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Saturday, December 05, 2020

November 3 is here: in Biden home town, nostalgia and hope line up to vote

Intermixed with Halloween decorations, Biden’s neighbourhood now carries mostly signs for his name but a couple of yards showcased prominent Trump paraphernalia, too.

Written by Karishma Mehrotra | Scranton | Updated: November 3, 2020 7:41:46 am
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden board their campaign plane at Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, to travel to Scranton, Pa. (AP Photo)

Marty Kearns’s family took over Joe Biden’s home in 1962, when the Biden family moved out of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Later regretting it, the Kearns patched up the wood carving in the bed furniture that read “Joe was here.”

“Joe may have moved out of town but he didn’t shake Scranton off. You don’t spend time in this culture and then
forget about it,” said Kearns. “We took care of each other.”

Intermixed with Halloween decorations, Biden’s neighbourhood now carries mostly signs for his name but a couple of yards showcased prominent Trump paraphernalia, too. In the final stretch as a nation, split right down the middle prepares to vote tomorrow Democratic Presidential nominee Biden has made Scranton, where he spent the first 10 years of his life, the centrepiece of his campaign.

His tagline: Scranton versus Park Avenue, referring to the Trump building.

Multiple advertisements tout Biden’s Scranton values of hard work, appealing to the formerly Democratic blue-collared base. Last time, union workers voted for Trump in droves unknown to Republicans since the 1980s.

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“I learned what honour and decency and courage and all those things are about at that kitchen table,” Biden said of his childhood home at a virtual event last week. “Wall Street didn’t build this country. Hard-working, decent middle-class people like the folks here built this country.”

A straight two-mile drive from Biden’s former home, Tarun Shah and Janak Patel, workers at a distribution site for a large American department store TJ Maxx, stand outside the Scranton Community Center planning for November 3.

They discuss boxed lunches of Gujarati food that they will distribute to their colleagues when the group volunteers at the Centre’s polling station.

They are union leaders with the Pennsylvania Joint Board of Workers United. Almost half of their 1,400 colleagues are Gujarati and in the union. Shah walks back to his apartment complex, where he has made handwritten charts of the 600 Gujarati families who live there, their citizenship status, and their voting status. “There are 100 families left that we have to make sure vote on Tuesday,” he said in Hindi outside his home.

Shah and Patel’s activism, after living in the town for 15 years each, shows how much has changed in Scranton since Biden moved away.

This area has seen some of the fastest-growing Hispanic and Asian growth in the country, at 376 and 94 per cent between 2000 and 2010, Brookings found.

In the 20th century, Scranton was a collection of European enclaves, all coming in for booming coal mines. Biden’s parents and grandparents’ generation moved in from Ireland, Poland, Italy, Lithuania, Ukraine, and the like — each enclave revolving around their own neighbourhood church.

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“When Joe says things like, that’s a whole lot of malarkey, I think back to my family in high school,” said Jay Parini, whose mother was friends with Biden’s mother and babysat Biden. He remembers the death of a Syrian neighbour. The next day, a feast from the neighbourhood landed on the family’s front porch, including baklava, Italian meatballs, and Ukrainian pancake rolls.

Parini’s father said to him at the man’s funeral: “Who needs the United Nations? We do it right in Scranton.”

“After the ’90s, I watched my street go from a mix of Italian and Irish to a mix of Italian, Irish, Mexican, and Indian,” said Parini, who is now an English professor at Middlebury University.

The town was once at the cutting edge of technology, even named the Electric City for running the nation’s first electric city trolleys. The new technologies required robust labour, and Scranton was prideful of its working-class grit. Labour unions, a strong core of America’s industrial revolution, gained political and economic clout, winning foundational worker protections.

“It was a mark of pride to have a job even when you were young,” 50-year-old Kearns said of his days working in kitchens or delivering the newspaper. “The union culture celebrated the worker.”

Shah said he moved to Scranton from Vadodara because his hard work was rewarded with better jobs for his children, who are in medical training and a software company. “When you work here, the work is appreciated,” the 62-year-old said. “This country is good for immigrants and the Democrats are working for the immigrants.”

But Parini said his town is still nostalgic for the “good days” between the 1950s and 70s. When manufacturing and mining took a hit, so did the families in town. Kearns grew up around conversations of mine subsidence. Coal companies had deserted town, taking the columns holding up the mines as well. Now, the town deals with collapsed land and sinkholes, along with mounting unemployment.

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“I remember what it was like to wait for your father’s pay check by Friday,” said Parini, whose parents moved from Italy drawn by coal. “That’s the background Joe came from. His father was struggling.” Biden’s father moved the family to Delaware when he lost his job.

Parini said the economic conditions in the town sank more in the years to follow. “These places are hollowed out. Houses sell for nothing. Healthcare is hard to get. There’s no coal left and it’s not coming back.”

The battle over the union vote in and around Pennsylvania will be key to a White House win this year. Twelve per cent of the state’s workers are in a union, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Scranton leans Democrat (Barack Obama won by 12 per cent in 2012), but almost went Republican in 2016 (Hillary Clinton won by three per cent). Its neighbouring county, Luzerne, is a hot battleground, flipping from Blue to Red last time. Vice President nominee Kamala Harris will visit that county Monday.

Meanwhile, Shah is trying to make last-minute appeals to voter. “Trump has tried to spread his propaganda here starting one month ago,” he said of his Gujarati enclave. “They were saying Trump sides with India while Biden sides with Pakistan. But we convinced them that we need to think about what would happen here with our labour protections. Maybe 10 per cent weren’t able to be convinced.”

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