This town in Western Pennsylvania has taken more punches than Muhammad Ali. First the railroads took away its canal transportation business. Then it was hit by a great flood that killed more than 2,200 people. (There have been two more.)
And its once-great steel plants have shut down. Each time Johnstown has got back on its feet, but it is struggling. The town hit the headlines again in the closing stages of the presidential campaign when its Congressman, John Murtha, said, “There’s no question Western Pennsylvania is a racist area.” But despite those racist sentiments, he said, Democrat Barack Obama’s campaign is building momentum and should win the state. “While race may be an issue for some, voters today are concerned about ... issues like the economy and health care,” a spokesman elaborated.
Can economic worries outweigh racial prejudices? HT did a quick — but unscientific — spot check in the town, which with the surrounding area has 145,000 people.
John, a 47-year-old firefighter who did not want his last name used, said he is going to vote for Obama. “I don’t like the way things have gone the last eight years. We are in a mess economically,” he said. “Some people ... may be clinging to old feelings, that’s all.”
Don Hoak, 49, of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, also said he will vote for Obama. “He is the best labour candidate. His whole agenda is pro-middle class.”
Hoak said he expects Obama and Joe Biden to do well among the area’s many union members, although some of them support Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin. He was dismissive of Joe the Plumber. “Joe is just a prop for the McCain campaign. The average plumber doesn’t worry about buying his business .... The average plumber makes $50,000,” not $250,000, he said. Even on Iraq, Hoak said, Obama has shown better judgment.
Mike Derby, a 35-year-old painter, said he will vote for McCain. “He was in the Vietnam War. He was a prisoner of war. He knows more about running a country than Obama. “Obama supports terrorists. He is a Marxist.”
Dave Motel, who works in a steel mill and is a member of the United Steelworkers union, said he will vote for Obama because he is the best candidate. “McCain has no clue about the economy.” But you can’t wish away racism, Motel said.
The polls have Obama leading by nearly 10 points in Pennsylvania. Murtha, who has represented the 12th Congressional District since 1974 and secured a lot of funds for the area, has taken quite a bit of heat for his remarks. He is involved in a close re-election race with Republican Bill Russell, a retired Army colonel.