In an expansive and in-depth article Matt Shorraw, the youngest ever Mayor of Monessen,USA, is asked about his recent election victory, the re-building of the Rust Belt, his economic plans and youth engagement by our Political Correspondent Erik Green.
The Monongahela River is what connects Pittsburgh to Monessen, located 27 Miles south of the city. However, the connection goes much deeper than the flows of water. Monessen was built around supplementing Pittsburg’s successful steel and coal industry, the economy of Monessen was intricately linked with that of Pittsburg.
Deindustrialisation has now left Monessen asking the question how do we rebuild. In 1960, 18,400 people lived in the town, now only 7,400 are left. The soot that landed on residents’ windows was a daily reminder of the prosperity from the steel plants and mills. When the rail mill closed in 1987, it marked the end of industry in the city.
‘My involvement in politics happened organically, I have no background in politics whatsoever’.
One of the few younger people that stayed in Monessen, was its newly-elected Democratic Mayor Matt Shorraw. In his election campaign voters told him ‘we are going to vote for you because you never moved away’. Shorraw almost unconsciously walked into politics, awake with frustration. After doing a lot of voluntarism, throughout high school and college ‘I got increasingly frustrated that nothing was getting done’. He says ‘everything was standing still’. When the current Mayor, aged 80, was to run unopposed, Shorraw didn’t want to see that happen and he ‘decided to just go for it and see’.
‘My involvement in politics happened organically, I have no background in politics whatsoever’.
At the age of 26 he speaks realistically of the challenges ahead.
He speaks out against the promise Donald Trump made on the campaign trail when he visited Monessen, to re-open the steel mill. ‘I know that if we open the same steel mill today it would employ 1,000 people tops, compared to the 7,000 people at its height in the ’50s and ’60s’. Shorraw explains how many of those jobs would be engineering jobs because ‘you don’t have people pushing carts of coal or pouring molten steel, everything is automated’
Voicing his criticism to Trump’s promises of re-industrialising the Rust Belt regions, Shorraw says ‘ it would take so much to overhaul everything because we have become so globalised’ .
This realism is supplemented then by words of hope. The young Mayor is confident that Monessen can repeat history and seek inspiration from Pittsburg. ‘I only feel it makes sense for Monessen to supplement what Pittsburg is doing and that is services, education and technology’.
He speaks of how the rail and river linking north will help the town in this aim. Shorraw confidently proclaims ‘I don’t see why Monessen can’t be the manufacturing portion. If Pittsburg is doing green energy why can’t Monessen help produce parts for solar panels’.
We are to blame
When asked who is to blame for the decline of Monessen, Mayor Shorraw paused before responding with a surprising answer; unlike many in the Rust Belt criticising globalisation or for example Trump and ‘unfair’ trade deals, Shorraw says: ‘I would place the blame on all of us in Moneseen’. He says this is because indications of the steel mill collapsing were there but the workers of the time ‘didn’t want to believe it’.
He accepts the similitude, albeit on a smaller scale to Detroit: ‘you can’t have a city big or small rely on one major industry because if that collapses then there goes your city’.
Throughout the interview Shorraw spoke professionally about his home town; but then when discussing the past loss of industry he became more personal, sharing stories of how the locals responded. The Mayor explains how ‘they kept striking the workers off for a few years, until the mill was demolished’. At that point ‘there was a rumour that they were just going to build a new mill — of course this didn’t happen either’.
‘I would place the blame on all of us in Moneseen’
Monseen is guaranteed about $260,000 of funds a year as part of government and state funding. However, the Mayor demands more. He says it is ‘not a lot when it comes to demolishing buildings or paving a road’. Shorraw believes that public private partnerships are crucial to the city’s finances because if you have funds coming in from multiple angles then ‘people are willing to take the risk’.
Angry and Divided America
His economic plan for the city is bested by the need to quell the anger felt by residents in response to the disparity. As someone who has recently faced the electorate Matt Shorraw is not sanguine about such opposing voices.
Across the Rust Belt in 2016, Trump gained votes from huge swathes of blue-collar workers, who are struggling to recover from the loss of their industries; both from an emotional attachment to to the communities built around them and economically too.
‘I personally did not vote for Trump but I understand why so many people did’, says Shorraw. He believes it was ‘because there’s this disconnect between the real countryside and the cities, so people feel left behind, and he really hit that cord’.
Shorraw says that Clinton campaigned too much in the cities; for example, she visited Philadephia and ‘I think that really hurt her’.
Just over a year since Trump took office after a tempestuous electoral race that divided America, Shorraw seems unsure of how to mend these divisions. ‘A Washington Post University of Maryland poll, nine months into Trump’s presidency, found that 7 in 10 Americans think the nation’s political divisions are as bad as during the Vietnam War’. Shorraw’s own family was split 50-50 between Trump/Clinton in 2016. He suggests that one reason behind the division is the shock felt at Trump’s unexpected victory. Pertinently, Shorraw describes how people were very ‘bitter’ and says that social media was ‘incredibly hostile … it was stressful to be on facebook and twitter’.
‘I personally did not vote for Trump but I understand why so many people did’.
The Mayor jokes that actually if everyone sat down to have dinner with each other, then people would realise their issues are not that different and ‘there is always some grey area’.
‘It goes back to listening, you don’t need to scream at each other but you could at least hear where people are coming from’.
It is these very divisions that Matt Shorraw will have to try and mend as Mayor of Moneseen. However, as he points out, they are all linked to the anger felt at the economic conditions of those living and working in the city. His chances of winning office again will be dependent on whether the city is not reeling from the ghosts of the past steel closures.
How did you win?
Perhaps Matthew Shorraw’s local knowledge will allow for a better understanding of the link between policies and the voters, or perhaps cloud judgement when difficult and controversial decisions need to be taken.
He says that in some instances, ‘a fresh set of eyes helps’ but ‘in my case, my home town like many other small towns tends to be very placeist’, explaining why being a local helped in the election campaign. Voters viewed ‘leaving [the town] as as not being part of the solution’.
‘we are all humans so it comes down to a lot of emotions’.
Shorraw explains how he never wanted to become a politician and therefore couldn’t match the experience of ‘career politicians’. Aiming to counter this inexperience he ‘asked for a lot of advice from friends’. ‘I really focused on engaging with people and talking to them and trying to see what it was that they wanted’. I think that was really important.
After the recent realisation in the UK that elections will be increasingly fought on social media, Shorraw warns that door-knocking worked best for him with older voters, but does say how he was surprised at the number of older people actually on social media. As this number increases this may be a prescient piece of advice for future election campaigns.
Interestingly, he believes the deciding of policy should be a ‘give and take’ between politician and voter — almost like a contract. It was in this spirit that he campaigned in the election: ‘I would try to talk to them to see what they were thinking and then kind of say; ok, well, what can we do about this; have we thought about this particular way?’.
Drew Westen in his book The Political Brain states: ‘In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins’. When asked about the importance of emotion in his campaign Shorraw admits that although ‘he feels’ elections should be about policy, ‘we are all humans so it comes down to a lot of emotions’. He explains how he would start with emotion by saying, ‘I understand what you are going through or I can relate’.
The election victory of Shorraw was clearly built on an emotional appeal to a young man who stayed in the town and can relate to its problems ahead.
In discussions of what lies ahead, Shorraw speaks of how detached his town’s residents feel to Washington, and how frustration has only increased after the recent government shutdown. Despite Trump’s falling poll numbers, Shorraw quietly predicts Trump could win again in 2020, although adding that his ‘numbers would definitely be lower’ because ‘people are seeing that he is not really doing anything to bring jobs back’ to the Rust Belt.
‘there’s a big wave coming, not in a direct response to Trump but I think that has awoken a lot of people up. I think that younger people are tired of being told to wait your turn’.
Shorraw criticises plans to move the Democratic Party further left as they struggle to reidentify themselves after their 2016 election defeat. ‘If you are a single parent that is in a small rural community and you’re working two jobs and you can’t feed your three kids, chances are that you’re not going to care about some of the social issues that we are fighting for if they do not directly impact you’. The Mayor advocates for the Democrats to focus on the bread and butter issues of life. He says that Clinton lost because of this. Adding, ’I would think so’ when asked if Clinton was too liberal in her messages.
As the city’s youngest ever Mayor, Shorraw has now become a voice for greater engagement with younger people in politics. He speaks of his own Primary race, won by only 70 votes, as evidence for ‘every vote counts’ and predicts ‘there’s a big wave coming, not in a direct response to Trump but I think that has awoken a lot of people up. I think that younger people are tired of being told to wait your turn’.
Shorraw says ‘ the more young people that run and win, it gives a stronger voice’. The Mayor, in an attempt to increase youth engagement, thinks that younger people ‘definitely need to feel part of the process’ and ‘learn and know what the process is, how it works, why it’s important and why they should be voting for this person in the first place’.
‘It’s about engagement and education’.
As advice to young people who want to get involved in politics Matt Shorraw says,’read as much as you can, from as many sources as you can, because somewhere in the middle is the actual truth’. He goes on to suggest finding something that ‘you are passionate about’ then echoing his own introduction to politics, ‘volunteer in that area and I think that this is a gage to whether or not you would be up for political service’.
In an in-depth interview filled with detail rather than soundbites, Matt Shorraw finished with rhetorical flourish and a potent message:
‘As an elected official you are a public servant, and I always tell people any community wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for its citizens; and I think a lot of people forget that’.