Pennsylvania 11th District
“Coal is the theme song of this city in the hills,” the WPA Guide said of Scranton in 1940, but even as those words were written, the anthracite kingdom around Scranton and Wilkes-Barre was crumbling. In the 19th century, anthracite had become America’s main home heating fuel and the valley along the East Branch of the Susquehanna River was the No. 1 source of anthracite. Thousands of immigrants flocked to the valley, settling in a chain of little cities north and south of Wilkes-Barre, which is named for two backers of the American Revolution, and Scranton, which is named for its founding family. They took jobs with long hours, modest pay, poor working conditions and high death rates—facts of life that made the violently pro-union Molly Maguires popular here and that spawned periodic clashes between workers and the Pinkerton security forces hired by the industrial moguls. While the supply of coal was endless—the area produced 40% of the world’s hard coal—demand proved fleeting. Anthracite production peaked in 1917, with long strikes in 1922 and 1925 quickening the conversion to oil and gas. Demand for anthracite began to fall in the 1920s and plummeted in the 1940s. The counties containing Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, Luzerne and Lackawanna, had 755,000 people in 1930 and 521,000 in 2008. As the area’s 50 collieries shut down, the once-ubiquitous coal dust vanished. The local ethnic mix—Irish, Polish, Ukrainian and Welsh—grew less distinctive. Former boomtowns full of young families became time-worn communities of senior citizens with modest household incomes.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 11th Congressional District of Pennsylvania is the anthracite district. It includes almost all of Luzerne County, plus Scranton and surrounding towns in Lackawanna County. It also includes Columbia County west of Luzerne, Carbon County to the south, and Monroe County to the east. Monroe is a different sort of place. It contains most of the Pocono Mountain resorts and the often-congested Interstate 80 bridge to New Jersey; New Yorkers and New Jerseyites looking for lower taxes and pleasant scenery have moved here in large numbers and the county’s population rose 72% from 1990 to 2008. More typical of the district are small towns like Centralia, site of a massive underground fire that has burned unchecked since 1962 and might burn for another 100 years, inspiring a 2007 book, The Day the Earth Caved In. The town of Jim Thorpe was created in 1953 from the unification of neighboring Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk. The cities changed their name after offering to provide a gravesite for the great football, baseball and Olympic track star when Thorpe’s widow was shopping his remains to whichever town agreed to build him a suitable memorial. Downtown is lively today, with tourists and thousands of cyclists who flock to the town’s numerous downtown trails. Hazleton gained national notoriety in 2006 after passing a tough ordinance aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants, including fines on landlords and employers. In 2007, a federal judge ruled that law unconstitutional.
Since the 1930s, miners have been a large Democratic voting bloc, and this is a solidly Democratic district. But the district’s Democrats tend to be cultural conservatives who are pro-gun and anti-abortion rights. In 2008, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama had trouble connecting to this district after his off-the-cuff comment at a San Francisco fundraiser that working-class people there were “bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” When Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden made his first post-convention visit here in 2008, it had special significance: Scranton was his birthplace and first hometown. Obama won the district, 57%-42%.