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'I am home': Biden’s Pa. roots could run from a Scranton kitchen table to the presidency

Candy Woodall
USA TODAY Network Pennsylvania Capitol Bureau

SCRANTON – This is where Joe Biden said he learned everything he needed to know about politics.

The general election on Nov. 3 will determine if North Washington Avenue is just the leafy street where he grew up or the blue-collar neighborhood that made a U.S. president.

Biden and his friends who live in Green Ridge, and other parts of Scranton, are counting on the latter.

But it’s not just home. It’s a bellwether.

The view of Scranton from a scenic overlook on Route 307 on Wednesday, October 14, 2020. The city is home to an estimated 76,653 residents and is the county seat of Lackawanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley.

Scranton could be a difference-maker

How Biden fares in the working-class northeast corner of Pennsylvania, where President Donald J. Trump flipped Luzerne County and almost won Lackawanna County four years ago, could be a deciding factor in which presidential candidate wins the battleground state’s coveted 20 electoral votes.

Biden has guaranteed he’ll win his native Scranton, as Sen. Bob Casey did two years ago by 40 points and a long list of Democrats have before that.

In a tight race where Biden’s lead in Pennsylvania is within the margin of error, his hometown could be a difference-maker.

It’s also the place that shaped his personal and public life and where he learned life lessons that will shape his presidency.

“No matter where I’ve gone in life, I’ve always been led by the values that Scranton instilled in me at a young age – values of hard work, faith and a commitment to the middle-class,” Biden said to the USA TODAY Network Pennsylvania Capitol Bureau.

Both presidential candidates are wealthy men, but Biden said he’s never forgotten where he came from or the people who live there. He repeated his Scranton vs. Park Avenue comparison first coined last month during a CNN drive-in town hall at PNC Field in Moosic.

Audience members watch from their cars as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, seen on a monitor, speaks during a CNN town hall in Moosic, Pa., Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020.

“Right now, we have a president who doesn’t see the world from places like Scranton, he sees the world from Park Avenue – a president who is only looking out for corporations and the wealthy, while trying to strip away health care from Americans at a time when they need it most,” Biden said on Friday.

Trump, for his part, has said Biden had nearly 50 years in public office to help Scranton, but didn’t. Instead, the president accused his Democratic challenger of signing “bad trade deals” in the 1990s that cut jobs in Pennsylvania – deals the president said he renegotiated with Canada and Mexico.

The Republican nearly won reliably blue Lackawanna County four years ago by positioning himself as the candidate running for the forgotten man, but he ultimately lost there to Democrat Hillary Clinton by about 3 points.

Former President Barack Obama, with Biden as his running mate, won Scranton by double digits in 2008 and 2012. Biden believes he can repeat those margins.

“I will win Scranton,” Biden said. “This is home. I know these people.”

The sixth-largest city in Pennsylvania, Scranton is the hometown of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. The city received the nickname "The Electric City" after electric lights were installed in 1880, followed by the nation's first electric-powered streetcars in 1886.

'Scranton values'

Despite his ascent from blue-collar roots to the presidential ticket, Biden said he’s still a guy from Scranton and that’s how he would govern as president.

“As president, I will lead this country as I’ve led my entire career – with Scranton values,” Biden said Friday. “I will be a president who works for working people, who stands up for union workers and their collective bargaining rights, and who gives the people of Scranton and all Americans the dignity they deserve.”

Biden’s friends say they can prove his words are more than just campaign pandering.

“Joe’s been the same his whole life,” said Larry Orr, a retired electrician in Scranton and a friend of Biden’s for more than 70 years. “He’s one of us.”

His friends also say Trump is wrong when he claims Biden “abandoned” Scranton, moved to Wilmington, Delaware, when he was 10 and never looked back.

“Even when he moved, he was still coming back on weekends to visit family and friends,” Orr said. “He came to town a lot through the years, even when he wasn’t running for something.”

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The guys at the table

There was only one kind of scotch on Tommy Phillips’ kitchen table: J&B Scotch whisky, a backbar classic befitting of the late newsman and his eclectic mix of friends.

There was nothing pretentious about that scotch or the Scranton neighbors who gathered at Phillips’ table for off-the-record conversations with the city editor of the old Scranton Tribune. The idea men in that makeshift saloon included union workers, lawyers who went on to become district attorneys, judges who became state Supreme Court justices – and a senator who could be the next president of the United States.

At least that’s what Phillips predicted decades ago about Biden, then a freshman senator from Delaware who regularly traded the more expensive scotch and Washington, D.C., parties for his familiar hometown in northeastern Pennsylvania.

“When Joe’s wife and daughter died, he came back a lot more on weekends,” said John M. Hart Jr., a former Scranton Tribune reporter who knew the late Phillips and calls Biden a friend. “He’d come back to the neighborhood. He’d come home.”

John M. Hart Jr., a former Scranton Tribune reporter and assistant city editor, at his home in the Green Ridge neighborhood on Wednesday, October 14, 2020. While searching the Tribune's archives, Hart came across a photo of a young Joe Biden watching President Harry S. Truman drive through Scranton in 1956. Biden reportedly later told friends that seeing Truman ignited his own presidential ambitions, which he pursued unsuccessfully in 1988.

That was in the early 1970s, when Biden’s first wife, Neila, and daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car crash while they were out shopping for a Christmas tree. His sons, Beau and Hunter, then 4 and 3 respectively, were badly injured.

After they recovered and went home from the hospital, Biden would travel to see family and friends in Scranton.

Biden would swing by the newspaper office to see Phillips and sometimes ended up at that kitchen table, often while Ada Phillips, Tommy’s wife, made a roast dinner.

Whatever they discussed at that table remains off the record, but Biden has described that painful period of his life in public speeches and in his books.

“Neila’s absence was like a companion that never left my side,” he said in “Promises to Keep.”

Sometimes he’d feel “almost normal,” and other times he said the despair was as powerful as the day of the accident.

“There were triggers I could understand, a holiday, an anniversary, her birthday; but on other days the despair would be on for no reason – none,” he said in the book.

He focused on his sons and his daily commutes from Delaware to D.C., which have been widely discussed during the last four decades of his political life. In Wilmington, his sister was helping him raise his sons and manage life as a single parent.

Biden has written about a family rule and guiding principle: “If you have to ask for help, it’s too late.”

His family and friends made sure he didn’t have to ask.

Going home was healing to Biden, whether it was in Wilmington or Scranton, his friends say.

Story continues below the photo gallery

Both the Scranton Tribune office and the Phillips’ house were familiar to Biden.

His maternal grandfather, Ambrose Finnegan, had spent years there in the old Tribune and Scrantonian “morgue,” which is newsroom jargon for “library.” And at Finnegan’s house on North Washington Avenue, a young Biden would watch as his grandfather hosted informal roundtable discussions.

It was there in “Grandpop Finnegan’s” house that Biden said he learned the first principles of politics: no group is above others and politics is a matter of personal honor. Biden started a book that way and wrote about it extensively in “Promises to Keep.”

“A man’s word is his bond,” Biden said in those pages. “You give your word, you keep it.”

Nothing less would’ve been acceptable to Finnegan, who didn’t like the fickle Scranton elite, according to Biden.

He liked the guys at the kitchen table.

Biden’s father, the late Joseph R. Biden Sr., also liked the guys at kitchen table and was one of the guys at Phillips’ table. The same could be said for his mother, Jean Finnegan Biden, who passed away in 2010.

“Tommy Phillips was like another father to me,” Jean Finnegan Biden said in a Scranton Tribune story in June 1987.

The story was about Biden’s presidential run that year. A file photo that appeared in the paper showed a 13-year-old Biden in a sea of onlookers in Scranton as President Harry Truman’s motorcade rode past during an official visit on St. Patrick’s Day.

Phillips, who dubbed Biden as “Pennsylvania’s third senator,” wrote in a photo cutline that he thought Biden’s presidential aspirations were born that day.

“Tommy Phillips called it in 1956,” Hart said.

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The homestead

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden lived in this Scranton home for the first ten years of his life before his family moved to Delaware.

When Anne Kearns bought her home at 2446 N. Washington Ave. in Green Ridge, she found some doodles on the wall in an upstairs bedroom.

Biden and his brother, Jimmy, had drawn the peeking face and “Kilroy was here” that had become an emblem during World War II.

Kearns bought the house from the Biden family for $13,500 in 1962, mainly for its proximity to Marywood University, where she taught art education and interior design.

She never imagined that people would be stopping by her house 58 years later to take selfies outside or see where Biden used to live. 

Biden toured his old home for the first time during the 2008 campaign, Kearns said. 

"It was emotional for him," she said. "They left under hard circumstances."

Biden and his parents moved to Wilmington when he was 10 after his father lost his job in Pennsylvania and found work in Delaware. 

Kearns removed the new, brown carpeting after the Bidens moved, but she kept the steel bed frames in the attic bedroom. She also painted over Kilroy. 

But when Biden visited in 2008, she and her kids asked the then-vice presidential nominee to add a new doodle to the wall in his old room. 

"I am home," Biden wrote above his signature on Sept. 1, 2008. 

Joe Biden left a message on the wall of his childhood bedroom in Scranton, Pa., while campaigning with Barack Obama on the Democratic ticket in 2008. The message reads "I am home."

Biden has been back to his old house numerous times since then — sometimes when he's in town to stump for a Democrat or to propel his own campaign, but also when he travels to the area for friendship, family and funerals. 

Sen. Casey grew up two blocks away, and Biden would stop by to visit Casey's mom when he was in town. 

Other friends said he would always say hello to the moms in town and pay his respects  after their spouses had died.

"I think he's just wonderful," Kearns said. "He makes you feel good when you're in the room with him."

Biden has visited Kearns more than a dozen times since 2008, she said. 

"He calls this 'the homestead,'" Kearns said. 

Anne Kearns, 85, at home in her Green Ridge neighborhood residence in Scranton, Pa., on Wednesday, October 14, 2020. The Kearns family purchased the house in 1962 from Joe Biden's grandfather, Ambrose Finnegan. For decades, the current Democratic presidential nominee has frequently returned to visit his childhood home.

She is also getting a lot of other visitors, as well as daily calls from local and national media, and her sons are managing her busy calendar. They also bought a camera system to keep an eye on the property and look out for her safety. 

"As soon as he announced he was running for president, we get people here all the time," Kearns said. 

Her cheeks raised and her eyes thinned as if to indicate a smile beneath her mask. At 85, she's not exhausted by the busy campaign season. She's buoyed by it, and she said she's willing to help Biden however she can. 

"This is a pretty political city," Kearns said. "It's in all of our veins."

Biden seemed to recognize her effort during a visit last month. 

"I love you, Anne," he said from the front yard. 

A photo of Anne Kearns with Joe Biden, taken earlier this year, is displayed on a table in Kearns' Scranton, Pa., home on Wednesday, October 14, 2020. Biden spent the first 10 years of his life growing up in the house.

The healer-in-chief

On Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018, former federal Judge Richard P. Conaboy was clinging to life at Regional Hospital of Scranton, surrounded by his wife and their 12 children. 

A day earlier, the senior U.S. district judge had suffered a mild heart attack after choking on pasta during dinner at a local restaurant, according to his son, Bill Conaboy, CEO of an area health system. 

Judge Conaboy was 93, in good health and still serving on the bench at the time of the incident, his son said. 

In his lifetime, he had met and mentored many people, including Biden, who was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Judge Conaboy was named chairman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 1994. 

"He often called my dad to deliberate on issues he was facing in his life," Conaboy said. 

His dad was a moral compass that always seemed to give the same advice — "do the right thing."

"Dad would always say to go with that feeling in your gut, that deep sense of right and wrong," Conaboy said. 

On that Sunday nearly two years ago, Biden learned his mentor was in the hospital and asked the family if he could come and visit. The former vice president was out of office and hadn't yet declared his candidacy in the 2020 presidential race. 

The family was "honored" that Biden was willing to drive over that evening, as the judge remained in critical but stable condition. 

Biden arrived at about 10 p.m. on that night in Scranton, where there were clear skies and temperatures hovering in the high 40s. 

He walked in, said his hellos to the family and headed straight to the hospital bed, Conaboy said. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden talk with people during a visit to the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department on Friday, September 11, 2020.

Biden, who childhood friends remember as a devout Catholic, kneeled next to the bed and held the judge's hand. He looked up to see the judge's wife, daughters and sons. What he said next has stayed with the family since that night. 

"I want you to know this guy made me a better man," Biden said. 

Judge Conaboy died days later, and the ache that loss left behind was somewhat lessened by knowing he made an impact in so many lives, his son said. 

Biden has been called a "healer-in-chief" during this campaign because of his empathy, and on that Sunday in November two years ago the Conaboy family saw it firsthand. 

"He's a good and decent man," Conaboy said of Biden. "We have a long history of watching him through the years, and he hasn't changed for political expediency. He's held onto his Scranton values, and we are honored to know him."

Biden has traveled back to Scranton several times to say goodbye, eulogize his friends and in 2011 tried to raise spirits after a flood. 

On Sept. 16, 2011, then-Vice President Biden toured Duryea after the community was hit hard after Tropical Storm Lee caused record-level flooding.

"There is nothing we can do to make you whole in the sense that a piece of your life and a chunk of your heart had got ripped out here," Biden said there that day, according to an Associated Press story. 

He told the people of Duryea to not lose hope and promised federal aid would help them get back on their feet. 

"The federal government is not stepping away," Biden said. "We're stepping in." 

it was also a bipartisan moment with Republican Lou Barletta, who was then a U.S. House representative elected during the Tea Party movement in 2010. Barletta was one of Trump's earliest and most vocal supporters during the 2016 election. After losing his U.S. Senate bid to Casey in 2018, he now works on Trump's reelection campaign. 

But in Duryea in 2011, he talked about how Biden helped the community. 

"I told the vice president before he went, I said, 'I've been here in Duryea maybe five, six times. This is the first time I saw these people smile,'" Barletta said, according to the Standard-Speaker. "It did help. He brought these people hope. He inspired them."

'The Joey we know'

In this Minooka living room, there are pictures on a gallery wall that include Joe Paterno, Nancy Pelosi, Bob Weir, Michael Bolton, Gloria Estefan and many other politicians and musicians.

That eclectic mix of people may not have much in common other than their celebrity and that they posed in photos with former Scranton Mayor Jimmy Connors, who served the city from 1990 to 2002. 

"I'm almost out of wall space," Connors said.

Connors said he would take down the whole gallery of wall-to-wall photos for only one man. 

"Once Joe gets in, all bets are off," the former mayor said. "I'm going to clear the space. He gets top priority." 

If the signs in his front yard that say "Scranton loves Joe" and "Minooka loves Joe" aren't enough of an indication, Connors is talking about Biden. 

James "Jimmy" Connors, a former mayor of Scranton, poses for a portrait outside his south Scranton home on Wednesday, October 14, 2020.

Connors knew Biden as the former senator was rising through the government ranks. 

"I knew his career and was proud of him," Connors said. "When he came home to visit, I came to see him. I remember one of my predecessors (in the 1970s) gave him the key to the city." 

Connors saw a politician who not only never forgot Scranton, but never stopped loving the city.

"The idea that he left when he was 10 and never came back is farcical to the people of  Scranton," Connors said. "We know him. We saw him as he visited his home and lifelong friends. Sometimes the visits were announced, and other times he slipped in quietly."

Before Connors was a Scranton mayor, Biden recognized him as "Jimmy from Minooka." 

"He'd always ask, 'How is everyone in Minooka?'" Connors said. "And the way Joe said it made you feel like he really wanted to know." 

What political analysts might describe as retail politics Connors sees as 'the real Joe."

"He was our friend, and he was a leader of the people here in Scranton," the former mayor said. "We were always proud."

Connors took a train to Washington, D.C., to see the first Obama-Biden inauguration. 

And this year, he was a delegate for Biden. 

"I'm doing it because I love him, not because of politics," Connors said. 

Even though Biden moved to Delaware decades ago, "we've always claimed him as ours," Connors said. "He’s one of us. He’s what’s best about Scranton."

When Connors listened to Biden's Gettysburg speech earlier this month, he heard Scranton. When he hears stories about Biden taking a train from Washington, D.C., to Delaware every night so he could read stories to his boys before bed, Connors hears Scranton.

"I get emotional because those are the same values I was taught," Connors said. "That's Scranton. This is the friendly city. That's not just a tag. It's who we are."

Susie Blum Connors, Jimmy's wife, calls Biden a "mensch." In her Jewish faith, it's another way of saying "a good person."

She needed no further proof than a year ago when Biden was in town for a campaign stop. Afterward, Susie Blum Connors told him her 95-year-old mother was a big fan of his. 

Biden wanted to call her, and when he did, the mayor's mother-in-law told the candidate how much she loved him. 

"I love you, too," he said to her. 

"He had a little conversation. That's who he is. That's our Joey," Jimmy Connors said. "I don't think Trump has an ounce of that in him. Joe has it in spades, and this is what our country needs right now. Somebody who cares. Somebody who calls a 95-year-old woman to say, 'I love you, too.'"

The finish

The fall colors have reached their peak in Scranton, and so has the presidential campaign in Pennsylvania. 

Biden, Trump and their surrogates have been making multiple campaign stops in the state with less than two weeks until Election Day. 

Biden's supporters are unsurprisingly predicting his win. 

"I have my fingers crossed," Orr said. "I've had my fingers crossed for the last four years." 

Larry Orr, a childhood friend of Joe Biden, stands outside Saint Paul's School in Scranton on Wednesday, October 14, 2020. Orr and Biden attended the Roman Catholic School together during their elementary years. The school is located one mile from Biden's childhood home.

When Biden was in the White House with Obama, Orr accepted an invitation to visit his childhood friend. 

"He gave me a pair of his vice presidential cufflinks, and I joked with him that next time I'd come back for his presidential cufflinks," Orr said. "I really believe he can do it. Joe's a fighter."

Casey believes he can do it, too. 

"I think he’s going to run ahead of where we were in 2016," the third-term senator said during an interview with the USA TODAY Network Pennsylvania Capitol Bureau. "Part of that is because people in the region know him, and I think they trust him."

One of the reasons Biden will fare better than Clinton is because of his approach to the pandemic and jobs, Casey said.

"If you don’t tackle the virus, you can’t rebuild the economy," he said. 

More than 1,400 new positive cases of COVID-19 were reported by the Pennsylvania Health Department on Wednesday, pushing the statewide total past 186,000. More than 8,500 people have died since the first two cases were announced in March. 

As the fall resurgence continues, the unemployment rate is 8.1 percent in Pennsylvania. It's 11.7 in the Scranton area. 

"The job issue is urgent for people," Casey said. "They've seen the persistence of unemployment since April."

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., speaks in support of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, outside Biden's childhood home as part of the Democratic National Convention, in Scranton, Pa., Tuesday, Aug 18, 2020.

That gives Biden, who has been in public office for most of the last 50 years, the chance to be the change candidate in a change environment, the senator said. 

"The Republicans already failed as a party to respond to the virus appropriately," Casey said. "They sat on their hands since the CARES Act. (Since April) the national Republican party has done nothing to help people out of work, done nothing to keep people safe from the virus. State and local governments are laying people off. I think there will be consequences on Election Day."

Trump said recently that he wouldn't change anything about his response to the coronavirus and has said in multiple campaign stops in the last week that the country is rounding the corner on the pandemic. That's in contrast to the majority of states with rising case counts. 

"I think people are tired of this," Casey said. "They are tired of the chaos and division. People are very concerned. That's why you've gotta have leaders who are calm. There has to be a unified voice."

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pa., Tuesday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The people who know Biden, "the real Joe," believe he's the candidate with that unifying voice. They're predicting his victory in the state and nation. 

But if they're all wrong, Kearns thinks he'll come back to Scranton for another visit. 

Kearns has been able to see Biden as a man who has "something special" inside that has never changed. And no matter how far away he goes or how high on the political ladder he climbs, there's always this special place he comes back to. 

From her vantage point in Biden's childhood home, Kearns sees a man who, no matter how great he became, never forgot where he came from. 

And whether he's in the middle of a hard-fought campaign or mourning the loss of a loved one, Biden always found comfort in the counsel of people who knew him at his core. 

"Win or lose," Kearns said, "he is welcome home anytime." 

Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.

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