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Where Coal Was King, Pa. Voters Hope Trump Rejuvenates Their Economy

Uniontown is the seat of Fayette County, Pa., a traditionally Democratic area that saw thousands of voters cross the aisle to vote for Republican Donald Trump on Nov. 8. The decline of the coal industry has hit Fayette County and others in southwest Pennsylvania hard.
Ashley Westerman
Uniontown is the seat of Fayette County, Pa., a traditionally Democratic area that saw thousands of voters cross the aisle to vote for Republican Donald Trump on Nov. 8. The decline of the coal industry has hit Fayette County and others in southwest Pennsylvania hard.

On Election Day, Donald Trump swept many traditionally Democratic Rust Belt states. One of those was Pennsylvania.

For the first time in more than two decades the Keystone State went red. The Democrats' upset in a once-reliable blue state was fueled by working-class voters who have seen their communities hit hard over the decades-long decline of coal, steel and manufacturing in their areas.

Rural Fayette County is an hour south of Pittsburgh and one of the poorest counties in the state. Though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 3 to 1, unofficial county election results show Trump trounced Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton by almost 30 points.

In Uniontown, the seat of Fayette County, Main Street is lined with decaying brick buildings. Several store fronts stand empty and many of the sidewalks are in need of repair. Area residents tell NPR that downtown used to be bustling and full of life, but the decline of "king coal" hit hard southwest Pennsylvania hard.

Watching his community decline is one reason lifetime Democrat and retired coal miner Walter Pleban voted for Donald Trump. Pleban hails from a long line of miners and even in retirement still supports the United Mine Workers of America.

"And what we'd like to see, they do something with the coal again because so many people in this area, in our area around here, worked in the mine," Pleban says. "And now there's a lot of mines closed and there's a lot of fellows without jobs."

Pleban hopes Trump will bring back jobs to Fayette County, though he wouldn't say how long he'd give the real estate mogul to make that happen.

"We'll see what happens," he says.

Tina Allen is also a lifelong Democrat who crossed the aisle to vote for Trump. Her husband is a coal miner.

"If he's unemployed, where is he going to go? He's almost 60 years old," Allen says.

Allen hopes with a President Donald Trump, her husband's mine will be able to stay open and maybe even hire more people. But her main concern is the Affordable Care Act and the high cost of health insurance. Allen says her daughter has high insurance premiums, though she's unsure if that insurance is through the ACA.

"Everyone I talked to that's on Obamacare, it has almost doubled," Allen says. "So something needs done."

Allen says she got in fights with her mother, a strict Democrat, over her choice to vote for Trump.

"We didn't speak for days. I was told if my grandfather was living, he would disown me," Allen says. "I says, 'Mom, I've got to do what I have to do.'"

She and her mother have since made amends, Allen says – and right in time for the holidays.

Allen says Uniontown is also ready to put aside the politics and come together to celebrate the season. She's the lead organizer for the Uniontown's annual "Home for the Holidays" parade and light-up night. Allen helped transform downtown into small-town holiday fever on Thursday.

People lined the sidewalk of Main St. to see the parade, which included everything from the local high school marching band to dancers and costumed characters. The historic State Theatre was turned into a marketplace for homemade cookies sold for charity, and the mayor lit a Christmas tree in Storey Square to the sound of holiday music and the excited gasps of adults and giggles of children.

Community members of all political persuasions came out for the event including Fayette County Democratic Party Chairman Jim Davis.

In the spring, Davis was trying to raise alarm bells to his party. He told NPR that he was concerned about the large Republican turnout in the Pennsylvania primary and he that he was seeing Democrats in his country switch their party registration so they could vote for Trump in the general election.

The writing was on the wall.

"We didn't want to see it," Davis says. "We didn't want to accept it but ... it was obvious."

David doesn't square lay blame on Clinton. Instead, he says it was the system that allows people to think they have a right to run for a certain office is what failed the Democrats.

"You should earn it, and competition is better," Davis says.

"I think a lot of good candidates assumed she would be the candidate, she would be the next president and they stepped out," he says.

Davis believes the Democratic Party has to reinvent what they stand for in order to win back blue-collar voters and stop putting social issues at the forefront of the party. Democrats, he says, have to start talking about things like how to bring decent jobs into places like Fayette County.

"Not a job that pays $8 an hour with no benefits, but a job that can pay a reasonable wage with benefits that a man can raise his family, can hopefully buy a house and send his children off to college, maybe state school, but college," Davis says. "That's the kind of thing we've got to start talking about."

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David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.