Editor’s Note: David Axelrod is a CNN commentator and host of the podcast “The Axe Files,” now a regularly featured show on CNN. He was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Driving north from Philadelphia to Hazleton, you can still see the occasional “Make America Great Again” placards in yards and storefronts along the roadsides – and political fault lines – of northeast Pennsylvania.
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.
Still, through all his baseball years in Chicago, Tampa and three decades with the California (now Los Angeles) Angels organization, Maddon never lost touch with Hazleton.
Shortly after his return to town for the holidays in 2010, Maddon and his wife, Jaye, shared their concerns with his cousin, Elaine Maddon Curry, and her husband, Bob, who live in the area. Elaine’s father – Joe’s uncle – was a partner in the family plumbing business, and she grew up in a neighboring apartment above the shop. Their block, at 11th and Carson, was teeming with relatives.
They saw in today’s new immigrants, drawn by the same hope for a good life, echoes of their own family’s journey.
“Early on in this process, we went to a gathering of folks on a Sunday after Mass at a day care center. Potluck people brought on one table. The adults were sitting at those low tables they had for kids. Talking. Laughing. Drinking a little wine. Kids playing everywhere. And I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, this is exactly what our house looked like when I was growing up,’ ” Maddon told me.
We spoke over our own impromptu feast – a box filled with hoagies from the nearby Third Base Luncheonette, where Maddon’s mother, Beanie, was a mainstay for decades before giving up waitressing two years ago at the age of 83. The Maddon family came to Hazleton from Italy, their name shortened from Maddonini. Beanie’s family came from Poland.
“You get this moment, this exact moment, that replicates what you experienced growing up,” Maddon continued. “And you’re pushing away from it because the people speak a different language or because the kids are ‘dirty’; all the different things that my parents and grandparents had heard when they first came.”
Resolved to act, Maddon’s cousins, the Currys, retired from their jobs – Bob, 68, as a regional representative for Barnes & Noble; Elaine, 70, as a medical librarian – to volunteer full time to shepherd the project. The Cubs manager has traded on his celebrity to raise $1.5 million to help bring their shared vision to life.
Today, the 60,000-square-foot school building they purchased with the help of a state grant and opened in 2013 is the center of the Hazleton Integration Project, a bustling community center hosting preschool and after-school education, sports and cultural programs for disadvantaged youth.
Through an innovative distance-learning program, HIP After School Scholars, children who need special help with their studies receive individual attention via Skype from education students at Penn State University, who tailor programs to student needs in coordination with their teachers. The program has had such success at boosting student performance that HIP is exploring new compacts with other colleges and universities, including Maddon’s alma matter, Lafayette.
Ben Medina, 42, the executive director of HIP, is a native of a Puerto Rico whose family settled in Hazleton in 2003.
“We are helping children grow up in a different environment. We help them with their education. We run sports programs. And we teach them to respect and appreciate different cultures and backgrounds and embrace their new home without losing their Spanish language and culture,” Medina told me.
Maddon, who cites his early experiences with Hispanic teammates as formative, believes that by focusing on the children and helping them integrate into the community, HIP can bring greater harmony to the larger community.
“Bring the kids together and the parents will naturally follow. … The kids don’t care what color your skin is. There’s no prejudice. That’s all learned,” he said.
More than 300 young people participate in the center’s programs each week. HIP also offers GED and naturalization courses for adults as well as English and Spanish to help break down barriers.
“I think this is one of the best things going on in this town,” Jackson, the longtime local journalist, told me. “It’s really a model to show that we’re one community. We can work together. We can learn to speak each other’s languages. We can relate to each other as people and neighbors and friends.”
For its work, the Hazleton Integration Project was named last week a winner of the Renewal Award, an honor bestowed jointly by The Atlantic magazine and Allstate to grass-roots, not-for-profit organizations across the country working on intractable problems.
It is an unlikely story of hope emanating from the very county that, in 2016, so resoundingly announced the era of Trump.
Still, the formation of HIP was bitterly opposed by many longtime residents, who viewed it as enabling rapid, discomfiting changes in a community that increasingly was taking on a Latin flavor. Some still feel that way.
“A woman stopped me in the supermarket recently and said, ‘Who does that Joe Maddon think he is?’ ” Bob Curry recalled. “She said her grandparents came to town as legal immigrants and learned English. ‘Why are you doing all this for these people?’ “
“I told her that my grandfather, Giuseppe Bugliano, never learned English because he was working day and night in that mine and didn’t have the opportunity. Wouldn’t it have been nice if someone in the community had offered him some help?”
(For more information about the Hazleton Integration Project, go to http://www.hazletonintegrationproject.org.)