We already met a cop who patrols the streets of Bethlehem and wonders how his centrist politics fit in an increasingly polarized America. We met a farmer who works the same land his father worked in the Slate Belt and can’t help but question why the supplies he buys are foreign made. And we met a young Black couple whose commitment to their small business in Easton is perhaps matched by a commitment to ensuring those in their community get a fair shake.
We told their stories in Part 1 of “Beyond the Great Divide,” a two-part series exploring the diversity of voters in Northampton County, a swing county that’s playing a pivotal role in the 2020 presidential election. It was one of only 206 nationwide that backed Donald Trump in 2016 after twice backing Barack Obama.
The county’s residents are a microcosm of America, and this series aims to demonstrate that through the stories of some of the people who not only live here, but are registered voters who plan to vote in the fraught upcoming election. Below are the final four stories. They are nothing like the first three we told in Part 1, and that’s the point.
Read Part 1 here.
Juan Rodriguez sits on his front step in Nazareth, Pa. on October 8, 2020. Donna Fisher | lehighvalleylive.com contributor
Juan Rodriguez has been shaped by his experiences, good and bad.
Choices and circumstance led him from his childhood home in the Bronx to the Lehigh Valley a number of years ago. He became a father at age 17 – now, at 42, he has four daughters and a granddaughter who visit him.
Twenty years ago, one particular bad choice to sell drugs led to eight months in Riker’s Island – “not a nice hotel,” he quipped. Now, he works as a machinist at Tapeworks in Bethlehem, thankful to have found an employer who gave him a chance 12 years ago.
“I wouldn’t change any of my experiences for anything, man,” Rodriguez said while seated in a chair on one side of his Nazareth bachelor pad. There’s a bicycle next to the fridge and a coffee table/chest that he built himself. “They made me the person that I am. Made me look at people differently, treat people differently, treat people with respect. … That’s what I’m looking for: Fairness.”
These experiences formed Rodriguez’s life and his politics. He believes in second chances. And he plans to vote for Trump in 2020.
His stance has surprised some in his family of Puerto Rican heritage. His mom, Brunilda Quant, an Army veteran and retired NYPD officer, counts herself among the surprised.
Now living in Minneloa, Florida, she runs a small auto garage with her husband. She and her son text and call at least a couple of times a week, and the conversation usually turns to politics, at least for a little while.
“Even though we disagree on a lot of stuff, it’s cordial. It doesn’t get overheated. We don’t start screaming at each other. We’ll even joke about it,” she said.
(During the vice-presidential debate, Rodriguez texted his mom: “Pence is winning.” Her response: “Are we watching the same debate?”)
Quant, a Democrat, had considered re-registering as an independent before 2016. She said Trump’s election made her recommit to the Democrats. But her son, turned off by Hillary Clinton and disappointed by Obama, took another direction.
Juan Rodriguez stands in front of his Nazareth borough home. Donna Fisher | lehighvalleylive.com contributor
Rodriguez, called “Johnny” within his family, is strong in his opinions and enjoys talking politics, but frequently laughs while doing so. He doesn’t identify as a Republican or Democrat. A registered independent, he watches multiple news channels and compares their reporting.
And he sees plenty of faults in Trump.
“I’ve always been someone who’s always spoken up, man,” he said. “I don’t like abuse, you know, bullies. And it’s kind of crazy, because Trump, he is a bully. He is a bully.”
Trump’s first debate performance was “embarrassing” (he didn’t like Joe Biden’s, either). Rodriguez admits the president says things he probably shouldn’t, and Rodriguez understands why that would turn people away.
But, in fairness, he said, he respects Trump for presiding over a strong economy until COVID-19 hit, speaking his mind for better or for worse, and – of personal significance for Rodriguez – pursuing some criminal-justice reform measures, like the First Step Act, which reduces mandatory minimum sentences.
It’s not that he particularly likes Trump or hates Biden. He supports ideas from both parties, including Medicare for all. But he’d rather see a standard-bearing leader than what he views as group-think.
“I never had to deal with gangs (growing up). Then when I finally seen gangs, I hated it. I think it’s cowardly. If you need to be with a bunch of people to (back you up), nah,” Rodriguez said. “… That type of mentality, it bothers me because I’ve had young friends who’ve I’ve tried helping and they’ve died because of stupid s—. That, like, really hurts me. I know it sounds crazy but that’s what I look at when I see the Democratic (party); it’s become a party of a group mentality.”
Rodriguez said Biden could still gain his support “if he would call his party on its B.S.” And Trump also could still lose his support if he clearly comes out as racist. Innuendo won’t do it, Rodriguez says. It has to be something recent and unmistakable, like hearing the N-word on the Nixon tapes.
“All that stuff I hear about him – I’ve experienced life, man,” he said. “I’m 42, and I hear a whole lot of junk from people and about people, about myself, about other people. And when you actually get to know the person … you’re like, dude, what? I don’t (only) go by what I hear.”
What Rodriguez really wants is a strong, independent leader, and for people to be slower to judge and more willing to research.
What Rodriguez wants, simply put, is fairness.
Ricky Phillips, left, and his husband Chip Deere of Upper Nazareth Township, pose at their home Sunday, October 4, 2020. Donna Fisher | lehighvalleylive.com contributor
Roger “Chip” Deere and Ricky Phillips
It’s easy to pick out Roger “Chip” Deere and Ricky Phillips’ house driving down their street in suburban Nazareth. Deere will point out it’s the only blue house on the block, which is obvious when standing outside. What’s less obvious is that it’s also one of the few politically blue houses in their entire neighborhood.
Deere, 49 and a Long Island native, and his husband Phillips, 50 and born in England before settling in Texas, met working as flight attendants for American Airlines. They moved to Upper Nazareth Township seven years ago and married four years ago.
Decidedly Democrats, they live in a neighborhood flush with Trump supporters but it’s not unfamiliar — both men’s families lean Republican.
“We have to say no politics in our house,” Phillips said, adding discussions with Deere’s pro-Trump father frequently devolve into arguments.
The couple says misinformation on the part of their respective families is mostly to blame.
Phillips pointed to a recent discussion with his nephew about the first presidential debate. His nephew claimed Democrats assuredly paid debate moderator Chris Wallace to reprimand Trump.
“We were like, ‘He works for Fox (News), how is that happening?’” Phillips said.
Despite their generally opposing political views, both families support their sons and their relationship. However, Deere said his dad has questioned their insistence on a marriage rather than just a civil union.
“I told my father, ‘I want the exact same rights as you, why can’t I have those same rights?’” he said.
As much disdain as Deere and Phillips have for Trump, Deere said it’s his vice president that puts their rights as gay men in a dangerous position.
“We feel that (Vice President Mike Pence) would go back to the 1950s,” he said.
The two aren’t just worried about their social and marital liberties under the current and possibly future Trump administration. They’ve had a financial bone to pick with his policies as well.
“He knocked out all professional deductions,” Deere said, referencing the 2017 overhaul of the tax code that Trump signed into law. “In the airline industry, professional deductions are a lifeline for us. We went from getting a refund in the thousands every year to having to pay thousands every year. We’ve taken a big hit with him in office.”
Chip Deere, standing, and his husband Ricky Phillips in their Upper Nazareth Township home Sunday, October 4, 2020. Donna Fisher | lehighvalleylive.com contributor
“I think one of the most important things Joe Biden is doing right now is he’s talking to the American people. And he talks about, ‘I’m not just going to be the president of the blue states, I’m going to be the president of everyone.’”
When the race for the Democratic nomination began heating up in the third year of Trump’s presidency, Deere and Phillips figured they had two options: they could support the candidate they liked the most or they could support the candidate with the best chance to beat Trump. In their opinion, those options were South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Biden, respectively.
“The only way to beat him is to have someone moderate, like Joe Biden, to grab all the people in the middle who just aren’t sure, who might be starting to get sick and tired of Trump and how he’s acting,” Deere said. “I think one of the most important things Joe Biden is doing right now is he’s talking to the American people. And he talks about, ‘I’m not just going to be the president of the blue states, I’m going to be the president of everyone.’”
Phillips contrasts Biden’s approach with that of Clinton, whom they voted for in 2016.
“She didn’t reach a lot of people because she was colder,” he said. “And she felt in some of the states she didn’t really need to campaign, and I think that kind of turned a lot of people off.”
They’re both considerable fans of Kamala Harris as Biden’s running mate.
“She’s exactly what America stands for… The melting pot,” Deere said. “That’s the ticket I’m hoping will do it.”
And if they do win, there are major issues Deere and Phillips are hoping they will fix, namely the division that has wracked the country in the last few years and the harsh realities of climate change.
“This is the only place we get to live,” Phillips said. “We’re throwing things out into the atmosphere, and nobody wants to fix it.”
While Deere and Phillips are firmly in the Biden camp, their front yard isn’t adorned with pro-Biden signs or flags or other symbols of support. They’re not particularly outspoken, and what Deere described as the “brazenness” of Trump supporters in the last few years hasn’t exactly encouraged them to be.
“I’ve felt like in the last four years, I’ve almost had to keep silent about how we feel because every time that we’d talk to someone, it became a huge, heated argument,” Deere said.
Phillips mentioned that in their work lives, they typically find that most flight attendants are Democrats while the pilots, perhaps because of a military background, are Republicans.
“We’ve learned in our airline that you don’t talk about politics, race, sexual background or religion,” he said.
And, being one of the few left-leaning families in their development, they tend to stick to those same principles. One of their nicest neighbors is a Trump supporter, so they tend to walk a very fine line in conversations with him.
The only thing they’re sure of in the upcoming election is that voter turnout will be high. As far as the outcome, they simultaneously feel nervous — “I’m terrified,” Deere said — and think Trump supporters are getting equally as worried.
Aside from casting their votes, they see the outcome as out of their control.
“I think those of us that support Biden know that we’re not going to change anyone’s mind,” Deere said.
They’ve encouraged others to vote.
And since there’s always a chance they could be traveling on Election Day, they’ve already requested absentee ballots and plan to quickly fill them out from the comfort of their blue house on their red street.
Lara Lamb stands on the porch of her home on Main Street in Freemansburg borough Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. Donna Fisher | lehighvalleylive.com contributor
Lara Lamb doesn’t worry about fitting into anyone’s idea of what she’s supposed to do. The 34-year-old Freemansburg resident works as a car mechanic by day and does musical theater by night.
And when it comes to the election, she isn’t going to let anyone tell her that she should hold her nose and vote for a big-party candidate just because she lives in one of the most important swing counties in the country.
Lamb is an unaffiliated voter and will be writing in Howie Hawkins, the Green Party presidential candidate.
“It’s all about morals, because he believes that we have systemic issues, along with the oligarchy and the fact that nobody – neither Biden nor Trump — are really for the working class people at all,” she said. She likes that Hawkins supports universal health care, clean energy and ending systemic racism.
Lamb was born in Trenton and her family later moved for her father’s job to Northern Virginia, a place she described as very conservative and very white. At 18, she moved to New York City for college. She was already voting Democratic at that point, but said that living in the city, with all its diversity of cultures and life experiences, helped shape her values.
“For me I think it was at the best time — You’re coming of age at 18, 19, and you’re living in New York City,” she said. “The real world is all these people and cultures, where you are involved with everybody.”
She has lived in other big cities since then, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. She and her husband met in Pittsburgh and decided 12 years ago to move to the Lehigh Valley, where he grew up. He’s “not really a city person” and she was ready for a smaller town, she said.
“At the end of the day, this ended up being a good area because, for me, it’s like in between. I can still do my theater, my music, and at the same time, there are a lot of jobs as far as mechanics,” she said.
Her husband works in retail for a cigar company and she is busy balancing her full-time mechanic job plus “side gigs” and performances. She described their financial situation as “getting by.”
“Our bills are paid and our taxes are paid, but it’s not like we have money to, say, go on a vacation,” she said. “My husband and I, we’ll be married for 10 years and we haven’t been on a vacation since our honeymoon.”
She is also facing a serious health issue, and one that’s helped shape her passion for Medicare for all. Lamb said she lives with pancreatic failure, something she tries to manage on her own because she can’t find a doctor who would take the insurance she purchased on the exchange after the Affordable Care Act passed.
“It was a complete and utter failure, I feel like, as far as (Pennsylvania) goes,” she said of the ACA. “Because I was part of the exchange, I was paying into it, and I still couldn’t see a doctor.”
“Our bills are paid and our taxes are paid, but it’s not like we have money to, say, go on a vacation. My husband and I, we’ll be married for 10 years and we haven’t been on a vacation since our honeymoon.”
Many auto repair shops are mom-and-pop operations that don’t provide insurance, she said.
Lamb said she is registered independent but generally voted Democrat when she was younger.
But after a while, she said, she felt the mainstream candidates were just paying lip service to the issues she cared about, like health care and climate change.
She especially wanted to find candidates who seemed more interested in making things better for working-class people — like her and her husband — than continuing to funnel money into the pockets of millionaires and powerful corporations.
Lara Lamb poses with her cat Binx at her home along Main Street, Freemansburg, Pa., on Thursday, October 8, 2020. Donna Fisher | lehighvalleylive.com contributor
That’s how she came to support Ron Paul in the primary in 2012. In 2016, she voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary for his progressive platform, including universal health care.
But the real moment she gave up on the Democratic party was when she concluded some party officials had worked to make sure Hillary Clinton was chosen as the candidate over Sanders.
“It wasn’t until I saw the absolute blatant rigging that was done by a party that I typically voted for numerous times,” Lamb said.
She voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein in the 2016 general election and supported Sanders again in the 2020 primary. Her family has also gone green, she said, including her husband and her father — who works for an oil company in Texas and isn’t your typical Green Party voter.
She thinks most people just feel tied to the two-party system, but those who have been engaged in politics for a long time can start to see a third option. “I think they start to realize that it’s all kind of the same system and we keep voting the same way and nothing’s changing,” she said.
“Sometimes you have to think outside the box.”
Easton Area School District teacher Jena Brodhead stands outside her Hellertown home on Saturday, October 10, 2020. Donna Fisher | lehighvalleylive.com contributor
Jena Brodhead calls herself a “supervoter.” She can’t say the same about her husband.
“I’m just thankful that I can counterbalance his vote,” the 44-year-old said with a hearty chuckle.
Committed to researching each issue and voting in all elections, from school board to the Oval Office, the Hellertown resident and gifted education teacher has already cast her ballot for Biden. Her husband, Brian, is a staunch Republican whom Jena said is more likely to participate in “big” elections.
“It is not always necessarily about the candidate,” Brian, 45, who again plans to vote at the polls on Election Day for Trump, said. “It is about the party and the party’s policies for me.”
Brian was 25 and in the Air Force when he voted for the first time in 2000, selecting George W. Bush for president. He didn’t cast a ballot again until 2008 when he backed John McCain. He now votes in every presidential race, but sits out other years.
Brian mostly votes for Republican candidates, drawn to the party’s support of free market capitalism, limited government and its law and order platform. He generally believes people should earn a living through hard work, not government handouts. But he does keep an open mind.
“I am not completely just about Republican policies,” said Brian, who works in inventory and logistics. “There may be some things I don’t like and think the Democrat side sounds better. It is not an all or nothing thing for me.”
Growing up in Nazareth in a blue-collar family, Brian said politics were not a hot topic. He’s not even sure if his parents vote.
Jena characterizes her husband as guarded about his political beliefs. Sometimes it’s difficult when Jena and her Democratic parents start chatting politics, as they often do, her husband said.
“I just keep my thoughts to myself. I just don’t talk about it,” Brian said. “I listen and take in the information and form my own opinions.”
Jena, on the other hand, is not guarded. As an outspoken cancer survivor and proud public school teacher, health care and education are always front of mind when she casts a ballot.
“Obviously, I’ve depended on both of those things for survival,” said Jena, who has been cancer free for seven years.
When it comes to education, Jena opposes charter schools and loathes the president’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, grimly stating that “public education can’t survive another four years” with DeVos in office, pointing to her support of charters, her lack of public school experience and her threats to withhold funding to public schools.
“Kids deserve to learn, and when they come to school they already aren’t starting on a level playing field,” Jena said. “Education should be that opportunity for kids to catch up, get ahead and make a life for themselves.”
Jena and Brian have two kids, ages 13 and 24, both products of the public school system. Their older daughter plans to vote for Biden, Brian said.
Brian and Jena Brodhead try to not let their opposing political views get in the way of their marriage. Donna Fisher | lehighvalleylive.com contributor
At Easton Area Middle School, Brodhead leads the gifted education program and used to serve as the Easton Area Education Association President. She’s taught at the district for 18 years.
Currently, Jena is leading remote instruction from her home. This unprecedented school year, with districts still scrambling to coordinate reopenings and teachers learning to use entirely new modalities, has more strongly informed her views on the Trump administration, with Jena arguing that schools require proper federal funding in order to reopen safely.
Nonetheless, Jena is appreciative of her students for their active participation while she and her colleagues navigate the challenging start to the school year.
“I wouldn’t trade my time with my students for anything,” Jena said.
Though her husband may not be convinced of Biden’s viability, Jena thinks Jill Biden’s education bona fides round out the ticket and provide a compelling reason to support the former vice president and second lady.
“It’s pretty hard to argue with a teacher, especially when you live with one,” Jena said of Jill Biden. “I would vote for her, too.”
Equally important for Jena is health care, an issue that’s been personal since she got Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“What tests you can have in what timeframe and how many hoops you have to jump through is defined by the health care you have…” Jena said. “And the reality is when you are sick, especially with something that could be terminal, the quality of care shouldn’t be qualified by the money you can afford.”
Biden’s personal connection to cancer resonates with Jena. He speaks often of his son Beau, who died at age 46 of brain cancer in 2015.
“I appreciate the honesty, and I know the honesty, because I’ve been there, I’ve been on that road. It’s not exploitative, he’s just sharing his story, and, for me, your story is super powerful,” Jena said, mentioning her work with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society to support others with the disease.
Jena endured nine rounds of chemotherapy treatment over six months and underwent three neurosurgeries to replace vertebrae that her tumors broke. Now, like an estimated 54 million other Americans, Jena has a pre-existing condition that could make her uninsurable depending on which direction health-care reform moves.
“I have this black mark on my permanent record that would preclude me from certain services that I desperately lean on to make sure that I can maintain a healthy life.”
Brian supported his wife every step of her illness and is proud of her advocacy work now.
He thinks about health care when he votes, but Brian said he’s not worried their insurance coverage is on the line. Jena’s job provides excellent benefits and he has them through his job, too.
“I think we would be OK no matter what,” he said.
Before Biden became the Democratic Party’s presumptive and then official nominee, many of the other candidates’ views resonated with Jena. Still, she’s hesitant to declare support for Medicare for all, instead simply believing that those who are sick should receive care regardless of their paychecks and that the Trump administration’s health-care policies have been objectionable.
“There obviously is a role for private health care and there is a role for some type of nationalized system. I don’t know if it’s one or the other,” Jena said. “But I definitely know that to take health insurance from people at a time when we’re in a pandemic is absolutely ludicrous.”
Brian feels much of the Democratic platform is “socialist,” he said. He does not want an expansion of social safety net programs, because government is “big enough already.”
He specifically pointed to the Green New Deal, a congressional plan to tackle climate change, as problematic.
Biden calls the deal a “framework” for addressing the world’s warming temperatures and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but stresses he has his own plan.
« »I’m not a climate (change) denier, » Brian said. “But the policies in the Green New Deal turn me off. It is not about what the government regulates. It should be up to the free market and capitalism to come up with ideas to better the environment.”
Four years into Trump’s presidency, Brian feels his family is faring better economically. He’s received raises every year and he had no difficulty finding a new job.
“Pretty much everyone’s better off,” Brian said.
His vote is definitely motivated by law-and-order concerns, noting some social justice protests resulted in looting and vandalism. Brian worries “it could happen anywhere,” including the Lehigh Valley.
Despite Jena’s laundry list of complaints against the president and abundance of reasons to support Biden, Jena feels her husband’s support for Trump is unshakable, which sometimes makes for uncomfortable or even hostile conversations at home.
“There is absolute animosity,” she said. “We’re 100% human. It would be lying to say that there wasn’t animosity.”
Sometimes Brian feels like he’s tasked with defending the president’s comments to Jena and her parents. It can be hard to navigate and lonely, he admits.
“I don’t think everything that Trump says is good and accurate and appropriate, just the way Jena could think that way about the Democratic candidate,” Brian said. “… It is tough sometimes and sometimes it is a quiet night that we don’t talk much. The next day is another day.”
Jena and Brian Brodhead stand outside their Hellertown home. Donna Fisher | lehighvalleylive.com contributor
Sometimes he watches Fox News with his 14-year-old son after Jena goes to bed. Brian likes that he’s been exposed to both ways of thinking at home at at his grandparents, where CNN or MSNBC is likely on.
“We watch and we talk about it versus what he saw at (his grandparents),” Brian said.
Jena tried to broach reports of the president’s disparaging comments about service members with Brian, an Air Force veteran. She said there was no changing his mind and the conversation was quickly dropped, as she’s learned to pick her battles.
His father-in-law, who is a Vietnam vet, challenged Brian on Trump’s alleged comments as well.
“Is it true? Or it it not true? It came from anonymous sources,” Brian said. “I told all of them, it is not a dealbreaker for me. Yeah, he might have said it. It might have been out of context. I don’t agree with everything he says.”
She chalks their disagreements up to geography. Jena is a California native, who was raised in Los Angeles and moved to Easton during her freshman year in high school. Brian hails from Nazareth originally.
Still, the two have found ways to talk about politics, and Jena is sometimes able to convince Brian of her beliefs.
“We don’t have much common ground on issues, but over the years he’s gotten to the point where he will listen to my perspective, and I will listen to his,” Jena said. “At the end of the day, our marriage is a little bit more important than who we vote for on the ballot.”
It’s a bit of perspective that others in Northampton County have sought for comfort as the emotional strain of this presidential race approaches a zenith.
And it’s a reminder that some constants — the mutual respect between husbands and wives, the unconditional love between mothers and sons and the appreciation of a considerate neighbor — will survive long past Nov. 3, regardless of who wins.