Prices and jobs: BELLWETHER ISSUES IN PENNSYLVANIA PRIMARY
Philadelphia — Bob Johnson nudges his glasses higher on his nose and leans forward for emphasis. "I'll vote for Kennedy," he says."I figure he would do more for the poor man than Carter has done."
Mr. Johnson is the custodian of an elementary school. His wife also works (as a school crossing guard), and three of their four children are already grown.
The Johnsons -- who are among the 340,000 blacks here who are registered to vote -- rent a house in West Philadelphia, where, in the summer, Bob coaches a teen-age baseball team. He likes to go down to the New Jersey shore, 70 miles away, to fish in the surf. He and a friend used to make the trip every other week in his 1979 van, but because of increased prices, they have cut back to once a month.
He says his wife and his three oldest children will also vote for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Although he voted for President Carter in 1976 and doesn't blame him alone for inflation, he says: "The price of everything is so high. Somewhere, somebody has got to stop prices from going up. The people I talk with seem to think Kennedy would be the right man for the job."
Nothing President Carter can do, he says, will cause him to change his mind.
Anna Marie Aufiery is a medical technician from northeast Philadelphia, the opposite end of the city from Bob Johnson. Her neighborhood is full of senior citizens on fixed incomes, as well as numerous policemen and firemen, some of whom are unemployed. Shortly after taking office, Mayor William Green, who inherited a massive deficit from the administration of his controversial predecessor, Frank Rizzo, announced the layoff of 1,290 city employees -- all but 225 of them in the police and fire departments. For property owners in the city, he had more bad news: He would seek a 15.1 percent increase in real estate taxes.
Anna Marie also voted for President Carter in 1976. But, like Bob Johnson, she won't this time. In fact, so convinced is she that Senator Kennedy is her candidate that she decided to check into how to become a Kennedy delegate to the Democratic National Convention. She didn't make the ballot as a regular delegate, but will be listed as an alternate. Three nights a week she is expected to attend political meetings in her ward. She says her ward leaders think she has "a pretty good chance of getting elected."
"The economy is the No. 1 thing," Anna Marie says. She does not think Chappaquiddick will be the deciding factor for the senator in Philadelphia, although Mary Jo Kopechne, who died in the accident there 10 years ago, grew up fewer than 75 miles away in northeastern Pennsylvania.
"I think he has proven himself since that time; he's grown up a lot," Anna Marie says. "Maybe people don't hold that against him anymore."
It is because of people like Anna Marie Aufiery and Bob Johnson that local Carter campaign coordinator John Dibble says the city will be "a very, very rough fight" for his candidate on primary day, April 22.
"I find that people simply aren't aware of a lot of things that the Carter administration has done," he says.
As a result, the front window of Carter headquarters here sports a lengthy list of "Key Achievements for the People of Pennsylvania." The first three:
* "Over $249 million in economic development funds since Jan. 1, 1977, including $68.5 million for Philadelphia."
* "20 business and industrial loans from USDA [US Department of Agriculture], worth $27.7 million," in 1979.
* "359 SBA [Small Business Administration] loans worth $23.1 million for FY [ fiscal years] '78 and '79."
On April 4, the Carter administration added one more "achievement" to the list. A research center for the US shoe industry, which had been hotly contested for by both Philadelphia and Lynn, Mass., was awarded to Philadelphia. Its value to the city: $2 million. The Kennedy campaign promptly cried "foul."
Philadelphia gave President Carter 494,579 votes in 1976, to 239,000 for Gerald Ford. Still, John Dibble says, "I really think that it would be wrong to be optimistic about Philadelphia. It's not a time for optimism."
Statistics at the State Office of Employment Security would seem to bear him out. In February, unemployment in Philadelphia stood at 7.7 percent of the labor force, as opposed to 6.8 percent for the United States as a whole.
Nor is the end necessarily in sight. The Du Pont Company announced it is closing its local paint factory, a move that will eventually affect 350 jobs, according to state Labor and Industry Department estimates. Just outside the city limits, in Conshohocken, the Lee Tire & Rubber Company recently closed its plant, throwing 800 employees out of work. Bob Johnson says his brother-in-law recently lost his job when the doughnut bakery he had worked in for 17 years closed -- although he eventually found similar work.
"Pennsylvania would be an ideal state for Kennedy," says a political writer for one of the major Philadelphia newspapers. "He could take a day to campaign in every city and town where a plant or a business has closed and still not hit them all by the 22nd."
Statewide, 419,000 Pennsylvanians were out of work in February, the latest month for which figures are available. Some 797,550 were accepting some form of public assistance. The state's welfare budget for fiscal year 1978-79 was $1. 299 billion -- a 201 percent increase over the expenditure of nine years before, when the decade began. The federal share of welfare assistance to Pennsylvanians for 1978-79 was another $2.7 billion.
About 95 miles west of Philadelphia is Middletown, not politically significant in terms of potential votes, but synonymous all over the world with the dangers of nuclear energy because of the March 28, 1979, accident at Three Mile Island (TMI).
Even in Middletown, however, it is inflation and the economy that appear to disturb voters most. In fact, the depth of antinuclear feeling elsewhere does not necessarily mean it is at issue in the Pennsylvania primary -- although Middletown is deep in traditionally conservative Republican country and GOP front-runner Ronald Reagan stands in favor of nuclear power.
Mayor Robert Reid, a large man with a quick smile, administers the borough's affairs when he isn't busy teaching at Middletown Area High School. He says he is through talking about Three Mile Island." But without much coaxing, he assesses its impact locally on the election:
"Middletown isn't any different than anyplace else in the country. I think the people here are more concerned with inflation and the high cost of living. I think this is what they want answers to at this point when dealing with presidential candidates. Right now, they're looking at the condition of the country.As far as this thing down here [TMI] is concerned, that's secondary."
Joe Sukle, associate editor of the weekly Middletown Press and Journal, does not think the accident will lead to what he calls "any storming of the polls." Despite the raging controversy over whether radioactive krypton gas should be vented from the plant, and the fact that his own wife is four months pregnant, he maintains that the people who are most excited about it are those outside the borough.
In fact, one has to go all the way to Harrisburg, the capital, three towns to the north along the Susquehanna River, to see signs as dramatic as the one in the window of a shoe-repair shop directly under Kennedy campaign headquarters. It reads: "At this spot you are about 9 miles from T.M.I. If there is a meltdown, you have 10 minutes."
Says a Republican state senator from a neighboring county who is considered closer than most legislators to the mood of his constituents: "The Pennsylvania Dutch and their type are intensely loyal to things. They're very slow to anger; you have to hit them over the head three times before they get sore. But then when they get sore, they stay sore for 20 years. I don't think there's any evidence that this one accident has got them sore."
Like nuclear power and TMI in central Pennsylvania, Chappaquiddick would not appear to be the No. 1 issue in the northeastern section of the state -- the area that Mary Jo Kopechne called home.
Senator Kennedy has opened a campaign office in Scranton, the largest city in the region. If he were to come to Scranton to campaign, a columnist speculated, television correspondents might not be able to resist the temptation to close their reports from Miss Kopechne's graveside. Yet, says a veteran political observer, people in northeastern Pennsylvania appear to be more concerned over the economy and even the Iranian crisis than over Chappaquiddick.
Michael Metrinko, one of the American hostages in Tehran, is from Olyphant, a Scranton suburb. Not long ago the Scranton Times printed American flags for readers to put up in support of the hostages -- and thousands did. By the end of March, President Carter seemed to have "worn thin" in Scranton, this observer says. But that perception may have changed with the President's April 7 decision to expel Iranian diplomats from the US and impose other sanctions on that Middle Eastern country. Carter campaign workers report being pleasantly surprised at the reception they get when they call on registered voters.
Northeastern Pennsylvania -- where the jobless rate for February averaged 10. 2 percent (not seasonally adjusted) -- has long been economically depressed, although it sits atop vast reserves of clean-burning anthracite coal. But this observer offers an example of how the need for alternative fuels in the US has not yet reached Scranton in a beneficial way:
"Coal? Nobody's burning it," he says. "A big post office is being built here. I watched the other day as cranes lifted huge oil tanks into place for it.We're the coal capital of the world, and they're going to be burning Arab oil."
It is in Pittsburgh that the Carter camp seems surest of success on April 22.
In an unpretentious, almost dingy second-floor office downtown, Carter coordinator Mark Zabierek says: "It's going to be a tough race. Ted Kennedy's going to get some votes in Allegheny County." But he adds: "I'm cautiously confident. We've worked hard here. We've achieved our short-term goals in terms of enlisting the support of party regulars. Without too much exception, I think, people have accepted [Carter] as not only a viable candidate but increasingly . . . as almost the certain nominee."
President Carter has the backing "of 80 percent of western Pennsylvania political leaders whose names mean anything at all," says one Pittsburgh political writer. Among them are two Allegheny County commissioners; Pittsburgh Mayor Richard Caliguiri; and the "32 Club" which is made up of the city's ward leaders. The newsman says that support may not be enthusiastic.
Still, political patronage remains a powerful force in Pittsburgh, and many people toe the line of the party leadership, because their jobs depend on it. In the Pittsburgh labor market area, statistics show, 106,700 people hold state or local government jobs.
The United Steel Workers of America, whose headquarters is in the city and which has 149,000 members in western Pennsylvania, is, in the words of one official, "officially neutral, but neutral lukewarm for Carter."
Among the leading corporations based in Pittsburgh are Gulf Oil, H. J. Heinz, Alcoa, Westinghouse Electric, and PPG Industries. The primary metals and fabricated metal products industries (including basic steel) in the Pittsburgh labor market area accounted for 116,500 jobs in January. (Basic-steel workers, negotiating new union contracts this month, were averaging $10.75 an hour in January -- and $424.63 a week.)
But in February, according to state government statistics, 81,400 persons in the six-county region were unemployed, and the number of those on some form of public assistance was 146,346.
"Business," says Bill McHolland, credit manager for a wholesale distributor of plumbing and heating supplies, "is not really good. The recession is here." He is not overwhelmed by any of the presidential candidates but says he will not skip the primary.
Senator Kennedy's first campaign appearance in Pennsylvania was at noon on Friday, March 28, in Mellon Square in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh. It was organized on approximately 48 hours' notice and, depending on whose estimates one believes, attracted about 10,000 people. The news media jumped at the story; it was the largest crowd the senator had drawn anywhere to date in his campaign. Not surprisingly, he hammered away at the twin issues of inflation and the economy.
Seven blocks from Mellon Square, George Leontire, on leave from his studies at a Boston law school, directs the local Kennedy campaign from what used to be an Italian restaurant. Even at 9 o'clock at night on Good Friday, a major union holiday in this heavily unionized city, it is crowded with campaign workers trying to make up for lost time. They have made a late start in Allegheny County, whereas the Carter headquarters has been there since before Christmas.
In the kitchen, sleeves rolled up and leaning against a desk in front of a blackened pizza oven, George describes how the crowd reacted to that March 28 event: "Aside from the size of the crowd, what I found was the most encouraging sign was the level of enthusiasm and the broad cross section of people who were there -- a lot of white-collar, a lot of blue-collar, a lot of young people. They didn't only come to see him; they came to listen to him. And after they were done listening to him, it seemed to me that they were moved."
He thinks Senator Kennedy will do well in western Pennsylvania. "One of the things that we learned over the course of past primaries," he said, "is that as the closing days come nearer and nearer, the number of people who decide to go with the senator is much greater than those who are going with the President."
Despite the conservatism and strong religious orientation of people in Allegheny County, he says Chappaquiddick is less of a problem for the senator there than in any other state he has been to. It is the economic issue, he feels, that is the key to the election.
How far that will take Senator Kennedy in western Pennsylvania -- indeed, in the state generally -- however, may have been best summed up by Michael Margolis , a University of Pittsburgh political scientist.
"What's unusual about this election is that this issue [the economy] hasn't hit Carter sooner," Dr. Margolis says. "By all normal standards, Carter ought to be slaughtered in this area.But there's no indication yet that that's going to happen."