Can Obama Win Biden's Hometown?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Chris Haston / NBC

Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schrute in the television series The Office. The stars on the show work for the Dunder Mifflen company located in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

When Barack Obama chose Joe Biden as his running mate, he surely had Scranton, Pennsylvania, on his mind. Biden, Delaware's senior Senator, was born in this former coal-mining town two hours north of Philadelphia — a point made countless times during his anointment as the Democratic Party's Vice Presidential candidate. To win the crucial swing state, Obama needs help in towns like Scranton, where Hillary Clinton won 74% of the vote in the Democratic primary and where many are still offended by Obama's remarks about "bitter" small town Pennsylvania voters.

Of course, for those Americans whose TV viewing extends beyond coverage of the Presidential campaign, Scranton is famous for an entirely different reason: it's home to the fictional Dunder Mifflin paper company, whose employees' travails form the basis of the hit NBC sitcom The Office. And that connection is a big reason why the people of Scranton aren't bitter at all; in fact, they're downright enthused. The local tourist bureau hosted a massive Office convention last October that officials said drew more than 10,000 fans of the show to this city of about 75,000; the Today Show's Al Roker gave the weather report direct from the University of Scranton during the event. The bureau has just launched an official Office tour, featuring Poor Richard's Pub and other locations mentioned in the show. "It is still amazing to me how much press this has generated for us," says Tracy Barone, executive director of the Lackawanna County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "If it's been mentioned on The Office, people want to come and see it." It doesn't seem to matter to Barone or anyone else in Scranton that the town's image in the show is comically dismal. "We couldn't be happier they picked Scranton and not Utica," she says.

Mayor Chris Doherty, who just wrapped a public service announcement on littering, starring himself and Office actor Brian Baumgartner (accountant Kevin Malone), agrees the show has been great for tourism. "The stars are here all the time," he says. "It's a riot. They love it." And Scranton needs all the love it can get: after the coal mining industry started to dry up in the 1950s — around the time Biden's family left for the greener pastures of Delaware — it fell into a deep depression and has only just begun to crawl out. "When the city started to decline and the coal industry moved out, we suffered," says Barone. "The streets were a mess. The sidewalks were falling into the ground. It wasn't the prettiest thing."

Today, the Electric City — named after an early network of trolley cars — is in the midst of a fairly successful reinvention. Nearly $400 million has been or is being invested in projects around the city, including a new medical school that Doherty says will employ 1,000 people. The city web site boasts about recent infusions into its downtown from companies like drug maker Sanofi Pasteur, which now occupies space in a former Woolworth department store. Last year, the Yankees moved its AAA farm team here from Columbus, Ohio; in May, Money magazine named Scranton one of the ten fastest-growing real estate markets in the country. This growth is proof of Doherty's mantra: If you make it nice, they will come. The mayor and other local leaders have funneled millions of dollars into the city's parks and local historical attractions and museums, betting that aesthetic improvements will draw business investment. "People make choices on where they want to live and businesses make choices about where they want to be identified with," Doherty says. "You have to make your place attractive." Bob Casey, the state's junior Senator and a Scranton native, believes the city has turned the corner — "but it's one of those long, long, winding corners," he says.

Still unknown is whether Scranton's turnaround will benefit Obama. Will residents identify with his campaign platform of hope and change? Or will they agree with McCain, who wants to depict Obama as an out-of-touch elitist? In the end, it may come down to religion. The city is heavily Catholic, and in a recent Quinnipiac poll Obama trailed McCain statewide among Catholic voters, 36% to 51%. Obama also trailed McCain among all voters in northeastern Pennsylvania (39% to 50%). The pollsters, however, began conducting the poll before Obama put Biden, a Catholic, on the ticket. Doherty, a Democrat, says he's hopeful Obama can win over people in Scranton if he follows Hillary Clinton's model. She visited the city "at least eight times" before the primary vote, he points out. Obama "should come to Scranton and walk the rope line and let people see him. It's politics 101. You gotta knock on a lot of doors," says Doherty.

As for Biden, although he has lived in Delaware for decades, his roots in Scranton are real. His relatives, the Finnegans, live near Doherty, who says he's met Biden many times. Talking to a local newspaper reporter recently, the vice-presidential candidate was quick to mention his connections to the town, including his Scranton friends Larry, Charlie and Tommy. After he got the nomination, he said his mother told him, "Joey, everybody in Scranton will be so proud." It's exactly the reaction Barack Obama is hoping for.