives outside of Philadelphia, said his relatives have all continued to support Democrats, and are all in on their cousin’s White House bid. “He’s always made a sincere effort to touch base with his family whenever he’s in Scranton,” Finnegan said.
Over at Finnegan’s Irish Rock Club, a grungy dive bar in a section of town dominated by car dealerships, the sentiment is different.
“Dude, he left here when he was eight,” said proprietor Kevin Locker, rounding down. “He likes to come back to the area for show.” (It turns out the bar’s name is not an homage to Biden’s maternal line, but instead to Locker’s three-year-old “chiweenie,” a cross between a chihuahua and a dachshund.)
At Backyard Ale House, Whalen said he found Biden’s invocations of Scranton eye roll-inducing. “You spent six months here when you were a kid,” he said, rounding way down.
Whalen said patrons at his bar, as well as friends he has seen posting on Facebook, have taken to playing a drinking game during debates and town halls that calls for them to take a swig every time the former vice president mentions his hometown.
A Republican who voted for Gary Johnson in 2016, Whalen said he will hold his nose and vote for Biden anyway. Whalen said he blamed Trump for the summer’s nationwide unrest, another hint of the incumbent’s problems with the white working class here. “He tear gassed his own people,” Whalen said, referring to a June incident in which law enforcement sprayed protesters outside the White House to clear the way for Trump to walk to a photo opportunity at a nearby church.
At Cooper’s Seafood — a campy local institution that is shaped like a lighthouse, with a giant octopus on its roof — bartender Tommy Lin, 45, said attitudes towards Biden’s Scranton roots tend to break along generational lines. “My older customers, there’s definitely a sense of pride,” he said. “Anybody 50 or under seems to be more aloof of it.”
Delaney, a 24-year-old patron who declined to provide her last name, drove home the point. “I feel like no one even really counts him as being from here,” she said.
The seafood joint plays up a less polarizing claim to fame, with decor nodding to the Scranton-based sitcom “The Office,” featuring clueless boss Michael Scott and his eccentric underling, Dwight Schrute.
The electronic sign in the restaurant’s parking lot, at least, acknowledged the local angle to the impending vote. It even offered an endorsement: “Scott/Schrute ’20”