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Pennsylvania District Prepares To Vote In Special Election


In a special election, voters in Pennsylvania's 18th District will go to the polls in nine days to choose their new member of Congress. Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone are facing off under huge national scrutiny as each party is looking to this election to gauge how voters are feeling ahead of the November midterms. Our host Lulu traveled to the district earlier this week and sat down with the few voters there.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: We're gathered around a long table in the kitchen of David Podurgiel's suburban home. He works for a big coal company overseeing tugboats that ply the rivers. Dave, who goes by the nickname Pod, voted for President Trump and is supporting Rick Saccone. For him, this election is about the economy.

DAVID PODURGIEL: I mean, I see myself as a fiscal conservative. And I think he follows along those lines.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Across the table is Rosie (ph) Bigley. She's been a nurse for 38 years.

ROSEMARY BIGLEY: Medical care needs to be available to everybody, whether you can really afford it or not. And I believe that Conor Lamb really supports that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Susanna DeJeet retired after a long career in social services and education. She's a staunch Republican, and she's focused on three main issues.

SUSANNA DEJEET: Our national security. It's our economy. And then I have to say health care, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Steelworker Jojo Burgess is a union steward. He's African-American, and he is supporting Conor Lamb.

JOJO BURGESS: I look at the issues as it comes to working people and poor people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I'm going to ask you a little bit about some of the motivating factors of what you think Pennsylvania and this part of Pennsylvania needs right now.

PODURGIEL: The industry I'm in, the coal industry - there was a war on coal from the previous administration, OK? It hurt the coal companies. It hurt the steelworkers - no denying that. The coal miner and the related industries have been forgotten about. I think we need somebody in there that doesn't forget about the rural areas.

DEJEET: I'm not sure if we're any different here than we are across the states, where people are concerned about the economy and jobs. And President Trump - he's bringing back the jobs. He's reducing the regulations. Jobs have increased in the United States. That's not just here. That was across the nation, which is why Trump won and which is why we want to keep that agenda moving forward. It's all about agenda and policies.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How do you see it?

BURGESS: I'd like to respond to that.


BURGESS: And I'm going to respond like this. We keep hearing about this war on coal. And I think - and this is from someone that has had uncles that had been in the mines and have relatives that have been in the mines - the war on coal is not from the government. It's because there's cleaner forms of energy that can produce and do the same things. With environmental standards being the way they are - because let's face it. While some people may not believe about the global warming and different effects on the environment that different things have, it's real. It's real.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to move on just for a minute because I'd like to get your point of view specifically on the issue that motivates you, which is health care. Is this the issue that you feel that is the most important here in Pennsylvania?

BIGLEY: It is health care. And it's also getting some new blood into government - someone who is willing to, you know, work across the aisle. Falsely, Conor Lamb was tightly linked with Nancy Pelosi, which is not true. He has said it's time for a lot of these longtime career politicians - give it a rest.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk a little bit about Donald Trump because he does loom very large over the political landscape at this time. I'd like to know what your views are of the president?

BIGLEY: My views are every time I see Donald Trump, or he opens his mouth, I cringe. It floors me - his lack of empathy. I don't think he can identify with middle-class, lower-middle-class people who have suffered major personal losses.

DEJEET: No matter what the man does - if he cures cancer, he's going to be tagged for something he said on Twitter. Meanwhile, if you can't see him as a compassionate person, I want you to understand that the whole reason he gave up his fortune and his lifestyle to run for the office was to make sure that the average working person got to keep more of what they earned instead of seeing it go to big business. That's why he won.

BURGESS: Let's just be serious here.


BURGESS: There's one reason why Donald Trump won this election - because he made middle-aged, white America feel like they were victims of something. This president is racist. He's made many racial statements. And that's not mainstream media. That's his Twitter account. That's his call. The NFL players - that's predominately black - son of a B's. If you look at the voting on how he carried this country - not just the state, this country - middle-aged males in particular showed up and voted. And that's where he won this race at.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you see?

PODURGIEL: First, I don't believe he's a racist. That's a media thing. I mean, he has one of the largest corporations in the world. And he employs whites, blacks, Hispanics, gays. If he was a racist, he wouldn't be hiring all these people, OK? So I don't believe that. I just - it drives me crazy how people try to pin that on him. But I could tell you from my employees - I have both represented employees, meaning union, and I have nonrepresented. Every one of them voted Donald Trump.

And I can tell you right now two weeks ago, every one of them came in and says, hey, Pod. That's my nickname. I'm sorry. He said, Pod, my God, my paycheck was up. Thank you. I said, don't thank me. I mean, the president did his tax cut. So what I like so far - I don't want him to be presidential. He's a businessman, OK? When we were coming out of the recession, just think if the previous administration did some tax cuts, you know, instead of taxing us more. And Trump came in and did it. And it just - I see there's this confidence being admitted by everybody.

BURGESS: Can I ask Pod a question? What is the demographics of your workers that you have there that all voted for Donald Trump?

PODURGIEL: It's very mixed. I have female deckhands.


PODURGIEL: I have...

BURGESS: Are any of them black or Latinos or anything that voted for Donald Trump?

PODURGIEL: Yes. One of my best captains is an African-American. So I have very mixed...

BURGESS: OK. And he voted for Trump?



GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to ask you this because it is such a - and as you can see through the conversation, it is a tense time when we talk about politics. People's views are so very different at this moment. Have you sat around a table before and had these kinds of conversations with people with different views? Do you have these conversations here in Pennsylvania because there is such a diversity?

BIGLEY: I'm a nurse. My group is a very small, close-knit, specialized group of nurses. So we interact like this around a table frequently. And I guess I was surprised prior to the last election how many were voting for Donald Trump. And when we sit around and talk now - and I work with men and women - 3 out of the 4 that voted for Donald Trump wish they could take their vote back. When you said, I'm sorry that he gave up his job. He didn't give it up. It's just sitting over here, being managed by somebody else. As soon as he's out of the presidency, he's going right back to making money. And I'm sorry - the economy is a big issue. But it's not the only issue. There are many other issues besides, how much money am I going to get in my pocket? And a lot of people view it that way. What is this president going to do for me? - not our country, not our region. For me. They couldn't see past themselves.

DEJEET: Well, if someone votes simply on personal issues, how he treats his wife, how he doesn't treat his wife, they will be disappointed at some point here or there. But if you vote on the policies, then I think that you tend to regret your vote less as long as your candidate goes in and does what they're saying they're going to do. So it was the policies that won.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What should people outside of this area know about what is important to the people of Pennsylvania and the people in your district?

PODURGIEL: I think the big thing that's important to people is integrity. I want to give a quick example. I had a chance to meet him last week - Conor Lamb. And in an open forum, just like we have - are having here. And I said, will, you support coal you go against your party and support coal? And he says, I'm going to support energy. That's the political answer for saying, no, I'm going to go with my party. And that, to me - that's about integrity. That's about - you know, I would've been happy with an answer of no. And I think that's what people in this area - you know, it's blue collar around here. I'm blue collar. You know, and people are looking at that part of life. Just, like, can we trust them somebody - somebody that we're going to trust that's going to take care of us, that's at our level. And it's something you see with Rick Saccone.

BURGESS: You talk about Conor Lamb's integrity because of the answer that he gave you. Have you ever reversed that question to ask Rick Saccone, would you go against your party and vote for what's right versus party lines? He has a voting record. You could check to see what the answer to that is. Conor Lamb's a fresh face in this in this race. Conor Lamb, while he's running as a Democrat, I believe has the common person in mind.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So no one changed their minds at the table. And at times, it did get heated. But when I used the word contentious to describe their interaction, they all jumped in to correct me. Jojo then summed it up.

BURGESS: We all have different views. But guess what? We're all human beings. And if you want a right as a human being, you can be different, but you can still respect people as being a human being and understand their point of view. And I think that's why dialogue like this is good. But at the end of the day, I appreciate Pod having us in his house. I think that it's a very lovely home. And, hey, I don't have no ill feelings towards their support, which - I hope they don't have it towards mine. But guess what? People are different. And that's why this country's great.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Jojo Burgess, Susanna DeJeet, Rosie Bigley and David Podurgiel. And I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro in Western Pennsylvania. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.