Pennsylvanians In the City of McKees Rocks Split on Hometown Candidate John Kasich

Apr 21, 2016

Gov. John Kasich grew up in McKees Rocks, Pa., and attended Sto-Rox High School. He's looking to gain the support of his hometown in Pennsylvania's upcoming primary.
Credit NICK CASTELE / OHIO PUBLIC RADIO

Next week, Republicans in Pennsylvania decide whether to vote for a native son and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

The governor grew up just outside of Pittsburgh. And his hometown plays a recurring role in his campaign speeches.

For Ohio Public Radio, WCPN’s Nick Castele travels to McKees Rocks  to find that GOP voters there are split.

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 political career one state to the west, he hasn’t been forgotten here.

The Rev. Timothy Tomson is the pastor of St. Mary’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in a part of town by the river known as the Bottoms.

Kasich’s fans here see a presidential candidate who grew up like they did, in working families who remembered their immigrant roots. But McKees Rocks may not yield him many votes. Most voters here 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.”

Coming from Democratic roots

Mother of Sorrows looks out over McKees Rocks, where John Kasich spent his early years.
Credit NICK CASTELE / IDEASTREAM

As he often mentions in the campaign, Kasich was raised in a Democratic family. In 2012, President Obama carried McKees Rocks. 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. Dee Smith lives in McKees Rocks. She describes herself as a social conservative who cares about national security.

“What I agree with about Trump is he is not a career politician, he has been a businessman his whole life,” Smith said.

Divided on a Republican candidate
Republicans at this meeting were divided between Kasich and Trump. Here’s a sampling of their opinions.

“I’ll be honest, I’m leaning towards Trump, only because he’s said so many of the things I’d like our president to do,” said Jack Cairns.

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

"I always had an affinity for John Kasich. I fear he may have gotten in too late,” offered Bill Stickman.

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

The split goes beyond these four. A 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.

Hometown support
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.

John Kasich's political career has been centered on Ohio, but his presidential campaign includes a lot about his upbringing in McKees Rocks
Credit ANDY CHOW / OHIO PUBLIC RADIO

Deborah Valenti recalls arguing politics with Kasich when they were in high school together. She says 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.’ 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,” Valenti said.

Kasich, she says, was serious.

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

She says she’ll be casting her vote for Kasich in the primary. But several of his other supporters in the historical society are Democrats, and Pennsylvania’s Republican primaries are closed.

Democrats could be an untapped source of support for Kasich, says 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 switch it back; it’s OK.”

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