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Inside Philly Trump Country

Jim Kenney may have grown up in South Philly, but one ward there is all about the president

Jim Kenney may have grown up in South Philly, but one ward there is all about the president

The scene was as South Philly as it gets: A sinkhole had popped open in the middle of Wolf Street a half block before 17th. Work crews descended in the afternoon and set up a barricade, detouring traffic onto Colorado Street. That was enough of a problem given Colorado Street is about as wide as a Volkswagen. It became even worse because somebody parked an SUV a solid three feet off the curb at the corner of 17th and Colorado, ensuring the sound of honking horns would fill the warm afternoon air.

We could hear all the commotion from inside the 26th Ward Republican office. Yes, in the thick of the South Philly wild there’s a Republican office. A festive one, to boot. Ward leader Theresa Dintino has decorated it with a wooden sign carved with “26th Ward GOP,” various elephant nic-nacs, Pope memorabilia, a Smarty Jones poster and plenty of Trump signs. Later tonight, Joe Dinic will bring another, a brand new Trump-Pence “Make America Great Again” flag for the wall. This office technically represents just the 26th Ward, but it feels more like a headquarters. Dintino even answers the phone saying, “South Philly GOP.”

“The West Mt. Airies, the Chestnut Hills, the Germantowns, the more liberal areas, I think they think we’re primitive people,” South Philly’s Dintino says. “And that’s why they don’t like Donald Trump and that’s why we love Donald Trump.”

I spent a February afternoon here, talking with Dintino and residents who trickled in, many of whom are running for committee person this spring. Unlike almost every other sliver of the city, the GOP reigns here. It was one of three wards–and the only not in the Northeast–where a majority of voters chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, 50.2 percent to 47.03. Some of the 26th’s divisions had as much as 66 percent support for Trump, making them the reddest areas of Philadelphia.  

One year and one month into President Donald Trump’s first term they have no buyer’s remorse. They have more pride than they did on Election Day—and perhaps less of a connection than ever to the rest of Philadelphia.

“The West Mt. Airies, the Chestnut Hills, the Germantowns, the more liberal areas, I think they think we’re primitive people,” Dintino says. “And that’s why they don’t like Donald Trump and that’s why we love Donald Trump.”

The 26th Ward is old school and old. At Cafe Ida on West Passyunk Avenue, the northern border of the 26th Ward, groups of men linger over coffees, speaking Italian. One of the foremost community gathering places is St. Monica’s, a Catholic Church. Current and former residents flock to Guerin Rec Center every Saturday morning in the spring for pickup basketball games.   

In Philadelphia, 12.5 percent of people are 65 and older. But in the four Census tracts comprising the 26th Ward 19 percent of people fit in this age range. They’re also much whiter (about 80 percent) and wealthier (about half as many households are under the federal poverty level as in the rest of Philly).

Dintino grew up here. Her father worked under Frank Rizzo in the Philadelphia Police Department. She started taking an interest in politics in high school, remembering she was the only one of her classmates who could reliably name Pennsylvania’s U.S. senators.

Her husband, James, was ward leader before she took over. They live in his childhood home on the 1700 block of Jackson Street.

We’re a city of neighborhoods, for sure, but also a city of echo chambers. And in terms of demographics, jobs and age, the people of the 26th Ward are not experiencing the trendy, multicultural Philadelphia highlighted in media reports and touted by City Hall. They’re living in the Philadelphia equivalent of Dauphin County.

Before retiring, Dintino worked as a civilian in the police department. Her profession is not uncommon down here. Many residents are part of the police department, fire department or blue-collar unions. Though Census data shows there is a much smaller percentage of working class jobs in the 26th than the rest of the city, residents here cling to and flaunt a blue-collar attitude.      

“It’s a predominantly working class neighborhood,” says Irene DiLolle. “I go shopping every two minutes. I’m at ShopRite and these people in front of me….they spend $200, $300. Their hair is done $800 in dreadlocks and they got the big phone. …They got the new phone. And they pay with an (EBT) Access card. And if it costs them money they charge it with their phone. They have the app on the phone. It kills me. I’m retired but it kills me. It kills me. And then the veterans don’t get anything.”

We’re a city of neighborhoods, for sure, but also a city of echo chambers. And in terms of demographics, jobs and age, the people of the 26th Ward are not experiencing the trendy, multicultural Philadelphia highlighted in media reports and touted by City Hall. They’re living in the Philadelphia equivalent of Dauphin County.

As such, political conversations here sound a lot like those reported at rallies in Central Pennsylvania at the time of the election:  

Mitt Romney was more of an aristocrat,” Dintino says.

“We needed a pitbull,” says DiLolle, interrupting her.

“I voted for (Romney),” Dintino continues, “but he did not connect with the people around here. He tried to be politically correct. People down here they want to hear it straight. Because Philadelphia we’re underdogs, and we like to hear it straight.”

Trump has been bad for big cities in a few ways. His proposed budgets have threatened funds for home repair and anti-poverty initiatives, he’s targeted community health centers, and he’s targeted community development block grants that serve low and middle-income urban dwellers.

But for many residents in the 26th Ward he’s checking all the boxes.

“How’s your 401(k)?” asks Paula Terreri, 62.

The economy’s continued success and tax reform have stood out as accomplishments for her and others. Same with the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Gorsuch has shown a desire to increase religious liberty and is opposed to abortion. This area of South Philly includes pro-lifers who see abortion as their top priority in every election. Most everything else can be forgiven. Not that Terreri sees any reason for Trump to apologize. 

Map: The GIS Division (Geographic Information System) of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC)

Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct by 19 women. He allegedly had an affair with stripper Stormy Daniels shortly after marrying Melania Trump. None of it has shattered her belief in the President’s fitness for office.  

“They try to spin that he’s a racist, that he’s a womanizer,” Terreri says. “Who has not made a derogatory statement at some point in their lives? Show me today a woman who has not made a derogatory statement against a man.”   

Her problems since last year have been not with Trump but with the culture at large, especially the Eagles. She says she didn’t watch a single game this year, Super Bowl included. She’s deeply critical of Malcolm Jenkins and other players kneeling for the national anthem. The playoffs made everything worse. Terreri doesn’t like Lane Johnson and Chris Long selecting a German Shepherd as the face of their underdog masks. The German Shepherd, she suggests, symbolizes the police force and she says a team with players kneeling for the national anthem shouldn’t co-opt a police symbol. A few years ago, when Michael Vick was on the team, Terreri wore a t-shirt with his number and the phrase “Pit-i-ful,” referencing his dog fighting conviction. She says she was denied entry into the stadium.

Back then, before Trump, the 26th Ward was mostly prosperous. A year into his term, it still is. Yet, these cultural shifts are driving the feeling they’re left behind.

South Philly has become minimalized,” Dintino says, “and people here are not happy about that.”

How so? The Mummers for one thing, say Trump voters. Organizers overhauled the parade in 2015, eliminating the tradition of starting at Broad and Oregon and marching north to City Hall. Now the parade begins at City Hall and ends at Washington Avenue before going east toward 2nd Street, ending New Year’s Day traditions of deep South Philly house parties.

There are concerns about crime and cleanliness and bicycles, too. The Trump supporters point at City Hall.

“Down here, South Philly, we don’t get the services,” says Joe Dinic. “They didn’t want the parade to come down here for the Eagles.”

He’s referring to a rumor going through the neighborhood that the Eagles organization wanted the parade to end at the stadiums, but City Hall preferred a route that began in South Philly. The 2008 Phillies parade ended in South Philly at the stadiums.  

Mayor Jim Kenney grew up in South Philly, albeit on the other side of Broad. He attended local Catholic schools and then LaSalle before embarking on a career in politics. The 26th Ward didn’t go Republican when Kenney was elected in 2015. But now, given his sanctuary city policy and endorsement of District Attorney Larry Krasner, there is widespread distrust.

“We didn’t think that was going to happen because we elected a man from South Philadelphia,” Dintino says. “So that may be the worst.”

The man they elected President, on the other hand…

“He’s really for us,” DiLolle says. “He’s got our back. He’s got our back.”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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