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We go door to door in Beaver Falls, to hear the issues on the minds of Pa. voters

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're listening to voters who will decide control of Congress. We interviewed more than 40 people with the power of the vote in two congressional districts. Yesterday, we heard people around Akron, Ohio. Today we hear Pennsylvania, which is choosing a senator. Specifically, we drove to western Pennsylvania, the 17th District, an open seat for Congress.

We're standing by the banks of the Beaver River. It's a very calm spot, with wind just rippling the water a bit and fall colors on the hill on the far side. But you can also hear the rumble of a railroad train coming past because this is an industrial river lined by old industrial towns. And it's in those towns where we've been talking with people about the past, present and future of this country.

The towns around the Beaver River include Beaver, Big Beaver and Beaver Falls, all in Beaver County. In Beaver Falls, we stood on the porch of John Mobley (ph).

When you were a kid, would you always go look at the trains going by?

JOHN MOBLEY: We would be up on the - see that train coming by right now? We would be up there if it was slower than this. If it was a little bit slower than that, we used to jump the track. I shouldn't, probably, be saying this.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

J MOBLEY: That's a federal offense. But we used to take train rides and stuff. It was, like I said...

INSKEEP: Oh, you would jump on the train?

J MOBLEY: Oh, yeah. If it was going slow enough, you'd take it up to the other end. We had football practice.

INSKEEP: After high school, he worked for a company that supplies the Pittsburgh steel industry. Now that steel employs fewer people, he drives 30 miles to work as a security guard at a university.

Well, what concerns do you have, if any, about this community and the way things are going?

J MOBLEY: Just, you know, opportunities for the young people. There's not much opportunity for the young people around here.

INSKEEP: His son, Cameron, is raising a family in the Victorian house next door. He works as a union millwright.

CAMERON MOBLEY: We're industrial mechanics. We install machinery in, like, a steel mill or whatever mill - really precise, down to the thousandths.

INSKEEP: That highly skilled work has taken him all across the region, including the steel mill in Braddock, Pa., where he saw the onetime mayor there, John Fetterman, now a candidate for U.S. Senate.

C MOBLEY: The last time I went there, I seen him riding down the street in a jeep with his foot out the door, you know? So I mean, small town guy - you know, I got to get behind anyone like that.

INSKEEP: Cameron Mobley is ready to vote for Fetterman, although, his father is less certain.

J MOBLEY: I'm in a lot of turmoil within myself on who to vote for.

INSKEEP: The Republican Senate candidate is Mehmet Oz - Dr. Oz, as seen on TV, who Democrats mock as a longtime resident of New Jersey.

J MOBLEY: I have a problem with Oz because he - you're not from Pennsylvania. It's like you're coming to Pennsylvania, telling us, like, we don't know nothing. You know what I mean? How are you going to make a change? You never lived here before.

INSKEEP: John Mobley is a Democrat and thinks the party will fight income inequality. But here is why he is conflicted.

J MOBLEY: Well, I know the abortion thing is at the height of everything right now. And I'm against abortion. There are some gray areas that I'm willing to lean to OK.

INSKEEP: Like rape, incest, life of the mother?

J MOBLEY: Yes. Yes. No doubt. No question.

INSKEEP: A Supreme Court ruling that ended a right to abortion galvanized supporters of abortion rights, but also motivated opponents.

Is abortion a big enough issue that it would get you to vote for a Republican that you maybe disagree with on some other issues?

J MOBLEY: That's a - remember I said I'm in the middle?

INSKEEP: Yeah.

J MOBLEY: I'm stuck. That's where I'm stuck at - right there.

INSKEEP: Beaver Falls lost a lot of population when the steel industry cut its workforce. Vacant houses lined some of the streets downtown. It still features many kinds of people who once worked in the mills. And the town recently elected its first Black mayor, Kenya Johns, who took us for doughnuts at a shop near city hall.

Oh, it smells amazing in here.

She says the best thing at Oram's is the cinnamon rolls. And the clerk found us the last few of the day.

KENYA JOHNS: Oh. See, that's my lady. She knows...

INSKEEP: The mayor is a Beaver Falls native who returned here after college.

JOHNS: Everyone leaves. Like, you graduate, everyone goes. You want to get the farthest away you can from where you are, especially if you grew up in a small town. But the problem with that is if everyone leaves, who makes it better? Who changes it?

INSKEEP: She ran for mayor before age 30. And though she won, she speaks like someone who knows people here feel the government has failed them in the past.

JOHNS: If you really want change - I don't make the change in these seats, right? There's small, tangible things that I can do. But the real change happens with the citizens and the community. I think we really - we spearheaded that these first 10 months in office to really just let them know we're here. We're consistent. We're transparent. We know that we've messed up. And even if they're not our sins, we have to atone for them because we are the leaders, right?

INSKEEP: The Democratic mayor says her views align with her party's candidates for Congress. But she has declined to formally endorse anyone and vows to work with whoever wins. She wants to represent the struggling neighborhoods near the river and prosperous neighborhoods farther up, where we knocked on doors.

Hi. Hi.

LAUREN KOZAK: Hi. Can I help you?

INSKEEP: Yes. We're reporters. I'm with NPR - National Public Radio.

L KOZAK: Oh, OK.

INSKEEP: Lauren Kozak (ph) was watching the kids but said her husband was politically active, so she got him on the phone.

ROMAN KOZAK: Holy - yeah, I know your voice very well. I've listened to you plenty of times.

INSKEEP: Roman Kozak (ph) was just down the street. And he came over while Lauren talked about the community.

L KOZAK: It really is reviving in many ways. The college that's here really keeps it afloat and draws a lot of people here.

INSKEEP: She's one of them. She came here to study, met her future husband at a coffee shop. And they now live in a house next to the coffee shop. Roman says he's an outreach chairman of the local Republican Party.

R KOZAK: I ran for city council myself about nine years ago, lost by 17 votes but ended up being friends with everybody that ran against me. And we've worked together in multiple ways.

INSKEEP: He calls the Democratic mayor a wonderful person and has served on the board of a community development corporation working to revitalize downtown.

R KOZAK: When you actually live next to the people and get to know them, it breaks down those political barriers that the national media tries to, you know, put us up against one another.

INSKEEP: Though, people will vote differently in this fall's elections for Congress. The Kozaks are focused on inflation.

R KOZAK: Our grocery bills have almost, we feel like, doubled. Now, we do have four boys, so that probably accounts for part of it.

INSKEEP: They've met and like Jeremy Shaffer, the Republican seeking the open seat in Congress. They voted twice for Donald Trump.

Do you think you'd vote for him a third time?

R KOZAK: Primary, general or what do you...

INSKEEP: He sounded open to other Republicans.

R KOZAK: But if President Trump is the general election nominee, yeah, I'd vote for him.

INSKEEP: Despite his experience with local Democrats, he considers national Democrats too far left. At the coffee shop next door, we found Joline Atkins holding a business meeting with Christine Kroger, who runs a local children's museum. When we asked about national politics, they said this.

JOLINE ATKINS: Oh, yeah.

CHRISTINE KROGER: It's interesting.

ATKINS: It's exhausting. It's exhausting.

INSKEEP: Atkins has seen the Democratic congressional candidate, Chris Deluzio, speak at a gun control event. She liked him.

ATKINS: But regardless, I would be voting Democrat anyway.

INSKEEP: Would you tend to vote in that case more on the individual or as some people have said to us, like, they're thinking about the party?

KROGER: I am thinking more about the party.

ATKINS: I am, too. I would love to be able to say I'm voting for the person, but there's just too much at stake. I can't do that.

INSKEEP: She's thinking about climate change and abortion rights.

ATKINS: I shouldn't even say abortion rights. I should say the right for a woman to be in charge of her own body, because I do have a 21-year-old daughter.

INSKEEP: Joline says it's so emotional to talk about politics, she felt herself growing physically worn.

This has been great. Thank you so much.

ATKINS: Like, now I'm like - you know, we have to have our meeting. And now I'm, like, thinking of all these things.

INSKEEP: Oh, I'm sorry.

ATKINS: (Laughter) No, no, no, it was great.

INSKEEP: I've ruined your business meeting.

ATKINS: No, no, no. I'm like, wow, to talk about - to actually, like, talk about it with someone other than my son, I'm like, wow, I really am heated.

INSKEEP: And some people around the Beaver Valley understandably declined.

You got, like, 5 minutes to talk.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No, I don't.

INSKEEP: OK.

But we were told we'd hear interesting things at the supermarket in Beaver, which is the prosperous county seat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCANNER BEEPING)

INSKEEP: Mark Ondrusek runs the grocery from his office, tucked in the back. It's barely big enough for his desk.

MARK ONDRUSEK: I'm 62 years old. I started in this business when I was 7 years old, never had another job.

INSKEEP: Seven years old?

ONDRUSEK: Fifty-four years in grocery.

INSKEEP: Your parents were in it? Or...

ONDRUSEK: Grandparents, great-grandparents, father...

INSKEEP: What job did you do when you were 7 years old?

ONDRUSEK: Everything.

INSKEEP: Today, pictures of his kids are taped on his office wall. And he's doing paperwork in the old style, writing by hand and wielding a stamp. Beaver is well-off, with the shops filled on the main street and rows of historic homes on a bluff overlooking the Ohio River. But Ondrusek says his numbers are not adding up.

ONDRUSEK: My labor is up 30, 40% versus four years ago, the cost of everything - utilities, electric, gas. Every vendor is tacking on fuel charges onto the bills.

INSKEEP: Ondrusek leans right. And the Republican Senate candidate, Mehmet Oz, came by his store.

What'd you think?

ONDRUSEK: Him and his wife are very polite. I think he means well, but I think he's a politician. I've never seen him in politics, so how is he going to do? I don't know. But I see the other side, too, and, boy, I just shake my head. So I'm not sure.

INSKEEP: He waves off John Fetterman, the Democrat for Senate, and says the stock market's decline this year has set back his retirement.

Are you likely to vote for Oz even though you sound kind of skeptical about...

ONDRUSEK: Yes.

INSKEEP: OK.

ONDRUSEK: Yeah, sometimes you have to pick whatever you think's going to not do worse (laughter).

INSKEEP: Around the corner from the grocery store, Gary Eck (ph) came to the door with his dog.

Hi.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

INSKEEP: He has Democratic campaign signs on his lawn.

What concerns do you have about this community?

GARY ECK: More so the country than the community, but...

INSKEEP: Go on.

ECK: Just the usual democratic plight, you know? I'm for legalized marijuana also. I use medical marijuana. And I think the Republicans just want to take more and more things away. They claim they're for our freedoms. But I don't understand how a woman could possibly vote for them.

INSKEEP: He knows something of the Democratic congressional candidates and plans to vote for them. He also supports Joe Biden for now.

How do you think Biden is doing?

ECK: I think he's doing OK. I don't think he should run.

INSKEEP: Numerous voters across two states noted that both Trump and Biden are well beyond 70. Many say they're ready for someone new. But first come the midterms that shape the next two years.

How'd you end up with signs on your lawn? Did somebody come by and...

ECK: No, we ordered them. I'll probably get handwritten signs that I put out, insulting Republicans (laughter). There's a polling station right here, so I - at the firehall.

INSKEEP: Oh, this - the firehouse.

ECK: Yes. Yeah.

INSKEEP: OK. So they'll be coming by for early voting or whatever.

ECK: Yeah. So the last election, I put silly things up, like Trump likes the Baltimore Ravens and...

INSKEEP: Not a good thing to say in Pennsylvania.

ECK: I'll ask the kids, what's the worst Halloween candy you can have? And they told me Almond Joy they hated the most. So I said Trump eats Almond Joys. And so some people come up and like the signs. And some people just glare at me.

INSKEEP: The local police chief told us officers have occasionally responded to calls about political disputes. People on one side put up a sign. And people on the other side take it the wrong way. There's tension beneath the surface in the Beaver River Valley. Though, people try to keep it civil as the country heads toward a decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROB LEVIT'S "THE TRAVELER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.