ERIE, Pa. — Robin Westcott remembers her joy when Joe Biden was elected last fall.
Not only had Biden won with a narrow victory in Pennsylvania, but he also had carried Erie County, where Westcott has lived for most of her 62 years. Once reliably Democratic in presidential elections, the voters here in 2016 broke for Donald Trump — the first time they favored a Republican White House hopeful since Ronald Reagan in 1984. The county, which pokes out from the northwesternmost corner of the state and into Lake Erie, became something of a Rorschach test for the Rust Belt.
In a region that has lost manufacturing jobs by the thousands, Trump’s politics of blame and grievance connected with just enough working-class voters. For a little while, anyway.
Joe Biden voters in Pennsylvania see promises kept on Covid-19. They're watching for what's next.
Erie County, which Biden flipped back blue in 2020, has struggled to reverse a decade of population decline and manufacturing job losses.
“Back to blue, thank God,” Westcott, a retired college admissions coordinator, said during a lunch stop this month at the Lawrence Park Dinor, a cafe inside an old train car and named for the township it serves just east of Erie (with a spelling that seems to be unique to the area). “I thought the world was coming to an end.”
Nearly 100 days into the Biden presidency, voters who backed him in this political battleground-within-a battleground say they feel a sense of relief. They see a more urgent response to the coronavirus pandemic and a more competent approach to governing, a man of decency and faith, and a commander in chief whose tweets won’t keep them up at night.
“I’m hearing people taking a breath that they haven’t been able to take for a long time,” Erie School Board President Tyler Titus said. Titus, 36, is the first openly transgender person elected to public office in Pennsylvania and a Democratic candidate for county executive this year.
As life returns to normal, Erie County voters are wrestling with what they want from Biden. Economic stimulus and infrastructure plans rate high, but issues such as poverty, unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border, and trade with China are very much on their minds.
Republicans devoted to Trump, meanwhile, are especially skeptical that Biden will solve these problems. But many also raised issues pushed by the former president and his conservative media allies — such as “cancel culture” and the corporate backlash against restrictive new voting laws — that are more tangential to Biden and his job performance. The Erie County GOP recently censured Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., for voting in the impeachment trial to convict Trump of inciting the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
The party’s drift toward Trumpism so disgusted Robert Yates, a delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention who voted for Trump that year, that he voted for Biden in 2020. A two-time GOP candidate for the Erie County Council, Yates now identifies as a Democrat.
“It’s nice to have some competence in government back, and it’s impressive what a stable leader can accomplish when he appoints competent, experienced people to execute a goal,” Yates, 46, a home health aide, said. Biden, he added, “has been true to his word as much as he can be. He’s doing the best job he can under the circumstances.”
Even the staunchest of Republicans spare a few words of grudging praise for how Biden expedited the coronavirus vaccines. But they also emphasize that it was during the last months of the Trump administration that the development, approval and early distribution of the vaccines began.
Biden, said Verel Salmon, the Erie County GOP chairman, “hasn’t necessarily hurt it."
Region’s challenges inform expectations for Biden
Erie County’s population has declined substantially over the last decade — and faster than all but one other Pennsylvania county between 2017 and 2018. Roughly 270,000 people lived here in 2019, according to census estimates, down from about 281,000 in 2010. In the city of Erie, the county seat, a population that peaked at 138,000 in the 1960s has dipped to 96,000.
Signs of hollowed-out factories and other economic distress are hard to miss. The metro area’s 9.9 percent unemployment rate is higher than the state and national averages. So are the poverty rates for the county (16.6 percent) and for Erie proper (26.2 percent).
These challenges inform the expectations that local residents have for Biden.
“I want Joe Biden to help the people here, people who live in the streets,” said Yajaira Melendez, 40, a stay-at-home mother, as she enjoyed a breezy afternoon with her family at Dobbins Landing, a lakefront park known for its handsome fishing wharf and observation tower.
Erie Mayor Joseph Schember sees Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan as particularly helpful for an area that was already struggling to transition to a post-industrial economy. He expects the coronavirus relief package will bring $79 million in stimulus funds directly to the city and tens of millions more dollars to the county government and neighboring municipalities.
“That’s an opportunity like Erie has never had before,” Schember, a Democrat with a background in banking, said during a recent interview inside a City Hall conference room.
Schember, 70, presents himself as a pragmatist. (“Sometimes I vote for the Republican.") He’s not looking for Biden to promise — as Trump did — a resurgence of manufacturing jobs, mindful of the greenhouse gas haze he watched rise above his city while looking out from his third-floor bedroom as a child. (“The jobs of the future will not pollute. They’re going to be things that are more technological in nature.”) And he’s not shy about gently identifying room for Biden to improve.
“He’s taken some criticism lately for all of the immigration down at the southern border, and all of those thousands of kids that have come across without parents,” he said. “And I think that he just hasn’t had the time to really work on that. I do have faith that he will.”
Erie is a place where the new administration’s approach to immigration and refugee resettlement — an approach that Biden and his White House staff have recently struggled to articulate — will be closely watched. The region has nurtured a reputation as a haven for those fleeing wartorn countries and other global hot spots. When new American citizens are sworn in at the federal courthouse, Schember welcomes them with a pen inscribed with his name, a sunrise and a message to “create a great future.”
Saad Kadum, 54, estimates that 60 to 65 percent of his customers at the Fadak International Food Market east of downtown are Muslims originally from Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon. Kadum, who came to Erie in 1993 from Iraq by way of a Saudi Arabian refugee camp, said he’s also seen his business grow with people born in the United States who are eager to try Mideastern dishes.
“The stimulus checks have helped people a lot, especially our small businesses,” Kadum, who also owns an auto body shop in the neighborhood, said inside the corner grocery store, which stocks everything from fresh meat and produce to ornate tea kettles. “People don’t have to worry when they go spend a couple of dollars on food or necessities or whatever.”
A Democrat, he voted for Biden last year and wants tougher, more equal trade policies with China — a position Trump often emphasized in his populist efforts to win working-class voters.
“You don’t have to cut ties all the way,” Kadum said. “But we should pull ourselves out of there little by little, you know? Help small businesses who want to do things for us. … I wasn’t born here, but when I go to the store and I see ‘Made in the U.S.,’ honestly, I buy two.”
‘The town that GE built’
The heavily Democratic city of Erie accounts for more than a third of the county’s population. Trump won in 2016 by overachieving in the suburban and rural areas. Lawrence Park backed Trump by 65 votes in 2016 but swung back to Democrats and Biden, by 189 votes, last year.
The township of roughly 3,800 is home to an old General Electric locomotive factory — now owned by the manufacturing company Wabtec — racked by layoffs in recent years. It’s the kind of place that could be oversimplified when trying to understand the political climate in the Trump era, but the conversations people have there have a certain familiarity.
“It’s the town that GE built,” said Westcott, the retired college admissions coordinator and Biden fan whose husband worked there. “It’s been hard, but we love living here. It’s like Mayberry.”
At the counter across the narrow train car diner, Westcott’s friend Joe Crotty, the chief of the Lawrence Park Volunteer Fire Department, nursed a hamburger and a different political point of view.
Unhappy with his choices in 2016, Crotty wrote in Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus for president. Last year, he backed Trump. Crotty, 63, found in him a true independent who didn’t fit neatly into either party. And despite Trump’s indulgence in racism and far-right conspiracy theories, he said he saw in the former president someone who champions the people who are “awfully lonely drifting in the middle of the road.”
“I’m certainly not a neo-Nazi,” Crotty added. “I’m not homophobic or anything like that. I don’t give a rat’s tail."
His eyes lit up when asked whom he could see himself supporting in future presidential elections. “This is going to freak you out,” he began, enjoying himself as he built up the suspense.
“I think it’d be so cool if Tulsi Gabbard and that Crenshaw kid teamed up and they ran as independents,” he said, referring to the former Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii who appeals to some libertarians and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas. “Oh man, would I love that!”
With the exception of “the mess at the border,” which Crotty mentioned in passing, his criticisms of Biden had little to do with the new president’s agenda.
Biden, he said, “hid in his basement,” echoing a talking point left over from the election, when Democrats campaigned cautiously because of the pandemic. Crotty also bemoaned cancel culture — a particularly animating theme for Republicans — and Major League Baseball’s decision to move its All-Star Game from Atlanta in protest of the GOP’s restrictive new voting rules in Georgia.
“What about vaccines?” Westcott asked her friend at one point.
The vaccines have been great, Crotty agreed. He emphasized the Trump administration’s role.
“The development of the vaccine was phenomenal,” he said. “It was cool how they expedited it and got it going. Do I think that there was some politicization of it? Hell, yeah, there was.”
Later, on a sidewalk outside the diner — and out of earshot of his friends — Crotty wondered if the election had been stolen from Trump through the use of rigged voting machines. There’s been no evidence to support this, though Trump and many of his allies have continued to perpetuate the lie.
Westcott, meanwhile, is looking ahead with excitement and hope. The loyal Democrat has followed the early days of Biden’s presidency close enough to be annoyed with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a moderate who has become a swing vote in the 50-50 chamber. (“He’s loving every minute of it.”) And she is psyched about Biden’s infrastructure plan.
“Sounds fabulous,” Westcott said as she waited for her sandwich to come off the grill. “The bridges are crumbling around us. And we live in Pennsylvania and we get a lot of ice and snow. I’m just shocked at people who think we’re spending too much money on ourselves for a change.”