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Erie at the Crossroads: A Swing County in a Swing State

A struggling bellwether county in Pennsylvania appears to be back in the Democratic column. But is it?
Co-published by the American Prospect
Scott Slawson says he could see Trump’s victory coming in 2016 when the MAGA lawn signs began dotting the front yards of Western Pennsylvania. “It was probably about two or three weeks before the election,” he remembers. “My business agent and I were traveling up from Grove City and I just said, ‘You know, I got a bad feeling.’”

Slawson is president of Local 506 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, a union that represents the kind of Rust Belt workers who have been battered by decades of deindustrialization. His local is in Erie County, a Democratic stronghold since the 1980s. Today Erie County, whose voters chose Donald Trump by a two-point margin in 2016, is an electoral bellwether. (The city of Erie went overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton.)


“A lot of the lower class, they don’t really vote too much in my neck of the woods,” says Robert Glover, who has never voted.

Since Trump’s upset victory, the national media have trained their cameras on the facades of Erie’s empty factories – and told the story of laid-off, mostly white, middle-aged manufacturing workers who voted for Trump. But there is more to this lakeside town than empty factories—what happens in 2020 is also about other people in Erie: African-Americans, young people, union members who lean left, its new immigrants and also voters who rejected the major parties during the 2016 election.

On paper, it seems that Erie County, which has a population of 270,000, may have moved back into the Democratic column. A
recent survey shows Trump trailing Democratic leading candidates among registered voters. The county voted for the Democratic incumbent governor by a 17-point margin in 2018.

Still, there is plenty in Erie to alarm blue America, including those who have given up on voting. A key constituency, which in Erie City comprises 16 percent of the population, African-Americans have been especially hard hit by the decline in manufacturing. The city poverty rate is 27 percent. For African-Americans, it is 37 percent, compared to 14.6 percent for the nation as a whole.

The sky-high poverty rate among this city’s black voters has implications for national elections. Robert Glover is 33, unemployed and has worked a string of low-wage jobs. He has never voted.


“We have enough immigration in Erie. We’re like the hub of it,” says Jim Boehm, who rents a room for $100 a month in a 18×14-foot trailer by a creek.

In 2016, Glover says, he felt that Trump’s victory was already predetermined and that if Hillary Clinton were elected, she would not be able to get much done because of Republicans in Congress. “A lot of the lower class, they don’t really vote too much in my neck of the woods,” says Glover, who is leaving Erie for neighboring Ohio, where his girlfriend lives, in pursuit of better opportunities and safer neighborhoods for his five children.

“It’s a sad, sad thing and an indicator of the lack of confidence that people have in the system,” says Gary Horton, head of the local NAACP chapter, of low African-American voter turnout in Erie.

Further clouding the picture for Democrats is Trump’s enduring support among a segment of white voters, who continue to thrill to a leader who local resident Aaron Romanski calls “bold” and “straightforward.”

Romanski, a freelance writer who lives in Erie’s Little Italy neighborhood, registered to vote this summer for the first time in his life. “I want Trump back in,” he says, highlighting Trump’s stance against the “liberal media,” companies trying to outsource jobs and immigrants.

He maintains that he likes Erie’s ethnic diversity, but objects to lawbreaking. “If I went in and stole from Walmart, I’d go to jail,” he said in reference to the country’s undocumented residents and the big box store looming behind him. He also defended the administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the Southern border. “I can’t use my kids as an escape valve,” he said.


Refugees now account for more than 16 percent of the city’s population, according to one refugee and immigrant liaison for the city. Could Erie’s newest arrivals make a difference in a close election?

And there’s Jim Boehm, until recently a Lyft driver who worked 14-hour days, and who rents a room for $100 a month in a 18×14-foot trailer by a creek with his three cats. He says that he likes Trump’s pledge to build a wall. “We have enough immigration in Erie. We’re like the hub of it,” says Boehm, who, like many voters outside the city, leans in a more conservative direction. He says that he has worked for “Arabics,” by which he means Iraqi employers.

Boehm, who is 60 and has a back that aches from long days behind the wheel, is unfazed when told that the Trump tax cut largely benefited the highest income earners. “It’s like Congress. They give themselves raises all the time, and they’re not doing anything.”

* * *

The no- or low turnout among African-Americans and other key constituencies in 2016 could also be an opportunity in 2020. Erie County United, a two-year-old grassroots effort, is mobilizing voters in overlooked communities like Robert Glover’s Eastside neighborhood.

A crane operator for Liberty Iron & Metal, which buys and processes scrap metal, Herbert Simmers says steel tariffs have put a dent in his paycheck and has him delaying payment on bills: “It’s going to be a while before I’m going to be able to retire.”

Sydney Zimmermann was in college and holding down a pair of jobs when she got involved in the organization, which is seeking to raise a state hourly minimum wage that is currently the same as the federal rate of $7.25.

Now the 26-year-old is a paid canvasser trying to engage voters like Taniesha Jones, who lives in the John E. Horan Garden Apartments, a collection of low-slung public housing units next to the Wabtec locomotive plant.

“I love those jellies!” Zimmermann coos at Jones’ daughter, admiring the little girls’ sandals. Jones orders her two kids back inside while launching into her concerns: bullying at the local school and low wages.

“They can give us a raise. They have to,” says Jones, who works at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.

The work of Erie County United is non-partisan. But those they reach may have strong, political views. Jones was a Clinton voter whose verdict on Trump is that he’s “100 percent racist.”

The 2020 election is also an opportunity for the county’s labor movement. Slawson’s union local is diminished from its heyday but still has fight in it. When Pittsburgh-based Wabtec took over the locomotive plant from General Electric earlier this year, Erie’s 1,700 UE members struck for nine days, with presidential candidate Bernie Sanders joining the picket line. UE International endorsed Sanders in August.

Will modest economic progress in Erie benefit Trump in 2020?

Could Erie’s newest arrivals make a difference in a close election? Refugees now account for more than 16 percent of the city’s population, according to Niken Astari Carpenter, refugee and immigrant liaison for the city of Erie. Since June 2013, the city has added 2,448 new citizens from 89 countries.

Jim Wertz, head of Erie County’s Democratic party, travels around the county constantly meeting with potential voters. “I gave a talk two Sundays ago at a Lutheran church,” he told me in September. “Most of the audience was Sudanese. Some of those groups are very politically active.”

* * *

On some level Trump appears to be doing the work of activating steadfast Democratic voters in Erie, as he is elsewhere in the country.

“He’s evil,” says Janet Moske, who is finishing up coffee at Dabrowski’s Restaurant & Deli in Lawrence Park. She has a defiant look in her eye as she speaks about Trump and his supporters. “We can’t even grasp how people think anymore.”

“He conned a lot of people who I worked with into voting for him,” adds her husband, Mike Moske, who is 68 and a retired third-generation pipefitter. The Moskes are well-schooled in the goings on in Washington, D.C.

Three miles away, Herbert Simmers’ opposition to Trump seems rooted in pocketbook issues. A crane operator for Liberty Iron & Metal, which buys and processes scrap metal, he says the steel tariffs have put a dent in his paycheck and has him delaying payment on bills. “It’s going to be a while before I’m going to be able to retire,” he says.

Leaving the Save A Lot car park with a bag of Tater Tots he had bought for dinner, Simmers says through the window of his truck, “It’s rough at times,” adding, “The price of everything is going up.”

But opposition to the president and his planned border wall was not sufficient to make Kim Snyder embrace the Democratic nominee the last time round.

Snyder stopped at a shopping center midday to move money around so she could pay her student loans. The 26-year-old spa manager said she has a quarter of a million dollars of medical debt, as well as a visible scar on her arm from a car accident she had while she was studying at Erie County’s Edinboro University.

“I just try not to think about it,” she says of the debt.

The issues Snyder cares about—climate change, education, universal health care—appear to be in sync with what the Democratic candidates are talking about. But Snyder voted for the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in 2016 after casting a vote for Bernie Sanders in the primary.

She thought Hillary Clinton was too hawkish. “I didn’t feel like I could honestly trust her,” she adds.

If economic decline in Erie County helped propel Trump’s rise, it’s not clear how the current economic conditions in Erie County will play out in 2020.

Erie County has five percent fewer jobs than it did in 2007, according to a recent analysis by the Center for Economic Development at Carnegie Mellon University. While some have retrained and emerged stronger, the loss of manufacturing jobs has been harrowing for many of Slawson’s union members. Last month, Wabtec announced the plant was shedding another 100 jobs after an “in-depth evaluation of the market.”

But Erie is also not the most depressed of the counties in Western Pennsylvania.

“We’ve always had a very diversified economy and that has more or less saved us,” says former Erie city Mayor Joyce Savocchio, speaking at a packed Democratic party event. The region is home to four colleges, major medical centers, and Erie Insurance – now the city’s largest employer – is planning a $135 million expansion of its corporate campus.

“Education and health care sector jobs are growing, and offsetting job losses in manufacturing,” according to Kenneth Louie, an economist at the Black School of Business at Penn State Behrend. Revitalization is planned for the waterfront and downtown, and the city is, with some success, aggressively marketing projects in federally designated opportunity zones to private investors.

Will modest economic progress in Erie benefit Trump in 2020?

Some are skeptical that the new investment can help the county’s poorest residents. “Name an economic development initiative that has benefited poor people or black people,” challenges the NAACP’s Horton. (On the other hand, refugees have brought entrepreneurship and stabilized a declining population, according to Horton, who also heads a nonprofit organization that provides services for refugees).

Only 36 percent of registered voters rate Erie County’s economy as “excellent” or “good,” according to the same Mercyhurst poll that showed Trump trailing Democratic contenders in the county. Still, that dim assessment is up from 11 percent in February 2017.

Their view of the local economy does not seem to be what’s driving their view of this polarizing president. A slim majority (52 percent) support Trump’s handling of the economy, perhaps a reflection of the fact that in Erie, the unemployment rate is more than two points lower than it was when Trump took office. Meanwhile, only 35 percent support his stance on immigration.

“It seems to be those that are working and have a decent job feel good about [the economy]. Everybody else doesn’t,” says Scott Slawson.

That would include Arbie Newell, a 41-year-old job seeker. He works 15 hours a week in a warehouse for $7.25 per hour and has no benefits. He’s eyeing Cleveland as a possible exit strategy. “I don’t know how a person with a family can make it on minimum wage,” he says.

Photo by Joanne Kim

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