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Pennsylvania’s Democratic Civil War

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Pennsylvania’s Democratic Civil War

The divide between labor leaders and environmental activists widens in a state dependent on fossil-fuel industries. February 18, 2020
Politics and law
Infrastructure and energy
Economy, finance, and budgets

For generations, Pennsylvania’s blue-collar voters found political refuge in the Democratic Party. Even when the national party moved leftward on social issues, this voting bloc—largely Catholic, with multigenerational roots in coal and steel towns—elected Democrats to defend their economic interests. But the party’s environmental activists are jeopardizing this allegiance. A clash is taking place between progressives, who want a carbon-free future, and organized labor, which sees fossil-fuel industries and the jobs they create as essential for many communities. This opposition, reflective of a national trend, could fracture the party statewide and help ensure another victory for Donald Trump.

From Pennsylvania’s big-city wards to its rural townships, union members feel disenfranchised within a party that once championed their interests. In South Philadelphia, for example, the closure of Philadelphia Energy Solutions, the East Coast’s largest and oldest oil refinery, has exposed divisions between the city’s powerful building-trades unions and a newer liberal constituency. Located in the 26th ward—one of only three wards citywide that supported Trump in 2016—the refinery symbolizes the cultural tensions of a changing neighborhood. Near the city’s sports stadiums, older Italian residents, who revere the late mayor Frank Rizzo, live side-by-side with young, secular, and progressive professionals on blocks lined with row homes.

The refinery, shuttered after a massive fire last year that resulted in bankruptcy, prompted discussions about how to redevelop a parcel of land larger than the Center City district. Labor leaders, with support from the Trump administration, called for restoring a facility that supplied 335,000 barrels per day—principally to New York’s market. In January, the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council rallied at City Hall, where the organization’s leaders ripped “elitists” and “rich kids” for prioritizing environmental concerns over saving jobs. It would take years, after all, to clean up a complex in operation since 1870, not long after the first oil well was drilled in northwestern Pennsylvania. Legal restrictions inhibit the contaminated property’s reuse, the leaders pointed out, whereas reopening the site would restore more than 1,000 jobs—many unionized, well-paying, and highly skilled—lost after the fire.

Yet last week, despite objections, a federal judge confirmed the property’s sale for redevelopment as a mixed-use industrial site. In response, labor leaders have directed their ire toward Larry Farnese, South Philadelphia’s progressive state senator, who supported reusing the site to meet the city’s environmental goals. The building-trades unions have refused to back Farnese, who, ironically, faces a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist—one who opposes more fossil-fuel production—in a tough primary race this spring. “This is serious. And when you turn your back on us, I cut you off. You’re done,” a local steamfitters union leader told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We’re not against clean energy,” said a boilermakers union leader. “We got mortgages.”

In Western Pennsylvania, which helped launch America’s labor movement, traditional Democrats feel disillusioned. Since the late 2000s, natural-gas fracking has revived communities such as Beaver County’s Monaca, site of Royal Dutch Shell’s future petrochemical complex. One of the nation’s largest construction sites, the plant, when completed, will convert liquified natural gas into pellets for plastic manufacturing. The county, where Democrats still hold a registration edge, has seen a blue-collar resurgence, but that could change if progressive solutions for climate change take hold.

Last week, Democratic congressional representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Darren Soto introduced a House bill that would impose a nationwide fracking ban by 2025. Fellow Democrat Conor Lamb, who represents Beaver County, opposes the bill. “If this bill were enacted—and survived likely court challenges—it would eliminate thousands of jobs in my state and likely millions across the country,” Lamb wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “It would also remove from our energy grid the source of power that has been most responsible for reducing carbon emissions in our country.”

Yet many Democrats, including presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, support an outright ban that would hurt working-class Democrats. “In Pennsylvania, you’re talking hundreds of thousands of related jobs that would be—they would be unemployed overnight,” Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, a Democrat, told the New York Times. “This is one of the most robust economies in the country,” said Jeff Nobers, executive director of the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania. Though the industry fuels the regional boom, “you have politicians that say, no, we don’t need this because there’s 200 people working for Google in East Liberty.”

Beyond metro Pittsburgh, where Democratic Socialists hold statehouse seats, Western Pennsylvania’s Democrats have responded accordingly. In 2016, Beaver County favored Trump heavily over Hillary Clinton. In contrast to suburban Philadelphia, Western Pennsylvania now elects Republicans to local offices. “Democrats are becoming way too extreme,” one voter told the Associated Press. “I voted for Trump last time, and I would again.” It’s a region where union members maintain their Democratic affiliation while voting Republican—a party that better represents their economic interests.

The Democratic divide is evident in Harrisburg, too. Earlier this month, the General Assembly passed House Bill 1100, bipartisan legislation approving a natural-gas tax credit for future petrochemical plants. Among the bill’s supporters was John Yudichak, a state senator who switched from Democrat to Independent last year. Yudichak represents Luzerne County, a labor stronghold in the northeast’s anthracite coal region. A descendant of Democrat coal miners, Yudichak found that the party had drifted “further from my viewpoints and my values.” A stalwart supporter of the coal industry, he found himself at odds with environmentalists and Democratic colleagues. The party’s “tent is shrinking every day,” Yudichak told the Associated Press.

In November, pro-labor Democrats could flock to Trump in even higher numbers out of economic self-interest. Beyond urban cores and affluent suburbs, blue-collar families feel threatened by radical environmentalists. Their rejection of the Democrats’ progressive wing represents a revolt against candidates and activists who once told them that their jobs “aren’t coming back.” Today, fossil fuels-based economic development has brought hope to households in poorer communities. Disgust for Trump may linger in upper-middle-class suburbia, but support swells in places like Luzerne, which fueled his statewide winning margin in 2016. From South Philadelphia to Beaver County, Democrats once again risk losing blue-collar voters in Pennsylvania. 

Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

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