Winning Over Hillary

Why my dental hygienist is Obama's key to Western Pennsylvania.

Sir, what are you looking at? A playful moment between the Obamas.
Sir, what are you looking at? A playful moment between the Obamas. AFP/Getty Images

My first brush with Obama’s Pennsylvania problem came during a visit to the dentist. As a light-skinned black man, I sometimes pass undetected “behind enemy lines.” Such was the case at the dentist’s office last fall when the oral hygienist—a young, white gal from small-town Western Pennsylvania with the ironic first name of Hillary—stated firmly that America was “not ready” for a black President. “Why?” I asked. “Because they would be out of control, and think they could take over.” By “they,” of course, Hillary meant blacks.

Perhaps because of such sentiments here, Obama wrapped up his Pennsylvania campaign with a rally at the University of Pittsburgh, where enthusiastic students and committed supporters packed the stands, as they did a few weeks ago when he spoke at another venue just at the edge of campus.

For all the inspiring energy of those events, Obama should have scheduled his final rally at a place where folks like Hillary live—Polish Hill, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, the South Side—neighborhoods that house Pittsburgh’s working class white ethnics.

My black friends and colleagues feel that would have been a waste of time. When I start to tell them the Hillary story, they nod knowingly: “No way are white ethnics going to support a black man for President.”

I try to tell them that this assumption is not necessarily so. Decades ago K. Leroy Irvis, Pittsburgh’s pre-eminent black state legislator, a local icon who died two years ago, won the loyal backing of rural, conservative Democratic representatives, and of suburban Republican representatives. Irvis capped a 30-year career in the Pennsylvania Legislature in the 1970s and 1980s by being repeatedly chosen Speaker of the House by acclamation—a feat achieved only by one other man, Benjamin Franklin.

Early in his career, the Republicans expanded his predominantly African-American Hill District to include Polish Hill and several other ethnic neighborhoods. Irvis’ friends assumed he was finished. But he proved them, and Republican strategists, wrong by winning the support of his white constituents.

For a biography I am doing of Irvis, I asked him how he managed this feat. He said it was simple. He visited them in their homes and churches and lodges, talked to them, and listened to them. I told him that sounded a bit too simple. If it was that easy, I asked, why couldn’t every politician do it? Irvis replied that you had to mean it, that people can tell if you really care about them or are a phony simply pandering to them. If you did manage to connect with them, he said, they would support you regardless of race or background.

Obama has probably never heard of Irvis, but like Irvis he has transcended the usual sources of black political support. In states like Iowa, Obama showed he can win over whites in large numbers, because he connects with them, because they know he really does care about them. As Irvis found, this connection has to be done face-to-face because these folks have few chances to meet blacks up close, leaving them to operate on stereotypes and images.