Why is The Office location a magnet for US politicians?

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News, Scranton, Pennsylvania

Image caption, Scranton is known for anthracite, electric trams, The Office, and political visits

It's the setting for the US version of The Office, and this week it got a visit from former President Bill Clinton, but why do politicians flock to humble Scranton in Pennsylvania?

If Scranton were a person it would be a Jack or a Mike, a Jenny or an Ann. No fancy name. An ordinary person.

But this is an ordinary person that gets to meet more than its fair share of major league politicians.

In 2000, both George W Bush and Al Gore turned up in Scranton; in 2004 John Kerry started his campaign tour there. In 2008, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both visited during the primaries, while John McCain went three times before election day.

Pennsylvania as a whole has often been a key electoral battleground in recent years, but Scranton itself is perceived to be solidly Democratic.

So why do the politicians come?

For some, there's a matter of roots. Hillary Clinton's father was born in the city, and so was Vice-President Joe Biden.

Many believe that Scranton presents a good backdrop for any politicians who want to associate themselves with blue-collar America.

"It has now become one of those must-go-to places where people sit down and say where they are going," says Prof G Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.

"It's a blue-collar, working class town that has undergone pretty significant renovation."

Scranton was once rich. It had anthracite, a valuable form of coal.

Image caption, Scranton was once known for having an abundance of anthracite coal

"It was one of the wealthiest cities in the country at the turn of the century," says Elizabeth Zygmunt, editor of the Northeast Pennsylvania Business Journal. "People today say it was like Saudi Arabia. Anthracite coal was what powered the industrial revolution."

An illuminated sign with the legend "Scranton - The Electric City" still beams down on the centre of the city, reminding residents that it was the first place in the US with an electric tram system.

Like any natural resource, anthracite couldn't last forever. And when the anthracite mining ended, hard times fell on Scranton. There were decades of decay.

Now, one of the only mines on show is attached to a museum, surrounded by rusting equipment left as exhibits for tourists.

The city is in the process of regenerating. The University of Scranton is an important draw and a new medical school is being established.

It also received an unexpected boost to its tourism when the producers of the US version of The Office chose it as the location for the paper company at the centre of the comedy.

Aficionados come to see Mifflin Avenue, the Pennsylvania Paper & Supply Company tower and the Welcome To Scranton sign - removed from the roadside where it became a hazard due to the profusion of fans.

Wander around the city speaking to Scrantonians about what defines the place, and the same phrases come up again and again. "Hard-working", "family", "honest" and "blue-collar" are repeated like mantras.

"It is a blue-collar city built on coal and iron," says Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty. "People are used to working here and investing all of their money in their families."

It's a city that has long been populated by Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants. Catholicism is strong. A lot of people know each other.

Tim Holmes, who runs the local The Office-themed tours, echoes the message. "It is this hard-working quality. We are all born of coalminers."

Charlie LeStrange, who runs the Glider Diner that his father started in 1947, welcomes the politicians. President Obama stopped for breakfast there in 2008 and President Clinton rushed through the kitchens signing autographs this week.

Image caption, Barack Obama had breakfast at a Scranton diner in 2008

"It must be just a good cross-section of America," he says. "A working class population that represents what America is all about."

Politicians have an interest in dissociating themselves from the idea that they are creatures of Washington, DC, or other cosmopolitan centres. It makes sense to associate oneself with ordinariness.

So Mr Biden made sure to mention Scranton a number of times in his acceptance speech as candidate for vice-president.

Of course, publicising one's Scranton credentials is not without its dangers. Comedy show Saturday Night Live viciously lampooned Mr Biden's attempt to play up his Scranton roots:

  • I come from Scranton, Pennsylvania and that's as hardscrabble a place as you're going to find. I'll show you around some time and you'll see. It's a hellhole, an absolute jerkwater of a town. You couldn't stand to spend a weekend there. It's an awful, awful, sad place filled with sad, desperate people with no ambition. Nobody and I mean nobody but me has ever come out of that place. It's a genetic cesspool. Don't be telling me I'm part of the Washington elite because I come from the absolute worst place on earth - Scranton, Pennsylvania.

And there are some who balk at terms like "hardscrabble" or "gritty", sensing some negative implication.

The Scrantonians are keen to point to the excellence of some of their architecture, and note that the city is not poor - just not rich.

They say that the politicians may come as much because the people of the city are intensely political as anything else.

Image caption, The US version of The Office has helped put Scranton back on the map

"It is a hugely political community," says Prof Madonna. "It is almost as if, if you are born in Scranton you are born with an extra gene for politics."

David Kveragas, a Scrantonian sporting a badge backing a Republican candidate for state senate, says the locals enjoy the visits of the politicians.

"They embrace it. They think this is the way it should be. You should come here and talk to us. We are the people, we are the working class, we are average Americans."

It is, in short, rather nice to be celebrated for your ordinariness by big-name politicians.

"When they were trying to out-Scranton each other, Scranton became the centre of the universe," says Mr Holmes. "Of course, we always believed we were the centre of the universe."

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