Why Democrats in Western Pennsylvania Are Voting Trump

At a voter-registration event in Washington County, Democrats in the energy industry say the 2016 election is about preserving their way of life.

Justin Merriman

CHARLEROI, Pa.—Angela LeJohn is 49, has worked at a local energy company for nine years, and loves it. A registered Democrat, she never once voted for a Republican and never expected to entertain such a thought—not even in a local election—until this year.

“The short of it is that I am looking at this election through self-preservation,” she explained. “I love my job, I love that I only live three miles from work, I love that who I work for contributes to a stable life, and I love that my community is holding on because of the trickle effect Lee Supply Company’s impact has on the region.”

LeJohn will vote for Donald Trump for president and for incumbent U.S. Senator Pat Toomey in November, she candidly admits, not because she loves either Republican candidate but because “they have my back.”

Angela LeJohn, 49, of Allenport, has worked at Lee Supply in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, for nine years. She has never voted Republican but expects to this year. (Justin Merriman)

She was among more than 60 employees who attended an informal voter-registration effort conducted by Secure Energy for America, a non-partisan trade association that has visited energy vendors and suppliers in key counties of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, and Virginia. It hopes to mobilize energy-industry workers, along with their relatives and neighbors, to vote in November. Officially, the effort is non-partisan. Yet for most energy workers in Pennsylvania, voting to preserve their industry means voting for Trump and Toomey.

The registration drive gets to the heart of the election in Western Pennsylvania. Democrats in these small communities want to hold on to their way of life; they feel their communities have as much value as those of their more-cosmopolitan Democratic cousins, and they cannot reconcile themselves to a national Democratic Party that they feel is working against them. They are the voters whose simple motivation to vote outside of the party they were born into has fallen under the radar of the national press and the polls.

But the energy industry has noticed. “This kind of endeavor is terrifically impactful with voters,” said Ron Sicchitano, the Democratic Party’s chairman here in Washington County. “I’ve got to hand it to them.” Sicchitano, a coal miner, says anti-coal statements by President Barack Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have had a “tremendously devastating” impact on voters in a county that has been reliably Democratic in the past.

Terry Huweart, 45, of Charleroi, left, and Sheik Shannon, 55, of Monongahela, center, sign forms for Secure Energy for America, as Bob Staranko, 71, of Charleroi sits in a chair nearby on Sept. 7, 2016. (Justin Merriman)

“My main objective is to get as many of my voters out so that I can keep the margins down in the county,” he said. “Trump is going to win [the county], he just can’t win that big or a big turnout in this county will chip away at Hillary Clinton’s wins in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.” He feels that the national party is running away from energy voters and southwestern Pennsylvania Democrats; he confesses to being unsure who his reliable voters are anymore, because so many of Washington County’s registered Democrats could vote Republican in November.

In the 2000 presidential election, Washington County went strongly Democrat; it gave 53.2 percent of its vote to then-Vice President Al Gore, and only 44 percent to the Republican, then-Governor George W. Bush of Texas.

By 2004, when climate change and cap-and-trade became the national Democratic Party’s driving narratives, John Kerry barely won the county, with just 552 votes more than Bush.

In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama told the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board that “if somebody wants to build a coal-fired power plant, they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them.” Washington County voters abandoned their Democratic voting tradition that fall and chose John McCain over Obama. They did so again in 2012, choosing Republican Mitt Romney. What’s different this time, Sicchitano, said, is the intensity of people’s feelings: “This time it really is personal for these voters.”

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Lee Supply is a third-generation family-owned business, operating since 1954. “My dad started it servicing the coal industry,” Lee said. Nestled in a glen between the rolling hills of the Alleghenies and the Monongahela River, the company bustles with workers moving about the plant. Today, it sells pipe and pumping systems used in everything from traditional applications, such as water distribution and sewage treatment, to highly specialized applications such as horizontal directional drilling, slip lining, leachate and methane collection, gas extraction, and water transport.

One man wearing a florescent-yellow Lee Supply safety shirt, with grease smudged on his arms and face, registered to vote for the first time in his 61 years. His eyes watered as he put down the pen. “This is about me,” he said, declining to give his name. “I am doing this for me, my hometown.”

“Sheik” Shannon, 55, a 17-year employee at the company, believes the political class fundamentally misunderstands what this election cycle is all about. “They think it is the celebrity of Trump. It’s not. They think we’ve all gone mad. We’ve not,” he said, emphasizing each sentence with passion. “Communities like where I live do not need to shutter and die. We lead solid, honest lives, we work hard, we play hard, we pray hard … we love where we are from, and we feel a duty to make sure that it is here for generations.”

He, too, is a Democrat. So is 26-year-old Brandon Lancaster, who has worked for the Lee family since he was 19. So is Mike Lee, the company’s CEO. All intend to vote for Trump.

Mike Lee, 70, CEO of Lee Supply, a third-generation family-owned business in Charleroi, sits in a conference room on Sept. 7, 2016. His father started the business servicing the coal industry in 1954. (Justin Merriman)

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Paul Sracic, a Youngstown State University political scientist, believes there are two categories of voters rallying to support Trump. “First, there are people who don’t normally vote,” he said. “Nearly half the voting-age population was either not registered to vote, or was registered and decided not to vote in 2012. And if even 10 percent of that group was to show up and vote this year, it could easily change the outcome in the important swing states.”

Sracic—who frankly admits he obsesses over opinion polls—wonders whether these voters are even represented in the endless presidential surveys: “If people aren’t registered voters, they won’t be picked up by most polls. If they are registered voters but don’t normally vote, they may be eliminated by ‘likely voter’ screens pollsters use.” Romney lost Pennsylvania in 2012 by about 300,000 votes out of about 5.5 million cast; in Ohio, he lost by less than 200,000. “So bringing new people in can make a difference,” Sracic said.

Potentially more significant, however, are those voters who “flip”—Sracic’s second category. “Remember,” he said, “taking a Democratic voter and having them vote Republican is both a +1 and a -1. In other words, if Romney lost Pennsylvania by 300,000 voters, all you have to do [this time] is flip slightly more than 150,000 votes.” Between Ohio and Pennsylvania, if approximately 225,000 voters (out of the 11 million who are expected on Election Day) switch parties, they could tip the entire election.

“Writers such as National Review’s correspondent Kevin Williamson have suggested that people who live in communities that are experiencing economic hard times should just pack up and move somewhere else,” said Sracic.

He believes that Williamson and others like him actually have a very narrow understanding of what constitutes and promotes happiness and wellbeing: “People need jobs and enough money to survive, but they also desire community. Friends and family are important. When we talk about ‘creative destruction’ as being part of a vibrant national economy, we sometime miss the real damage that is done to the networks that sustain us.”

If nearly everyone moves away, who is going to take care of mom and dad as they age? Are they expected to pull up roots, too, and leave the people and places they have known their whole lives?

Many do leave, of course. Others stay—and watch the economy collapse around them. To many of these voters, Trump offers the hope that they won’t have to make such an awful choice.

Bob Staranko, 71, a lifelong Mon Valley resident, Vietnam War veteran, and Democrat, plans on voting for Donald Trump in this year's Presidential election. (Justin Merriman)

Every single person who walked into Lee Supply’s training room, from the CEO down to the janitor, was a registered Democrat. And every single person pledged not only to vote for Trump and Toomey but to ask family, neighbors, and friends to do the same.

Washington County is one of 10 Pennsylvania counties to watch in this election; the others are Bucks, Cambria, Dauphin, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Luzerne, Westmoreland, Greene, and York.

Trump is unlikely to win all 10. But, if he gains 2,000 to 2,500 voters in each like LeJohn, Shannon, Lancaster, and the 50 other voters who pledged their support at Secure Energy’s registration drive, then he might be looking at a tight race in this state in November.

“Nine years ago I was forced into retirement at Corning, and I needed a job with health care,” said Paul Satranko, a lifelong Mon Valley resident. A Vietnam War veteran, he played Little League baseball 60 years ago with Lee Supply’s CEO, he has been the company’s janitor and all-around character ever since.

“There is no room for apathy in this election,” he said. “I think that is what people not from around here don’t understand—we are voting for our lives.” He plans to vote for Trump.