McKees Rocks Voters Split on Hometown Candidate John Kasich

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by Nick Castele

Next week, Republicans in Pennsylvania decide whether to vote for a native son: Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The governor grew up in McKees Rocks, just outside of Pittsburgh, and his hometown plays a recurring role in his campaign speeches.

“I want people around the country to know that I understand these tough issues,” Kasich told an audience after winning the Ohio GOP primary. “I grew up in these situations in that little blue-collar town in McKees Rocks.”

But Republican voters in and around McKees Rocks are split.

‘It Was a Union Town’

McKees Rocks is built into the hillsides that rise from an old train yard and factories along the Ohio River. About half a century ago here, a young John Kasich attended Sto-Rox High School and went to Mass at Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church.

And though Kasich left Pennsylvania to make his career one state to the west, he hasn’t been forgotten here.

“I’ve been following him for many years, because he’s of Eastern European descent like I am, so he’s one of ours, is the way I look at it,” Fr. Timothy Tomson said. He’s pastor of St. Mary’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in a part of town by the river known as the Bottoms.

Kasich’s fans in the McKees Rocks area see a presidential candidate who grew up like they did, in working families that remembered their immigrant roots. But his hometown may not yield him many votes, as most voters are Democrats.

“It was a union town back when the factories were here,” Tomson said. “That generation that grew up during the Depression, FDR was a hero of theirs.”

As he often mentions while campaigning, Kasich was raised in a Democratic family. In 2012, President Obama carried McKees Rocks.

Trump Has Pull with Pennsylvania Republicans

But while Republicans are outnumbered here, they’re not inactive. On a recent Thursday night, a couple dozen GOP voters met at a social hall for volunteer firefighters in nearby Robinson Township.

“John Kasich is more of a centralist, but I personally am a Trump backer,” said Dee Smith, a McKees Rocks resident who described herself as a social conservative who cares about national security. “What I agree with about Trump is the fact that he is not a career politician, that he has been a businessman his whole life.”

Republicans at this meeting were divided between Kasich and Trump.

“I’ll be honest, I’m leaning towards Trump, only because he has said so many of the things that I’d like our president to do,” said Jack Cairns, the chairman of the Robinson Township Republican committee.

Rita Wirth, another member of the committee, had a different opinion.

“If right now I had to choose, it would be Kasich,” Wirth said. “He would be the kind of person we need to bring the party together.”

Bill Stickman, a local attorney who attended the meeting, also sided with Kasich.

“I always had an affinity for John Kasich,” he said, adding, “I fear he may have gotten in too late.”

Frank Keppel, who used to live in McKees Rocks, said he would probably pick Trump.

“I like his attitude toward immigration, I like his straight, no-nonsense attitude,” Keppel said.

A recent Monmouth University poll has Donald Trump at 44 percent of likely GOP voters in Pennsylvania. Kasich comes in at 23 percent, a bit behind Ted Cruz.

Kasich Supporters Hope the Convention Will Turn His Way

Still the Ohio governor does have a cheering section—in the McKees Rocks Historical Society. A few of us sat down for lunch at an Eat’n Park just across the bridge from Pittsburgh.

Deborah Valenti attended high school with Kasich. She recalled arguing politics with him one day, saying she asked him what he wanted to do with his life.

“And he looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to be president of the United States,’” Valenti said. “Well of course, being a kid from the Rocks, I just lost it and start laughing. Whereupon I looked over at him and he just had the most hurt expression.”

Kasich, she said, was serious.

“And for me, I’m so excited for him, to see his dream possibly come true,” she said. “That’s beyond expectation. And for a kid from the Rocks, I’m bursting with pride for him.”

Valenti said she plans to vote for Kasich in the primary. But other Kasich supporters in the historical society are Democrats, and Pennsylvania’s Republican primaries are closed.

Democrats could be an untapped source of support for Kasich, according to Ernie Ricci. He’s a Republican and runs a family Italian sausage shop in Kennedy Township.

“I would have wished that a lot of the folks that are in the McKees Rocks area would have switched their party for just the primary,” Ricci said. “Then they could have switched back, it’s okay.”

Many of Kasich’s supporters in the area acknowledge the Ohio governor faces a difficult road ahead. But they’re hoping the candidate from the Rocks will meet with some luck at the convention in the state he now calls home. 

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