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Pennsylvania’s Demographics Are Changing Faster Than Its Politics


After the 2012 election, when Barack Obama won the presidency for a second time, the late right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh seemed ready to throw in the towel. “We are outnumbered and we are losing ground,” he said.

Limbaugh’s listeners, like everyone else in increasingly polyglot America, understood exactly who “we” was. Political analyst Ronald Brownstein dubbed Limbaugh’s cohort the “coalition of restoration,” the overwhelmingly White, Christian, exurban conservatives who considered Obama an alien figure who had upended the natural order of the nation.

In the US, however, who outnumbers whom is not a question of math. It’s a question of politics. Political power flows not to those who are here but to those who vote here.

In the years since 2012, Obama’s coalition has proved a shaky foundation for power. It can be thwarted — by demographic concentration, gerrymandering, filibusters or lopsided courts, even when it produces superior raw numbers. And when it doesn’t, it can be overwhelmed.

Yesenia Rodriguez is a recent addition to the numbers game. Like the Irish of old Boston, or Italians in New York City before Fiorella LaGuardia became mayor, she is a member of a rising immigrant group that is strong in number yet weak in political power.

A 44-year-old bakery owner who immigrated to Brooklyn from the Dominican Republic when she was 14, Rodriguez moved to Pennsylvania in her 20s. She is now the Democratic nominee for the state House of Representatives in Pennsylvania’s 116th district, spending the final days of the 2022 election knocking on doors in her hometown of Hazleton, about 90 miles north of Philadelphia.

Hazleton was an industrial town that fell, like so many others, on post-industrial hard times. A large influx of Hispanics moved to Hazleton over the past two decades, including large numbers of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, many of whom work in the city’s warehouses and logistics companies. The city is now majority Hispanic. The mayor, city council and school board, however, are all non-Hispanic White.

“I’ve been here 19 years and I haven’t seen any political changes when it comes to city hall, mayor, school board,” Rodriguez said. “They’re holding on to their power. They don’t want to let go.”

The newly drawn 116th district, population 64,000, is 57.4% White. Because it includes heavily Hispanic Hazleton, along with its overwhelmingly White rural areas, it’s 36.8% Hispanic. That’s a promising base for a Dominican politician — if that base votes.

Sitting in her bakery in Hazleton, surrounded by campaign paraphernalia, Rodriguez talked about voter apathy. “If you look at the numbers, most Dominicans vote only for president,” Rodriguez said. “So that was part of our job. From the beginning of the summer we started knocking on doors and telling people, ‘You know, it’s very important. We have a local election this year.’”

Her Republican opponent, a former small-town mayor and school district employee named Dane Watro, appears to have standard conservative GOP positions (neither candidate offers much detail) along with mentions of bipartisanship and the endorsement of Gun Owners of America, an organization for people who think the National Rifle Association is insufficiently extreme. Watro is also endorsed by Lou Barletta, the former Hazleton mayor and, later, member of Congress, whose anti-immigrant crusade became a national cause after Hazleton passed a 2006 law to penalize landlords and employers for housing or employing undocumented immigrants. (The law failed to survive a court challenge.)

Barletta’s us-vs.-them politics helped to poison Hazleton for years. Some of the local animosity has abated. But Donald Trump tapped a similar vein of anxiety nationally and rode it to the White House. In this year’s American Values Survey, a PRRI poll of more than 2,500 American adults, two-thirds of Republicans and 71% of White Evangelical Protestants agreed that America’s “culture and way of life has mostly changed for the worse” since the 1950s.

It’s a revealing data point. Surely most respondents realize that opportunities for women were severely restricted in the 1950s; that gays, lesbians and trans people had no rights deemed worthy of respect; and that most Black Americans lived under apartheid authoritarian state governments.

Of course, the 1950s also preceded the waves of Hispanic immigrants entering the US, and ultimately becoming citizens. Nostalgia for some represents oblivion for others.

Rodriguez says that some of the White voters she meets, in Hazleton and in rural parts of the district, understand that political equity requires greater representation for Hispanics. But without votes, it’s impossible to realize the goal.

Rodriguez ran twice for school board, losing each time. Short of campaign funds, facing an uphill battle in a conservative district, she does not sound confident of victory on Tuesday, either. “Even if we don’t win the seat on the 8th, we still did a hell of a job because I know people now are more educated when it comes to local elections. I know that turnout is going to be totally different than it was years before, even when I ran for school board last year,” she said. “I think we’re making a difference.”

There’s something quintessentially American about Rodriguez’s campaign, even outside the context of contemporary Republican efforts to enshrine minority rule. Now that her name has been on a ballot three times, Rodriguez is more than a local small-business owner. She is a politician. When you’re trying to gain power, running for office is no guarantee that you’ll obtain it. But it’s a start.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• The Best Word for This Election Is … Normal: Matthew Yglesias

• Democrats Have Alienated the Voters They Need Most: Clive Crook

• In Pennsylvania, the Big Lie Spreads Its Roots: Francis Wilkinson

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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