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“Whenever you're desperate … you take chances,” according to the Democratic mayor of Monessen, Pennsylvania.
After the White House was unresponsive to a letter he sent requesting assistance, the mayor of a small city in southwestern Pennsylvania tried a different tactic in his ongoing quest to draw attention and aid toward the struggling former steel town’s economic plight.
Monessen Mayor Lou Mavrakis, a Democrat and former United Steelworkers official, contacted the campaign of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump, and suggested the city would be a place where the candidate’s economic messages might resonate.
Around 16,000 steel industry jobs were lost in the area during recent decades, the mayor estimated by phone on Tuesday morning. Voters there, he said, Trump “wants to try and get.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Trump visited the city, which has about 7,400 residents, and is nestled on a bend in the Monongahela River, roughly 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Trump delivered a speech focused on economic issues, speaking at a business that processes scrap metal.
During his remarks, Trump tore into the nation’s current trade policies, which he said had hurt the economy and cost the nation jobs. And he made a case that his proposals could help spark a revival in domestic industries that have seen declines, like steelmaking and mining.
If elected, Trump said he would abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration. He pledged to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, and to withdraw from it if the U.S. could not secure more favorable terms. He also promised to bring new trade disputes against China, to label the country a currency manipulator, and raised the possibility of new tariffs on imports from China.
“Trade reform, and the negotiation of great trade deals, is the quickest way to bring our jobs back to our country,” Trump told the crowd during his remarks, which were broadcast online.
Mavrakis reached out to a Trump campaign staffer in the Pittsburgh area, after sending a letter to President Obama in April.
In the letter, the 78-year-old mayor described his city as “on the brink of financial collapse.”
Mavrakis believed a few million dollars in granted or loaned aid could help cover the cost of demolishing about 430 dilapidated buildings in the city, possibly paving the way for new investment. For now, the community’s moribund industrial legacy is holding it back, the mayor contends. “If ISIS was to come to Monessen, you know what they’d do? They’d keep on going, they'd say someone already bombed the goddamned place,” he told Route Fifty in April.
The appeal to the White House went unanswered, according to the mayor. He sent a follow-up letter in June.
Mavrakis did, at one point, hear from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which offered access to a loan program. But he didn’t view the program as a very workable option for Monessen.
“We have a collapsed sewer system that's going to cost us 40 to 50 million dollars,” Mavrakis said. He predicted the city government could go broke by next month and added: “we’re about out of money right now.”
Mavrakis hadn’t decided who to support for president as of Tuesday morning. “I'm not a Trump supporter,” he explained. “I'm waiting to hear what people are going to do.” However, he did refer to Trump as “anti-establishment” and said “people are tired of the establishment."
The mayor said he would welcome the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, to come speak in Monessen and that “all she’s got to do is contact me.”
The last presidential candidate to visit the city was John F. Kennedy in 1963, according to Mavrakis. “I’ve got his picture sitting right here in my office,” he said. “He's speaking to people downtown.” A lot has changed in Monessen since then. Perhaps most notably, the thriving Monessen Steel Works is a memory, along with the jobs it once provided. Mavrakis himself worked at the facility, before later taking a position with the steelworkers union.
During his speech, Trump railed against “subsidized foreign steel” dumped into U.S. markets.
“Our workers’ loyalty was repaid, you know it better than anybody, with total betrayal,” Trump said. “Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization, moving our jobs, our wealth, and our factories to Mexico and overseas.”
He later declared: "We are going to put American steel, and aluminum, back into the backbone of our country.”
Not everyone was excited about the candidate’s visit to the city, which the mayor described as a “Democratic stronghold.” As Mavrakis spoke to a reporter Tuesday, he took another call from his police chief. "Did you get rid of that 'fuck you Trump’ off of there?" he asked the chief, referring to graffiti.
Mary Jo Smith, the city’s former mayor, and the current Monessen Democratic Party chairwoman, frowned on Mavrakis’ effort to orchestrate the Trump visit. “You are elected as the Democratic mayor of Monessen, elected by Democrats, why are you reaching out to a Republican?” she told KDKA-TV News on Monday.
Mavrakis put it like this: His town’s in trouble, state and federal officials, at least in his opinion, have offered limited support—“lip service” as he calls it. "Whenever you're desperate, you ain't got no place to go, you take chances,” Mavrakis said. “I want to get something for the people I represent and for my city that I love,” he added. “Just some glimmer of hope, that’s all I want.”
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Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.