On Election Night 2016, I was sitting on a set at CNN in Washington when the results from Luzerne County arrived on my iPad like a missile from the industrial heartland. Barack Obama had carried the working class-county twice, albeit narrowly. Now Donald Trump had trounced Hillary Clinton in Luzerne by nearly 20 points. His victory there, which helped him seal the Keystone State and its 20 electors, was an unmistakable signal of the seismic change that was at hand.
Trump's "America First" screeds and assault on the status quo played well in areas such as this, where the factory and mining jobs that were a staple of the middle class for generations had vanished over recent decades -- a loss exacerbated by the crash of 2008. The bellicose billionaire's tough talk on trade was welcome in Luzerne County. So, too, were his rants against undocumented immigrants.
Nearly a decade before Trump descended the escalator and announced his fateful campaign with a fusillade of ugly epithets against Mexican immigrants, Hazleton had become a focus of the national debate over immigration and undocumented workers.
But, today, another, more hopeful story is being written in Hazleton, where a pioneering effort is underway to welcome new immigrants, spurred by a revered local sports celebrity committed to rebuilding the frayed bonds of community.
Anxiety and the rise of Lou Barletta
Alarmed by the growing number of immigrants drawn to town by the low-wage warehouse distribution center jobs that were sprouting up in the area, Hazleton's then-mayor, Lou Barletta, pushed through an ordinance
in 2006 prohibiting landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants, fining the employers who hired them and making English the official language of the town.
The law became the object of a pitched legal battle and, ultimately, was thrown out by the courts -- although the failed crusade, and a friendly remap, helped propel Barletta to a seat in Congress in the 2010 election. (A staunch Trump ally, he's vying to unseat Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, this fall.)
Meanwhile, Hazleton's immigrant population continued to grow, from just 5% Hispanic in 2000 to a near majority today, including many from the Dominican Republic.
Kent Jackson, a local journalist, told me that the rapid change created a palpable anxiety among longstanding residents.
"I'm pretty sure there were people in their 70s and 80s in this town who had never seen a nonwhite face, and all of a sudden half the community became nonwhite, and it freaked people out," said Jackson, a soft-spoken, bespectacled man who has covered Hazleton for 33 years and raised a family there.
Between language and cultural barriers that separated Anglo and Hispanic residents, and tremors from the financial crisis that shuttered businesses and depressed home values and local revenues, the town struggled, much to the pain and chagrin of one of its most celebrated sons.
Joe Maddon's roots
Joe Maddon, the colorful and kinetic manager of the Chicago Cubs, was born and raised in Hazleton, where he still owns a home and where his mother, sister and other relatives live. Maddon returned there before Christmas in 2010 to find his hometown in turmoil.
"There were so many different things going on, but at the end of the day, man, everybody was afraid of everybody else, and it was dark and there was nothing going on. And I was upset because this was the best place for me to grow up as a kid, and I wanted it to be that again for the kids growing up here today," Maddon told me.
We spoke in the spartan basement meeting space of the Hazleton One Community Center, a converted Catholic school building repurposed as the hub of the Hazleton Integration Project
. Maddon and others launched the project to help the city's new immigrant community adjust to the town and to reduce the tensions that were at razor's edge.
Growing up in an apartment above his father's plumbing business, Maddon, 64, was an all-sports star in Hazleton. He played baseball at nearby Lafayette College before launching a four-decade career as a professional player, coach and manager. In 2016, he led the star-crossed Cubs to their first World Series championship in 108 years, making himself an instant Chicago civic icon and adding luster to his baseball legend by winning with the savvy of years, unorthodox strategies and unflagging good cheer.