The heart of the battleground

Watching Emmaus, Pa., voters make up their minds

Tucked away among the wooded foothills of the Lehigh Mountains, the 18th-century village of Emmaus - with its historic Main Street, staid Pennsylvania Dutch traditions, and lilting German accents - appears at first to be trapped in time.

Once a closed Moravian religious community, Emmaus is the kind of insular town where the mayor, Winfield "Winnie" Iobst, used to be the milkman, as was his father, who was also mayor. Their ancestor was the first major, then known as "burgess."

But scratch the surface, and the quaint, orderly little borough is rife with small-town political turmoil and - as far as the US presidential race goes - utter unpredictability. Indeed, Emmaus lies in one of America's most notorious swing counties, in a vital swing state.

"It's a quintessential swing county," says Pennsylvania pollster Terry Madonna of Millersville University, near Lancaster.

In recent weeks, both presidential candidates, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, have spent large chunks of time and money to win Pennsylvania's 23 electoral votes, more than any other swing state. They have crisscrossed the state in recent months, and polls now show Mr. Gore ahead.

Yet the race is far too close to call in Emmaus and across the Lehigh Valley, where old, heavily Democratic blue-collar urban areas intersect with Republican farming country and newer, white-collar suburbs.

Unlike in the rest of the nation, Democrats here tend to be culturally conservative and Republicans economically moderate. This mix of voters - canvassed recently on Main Street - is a hard-to-please, independent-minded crowd, fickle enough to unnerve even the most veteran campaign consultants for Mr. Bush and Gore.

On the fence

"I'm a lifelong Republican," says Emmaus native Jim Baker over breakfast at the Mercantile Club, a private, century-old local businessman's establishment that still permits only men as full members.

Come election day, however, the financial consultant might flip the lever for Gore.

"I'm on the fence, absolutely," says Mr. Baker, between bites of the local specialty, "scrapple," a fried slab of cornmeal and ground pork doused with maple syrup.

Baker's willingness to break with his party is not unusual for voters in Emmaus. Indeed, local party clubs have largely broken down since the 1980s, when Democrats dominated, according to Mayor Iobst. Emmaus's 7,000 registered voters now include slightly more Republicans than Democrats. In 1992, they chose the elder George Bush by a small, 2 percent margin (one-fifth voted for Texas billionaire Ross Perot). Then in 1996, they swung to back President Bill Clinton - but only by 12 votes.

Like other residents, Baker is not basing his decision on a broad survey of Bush and Gore policies. Instead, he is focusing on specific issues that matter most to him, as well as on his beliefs about the candidates' character and trustworthiness.

Although he cringes at the potential for wasteful spending by Democrats (his mother is from Massachusetts, which he calls "tax-a-chusetts"), Baker has a bigger concern about Bush - in his own backyard.

Baker is fighting a Dallas company's bid to build a power plant on agricultural land adjacent to his parents' 130-acre farm, where he lives in a log house. "I have no love for Texas," he says. "I feel bullied. They are dominating and threatening and imposing."

Baker sees a similar disregard for the environment in Bush and his running mate Dick Cheney, whom he calls "big oil men." "I look at Texas and I see a lot of disasters," he says, noting the pollution in Houston. The upshot, he says, may be a vote for Gore.

A blast furnace and pajama plant

A few blocks away on Chestnut Street, retired truck driver Mike Petrohoy sits on the front porch of his modest, streetside brick duplex, watching the traffic go by.

With working-class wages and a high school degree, Mr. Petrohoy raised five children in Emmaus. Now disabled and waiting for Medicare to kick in, he's worried about drug costs ("there's got to be a limit") and government help for the elderly.

A registered Democrat, Petrohoy hasn't ruled out voting for Gore in November, but he's clearly leaning toward Bush.

"I just want a president ... who's gonna take hold," he says, accusing Gore of shirking responsibility during the Clinton scandals.

In contrast, he praises Bush for taking clear stands on issues recently. With offspring serving in the Marines, Army, and Navy, Petrohoy seeks a president who will "back the military," a campaign theme stressed by Bush.

Like other local Democrats, he also opposes abortion and worries that "gun control is getting kind of outta hand."

Petrohoy represents an aging, blue-collar labor force hit in recent decades by the shutting down of factories, mines, and textile mills in and around Emmaus.

Manufacturing thrived here from the mid-1850s, when the East Penn Railroad arrived and the village - closed for a century to all but Moravian faithful - finally opened its doors. A blast furnace and silk mills were followed by a pajama factory and cigar plant. Workers also flocked to nearby powerhouses such as Mack Truck and Bethlehem Steel.

Yet economic jolts in the 1970s and '80s saw manufacturing jobs in the Lehigh Valley fall from half to one-fifth of nongovernment jobs. Some long-time employers, such as Air Products & Chemicals Inc. and Rodale Press, survived and grew. Other new high-tech firms like Lucent Technologies, as well as service and retail jobs, moved in. Unemployment, at 7 percent in 1993, fell steadily to 3.8 percent last year.

Still, the industrial dislocation eroded the political loyalties of many middle-class workers in Emmaus, most of whom, like the population as a whole, are white (98 percent) and lack a four-year college degree (80 percent). These are the "forgotten" swing voters, frustrated in their search for economic security at the polling booth, says Frank Colon of Lehigh University.

'Forgotten' swing voters

At Armetta's pizzeria on Main Street, Tom Costello is one such voter.

"I don't make enough for an upper 1 percent tax cut to mean anything. I don't work on the minimum wage, so raising it won't affect me," says the forklift driver. "I realize I'm not a targeted group because I'm not rich and I'm not old."

Sitting in a booth wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, Mr. Costello feels jilted by the Democratic Party, which he says "used to be the party of the working class" but is now too liberal. He distrusts candidates from both major parties as corrupted by special interests.

Instead, as a registered Independent, he voted for Mr. Perot in 1996 and today is intrigued by mavericks ranging from GOP Sen. John McCain to Ralph Nader.

"I'm basically waiting for a Jesse Ventura to put his hat in the ring," says Costello. "At least he says what he thinks."

Around the corner at Unity Church, Bev Freeman bustles among her Sunday school students, a youngish grandmother in her crisp blue jumper and white blouse. A registered Democrat, Mrs. Freeman is also seeking change, but in a more liberal direction. Viewing Gore as too constrained by "the system," she is weighing a vote for Natural Law Party candidate John Hagelin.

"We need to be open to alternatives. Alternatives have pulled me through many times," says Freeman, who runs a consignment shop called the Elephant's Trunk, and helps care for elderly folks in their homes.

Like many of the 11,000 residents, Freeman shares a strong sense of pride in Emmaus. Named after a biblical town in Palestine, the town boasts 12 churches, some serving "lovefeasts" of coffee and buns. It hosts an annual soap box derby and Moravian trombone choir. Two town fire companies run popular social halls, and policemen give warnings before parking tickets.

"It's a cute little town where you can truly walk the streets and people smile at you," she says.

Still, Emmaus has its share of troubles, such as underage drinking and domestic violence. Last month, Freeman awoke to the whirring of a helicopter flying low over town and was shocked to learn that a 15-year-old had been shot in the forehead by a 24-year-old lodger in a Broad Street tavern, four blocks from her church.

A supporter of gun control, Freeman worries about news reports of coziness between Bush and the nation's gun lobby. So as the election nears, the stark math of the two-party system gives her pause. "Do I vote for my beliefs, or to make sure the person I really don't like [Bush] doesn't get in?" she asks, erasing the chalkboard in her Sunday school class.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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