By Salena Zito
Monday, November 29, 2010
Gov.-elect Tom Corbett isn’t the only Republican whose blue-collar roots in Western Pennsylvania helped propel him to a governor’s mansion in this month’s elections.
It’s an upbringing that teaches practical life lessons, especially for politicians, said one sociologist.
And it produces warm memories that aren’t easy to forget, said Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Monongahela native. Daniels, in office since 2005, will start his second term in January — when Corbett, 61, of Shaler and Ohio Gov.-elect John Kasich, 58, who grew up in McKees Rocks, will take office.
Daniels, 61, remembers driving with three of his four daughters on their way home from vacation and deciding to show them the home in Monessen where his grandfather lived. But it had been years since he visited, and "my bearings were off a little," he said.
A man standing on a street corner offered directions after noticing Daniels’ confusion as he circled the block. When Daniels told him the name of his grandfather, dead for 30 years, the man’s face lit up.
"Oh, you mean Louie Daniels, the guy who ran the pool hall? His house was right down this way," the man said, pointing the way.
"That is what it is like growing up in Western Pennsylvania," Daniels recalls telling his daughters.
With the dominance of the Democratic Party in Western Pennsylvania — registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-to-1 in Allegheny County and hold a statewide registration edge of about 1 million voters statewide — it’s unusual for the region to shape Republican leaders, said Mike Epitropoulos, a University of Pittsburgh sociology professor.
"When you think of Western Pennsylvania politics, the traditional image is that of a blue-collar Democrat," Epitropoulos said.
But Daniels, Corbett and Kasich came from former mill towns where families, although typically Democrats, were somewhat conservative, he said.
"These are families who don’t live beyond their budgets, tend to be socially conservative, and don’t like government in their lives, which is more in line with today’s Republican Party," Epitropoulos said.
In their post-World War II boomer generation, middle-class parents lived by the promise that their children could achieve higher success than their own, he said.
"They were all brought up in an era where they were taught early on that they could do anything if they put their heads to the ground," he said.
Daniels was born in Monongahela, his mother’s hometown; his father’s family lived in Monessen. He and sister Deborah, a former U.S. attorney in Indianapolis, spent holidays and summers at their maternal grandparents’ home after his parents moved the family from Monessen when Daniels was young. The governor remembers the telephone number: "Blackburn 8-2521."
Deborah Daniels remembers summer days spent sitting on the stoop of their grandparents’ house. She and her brother warmly recall the smells of food at annual Syrian picnics in Monessen.
Corbett and Kasich spent their childhoods in Western Pennsylvania.
Corbett and his wife, Susan, own the home in Shaler that his parents bought when he attended first grade. Kasich spent his childhood in McKees Rocks.
He broke tradition among his Catholic Croatian family members by registering as a Republican — something that sometimes happened among ethnic Democratic families, Epitropoulos said.
Kasich said that as a youngster, he felt at odds with the Democrats.
"I knew there had to be a better way, especially when it came to expecting the government to take care of everything," said Kasich, a former eight-term congressman from suburban Columbus, Ohio. He finds it hard to reconcile the attitude of entitlement with "what your parents teach you about self-reliance."
His boyhood summers were spent playing baseball — first in the neighborhood and then at Sto-Rox High School — and golf with his father. As a high school senior, he sought career advice from his uncle George Kasich, a guidance counselor at neighboring Montour.
"He told me he wanted to go into political science," George Kasich said. "Well, I knew his political leanings were Republican, and I thought he’d never get a job in McKees Rocks as a Republican, so I told him I didn’t think there was a future in that.
"Now look at him."
Kasich said the values his brother and sister-in-law imparted led John Kasich to choose the Republican Party.
"It used to be to get a job in Western Pennsylvania, you had to be a registered Democrat, so that is what we all were — on paper but not in our beliefs."
Despite his uncle’s misgivings, John Kasich graduated with a political science degree from Ohio State University in 1974, became a legislative aide, then ran successfully for state senator before moving on to Congress.
His uncle’s influence intensified when a drunken driver killed his parents in 1987. John Sr. and Ann Kasich, looking forward to retirement, had just pulled out of a Burger King on Ohio River Boulevard, where they often went for coffee.
"Dad said they made a good cup of coffee," Kasich recalled.
"From that moment on, we became very close," George Kasich agreed. "That’s what families do."
Corbett said, "Having your family living close to you is part of the cornerstone of what makes Western Pennsylvania unique."
He thinks others in Allegheny County live in homes their parents passed along, as he does. Corbett was appointed U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh in 1988 by President George H.W. Bush and will leave his post as state attorney general halfway through his second term to live in the governor’s mansion.
Corbett said his upbringing in Shaler contributed to his success in politics.
"You don’t win a state like Pennsylvania as a Republican without having shared values with your Democratic neighbors," he said. "I don’t wear politics on my sleeve. I am more driven by getting the job done."
He sees similar values displayed by Daniels and Kasich and in their Rust Belt states.
Mark J. Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said today’s Republican Party is not composed of "country clubbers," as once perceived.
"The GOP has increasingly appealed to economically diverse constituencies," Rozell said. "It is no longer the case, as in the old New Deal Democratic coalition era, that the blue-collar worker is a Democrat."
That helps explain how candidates such as Daniels, Corbett and Kasich rose to leadership from humble blue-collar backgrounds, he said.
Daniels cited lessons learned as a youth remain valuable today.
"Our parents lived within their means, taught us to make tough choices — even if it wasn’t exactly popular — and to provide for a better life than the generation before us," he said.
Tribune-Review Political Reporter