SWOYERSVILLE, Pa. (CBS) — The road to the White House runs through Pennsylvania. It could decide this historic 2020 election.
CBS3’s Joe Holden hit the Northeast Extension, to a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans, but it’s a place that went for President Donald Trump in 2016, and it’s close to Joe Biden’s boyhood home.
Swoyersville is an area 100 miles north of Philadelphia. A mountain of waste coal sits in the town’s center.
These days, jobs are hard to come by. It’s a historical problem for a region abandoned by the anthracite coal industry generations ago.
“It’s small-town areas, small-town values.,” Bart Weidlich said.
Weidlich is slowly getting a pizza business off the ground in the core commercial vein in Wilkes-Barre.
In this area, jobs, and for that matter, success and prosperity, are tied to politics.
“They’re brutal, the politics around here. It’s a cutthroat area in politics, it is,” Weidlich said.
Politics in Luzerne County is in residents’ blood, and they’re the first to admit it’s not always for the most noble of reasons.
“It used to be the best place to get a job, through political patronage, the county was known for that,” said Bill O’Boyle, a reporter and columnist for The Times Leader.
The Times Leader is one of two newspapers in the competitive, yet fading Wilkes-Barre news market.
Talk about jobs and patronage, journalists point to Luzerne County’s corruption scandals — notorious enough that a decade ago, they made international headlines.
Curiously, the area is also ground zero in the presidential campaign.
“Personally, would I like it to be over? Absolutely,” Times Leader managing editor Roger Dupuis said.
His staff is measuring how a county with more registered Democrats than Republicans will again go for Trump, who won by 20 points there in 2016.
“There’s insatiable interest in this,” Dupuis said.
And for the community, it boils down to a few things — economic prosperity and jobs, or at least the promise.
“I’m in business, so I like to keep politics and religion out of it,” Weidlich said.
Unemployment numbers in the area are bad — 16% in Luzerne County, and 14% in Lackawanna County — that’s Joe Biden’s hometown.
Sen. Bob Casey knows a thing or two about the region’s rough-edge politics.
“It’s a political culture that is sophisticated. People know what a good jobs plan is, they know if you are giving it to them straight, and it’s always competitive,” Casey said.
Biden is predicted to capture Lackawanna County but will fall short in the surrounding 17 counties in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Not far from Weidlich’s new pizza operation is Gerry’s Pizza in South Wilkes-Barre, a mainstay for decades.
“The smaller the town, the worse the politics,” owner Gerry Ricci said. “I don’t know why that is.”
Ricci hopes to retire soon. His concerns remain the economy and retirement funds. He was a Trump supporter but he believes the administration bungled the coronavirus response.
“I don’t know if I am going to vote for him this next election. Undecided,” Ricci said.
It’s said Luzerne County pushed Pennsylvania over the hill for Trump in 2016. This time around, it may be a lock. They just avoid talking about it at the dinner table.
“It’s sad to say that people will cut your throat over a political debate,” Weidlich said.
On Monday, Trump announced two more visits to Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg on Saturday. Biden has made at least four campaign stops here himself.