Racial Tensions in Eastern Pennsylvania, Too

Volunteers at the Obama Campaign Office in Hazleton, Penn.

Volunteers at the Obama Campaign Office in Hazleton, Penn.

HAZLETON, Penn. 7:00 p.m. –

After visiting Mayor Barletta’s office, I went over to the Obama campaign’s local headquarters, also located in downtown Hazleton. Volunteers streamed in and out and despite the rain, I was told that about 20 people were canvassing. The energy level was high and the kitchen packed with hungry volunteers and plenty of food.

No one I talked to was quite sure if Obama would win here or not in November, but volunteers are doing all they can to make sure he captures the state’s 21 electoral votes. (The McCain campaign does not have an office in Hazleton – the closest one is in Wilkes-Barre just over 27 miles away.)

Al Gore took Luzerne County, in which Hazleton is located, in 2000, as did John Kerry in 2004. Back in April of this year during the primaries, Luzerne was the second-worst county in the state for Sen. Obama when Sen. Hillary Clinton beat him by 50 percentage points. Elaine Curry, medical librarian, president of the local school board and Obama volunteer, doesn’t see this as an obstacle, however. “I haven’t met one Clinton voter not supporting Barack Obama,” she said. “And 99.9 percent of them won’t support Palin. It’s an insult to women to say that we vote on gender instead of issues. McCain helped a lot of women who were for Clinton get off the fence [with his VP pick].”

Obama volunteers here have also been seeing their fair share of racial tension throughout the area, targeted not just at the Hispanic population and recent fight over illegal immigration but also towards Obama’s skin color.

“It feels sometimes like you’re back in Mississippi,” said Helen Rachubinski, a pharmacist who grew up in the area. “I hear the n-word all the time.” She estimated that about 20 percent of the calls she makes on behalf of the campaign end in people going off on tirades using racial slurs. And “cockroaches” was the name one volunteer-grandparent in the local school system used to describe the Hispanic children, she said.

Shortly after I finished talking with Rachubinski, her husband, who also volunteers, hung up the phone. “I’m not votin’ for no n—,” he said, repeating what one caller had just told him.

By ESMÉ E. DEPREZ

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