Pennsylvania 12th District
The mountains and valleys within a 100-mile radius of Pittsburgh comprise one of America’s most beautiful—and economically troubled—regions. This has been tough, hard-working country ever since Scots-Irish farmers settled here in the 1790s. Their first big product was whiskey—this was the site of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794—but historically the most important product was bituminous coal. Discovered in the 19th century, it was the basic energy source for the production of iron and steel. The offspring of the original settlers were joined by immigrants from Italy, Poland and Czechoslovakia, living in little frame houses packed into the towns on interstices between hills and rivers, within walking distance of steel factories, foundries and coal mine shafts. It is an industrial landscape and yet there are spots of natural beauty, like the swirling waters of the Youghiogheny River, now much enjoyed by rafters. Its best known community is Johnstown, where on May 31, 1889, floodwater from the ruptured South Fork Dam, gaining speed during an 18-mile trip down steep-walled valleys, poured into the little industrial city with a force equal to Niagara Falls. During 10 awful minutes, buildings crumpled like paper, and tumbling hearths and gaslights ignited the wreckage, creating a flaming pile of debris over a 30-acre expanse; 2,209 people died. It was the worst single-day civilian loss of life in American history until September 11, 2001, when airliners crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and another airliner came down in a field just 50 miles southwest of Johnstown near Shanksville.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 1889 flood had class overtones. The dam was owned by western Pennsylvania’s richest families, and had been negligently maintained, facts that are thoughtfully documented by the Johnstown Flood Museum in the old Carnegie Library. The museum provides an offset to the economic woes of Johnstown, whose population fell from 67,000 in 1920 to 22,000 in 2006, a decline similar to that of many communities in this region. Life was never easy here. After some prosperous years in the 1960s and 1970s, the “Cradle of the American Steel Industry” was hit hard by the recession that followed the 1979 oil shock. Young people have been leaving the area for years, downtown has been deserted and this district now has the highest elderly percentage in the state. Yet there are some signs of revival. The Johnstown area gained jobs mid-decade, thanks in part to defense firms locating here, and Texas investors, noting the area’s low incomes, are putting in money too. But this small revival is so far not drawing newcomers. Johnstown ranks No. 1 among the 318 metropolitan areas in the percentage of residents born in the state, 90%.
The 12th Congressional District of Pennsylvania, with highly irregular boundaries, contains much of this coal and steel country. It includes all of Greene County and parts of Fayette, Somerset, Cambria, Indiana, Armstrong, Washington and Westmoreland counties. The boundaries were drawn by Republican legislators who wanted to create a new Republican-leaning 18th District in the southern suburbs of Pittsburgh while also accommodating Democratic Rep. John Murtha, the second ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee who has brought millions of federal dollars to the region. The district unites Murtha’s home base of Johnstown and Democratic territory in the southwestern corner of the state.
Politically, this was one of the most Republican parts of America from the Civil War up to the 1930s. Republican policies, including high tariffs and hostility to labor unions, were seen as protecting jobs and increasing growth in the steel economy centered on Pittsburgh. With the coming of the New Deal, and success of the United Mine Workers and the United Steelworkers, the area began voting mostly Democratic. Since 1945, on the Monday before primary and general elections, Democratic pols from across southwestern Pennsylvania have attended the “rally in the valley” held at the Slovak Home in the mill town of Monessen. But this area has not followed the national Democratic Party on all issues. Voters here have strongly favored trade restrictions on steel imports and have opposed the free trade agreements of recent years. Voters here also tend to take conservative stands on cultural issues and foreign policy. This carefully carved district voted 55%-44% for Democrat Al Gore for president in 2000. But after Republican President George W. Bush imposed import quotas on steel and boosted clean coal technology, the district voted only 51%-49% for Democrat John Kerry. In 2008, it voted by 49.4%-49.0% for Republican John McCain, making it the only district in the country that voted for Kerry in 2004 and McCain in 2008.