The Talk of Coudersport

Conservative Pa. town still skeptical of Washington

IN storybook Coudersport, a remote borough in northern Pennsylvania where families have known each other for generations and a quarter buys four hours on a parking meter, the most offensive thing around may be Jack Halleran's fax machine.

Not that folks here object to modern telecommunications. Rather, the machine, nestled among pipe fittings and Remington rifles in Mr. Halleran's hardware store, sits as an emblem of the federal government and its unwelcome regulations. Specifically, gun control.

''I had to spend $300 on that machine just to comply with the Brady Bill,'' Halleran says in disgust, referring to the federal law that requires a five-day verification period before a person may purchase a firearm.

Surrounded by steep hills of ashen sugar maple, Coudersport is the seat of a conservative county sparsely populated by potato farmers and small-business owners. People here like their life uncomplicated and their politics black and white. They are suspicious of government intrusion.

But there is a tolerant side, too. They exude a nostalgic warmth and compassion, and few advocate completely dismantling government assistance for those in need.

As such, Coudersport is a useful yardstick for measuring how far the American public is willing to follow as Republicans in Washington attempt to transform government and society.

''Nixon, in the height of Watergate, would have won handily in Potter County,'' says Daniel Glassmire, an attorney in Coudersport. But ''this is the most isolated place east of the Mississippi. You can't treat your fellow human beings as a statistic here.''

Coudersport's conservative roots can be traced to its first settlers. Starting in the early 1800s, a slow but steady stream of Yankees migrated down through New York and into the hills of northern Pennsylvania. A few Irish, Germans, and Norwegians also arrived. Agriculture, lumbering, and an array of small manufacturing took root. The settlers opened tanneries, using the acids from the bark of local hemlock trees. By the end of the century some six major railroads passed through.

But by World War I, the communities of northern Pennsylvania were starting to decline. Logging and tanning fell off as timber became scarce. Agriculture struggled. Natural gas discoveries sustained the region through the Depression, but those reserves have dwindled. Potter County's per capita income, when last measured in 1989, was only $9,905.

''Northern Potter County is still mostly farming,'' says Robert Currin, president of the Potter County Historical Society. ''I haven't figured out what they do in the South to keep from starving.''

Political labels mean little in this town. Self-reliant and individualistic, people align themselves with the party of their parents and are likely to vote for candidates they know personally. Many Democrats are as conservative as their Republican neighbors.

''The Republican revolution is fantastic if done right,'' says Charles Bach, one of three county commissioners and a Democrat. The New Deal programs of President Franklin Roosevelt were designed to help the country get back on its feet, he says. Now, ''they have become a narcotic.''

But conservative sentiments don't translate automatically into votes for Republicans. In fact, election results here have reflected the national mood in recent ballot cycles.

Sixty percent of voters in Pennsylvania's remote fifth district, of which Potter County is a part, voted for George Bush in 1988. In 1992, 22 percent of them abandoned the GOP for Ross Perot. Last November, Potter County withheld support until the last minute for the GOP gubernatorial candidate, Tom Ridge, because he supported the Brady Bill.

Commissioner Bach has heard a lot of dissatisfaction lately over the performance of House Republicans on their Contract With America. If change is taking root, the people of Coudersport are skeptical. ''I hear from people every day about how the Republicans watered down the Contract,'' he says. ''I hear a lot about welfare. People are very upset about the defeat of term limits and the balanced-budget amendment.''

On a recent afternoon, Jim and Hilda's coffee shop is picking up. Among those gathered around a table are the Republican county chairman, a reverend, and a former county judge who was disrobed for his radical interpretations of the law. With a little prodding, the discussion turns to the political perculations of Washington.

''People say to me they want to see an effort,'' says Bruce Cahilly, the GOP head. ''They know we can't accomplish everything in one fell swoop, but if we move in the right direction, people are satisfied.''

Jimmy Bruzzy, a Democrat who owns a dry cleaner, agrees. ''People have finally taken an interest,'' he says. ''They realize their vote does count. The Republicans are doing something.''

The Rev. Raymond Forsythe of the Free Methodist Church sits quietly. He wears a bemused smile and a lambchop beard. ''My pet peeve is education,'' he finally responds. ''The federal government should get totally out -- lock, stock, and barrel. The state should also get out and put it back in the hands of the people.''

The discussion shifts to tax cuts, and Harold Fink, the former judge, silent until now, starts to grumble. Why cut taxes when the deficit is still so large? he is asked.

Mr. Fink rises to his feet, staring increduously as if he were still presiding from the bench. ''There has to be something to spur the economy,'' he says, ''because you must cut spending, which will cool down the economy.'' He walks off.

Steve Stamilio, a self-employed plumber, would like to see more money stay in his pocket, too. ''The $1,500 I paid in taxes this year would have been paid for by the $500 per child tax credit,'' he says. ''That's money I could put back into my business...''

Suzi Halleran, the owner of a clothes boutique, is skeptical she'll see any benefit from changes in Washington. Yet she's hopeful.

''Maybe, if the government sends everything back to the local level, that will stimulate people to get involved, to care again.''

As the owners prepare to close the shop, Conrad Dehn, president of the local Rotary Club, offers a warning: ''The people voted against what they didn't want. If they don't like what the new guys do, they'll vote them out too.''

Back at the hardware store, Jack Halleran leans against the counter. ''At least they're trying different things, and that's exciting,'' he says of the Republicans in Congress. But ''I still think they have something to prove.''

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