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Race in America: For some Democrats, Obama's race is an obstacle

SCRANTON, Pa. — Don't get me wrong, John Jones is saying. He's a good Catholic whose wife right now is serving lunch at the parish soup kitchen, a big, friendly guy who deals fairly with everyone, regardless of color.

There's no name outside his shop on the city's south side, just a pair of bright green posters saying he buys and sells antiques, scrap gold and such. Like almost everyone around here, Jones is a Democrat, and he's explaining why he'll pick Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in Pennsylvania's presidential primary next week.

Partly it's his fondness for President Bill Clinton. Partly it's because Sen. Clinton's father was born, raised and buried in Scranton. But there are other considerations, too, ones Sen. Barack Obama can't do a thing about.

"I have nothing against black people. I'm not prejudiced," says Jones, 64, a retired slaughterhouse owner and grandfather of six. "But here, we haven't had a lot of luck with black people. It's drugs, it's robberies. I hate to say it, we don't have a lot of quality black people ...

"I show them all the compassion in the world, if they're good people. I'm not saying he's not. I just don't know enough about him."

So Jones was already wary when he heard clips of Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, ranting about the "U.S. of KKK" and America's "chickens coming home to roost" on 9/11. Jones, like many Democrats in Scranton, was badly put off by it, and was unswayed, even annoyed, by Obama's attempt to portray the preacher as good but misguided.

In his speech, which he gave 120 miles away in Philadelphia, Obama tried to explain how Wright's perspective was forged in the struggles of the black experience. The effort was lauded as a candid and nuanced treatise on race, a starting point for discussing the elephant in the American living room.

But Jones and his neighbors are still struggling with the working-class white experience. And they're the type of Democrats who ultimately may decide whether America takes a historic leap and elects Obama.

Rather than improve their understanding, the whole episode fed their distrust, despite national polls to the contrary. It is not hard to find loyal Democrats in Scranton who say they don't plan to vote for Obama, even if he is the nominee.

"Being a black man, there's nothing to say he's not going to be just for the black people, you know?" Jones said. "Try that five years from now. ... Not at a time when we need someone to dig us out of the hole we're in."

These cooks, shopkeepers, retired teachers and construction workers say race is not the main reason. They cite his young age, 46, his lack of experience in national politics and the fact they know little about him compared with Clinton and the Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain.

But many also acknowledge that race is one reason, and for some it's a big one. Part of what makes them uneasy are elements of black culture they fear Obama may represent, based on their own, largely limited experience with African-Americans, or on the statements of Wright.

After all, the reverend married Obama and his wife, Michelle. He christened their two daughters. Obama has praised him as a dear friend and spiritual adviser. Even if his incendiary comments were as isolated as Obama insists, voters say, they crystalized concerns about voting for a black man for president.

"I think it brought a light on — here's his pastor for 20 years," said Tom Contorno, 38, a Clinton supporter who was loading his pickup with sacks of clams outside Southside Seafood, where he works. "Now it's kind of like, where is he really coming from?"

• • •

Downtown Scranton — the setting for NBC's hit TV series The Office has been undergoing a bit of a renaissance. The chic new Mall at Steamtown lures shoppers to Starbucks and Victoria's Secret. The century-old neo-classical Lackawanna train station is now a Radisson.

But the city has been hard hit by lost manufacturing jobs, and it has retained a strong Catholic, blue-collar feel. Dingy clapboard houses, the roofs pitched steep to shed the snow, climb like staircases up the hills away from town. Little pubs tucked into neighborhoods move cases of Yuengling lager. The people are welcoming. Lots of them smoke.

The hometown culinary favorite is the Texas Wiener, a grilled hotdog slit lengthwise and served on a toasted bun, then smothered in chili and onions.

Roofing contractor Frankie Ross and co-worker Pat Martin were adding Tabasco to theirs on a cold morning at Chick's Diner, where the Formica counters were covered with newspaper accounts of area visits by Obama and Clinton. With 158 Democratic delegates at stake April 22, Pennsylvania is the biggest primary prize left, and Obama has been trying to cut Clinton's stubborn lead in polls.

Martin, 54, is a Clinton man, all the way. Ross isn't so sure. He's been a Democrat for 30 years, but he may go with McCain. Neither like Obama.

"For a guy that's half-white, he doesn't say that he has a white mother (often). That gets me going," Martin said. "It's like he's in the closet."

"That pastor of his didn't help him none," Ross added.

Lackawanna County, which Scranton anchors, is more than 90 percent white, with a median household income of $37,500, and it routinely delivers crushing victories for Democrats. The notion that some Democrats here are even discussing the possibility of choosing McCain over Obama, if it comes to that, is an alarming prospect for the party. Pennsylvania is a must-win state.

Yet Ross, 54, an avid hunter wearing a black Harley-Davidson cap, is unsympathetic. If Wright's sermons hadn't become public, Obama wouldn't have addressed them, and Wright would still be part of his campaign, he said. That bugs him. He quoted one of the pastor's most televised passages: "No, not God bless America, God damn America."

Ross dismissed Obama's explanation that Wright's anger stemmed from an earlier era of racial discrimination. " 'God damn America,' " Ross repeated, shaking his head, his fingernails black from his work. "That sort of put the icing on the cake. He lost my vote right there. I don't care if he's running for president, vice president, senator. …

"We're coal miners, hard workers, we had hard times, too. We had no unions here for a long time. People dealt with it without cutting down America."

• • •

In the 1960s, when Bonnie Partyka's father-in-law opened Vac-Way, a vacuum cleaner sales and service store, this south Scranton neighborhood was thriving. That began to change in the 1990s, when African-Americans were moving up from Philadelphia and New Jersey. Hispanics followed.

Now, drug dealers work the corners across the street, she said. Their store was broken into so many times, the Partykas replaced the glass windows along one side with solid wall. They used to stay open until 8 p.m. Now they close at 6 for safety.

Her granddaughter, Ashley Farrence, jumped in. "I don't think it's really the race. It's the poverty. There isn't a lot to do in Scranton."

Ashley is 18 and helps around the store. She's voting for Clinton because she believes she'll provide affordable health insurance and create good jobs for her friends, so they don't have to leave town or join the military.

Her grandmother backs Clinton for the same reasons, but she also thinks Obama is too young, too soft, too smooth-talking.

"I think he's pulling the wool over our eyes," she said. "How could he not have known what his pastor thought? If the ticket is Obama and McCain, this will be the first time I won't vote since I've been eligible to vote."

Partyka, 64, is compact and spry, with short, blond, easy-do hair. She walked to a playpen and picked up Elijah, Ashley's 7-month-old son, then carried him around the store, loving on him. She is asked if the country is ready for a black president.

"I think the country's ready, just not him," Partyka said.

Ashley wasn't so sure. "Dave" — her boyfriend and her baby's daddy — "says no blacks, and no women."

"But that's Dave, he's a chauvinist," her grandmother said.

"Yeah, but I've heard a bunch of people say it," Ashley said. "Not just him."

• • •

That afternoon, in a community center on the edge of Scranton, Obama encourages 2,500 fans to set aside the divisions of race, class and religion. "If we can unify and challenge … ourselves to be better neighbors and better parents and better citizens, then there would be no problem we could not solve as Americans, no destiny we could not hope for," he tells them, and they cheer.

Bob McIlwee, 54, is among them, a blue "Barack the Vote" T-shirt under his gray flannel, a Scranton native with long, black hair who works at a factory making steel wire. He volunteers for the campaign, knocking on doors and cold-calling voters to spread the gospel of Obama. He acknowledged Rev. Wright has made the task harder.

"Guy at work said (Wright) was a bigot. I said, 'What about the Catholic church, and the pedophiles they shipped around the country?' " McIlwee recounted. "You know what I think it is? They were just looking for something bad about (Obama) and this is the only thing they could find. Now they're just riding it."

He griped a bit, then shrugged. "To me, he's a breath of fresh air. Pennsylvania's tough, you know?"

Polls show Obama whittling Clinton's lead in Pennsylvania — her fire wall — to single digits, down from nearly 20 percentage points earlier this year. But the gains come largely from the Philadelphia area, home to upper-class whites and African-Americans who have propelled Obama elsewhere, not blue-collar Democrats who may decide the November election in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

In his speech about Wright, Obama tried to speak to those voters, acknowledging that "a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. As far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything."

It's a point well taken in Scranton, but many Democratic critics here didn't hear him say it. Although they read the newspaper accounts or caught sound bites on TV, they didn't see the whole speech, which aired on a Tuesday morning.

They were working.

Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

Scranton, Pa.

Population: 72,313

White population: 93%

Black population: 3%

People 16 and older in the labor force: 58%

People below poverty level: 17%

People 25 and older that are high school graduates: 83%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

How they voted

Here's how Lackawanna County, where Scranton is located, voted in past presidential elections:

2004: 56.3% for John Kerry/John Edwards

2000: 59.6% for Al Gore/Joe Lieberman

1996: 56% for Bill Clinton/Al Gore

1992: 47% for Bill Clinton/Al Gore

Source: Pennsylvania Secretary of State's Office

Race in America: For some Democrats, Obama's race is an obstacle 04/12/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 9:47am]

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