What Makes Pennsylvania Blue: Labor and Hard Struggles for Justice


Photo: Overflow Voters at Raccoon VFD

Making History
at the Raccoon
VFD Polling Place

By Carl Davidson
Beaver County Blue

There was a lot more to working the polls in this historic election than checking signatures and passing out palm cards.

It was glorious Fall day at the semi-rural fire-hall-turned-voting-center in Raccoon Township, Beaver County, Western PA. I arrived early, but the hall was packed. Most people were in good spirits. Long-time neighbors chatted, older folks marveled at the uncommon turnout among younger voters, and parents worried about fretful children. The main buzz was about one thing: whether they were for Obama or against him, everyone knew they were about to make history.

“I’ve never seen such a turnout,” said Marion Prasjner, president of the local Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees Chapter 2020. Prasjner is eighty years old and very savvy. He’s with PDA and an Obama supporter.

The machines were working fine, the judges were polite, and both poll watchers and judges efficiently assisted the confused and the infirm. My main task of the day became building our independent group, the PA 4th CD Progressive Democrats of America, and its new website, Beaver County Blue. Our flyer was designed to hand to voters who had finished, rather than overwhelming them on their arrival.

Outside the hall were signs for Obama and every local Democratic candidate. For some reason, no McCain-Palin signs were in sight. I put up an ‘AFL-CIO for Obama-Biden’ sign. There were three women ‘passers’ with literature, and two older guys who, if they were in Chicago, would be precinct captains, but here they were greeters. All were Democrats, until later in the day, when one Republican showed up.

This part of the county went for Hillary in the Democratic primary. While I was nearly certain that this time we would take Pennsylvania overall, I was nervous. Raccoon is 99 percent white-construction workers, service workers, teachers, retirees, and a few farm families and small business people. Usually, on local matters, it goes two-to-one Democratic. But ‘Democrats for McCain’ signs had been popping up in the last week, and last-minute rightwing messaging with bigoted attacks on Obama was intense. We knew we would make gains, but by how much, and with whom?

You could sense the divisions in peoples’ faces and demeanor. Grim people with stony silence or nasty comments were for McCain They either refused leaflets or handed them back. Smiles and chit-chat usually meant a Democrat.

I watched Ralph Hysong, my neighbor, greet nearly everyone. He’s got Obama signs all over his yard, plus one he made himself demanding ‘Clean, Honest Government.’ He used to own part of a gas station, and was on a first-name basis with half the people coming in. Ralph turned out to be a fourth cousin of mine and picked out voters I’m probably related to. “There weren’t many families here back in the 1700s,” I said, “and they inter-married and we’re nearly all related. I’m even my own fifth cousin!” This got a big laugh, and one woman reminded us that we’re all family in God’s eyes.  “And, the scientists tell us we all have that common Grandmother from Africa,” I replied. “Yes!” said another woman, “That’s still another reason to go for Obama, he’s family!”

The chatter stayed interesting.  “Who’s Obama most remind you of?” yelled out Andy Mihalic, a retired steelworker in his eighties, who was keeping our coffeepot full. I had an idea of where he was going. “JFK,” I called back. “You got it right!” replied Andy. I knew there was deep affection for JFK around here, deserved or not. Andy went on: “And do you know why? Because he’s got VISION! Just like JFK wanted to go to the Moon, Obama has a vision on new mills making all the stuff for alternative energy! Don’t worry about color or any of that stuff, the man’s got vision!”

My supply of Beaver County Blue flyers was starting to get depleted. People were curious, wanting to stay in touch beyond election day. Some ask for extras for their workplaces.

Andy Mihalic talked about the Jones and Laughlin steel mills, now defunct. I told him my grandfather and cousin both died there, crushed by cranes, and that I’d always supported the union, especially the fight for safety. “Safety?” he said. “Let me tell you, even with the safety rules, there’s nothing safe about making steel.” He told hair-raising stories of daily risk and brutality.

I asked him his views on why the mills closed. “Environmental protection,” he replied. “Don’t get me wrong. When you make steel, you make some of the most poisonous, dangerous crap there is. You’ve got to protect the community against it. But it costs money, and the new foreign mills ignored all this to make steel cheap, just dumped poison every where.” It’s a political problem, according to Andy. “We need Fair Trade to even the playing field, but these Wall Street guys don’t give a shit. McCain? What does he know? All he says is that’s he’s a vet. Big deal, I’m a vet. Hell, around here, we’re all vets. Hopefully, Obama will be different.”

Leave it to a class-conscious worker to break things down and clear things up for you. I know a little about mills, but I learned even more from Andy this afternoon. In addition to Fair Trade and finding an end to the war, we’re united on Green industrial policy. I also remind him that Obama’s voting record on vets is much better than McCain’s, a point he didn’t know.

By late afternoon, workers started streaming in-a group of bikers, pickups, nurses from the hospital, parents with carloads of kids. The parking lot filled and the waiting line surged. A few candidates showed up to check the tallies. It was a new record turnout, over 75 percent.

A local preacher arrived. His congregation bustles with charity programs that distribute free food to the elderly and folks in need. Last Saturday, over 100 vehicles were at his church to help get out the food baskets. It was his kids and his church youth group who got him to take a good look at Obama. The biggest barrier to our country’s progress, he feels, is racial division. “I figure Obama can help us get over it,” he added.

At the end of the day, Pennsylvania overall went for Obama, even if we only came very close here in Raccoon. About 52 percent of the township went for McCain, 48 percent for Obama. About half of the Hillary voters went our way, more than doubling the number of Obama voters from those we had in the primary. Some split off to McCain and others just avoided ‘the top of the ticket.’

We made solid progress, but our work is still cut out. Union mobilization, the antiwar youth turnout and African American unity, are all part of what kept Pennsylvania ‘Blue’ and helped put Obama in the White House. Now we have to orient our alliance toward ‘change from below’ to make sure our candidate delivers.

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