Campaign 2012: Plain talking in Pennsylvania


Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in Pennsylvania.


Jewel Samad and Emmanuel Dumand

GIRARD, Pa. — Welcome to Main Street, USA, with all its charms and warts. The local eatery, called the “Girad Dinor” (sic) features “home cookin’” and offers a full range of discounts for local patrons. Fishermen and hunters receive 10 percent off their bill, any day of the week, as does clergy (the sign did not specify denomination).

Seniors get 10 percent off, too, but “only on Wednesdays!” leading the casual visitor assume that the custom of the gray-haired set as not as desirable as that of the doubtless hungrier seekers of animal hides or human souls.

This is backwoods country, just over the Ohio border in the western part of the state. It is a long way from Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, as Scott Smith, co-owner of the clean, friendly and unpretentious Green Roof Inn, makes clear.

“I just love it here,” he said. “It’s peaceful, quiet, and we can hunt right out the back door. There are lots of deer, wild turkeys, and other game birds. Hell, we even get black bears raiding the trash cans from time to time!”

I glanced uneasily toward the back of the property, which bordered a large wooded area. Smith laughed.

“Black bears are more timid than pussy cats,” he said. “They are really scared of humans.”

Smith is a genial fellow, and offers a weary traveler a bit to eat when she washes up at 9:30 p.m., well after the only restaurant in town has closed. He is amiable and talkative, with none of the ready anger that seems to ooze out of so many voters in this tense election year.

His family has been established in the Girard area for generations, and has a hand in many local industries. This has given Smith his own firm perspective on politics.

“I voted for Ross Perot in 92 and 96,” he said. “I remember him saying, ‘Mr. President, if you sign NAFTA you are going to hear a giant sucking sound as the jobs race out of the United States.”

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed by President George H.W. Bush in December 1992, just before he left office. It became law under President Bill Clinton one year later, after being ratified by the House and Senate.

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Designed to eliminate trade barriers between the United States, Canada and Mexico, it has always been controversial, and was fiercely opposed by people like Perot, who feared it would harm US producers.

Smith should know. He owns a laser-printing company just down the road from the motel, which offers engraved awards, sports trophies and the like.

“Right after NAFTA came in we lost about 40 percent of our business,” he said. “Half a million dollars is a lot for a small-business owner to sustain.”

He is also sitting on top of several acres of prime Marcellus Shale, and is eager to sign a lease with a company to extract natural gas through a process known as “fracking.” Smith is not interested in more government regulation, even if some of his neighbors may have reservations about the safety of the process.

“We need to produce our own energy,” he insists.

The economic downturn has hit this part of Pennsylvania hard, he said. Industry has fled from nearby Erie, and the tax base is eroding. The governor, Tom Corbett, had tried for fiscal responsibility at the expense of education and assistance programs. Deep cuts were avoided this year, but Smith is not hopeful about the future.

Pennsylvania was closing down schools, and increasing class size.

“Fifty kids in a class,” he snorted. “What is that about?”

His own daughter, with a degree in accounting, was unemployed for four years after graduation, said Smith, with tens of thousands of dollars in educational loans.

“It’s starting to be that you have to think twice about going to college,” he complained.

Smith says he is not doctrinaire — he considers himself an independent, as evidenced by his vote for Perot. But this year he is going for Mitt Romney. He has been disappointed in the performance of President Barack Obama, who won Pennsylvania handily in 2008, beating his opponent, John McCain, 55 to 44 percent.

Pennsylvania is a densely populated state, and has 20 electoral votes at stake. That makes it a major prize in this bitterly contested election. Pennsylvania has voted for the Democratic candidate in every election since 1992, but it is definitely a battleground state in 2012.

“I have nothing against Obama personally,” said Smith. “He talked a really good game in 2008. But he has not done many of the things he promised.”

The major problem worrying Smith right now is the deficit.

“We just cannot keep spending money we don’t have,” he said. “How are we going to keep up the best educational system in the world if we are so deep in debt? How can we afford health care?”

Deficit spending was jeopardizing our future, he insisted.

“If this keeps up, China will own us,” he sighed.

But Smith is not an uncritical Romney supporter. The wealthy candidate had some explaining to do, said Smith, especially about his taxes and where he kept his money.

“My feeling is, if you take your money out of the United States and put it in the Bahamas or the Caymans or something, well, then asshole, take yourself there as well.”

Still, Romney was the preferred option.

“I feel that with his business experience, he ought to be able to run the country,” said Smith. “He’s at least a safe pair of hands.” 

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