Will a Biden Presidency Reflect His Scranton Roots? | RealClearPolitics

SCRANTON, Pa. — In the downtown here, if you pass Courthouse Square on Adams Avenue, then merge onto Washington Avenue, you’ll eventually enter Green Ridge, a neighborhood seemingly preserved in ’50s-era America. “It’s a Norman Rockwell kind of scene,” Sarah Piccini, assistant director of the Lackawanna Historical Society, told me.

Indeed, stately old residences line this leafy stretch of North Washington Avenue, where “Scranton Loves Joe” signs adorn lawns and a large, ornamental donkey – clearly a tribute to the Democratic Party – commands the front porch of a Colonial revival home. There isn’t any doubt about the politics of this section, where President-elect Joe Biden spent his early youth. “Where Biden grew up in Green Ridge, Irish-Catholic Democrat was one conjoined word,” said Austin Burke, former president of the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce. Even today, that political, if not tribal, allegiance remains intact – especially with a native son about to ascend to the White House.

Next Wednesday, Biden will become the 46th U.S. president amid nightmarish conditions, including a pandemic, economic devastation, rising urban crime, and cultural upheaval. Matters only worsened last week when a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol not long after President Trump’s divisive rally – the culmination of post-election disgruntlement. The nation’s chaotic state is the ultimate test for Biden, who, for decades, has presented himself as a loyal Democrat but also a unifying, centrist figure.

Biden’s persona is doubtless shaped by his Scranton roots, which he proudly referenced even before the 2020 campaign. It’s important to understand how the former vice president is a product of the Electric City, where politics remains something of a local industry. “Biden has been shaped for years as a creature of Washington, but before that he was a creature of Scranton,” said Christopher Borick, a native of nearby Throop and director of Muhlenberg College’s Institute of Public Opinion.

Though Biden lived in Scranton only until age 10, the city’s political and cultural past is encoded in his DNA. Tim Hinton, a Scranton attorney and distant relative, noted that the president-elect has “deep, widespread roots [among] very prominent people who did a lot to shape Scranton and help build up the city, whether designing roads, inspecting mines, or serving in the state Senate.”

Indeed, Biden’s maternal great-great-grandfather, Patrick Blewitt, left Ireland’s County Mayo 170 years ago this month and settled with his parents in Scranton, then a center for iron and railroads. By that point, the community of 1,000 – nestled in the Lackawanna Valley wilderness – was transitioning into an industrial empire fueled by the area’s anthracite coal mines. During this period, Patrick, who became a local engineer, planned many of Scranton’s streets as the region experienced explosive population growth driven, in large part, by Irish immigration.

By 1880, when Scranton’s population reached 45,000 – at one point, it was among America’s fastest-growing cities – the Irish had diluted the political influence of Welsh Methodist Republicans, who often worked as mine superintendents. Biden’s maternal great-grandfather, Edward F. Blewitt, was among those Irish Catholics who ascended the city’s Democratic hierarchy. Blewitt – Scranton’s city engineer under Mayor Terence Powderly, later head of the Knights of Labor – served in the Pennsylvania state Senate from 1907 to 1910. He was also a founder of what became Scranton’s chapter of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, which became a local political force.

When Blewitt died in 1926, The Scranton Republican recognized the Green Ridge resident’s over 40 years in local politics. Blewitt, the paper reported, “made friends easily and had the faculty of keeping them.” This also applied to the opposing political party: “Although a Democrat, Blewitt became a warm personal friend of the late United States Senator Boies Penrose,” a powerful Philadelphia Republican who controlled state politics. Meantime, The Scranton Times described Blewitt as a “Democrat of the old school. … He had endeared himself to a legion of acquaintances and friends here by reason of his many sterling qualities.” 

Scranton’s pervasive Irish-Catholic Democratic culture, which dictated Blewitt’s career, only intensified after his death. “The Irish always controlled the city,” noted Michael DeMichele, a retired University of Scranton historian who, for decades, taught a regional ethnic studies course. A native of Scranton’s South Side, DeMichele recounted working in playgrounds when City Hall was controlled by James Hanlon, who served as mayor from 1946 to 1962. During that period, Irish political leaders ran ethnically diverse tickets to maintain control in the melting-pot city. “People used to vote the straight ticket for Democrats,” noted DeMichele.

Biden was born into this world in 1942, not long after Scranton’s population peaked at 143,000. At that point, the Irish elite dominated Green Ridge, designed as one of Scranton’s earliest suburban neighborhoods. In those early years, Biden’s family lived with his maternal grandparents in a three-story home, situated at the end of North Washington Avenue near Marywood University, then a Catholic women’s college. Even then, Green Ridge was a dramatic contrast from Scranton’s West Side or Minooka, both working-class Irish strongholds. “Green Ridge was always seen as the way up,” said Borick. “And as an Irish Catholic, being a lawyer or a politician was a vocation and path forward.”

Of course, other Scrantonians, including the non-Irish, followed this vocation before Biden. In the summer of 1964, prior to Biden’s senior year at the University of Delaware, William Scranton – the city’s patrician namesake, a liberal Republican and Pennsylvania’s then-governor – made a last-minute effort to secure the GOP nomination from Barry Goldwater, Arizona’s conservative U.S. senator. At the time, Bob Casey Sr., father of current U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, was Scranton’s state senator. In 1986, Casey Sr., a Green Ridge resident, defeated William Scranton’s son, Bill, in what was considered a gubernatorial upset.

By St. Patrick’s Day 1973, Biden, who followed his great-grandfather’s political path, was America’s youngest U.S. senator, representing Delaware. On that day, not long after the tragic death of his wife and daughter, Biden spoke at the annual dinner hosted by the local Friendly Sons, which Blewitt helped form. Among the attendees was Eugene Peters, who served as Republican mayor from 1970 to 1978. The son of Lebanese immigrants and a lifelong resident of Scranton’s Hyde Park, Peters vividly recalled Biden’s remarks. “I said he could be president someday,” Peters told me.

Now, almost 48 years later, Biden will fulfill that role. Of course, Scranton, like the nation, has profoundly changed since 1973. New immigrant groups, including Nepali-Bhutanese and Hispanics, reside in neighborhoods such as South Side. Nearly half of Scranton’s ethnic Catholic parishes, moreover, have closed or consolidated since the late 2000s – a trend likely accelerated by abuse scandals in the Scranton Diocese, which figured prominently in a 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report. Meantime, City Hall is confronting Scranton’s economic challenges. The current mayor, Paige Cognetti – an Oregon native and Obama administration alum – won election as an independent in 2019, not long after the preceding Democratic mayor resigned on federal public-corruption charges.

The Democratic Party, too, no longer wields the regional influence that it enjoyed during Biden’s youth or, decades later, the Obama era. In fact, though Scranton remains Democratic – every city precinct favored Biden in November – northeastern Pennsylvania is beginning to trend Republican. In 2016, the anthracite coal region – particularly neighboring Luzerne County – played a pivotal role in Trump’s statewide victory. That year, Trump lost Lackawanna County by about 3,500 votes to Hillary Clinton, whose father, a Republican, grew up in Scranton. It was an unthinkable scenario for Democrats, once a driving force behind the region’s labor movement.

In 2020, Biden won Lackawanna by nearly 10,000 votes. “If you had told me years ago that Biden, or anybody from Scranton, was running for president, I would think he’d get 80% of the vote in Lackawanna,” noted Borick.

Though Lackawanna is Pennsylvania’s second most Democratic county, Republicans have continued to make voter registration gains. According to Lance Stange, a Scranton native and Lackawanna’s GOP chairman, the county’s Republican Party has grown by 11% since 2016, while Democrats’ registration decreased by about 6%. “Republicans have gained ground in approximately 75% of Lackawanna County’s municipalities, including Scranton,” said Stange. “The Democrats are really only growing in the wealthiest areas of Lackawanna County.” This is part of a wider trend throughout the coal region, where many longtime Democrats flocked to the GOP during Trump’s presidency. It remains unclear, though, if they  will continue to favor Republicans – or just stay home – in future elections.

Amid the region’s shifting politics, Green Ridge remains frozen in time. Austin Burke, now a local artist, recounted how a former chamber chairman, after spending over a year in the Abingtons – a prosperous suburban area – returned to Green Ridge. “He moved back to be among his own,” said Burke, who noted how the children of current residents look to buy neighborhood homes.

One afternoon last week, a trio of children – after passing a state historical marker for the late Casey Sr. – ascended a hill off North Washington Avenue to Hank’s Hoagies, a luncheonette where a life-size cutout figure of Biden greets customers. A few blocks away, a St. Bernard rested on a porch as people walked by. The neighborhood was calm, even idyllic, and a parallel universe compared to the national state of affairs.

It remains to be seen how Biden – a native of this culture – can serve as a calming, if transitional, force during this dark time, which is partly fueled by extremist forces in both political parties. “I feel very confident about Biden,” said Peters, the former GOP mayor who worked with a Democratic City Council. “I tried to serve all the people – that’s my philosophy in government – and I believe Biden will have a similar approach.”

Charles McElwee edits RealClear’s public affairs page on Pennsylvania. He is the 2020-21 John Farley Memorial Fellow, part of The Fund for American Studies’ Robert Novak Journalism Program. Follow him on Twitter @CFMcElwee.

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