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Rust Belt Revolt

Voting for the fresh face, regardless of party affiliation, strikes a blow against the status quo.

By Jim Russell


An attendee with a flag bandana made in China waits for Donald Trump to speak at a rally at Erie Insurance Arena on August 12th, 2016, in Erie, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Last night, blue wall Pennsylvania came tumbling down for national Democrats. The county where I was born, Erie, went Republican in a presidential election for the first time since Herbert Hoover. I’m not sure if that claim is true. But I did grow up in a place where Democrats controlled local politics. The sea of change that put Donald Trump in the White House turned my Rust Belt hometown on its head.

The democratic primary decided who would be mayor. Once in, you were king of the city for life. At least, that’s how I remember Lou Tullio. He was the Mayor of Erie before I was born and still in power when I was old enough to vote. Kitchen table talk about Tullio centered on charges of corruption and affiliation with the mafia. Democrats ruled working-class towns with an iron fist. Republicans dare not apply.

If the old guard wasn’t your boy, then you didn’t like the person in power. A common enemy would bridge ideological divides between strangers. Crooks ran city hall. Inside the Beltway translated as above the law. Voting for the fresh face, regardless of party, strikes a blow against the status quo. Anyone has to be better than Tullio.

In 2008, anyone was Barack Obama. The Tullio stand-in was John McCain. In Erie County, Obama garnered about 76,000 votes. McCain managed to attract 50,000. Come 2012, the inertia of incumbency sways the polity. Obama beats Mitt Romney, 68,000 to 49,000. About last night, Trump steps up as anyone and Hillary Clinton plays the Tullio villain. The race is close, the county picking its first Republican president in forever, 57,000 to 55,000.

Clinton would have beaten McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012 with 55,000 votes. Trump would have lost to Obama in both elections with his 2016 tally. More pertinent to the supposed Rust Belt revolt, many folks who supported Obama likely voted for Trump. More accurately, they wouldn’t vote for Clinton. She under-performed 2008 Obama by 21,000 votes while Trump only outperformed McCain by 7,000.

For as long as I can remember, my hometown languished as an economic has been. My family left Erie in the late 1970s as my father nimbly remained a step ahead of layoffs at General Electric. A blue-collar uprising is a few decades too late. The down and out supported Obama, twice. They didn’t want another Tullio and went for the fresh face, party be damned.