Blue collar workers turn on Trump as 'Scranton Joe' prepares for biggest week yet

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Customers walk past a cardboard effigy of Joe Biden at 'Hank's Hoagies' in Scranton - ERIC BARADAT /AFP
Customers walk past a cardboard effigy of Joe Biden at 'Hank's Hoagies' in Scranton - ERIC BARADAT /AFP

Most Americans know Scranton, a beleaguered industrial centre in the heartland of Pennsylvania, as the setting for the US version of “The Office”.

But as the Democrat National Convention dominates television broadcasts next week they will be hearing a lot more about it.

Scranton is where Joe Biden was born, in a modest grey-blue clapboard house, and it is central to his political story. He credits it with forming his character. It is also exactly the kind of battleground he has to win.

For decades the gritty town bled Democrat blue. But In 2016 working class voters in Scranton, which is overwhelmingly white, swung by a massive 22 points to Donald Trump.

Such swings were repeated across the "rust belt" states, delivering shock, razor-thin victories for Mr Trump in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and sending him to the White House.

However, polls show Mr Biden leading by up to 11 points in Pennsylvania, and Mr Trump knows his white working class revolution is in doubt.

That is why, on Thursday night as Mr Biden accepts the Democrat nomination in Delaware, the president will reportedly be in Scranton, campaigning in his opponent’s home town. Advance Secret Service agents were spotted in Scranton last week week. But Mr Trump will have his work cut out.

“Joe would win here if he was running against John F Kennedy," Tom Bell, 77, a lifelong friend of Mr Biden's, who sat next to him at school, told The Telegraph. “He’s that popular around here.”

Like many local Democrats, Mr Bell voted for Mr Trump in 2016, but will be returning to the fold.

“I honestly didn’t think Joe would run but I'm glad he is,” said Mr Bell. “He called me on the phone to tell me. I said ‘I don’t think you should’ and he got mad at me for that. He’ll win because he’s always been an incessant worker. And I think he’s aged well - 77 is OK to be the president, and to be selling insurance like I do.

“Joe will win Scranton and Pennsylvania. It’s not just because he's from here. Hillary was from Scranton too, but I didn’t like her.”

Both Mrs Clinton's father and grandfather worked at Scranton Lace Company, once the world’s largest lace curtain mill, which has been standing derelict on five city blocks since 2002.

Larry Orr (L) and Tom Bell (R) are old school friends of Mr Biden - ERIC BARADAT /AFP
Larry Orr (L) and Tom Bell (R) are old school friends of Mr Biden - ERIC BARADAT /AFP

Mr Trump has already accused Mr Biden of “abandoning” Scranton, and Pennsylvania.

When he was 10, Mr Biden’s father found a job cleaning boilers in Delaware, and moved the family there. But Joe Biden came back regularly to stay with his extended family, Mr Bell said.

Once, a new kid, a “mean wise guy,” picked a fight with Mr Bell. “The kid didn’t fight fair. He kicked me in the groin,” he said. “Joe was coming home that weekend. He asked the kid for an apology but the kid was abrasive. They got in a scuffle and Joe put manners on him. Joe's best quality is his loyalty and his friendship."

However, not everyone in Scranton is a fan. A hundred yards from Mr Biden’s childhood home, Tom Moran's house was festooned with Trump flags.

"Biden left here 70 years ago or something, the Scranton stuff's a political scam,” said Mr Moran, 60. Hillary Clinton had more connections to Scranton. I don’t like Biden or his policies. I don’t think he’s mentally competent. Biden’s against fracking, he’s against the coal industry. He shipped jobs overseas and he doesn’t understand the working man."

Scrantonians joke ruefully that their biggest exports after coal have been people and jobs. The town's population currently stands at 76,000, half its 1940s heyday.

Tom Moran is an avid Trump supporter who lives a few houses away from Joe Biden's childhood home - ERIC BARADAT /AFP
Tom Moran is an avid Trump supporter who lives a few houses away from Joe Biden's childhood home - ERIC BARADAT /AFP

Many regard the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), signed by Bill Clinton in 1993, as a form of harakiri that sent their employment to Mexico and Canada.

Mr Moran said the president had delivered, including by ending Nafta, and that his backers in Scranton have "never wavered".

He added: "I’ve had my signs damaged. People came along and kicked them down. My friend had his taken out of his yard. You don't see Trump supporters doing that. It's a general lack of respect [from Democrats].

"It means if you don’t see a sign outside a house they're probably Trump supporters. There’s a hidden vote just like last time."

Perhaps the strongest criticism of Mrs Clinton in 2016 was that she did not visit the rust belt enough. By contrast, it is not hard to establish sightings of Mr Biden.

At Scanlan’s, a popular Scranton eaterie known for its fries and gravy, Jerry McCabe, 76, a retired paper mill worker, said: “I saw him a couple of years ago right here when he came in for lunch. He sat down and chatted. I think I’d played Little League against him when we were kids. Joe's going to nail it believe me.

“There’s still a lot of Trump signs outside of town, in the rural parts, but I just don’t get it. Most of them don’t have, excuse me, a pot to piss in but they’re going for a guy who doesn’t have their interests at heart. Trump’s a mean spirited guy.”

But at a nearby table Mark McHale, 22, a student, said he would vote for Mr Trump, as he did four years ago.

“I think it’s awesome Joe Biden’s s from here and comes back but that’s not enough for me. I like his roots and hard work but I don’t think he can do four years. People just get old and run out of steam. I'll be joining the workforce in the next few years and Trump’s the best option, he’s pro-business.”

Mr Biden's selection of Kamala Harris had made little impression on customers at Scanlan's.

"The only thing I heard was she attacked Biden in the debate, and now their teaming up?" said Mr McHale.

Two sisters at another table both said they had never even heard of Ms Harris.

"I didn't vote last time but I probably should this time," said one of the women. "I guess the country needs a change, not just Scranton."

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