Trump heads to Monessen, a blighted river town and Democratic stronghold
Monessen Mayor Lou Mavrakis said his blighted river town needs help, and he’ll take it from anyone who offers.
Even Donald Trump.
Trump, the New York businessman and presumptive Republican nominee for president, is scheduled to deliver a policy speech on trade Tuesday at Alumisource, a scrap metal provider on the site of the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. plant, which closed in 1986.
Monessen — a legendary bastion of Democratic strength with influence throughout Pennsylvania for decades, especially in the 1950s and ’60s — might seem an unlikely location for Trump to deliver his promise to “make America great again.”
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the city more than 6-to-1, about 3,960 to 670, according to county elections data. But experts say the once-mighty industrial town where tens of thousands of jobs were lost with the collapse of Western Pennsylvania’s steel industry is the perfect backdrop for Trump to make his pitch for bringing back manufacturing jobs and restoring coal mining and steel production.
“There couldn’t be a better venue,” said Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College.
“Monessen is a town that doesn’t have much left,” DiSarro said. “They haven’t had much of a comeback. (Trump) is going to go there with his strong message of ‘I’m going to be the deal maker … to try to bring back good-paying manufacturing jobs to the Mon Valley.’ That will resonate.”
Mavrakis’ frustration is palpable as he speaks of broken promises to help his struggling town on the Monongahela River.
“All I’ve ever heard is ‘We’re gonna take care of you,’ (but) all we get is lip service and lies,” said Mavrakis, 78, a Democrat. “I don’t give a damn who comes here. … All I care about is getting help for the people I serve and the city I love.”
Political observers and public officials said they cannot recall the last time a Republican presidential candidate visited the Mon Valley, though some have stopped elsewhere in Westmoreland County.
Many around town can remember the day in 1962 that President John F. Kennedy gave a midterm election speech in Monessen.
Trump’s visit has some around town scratching their heads.
“I’m shocked. I wonder why he is coming here,” said Monessen meter maid Nancy Horvath. “It’s one of the few Democratic strongholds left” in the county.
Horvath said Monessen was a thriving, prosperous community when she graduated from high school in the 1950s.
“It was nice living here. Nobody was rich. Everybody was in the same boat,” she said. “There is not much hope here. Now you just exist.”
The city’s population dropped in four decades from about 15,200 in 1970 to about 7,700 in 2010. There are two residents older than 50 for every person younger than 18, census figures show.
It’s a demographic group that appears to be lining up behind Trump, one expert said.
“There is lots of joblessness prevailing throughout that valley area,” said Gerald Shuster, a political communications professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “The generation that seems to be supporting him is the exact generation hit the hardest by the joblessness and the once-powerful steel industry.”
Observers differ slightly on whom Trump may be targeting with his Monessen visit.
Shuster believes he’s looking at “disenchanted” voters in both parties. DiSarro said he’s trying to awaken conservative, working-class Democrats who once were called “Reagan Democrats” for supporting Republican Ronald Reagan.
But Michael Korns, chairman of the Westmoreland County Republican Committee, said it’s about voters who feel forgotten.
“We’re definitely making a pitch toward blue-collar Democrats who, I think, feel their party … has forgotten about them. The kind of Democrats who traditionally are engaged in manufacturing and haven’t felt like they’ve gotten the benefit of trade,” Korns said. “I think (Trump’s) campaign believes they can bring a lot of those voters over to the other side.”
That may be easier said than done.
Monessen resident Susan Turko-vich believes some of Trump’s message about being stricter on immigration and the need to create more jobs “makes a lot of sense.”
But his positions are not enough to swing her vote in November.
“I’m not going to leave my party,” she said.
Kari Andren is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2856 or [email protected]. Staff writer Joe Napsha contributed to this report.