Extreme Makeover: Pennsylvania Edition

PHILADELPHIA — James Carville put what some view as a pox on Pennsylvania.

Twenty-two years ago, as a Democratic strategist working on a gubernatorial race, Carville described the state as Paoli (a suburb of Philadelphia) and Penn Hills (a suburb of Pittsburgh) with Alabama in between.

A generation of Pennsylvania political analysts has been trying to reverse the perception ever since. Bloggers have joined the quiet revolt. So, too, have newspaper columnists.

“People think it meant that basically there are two areas of the state where people can read and write and treat people with a certain amount of respect and the rest of the state is redneck trailer trash,” said Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia public affairs consultant with ties to the Democratic Party. “It ended up being a slander on people who are living in those places. I would like to see the line retired.”

But the adage that won’t die continues to enjoy heavy rotation as the media – from the Associated Press and Canada’s Globe and Mail to commentators on National Public Radio and MSNBC – return again and again to the description while covering the state’s Democratic presidential primary, irritating political experts who consider it a gross oversimplification of the state’s complex political identity.

“People dreaded hearing it again,” said Stephen Medvic, a government professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. “There ought to be a better way to describe the state.”


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Alternately amusing and offensive to Pennsylvanians, the meta-narrative was born in 1986, the product of an upstart consultant with a gift of quick retorts. (See “It’s the economy, stupid,” and the recent comparison of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to Judas for endorsing Barack Obama over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.)

Carville’s exact wording is unclear, and over the years his comment has been distorted to reference Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, rather than Paoli and Penn Hills. Even he doesn’t remember how or where he said it, although he recalled in an interview this week that he meant the central and northern tier of the state were culturally conservative with a large number of churchgoers. Hence, the comparison to Alabama.

“I couldn’t think of any other possible interpretation,” Carville said Monday. “This is the first time anyone has ever questioned what I was saying. … It is the first time in all of my life that anybody ever thought it was a negative thing.”

But Carville acknowledged the lasting impact: “It has become part of the lore of Pennsylvania politics.”

And he concedes that the description may no longer apply. “I am sure everything changes over a period of time. It just kind of struck me as to what I saw.”

Interviews with a dozen Pennsylvania political experts suggest it’s time for Carville’s quip to be put to rest. It may have been accurate at one time, they say, but only marginally.

 

The Democratic cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh sit in opposite corners of the state, and the hundreds of miles in between are a mix of suburbs, rural communities and small cities and towns that lean more Republican and offer far less racial diversity.

But beyond that, the axiom begins to look less accurate.

Philadelphia is an East Coast city with suburbs long dominated by liberal and moderate Republicans. Pittsburgh, where Democrats are culturally conservative, looks to the Midwest.

An influx of New Yorkers is altering the Poconos and the Lehigh Valley. Marylanders are moving into south-central Pennsylvania, where residents have always rooted for the Orioles over the Phillies and the Pirates. Some of the largest spikes this year in Dmocratic voter registration this year have occurred in Dauphin County, where the state capital of Harrisburg sits almost halfway between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

In part to debunk Carville, Franklin and Marshall College pollster Berwood Yost reviewed 20 opinion surveys between 1996 and 2001 to determine whether an urban-rural divide existed. There were considerable differences on the death penalty and gun rights. Rural residents supported both in larger numbers. But on gay rights, gender equality and abortion rights, an equal percentage of urban and rural dwellers oppose all three, the study found.

“It’s really difficult to capture those differences that Carville was talking about,” Yost said. “The state has continued to evolve. The state has some conservative elements, but those elements can be among Democrats and Republicans. It’s hard to give it much credence. If that statement was ever true, it’s probably less true now.”

When it comes to voting, Pennsylvania voters prefer moderation. The state elects Republicans who support abortion rights and Democrats who oppose them. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a conservative Republican who lost in 2006, was always viewed as an outlier in the state’s political culture.

So a handful of political analysts propose a new description.

Michael Young, a Hershey pollster, suggests using the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania as the dividing line between political regions.

Shanin Specter, the son of Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and a close political adviser to the five-term incumbent, also favors a two-region solution, but he would use Route 202 as the dividing line. Those who live northwest of the highway generally hold similar political philosophies as the rest of the state, while Philadelphia and its suburbs sit to the southeast, Specter said.

“I know that is not very colorful,” Specter said. “It doesn’t sort of Alabamize the good citizens of Pennsylvania like James Carville sought to do it. But it is another way to look at Pennsylvania.”
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