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In Lehigh Valley, PA, economic concerns predate the pandemic

NewsHour Weekend’s new series “Road to Elections 2020” kicks off in the swing state of Pennsylvania, which flipped for Republicans in 2016. Christopher Booker reports from the Lehigh Valley in Northeast Pennsylvania where concerns over the economy predate the COVID-19 pandemic

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We're here in Northampton county, Pennsylvania, a county President Trump flipped in 2016 and hopes to win again in November.

    Both presidential candidates and their running mates have been campaigning frequently here in Pennsylvania and in other battleground states where voters are closely divided and issues like health care and the economy can be the tipping point that decides their vote.

    NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has more.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The Apollo Grill has been a fixture in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for over 20 years. But like restaurants around the country the coronavirus forced the small business to shut its doors last spring. Takeout orders and a Paycheck Protection Program loan provided a life line, but the money ran out in eight weeks.

    Since June, owner Rachel Griffith has been able to reopen her restaurant under outdoor dining guidelines, bringing all of her staff back, for now.

  • Rachel Griffith:

    We've been very lucky that we have had some nice weather and we've been able to expand our outdoor dining. Without that, we would be in big trouble. But with looking forward, what's going to happen when the weather gets colder?

  • Christopher Booker:

    Such uncertainty for a small business owner has become commonplace in America. But Griffith's concerns are perhaps just a bit more consequential as the 2020 presidential race enters its final phase.

    While Pennsylvania has long been a sought after electoral prize, both presidential candidates have been trying to convince voters that they are better suited to revitalize an economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic.

    And nowhere in Pennsylvania is that more contentious than here in the Lehigh Valley, a swing area of northeastern Pennsylvania that includes the towns of Easton, Allentown, and Bethlehem.

  • Christopher Booker:

    What holds the most weight for voters in 2020 here in the Lehigh Valley?

  • Christopher Borick:

    Health care, you know, separate from the pandemic. Economic issues are always there, the economy, jobs.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Chris Borick is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown.

  • Christopher Borick:

    Even when the economy seemed to be, by most macro economic indicators, sailing along earlier this year, when we asked people about the number one issue that they were looking for in 2020 for their vote, they would tell us economic issues.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But this region is no stranger to hard times – the area is known for being the home of Bethlehem Steel.

  • Christopher Booker:

    So when we think of U.S. Steel, this is it.

  • Don Cunningham:

    Well, this is a big part of it. All throughout the 20th century, a good portion of it was based right here for four and a half miles along the river.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Don Cunningham is the President and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation – and he was the mayor when Bethlehem Steel shut down its last local factory in 1998.

  • Don Cunningham:

    We had spent a lot of time talking about what we needed to do and what should be done for the city to move forward. But there's still nothing like when that phone call comes and you learn that it's over, that the plant's going dark and the last jobs are done.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Bethlehem Steel had employed 31,000 local workers at its peak, which had dwindled to just over a thousand by the nineties. Cunningham didn't want Bethlehem to become another company town left to rust.

  • Don Cunningham:

    There are enough examples across Pennsylvania and the rest of the the industrial belt of the Northeast and Midwest of towns that have just had just kind of stayed stuck in its past. We wanted to ensure that we didn't do that and people reacted to it, responded.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But the sight of the shuttered steel stacks in downtown Bethlehem contradict the story of the Lehigh Valley. Yes the end of steel hurt, but the region had a backstop – medical industry and higher education- commonly called "Meds and Eds."

    With three hospital systems and a dozen colleges and universities, post-steel life hasn't been nearly as painful as it has been for other areas who saw their industries disappear.

  • Don Cunningham:

    We're better off today without the steel company than we were. We have a more diverse economy, cleaner air, cleaner water. While it's a proud part of our history economically, we're better today than we were 50 years ago.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Part of the region's success is also due to companies like Flexicon, a equipment manufacturer, that moved to the Lehigh Valley in 2001.

    Dave Boger is an Executive Vice President at the company.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Why did you move from New Jersey to Pennsylvania?

  • Dave Boger:

    Well, we needed to grow and we evaluated just like any company would, a broad range of factors and availability of labor, availability of land and location of current employees. And we decided that Pennsylvania was a good home for us.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Flexicon creates manufacturing equipment for companies in 77 different industries and during the pandemic their work was deemed essential, allowing them to retain their 235 employees.

  • David Boger:

    A lot of those 77 industries that we serve are essential industries. We need to keep people fed. We need to keep producing hand sanitizer. So a lot of those. And not only just the equipment itself, but it's the spare parts to supply the machines and systems that we already have out in the field. So it really was essential for us to remain open.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The Lehigh Valley has become a booming region, with a gross domestic product of $41 billion, employing more than 300,000 people. manufacturing companies like Flexicon account for 34,000 of those jobs, but the biggest sector is healthcare, which has only grown during the pandemic.

  • Stephen Tang:

    We're gonna be expanding our current facilities. This will be one of the buildings that will expand.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And this is all for the coronavirus test.

  • Stephen Tang:

    It is completely.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Stephen Tang is the CEO of Orasure, which normally makes HIV tests.

  • Stephen Tang:

    This is our Oraquick product platform. It's currently used for HIV, Hepatitis C and Ebola. Same configuration. There are two bars that you read in under an hour by yourself, it means that you are positive for COVID-19. So the benefit of this is it's rapid. You can administer it to yourself. You get a result without any instrumentation or laboratory personnel. So our goal is to be able to test anybody anytime and anywhere.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Tang, who went to school at Lehigh University says the area has changed dramatically since he was a student decades ago.

  • Stephen Tang:

    You see a complete revitalization in those city centers. Bethlehem, Easton, Allentown in particular, is really transformed itself. So I think that's, that's good. You know, clearly for the economic health and and the cultural health of the region, and it's still maintained by a vast meds and ed's economic engine.

  • Donald Trump:

    To all the people of Pennsylvania I say, we are going to put the miners and the factory workers and the steelworkers back to work, we're bringing the companies back.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But despite the economic transformation, President's Trump's call to "Make America Great Again" by bringing jobs back, like those lost in the steel industry, has resonated. One of the region's two counties flipped in the 2016 election from Obama to Trump.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Is it a matter that the message that the Lehigh Valley had diversified is not reaching everyone? Or is it a matter that large groups of people are being overlooked by this new economy?

  • Christopher Borick:

    You know, even in 2016, for example, if we looked at anything, by most indicators, the valley was doing pretty well. You know, housing prices were going up, the economy was pretty good, unemployment was pretty low and the president's message still resonated even in that time. And so you might ask, well, what was it in kind of the broader economic landscape of the region that allowed that?

    Some of those med and ed-driven gains haven't been shared equally and some of the folks that might of years ago had stronger buying power through their, through their manufacturing jobs, could feel that they've been left behind.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And these are the voters that both President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are courting.

    In July Biden made one of his first in-person appearances since the start of the pandemic near his hometown of Scranton. President Trump has gone on the offensive in the region as well, making campaign stops in Biden's home county.

    A recent Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll gives Biden a four point lead in Pennsylvania, but shows northeastern Pennsylvania, which includes the Lehigh Valley, as Trump's biggest area of support, with a 61 to 28 lead.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The president, as everyone knows, ran on the idea of bringing jobs back and resurrecting older industries. And I'm curious how that message actually resonated then and how and if it still resonates four years later.

  • Christopher Borick:

    It's fascinating. One of the things I most, you know, as you look back at 2016 and the president's rhetorical devices, the tropes that he turned to in places like the Lehigh Valley or in Scranton, you know, he's up in Scranton, he's talking about return of the coal industry. The coal industry hasn't been there in seventy five years, but it sounds great. You make that pitch in the Lehigh Valley.

    Hey, we're gonna bring steel back. Steel hasn't largely been here in a quarter of a century at any at any level. It wasn't coming back for various macro economic reasons, but it still was a pitch to individuals that might have hearkened to different days, different types of of lifestyles.

    Now we'll see in the midst of economic turmoil just how powerful that message may be in 2020 and how different it might be received.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But like so much of the American economy, economic health may well be in the eye of the beholder.

  • Chris Booker:

    Do you feel confident in the economy or are you worried?

  • Dave Boger:

    I feel good about it. I think that we were in a position where, you know, a lot of times you have an economic downturn and there might be either a variety of reasons or reasons are wide and varied and have more, I don't know, economic factors associated with the decline. This is pretty monolithic. There was one thing that caused the change in the economy or the shift in in the need for people to produce goods. So I'm optimistic.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But this optimism is not being felt by everyone.

  • Rachel Griffith:

    You know, this industry is suffering severe, severe difficulties right now. I mean, literally and I'm quoting another restaurant here when I say this, we are on life support.

  • Chris Booker:

    How do you think this changes or challenges how people are feeling about the election that's coming?

  • Rachel Griffith:

    I'm not really sure. Where people feel their faith can be.

    You know, I mean, we are, we have been relying on our government to guide us and support us and to be there for us, especially now. But I don't necessarily feel that the American people feel that we have that government behind us right now.

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