Bloomberg Businessweek

The Color Of the Rust Belt

One afternoon in June, Mike Mikulich led a masked visitor into the empty chambers of the Ambridge Borough Council and dropped his mobile phone and thick forearms worthy of a former steelworker onto a table. As council president he’d been wrestling with one crisis after another for months. He confessed that after spending 32 of his 74 years helping run this former Pennsylvania factory town of 6,600, he was thinking of calling it quits.

Covid-19 had claimed Ambridge’s police chief in April and the owner of its leading funeral home just a few days later. Two of its biggest employers had closed up shop, laying off some 300 workers between them. Within weeks, a third business would suffer a devastating fire.

A few days before our meeting, Mikulich had presided over an acrimonious virtual council session: Town leaders had been trying to figure out how late-night rumors of an Ambridge-bound bus filled with Black Lives Matter protesters had ended in members of a far-right militia with sniper rifles taking to the roof of a downtown gym.

All this was unfolding against the backdrop of a national election in which Mikulich feared his own Democratic Party seemed to be playing to lose in this purple corner of western Pennsylvania. Progressive Democrats’ and protesters’ calls to “defund the police” seemed like a gift to a president running a reelection campaign fanning fears of a collapse in American law and order should he lose. “Why would you say stupid stuff like that?” Mikulich said, grimacing. “The people who are just sitting on that fence leaning in your direction now are leaning back in the other direction because they don’t want to defund the police department. They’re going to say, ‘Where in the hell is my police?’ ”

Pennsylvania is a prized battleground in this year’s election, and if Donald Trump carries the state again it will be because he either held on to, or built up, support in places such as Beaver County, in which Ambridge sits. Trump carried

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