Get ready for an onslaught of Rocky allusions, mangled quotations of Jim Carville's "Alabama" remark about the state's rural center, brisk treatises on "cheesesteak with" (and the political perils of botching your order at Pat's), parallel scholarship on the Primanti's sandwich in Pittsburgh, evocations of the Centralia mine fires, and elegiac tone poems about the husks of steel mills looming in the morning mist over the Monongahela.
But don't curse the cliché; light a candle. In that spirit, I offer this Parachutist's Guide to Actual Fun Facts About the Real Pennsylvania, with a helpful gloss on how each fact will come into play on April 22.
The national soda/pop line runs through Pennsylvania, a bit west of Wellsboro. East of the line, the stuff that comes in a Coke or Sprite can is called soda. To the west, it is called pop. Which is to say: Western Pennsylvania is, in outlook and folkways, part of the Midwest. Eastern Pennsylvania is culturally part of the East Coast megalopolis. A candidate ignores this point to his peril. Speaking of stuff near Wellsboro . . .
We have our own Grand Canyon. It's also known as Pine Creek Gorge, and it's in the middle of a sylvan nowhere. Which is to say: Pennsylvania isn't just rusting smokestacks and rowhouse 'hoods. It has a lot of green spaces and cornfields. It has the third-largest rural population in America, and ranks 19th in agricultural production. To win our hearts, urban policy is important, but candidates better know what's on the minds of dairy and fruit farmers, too.
Pennsylvania is God's waiting room. The census ranks this as the nation's second-oldest state, with 15.6 percent of us being 65 or older. But that barely hints at our collective creakiness. Many of No. 1 Florida's elderly are affluent enough to have retired there from somewhere else. Pennsylvania is the hands-down leader for percentage of residents living in the area where they were born. This means our beloved seniors tend to be less healthy, less wealthy and less educated than, say, Arizona's. So drug prices, Medicare and Social Security remain hot-button issues.
We have more covered bridges than any other state. Pennsylvania has been around for a while, and it's chock full of quaint. It also has a serious infrastructure problem. Many of its spans, not just the covered variety, are this close to crumbling (ditto the sewer pipes, water lines and train stations). By itself, Pennsylvania doesn't have the wallet to fix all this venerable stuff. It needs the federal government to be the willing partner it used to be.
The new Phillies' farm team in the Lehigh Valley is called the IronPigs. Sports teams often get named after things that are extinct, or nearly so. Seems folks in the valley have already relegated Bethlehem Steel to the scrap heap of history. Parts of the sprawling old mill are being turned into a casino, lofts and a museum. And the valley's perky economy is coping pretty well.
Which is to say: Pennsylvania ain't Ohio. I've split my born days between the states; trust me on this one. You can't just graft the Ohio campaign narrative of working-class anger over lost industrial jobs onto Pennsylvania. Sure, that gritty anger still flares in Mon Valley steel towns, but out this way, not so much. In 1970, one in four Philly jobs was industrial; now it's one in 20. Rust Belt demise is old, old news here. We're through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. What we want to know is which new strategy can best propel us in a modern economy. Which leads me to mention . . .
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia is the No. 1 children's hospital in America. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh each have teaching hospitals of wide renown. The health-care sector is the main thing imbuing Pennsylvania's economy with some 21st-century verve. (Why do you think Gray's Anatomy gets monster ratings in Philly?) So, candidates, spare us your trembling-lip anecdotes about the spunky mother of four who clutched your hand while pleading to get health coverage for diabetic little Suzie. Tell us how you're going to pump dollars into our health-care sector to give it that rosy glow.
We are Penn State! And a lot more. Corollary to the state's medical riches are its higher-education credentials. Pennsylvania enrolls more out-of-state kids in its colleges than any state except New York. This speaks to the cachet of all those Carnegie Mellons, Lehighs and Swarthmores. But it also speaks to a sad fact - Pennsylvania kids are leaving a lot of slots open for auslanders; we rank 32d in percentage of residents holding bachelor's degrees. Could that fact have something to do with this one? The College Board ranks Pennsylvania public colleges as the fourth-most-expensive in the land. Candidates, beware. Lagging federal tuition aid is a huge issue here.
We have 501 school districts. In other words, about 200 more than we need. In Pennsylvania, we do love our local control, no matter how much it costs. The balkanization of our schools is mirrored by our municipal governments, which are divided into an 18th-century crazy quilt of cities, towns, townships and boroughs - some of which are so small Peyton Manning could fire a beanbag across them. This reinforces our deep penchant for parochial thinking - and makes us more suspicious of big-government fixes than folks in Cook County or the Big Apple.
We have a Cabela's. Sure, other states also have these jaw-dropping superstores for hunters and fishermen. But ours is a big 'un. Which is to say: This is a state where plenty of registered Democrats carry NRA cards. Maybe that's why we're also home to the fervent Firearms Owners Against Crime, which makes the NRA look like a pack of liberal bed-wetters.
We once debated whether a state lawmaker convicted of a federal crime could keep serving in the General Assembly. The guy, Frank Serafini, hung on for months after a jury nailed him on a perjury charge. Which is to say: This state has a long history not only of political corruption, but also cynical apathy about it. We could be the most reform-averse state in the land. Last to get a lobbyist-disclosure law. Proud of our Wild West elections. How will all this play for a candidate, Obama, who rides in on billowy clouds of reform rhetoric?
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