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By Phil McCausland
WILKES-BARRE, Penn. — Richard and Eileen Sorokas are known quantities here in Luzerne County for their ardent support of Donald Trump’s presidency in 2016 after supporting Democrats all their lives.
Their loyalty to Trump has never wavered, and it held strong on Tuesday night as they watched the president give his State of the Union address in their country home, nestled in the hills about a 20 minute drive from Wilkes-Barre.
“I admire him through all the bulls— he’s going through,” Eileen Sorokas, 71, said seated in her living room after the speech on Tuesday. “This man is made out of steel. My heart goes out to him for what he’s going through. He’s holding his own through all of this crap they’re saying about him.”
The couple were big fans of the president’s call for unity, his demands for a border wall, and his call for more manufacturing jobs. But they did not feel as though they had gained much from the nearly 90-minute speech.
“He did a good show because he had everybody clapping, and he had people standing up,” Richard Sorokas, 74, said. “But what he said there was really nothing new.”
Luzerne County, a former union stronghold and Democratic buttress in northeast Pennsylvania, voted blue for nearly two decades. But in 2016, 58 percent of voters in the county abandoned their perceived party preference and voted for Trump — a move that helped turn Pennsylvania red. Residents cited economic hardship and worries over immigration as the reason they backed Trump.
Because many political watchers now see voters here as a bellwether of national trends in support for Trump, NBC News spoke to Luzerne County residents before and after the State of the Union on Tuesday to get a sense of how they felt more than two years into his presidency.
Signs of eroding support
There are indications that Trump’s support here might be wavering. While he beat Hillary Clinton here by more than 26,000 votes — a nearly 20-point margin — his acolytes have not fared as well.
Congressman Lou Barletta, a native son of Luzerne County who brought national attention to the area in 2006 over an anti-immigration ordinance he pushed as a mayor of the small city of Halzeton, lost in the 2018 midterm election for Pennsylvania’s senate seat against Democratic incumbent Sen. Bob Casey. While Trump won Luzerne County handily, Barletta — whose family helped shape the local area over the past century — only eked out an eight-point win.
Damon Whitfield, 43, said that Luzerne County Trump supporters have disappeared somewhat since the 2016 election. While Trump-Pence signs once dotted much of the landscape around Wilkes-Barre, those placards have mostly disappeared.
“Most of the Trump voters or supporters around here, once they see him doing bad and everybody throwing him under the bus, tend to hide,” said Whitfield, a former truck driver who said he didn’t vote. “They don’t say nothing anymore. They’re not as vocal as they were when he was getting into office.”
Richard Sorokas, who plans to vote for Trump again in 2020, also didn’t seem sure that the president would still do well here in 2020. The lifelong Wilkes-Barre resident noted that, though he didn’t care for any of the Democratic presidential candidates right now, he was listening to what they had to say.
“I don’t think Trump will win this area,” Sorokas said. “I really don’t.”
Few fans of a government shutdown
Once known as a coal producing region with a large number of jobs, the mines here were shuttered in the 1960s. The Knox Mine Disaster in the town of Pittston killed 12 miners in 1959 and contributed to the decline of that industry.
Textile mills and manufacturers like Proctor and Gamble held sway in the ensuing decades, but their presence also has declined in recent years. As of December 2018, the largest employer of Luzerne County residents was the federal government, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.
That might have had an impact on Trump’s base here, as 800,000 federal employees across the country were furloughed without pay for more than a month during the government shutdown.
Chris Woronchuk, 53, a real estate agent who described both 2016 presidential candidates as lousy, said he’s worried the government shutdown may have hurt the economy and put the nation at risk.
“This whole thing with the government shutdown is concerning because it’s going to affect the economy. It’s going to affect the market. It’s going to affect a lot of things because he wants the wall,” Woronchuk said, as he crossed the Wilkes-Barre Public Square. “So he’s going to shutdown the country? That’s a great national security risk with TSA workers who weren’t getting paid. You have security people essentially working for free.”
Residents still concerned about jobs
For most people in Luzerne County, the conversation always drives back to jobs and economic opportunity.
Though prospects seem thin for employment that matches the union-supported work of preceding generations, unemployment has steadily decreased here since it peaked at 11.2 percent in January 2013.
It was down to 5.2 percent in December 2018, driven in part by its convenient location at the intersection of Interstates 80 and 81 and the recent development of distribution centers for Amazon — the third largest employer in the county — and hiring at American Eagle Outfitters and Cargill distribution centers.
Warehousing and storage is now one of the county’s main sources of employment, which has brought steady, though fairly low-paying work.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 2017 nonsupervisory roles in that field averaged salaries of around $33,400. That is more than $23,000 less than the national average, according to the U.S. Census.
The dignity of the work in Luzerne County is a big concern of Richard Sorokas, who leaned forward on his couch cushion to describe the manufacturing jobs that disappeared from the area over the past 30 years.
He said he was glad to see Trump address that and felt sure that the president would deliver on his promise in Tuesday’s speech to bring back manufacturing jobs that paid well and allowed him to support a family in previous decades.
“You don’t need skilled labor for a warehouse,” Richard Sorokas said. “Luzerne County needs what he was talking about: the manufacturing jobs. We used to have steel mills here. They got great salaries, got great benefits. Those are the jobs we need.”
Support for a wall amid a demographic shift
A Hispanic community, which jumped from a little over 1 percent in 2000 to nearly 12 percent in 2017, according to the U.S. Census, has developed in this county largely in pursuit of the employment people like Sorokas scoff at — warehouse jobs. That, in turn, has made immigration a tent-pole issue for some residents here and attracted many to the president’s policies.
While Trump stopped short of declaring a national emergency at the border on Tuesday night, he vowed to get the border wall built.
Mark Linkar, 54, a warehouse worker, said he still supports Trump because he has pursued an America-first agenda. For Linkar, the border wall is an example of that.
“If we keep heading in the direction we’re going, I think we’ll be fine,” Linkar said. “Trump isn’t the greatest dude in the world, I know, but we all make mistakes and he’s somebody like you and me. When his alarm goes off at 6 a.m., he’s up and hustling.”
Linkar believes that the wall is inevitable and will create a fairer playing field for American workers, as Trump said in his speech.
As Eileen Sorokas sat on her couch and watched the president speak, she said the government had to do something about illegal immigration. She said she was glad the president had sent troops to the border earlier this week and that Trump continued to push for a border wall.
The president should have asked Congress for $10 billion instead of $5 billion, Eileen Sorokas said.
“Walls work,” she added. “Gates work. Anything you put up will work.”
But some question whether the man that some took a chance on in 2016 will ever find success in Washington, and whether the president’s dreams for a border wall are even possible.
“Trump has his good days and his bad days, but sometimes I don’t know where he comes up with his ideas,” said Roy Ondish, 57, a welder who lived in Wilkes-Barre his entire life and voted for Clinton in 2016.
“I can see the wall going up, but he’s just having a hard time of it. He should just give it up. It’s been two and a half years, and he’s getting nowhere with it.”