Everyone from Newsweek to Diane Sawyer have paid visits to the Northeastern Pennsylvania county.
In the weeks since the November election, Pennsylvania has been the subject of much discussion. Buoyed by the bright blue cities on either side, the state had voted Democrat in every presidential election since 1992. This year, it was one of the states that swung red and pushed Donald Trump into the White House.
To understand how that change happened, the national media has descended on one place perhaps more than any other: Luzerne County.
Luzerne County is in Northeastern Pennsylvania and is best known for its two cities, Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton. In 2016, it was one of three reliably Democratic counties, including Erie and Northampton, to vote for the Republican.
Luzerne saw one of the largest voter shifts in the state in the last eight years. In 2008, Barack Obama won the county by nine percentage points, and in 2012, by five points. But by 2016, Donald Trump won 58 percent of the vote compared to Hillary Clinton’s 38 percent — a twenty point spread.
A change candidate for a changing region
That kind of swing is enough to bring journalists sniffing around. NPR National Correspondent Jeff Brady came to Luzerne County for an NPR series called “Kitchen Table Conversations,” interviewing voters from all over the country.
“If you want to know what’s going on in Pennsylvania, it makes sense to go to Luzerne County,” said Brady. “They’ve voted Democrat for decades and Hillary Clinton’s family is from Scranton nearby. Everyone thought she was on home turf. When it went for Trump, it captured the imagination as a place to go to learn about why.”
Brady’s story was about a young woman named Jamie Ruppert who voted for Obama but turned to Trump in 2016. Ruppert’s husband works in the energy industry and she’s nostalgic for a time when coal and manufacturing were king in the region. But, Brady says, “she’s not easy to put into a box, and I don’t think Luzerne County is easy to put in a box right now.”
Luzerne County is predominately white and working class, though the Latino population has been growing quickly over recent years — particularly in the city of Hazleton. After decades of decline in coal and manufacturing, the county is beginning to see some signs of growth from warehouse jobs. Interstates 80 and 81 intersect in the county, taking trucks to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and New York.
Interviewing half a dozen Luzerne County residents, Brady got the sense that most people weren’t seeing signs of positive change in their communities.
“They felt like, ‘this is the way it is. This is the way it’s always going to be. We’re always going to be left behind,'” said Brady. “Then you have this person come in who sounds totally different, and if you’re looking for something different, that’s appealing.”
Josh Saul, a reporter with Newsweek, came to a similar conclusion in his article, “Why Did Donald Trump Win? Just Visit Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.”
“I found that people there were really unhappy with the status quo,” he said. “They didn’t like a number of things about their lives and were looking for that change candidate. That was Trump.”
Saul visited a bar in Hazleton, was a guest on a call-in show on WILK News Radio and knocked on doors at homes bearing Trump signs all over the county. He found that people in Luzerne County supported Trump because they thought he’d bring jobs to the area, lower the cost of health insurance and act on illegal immigration.
Saul was surprised that Luzerne County was so hilly (“I’m from Alaska, so I tend to be a snob about mountains. But my ears were popping every 15 minutes.”) He was also surprised that some of the academics and local leaders he was interviewing had a full dance card. They were doing multiple interviews a day with outlets from all over the country.
The Wall Street Journal ran a piece called “The Places That Made Donald Trump President,” set in Wilkes-Barre. Luzerne County was deemed by Politico one of “The 9 Places That Really Mattered in 2016.” As recently as the day before the inauguration, CNBC visited the area and found that “In Trump Country, These Voters Aren’t Feeling Buyers Remorse.”
Even ABC’s Diane Sawyer came to town for 20/20’s new series “My Reality: A Hidden America,” which explores the struggles of working class families trying to make ends meet. Sawyer profiled Luzerne County firefighter Chris Smith who works three jobs, often back-to-back, to support his family.
Expanding the narrative
When Newsweek’s Saul was on WILK, Sue Henry, the host, greeted him with a warning: Luzerne County residents were sick of hearing their home referred to as “hardscrabble.” Particularly for national news outlets dropping in for a day or two at a time, it can be easy to stereotype a place like Luzerne County as synonymous with white, working-class discontent.
But there’s diversity in the county, even outside the pockets of Latino growth. Alia Hanna Habib wrote a personal essay for Buzzfeed called “To Understand the Rust Belt, We Need to See Beyond Whiteness.” Habib, an Arab-American now living in New York, grew up in Wilkes-Barre.
“Seeing the name of my hometown in a dateline never fails to give me a queasy little thrill, like getting an update about an ex,” writes Habib. “But I’ve watched this phenomenon with increasing dismay as, over and over, the economic and cultural ‘crisis’ in the small, post-industrial cities and towns that dot the Northeast and Midwest is presented as some exquisite torture felt only by white Americans. In this narrative, people of color — people like me — are whitewashed out of the story entirely.”
Habib’s family came to Wilkes-Barre from Syria for the same reason generations of immigrants did, looking for work in the coal mines. Her family suffered as much as anyone’s when those mines shut down.
“Overlooking families like mine, making the mistake of believing (or suggesting) that people of color don’t share working- and middle-class struggles, only reinforces their political and economic marginality,” writes Habib.
Staying with the story
Habib’s criticism of recent media coverage might sound familiar to a wide array of residents in Luzerne County. There’s been a lot of talk about feeling left behind, silenced and ignored by the national media.
Some groups, particularly the white working-class, are attracting a lot of attention right now. That attention could be more diverse and inclusive, but will it get a chance to be? Or is this Luzerne County’s 15 minutes of fame?
“I’d like to come back and check in after maybe three months or six months to see how Trump is holding up for these voters,” said Saul. “I’d go back on the radio show and revisit some of the people I talked to. I wish I’d done more reporting in Luzerne County before the election, but I’d like to go back.”
NPR, for its series, plans to check back in with the voters it profiles, including Ruppert, throughout the presidency. Brady says the election was a “wake-up call for the national media.”
“There are whole segments of the United States that feel like they haven’t been heard by us, and that message has been received,” said Brady. “We’re seeing better coverage now, but we’ll see, down the road. [The media] can be like dogs when the next squirrel comes along.”