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on the trail

US Midterms: Baseball over breakfast with Ireland's unofficial Congressman Brendan Boyle

The representative for Pennsylvania’s 2nd District speaks about the Democrats’ chances.

20221023_095006 Quaker Diner in northeastern Philadelphia. TheJournal TheJournal

Rónán Duffy reports from Pennsylvania

‘QUAKER DINER’ IN northeastern Philadelphia is not the first place you expect to be talking politics but it’s where Congressman Brendan Boyle has suggested we meet for breakfast this Sunday morning.

Despite the name, porridge is not on the five-page menu but pretty much everything else you could put on a griddle pan is.

“Just go with the specials” is the advice professed from one regular as I struggle to decide on pancakes or whether it’s time to push the boat out for a 10am steak sandwich.

Taking the lead from Boyle who goes for an omelette, some scrambled eggs and bacon seem like a happy medium.

The Philadelphia Phillies are one win away from their first World Series appearance in 13 years and baseball is on the lips of most people you speak to.

Last night’s highlights are on loop on the TV and at least five Phillies hats and three jerseys are being worn among those in for their morning coffee.

Boyle tells me that he’s going to today’s game, the first he’s managed to go to as part of the current series. Someone else mentions reports that the local council have greased up lampposts to make celebratory climbing that bit more difficult.

It sounds like an urban myth until later that day, when I see a small tanker emblazoned with the words “environmental grease” driving around downtown. The police are also out unpacking barricades should the Phillies get the win they need against the San Diego Padres.

20221023_100147 The menu in Quaker Diner TheJournal TheJournal

“What time is your flight at?” Boyle asks me. “Because the town is going to shut down from about 2.30pm. We may have to ask you to stick around as a good luck charm if we win.”

The baseball means that the big-ticket Pennsylvania Senate race between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz has been relegated in topics locals are talking about.

It’s impossible to avoid though, as the eyeballs brought to TV by the Phillies’ sporting success has guaranteed at least one political attack ad every time the baseball cuts to a break.

“John Fetterman’s plan? Raise taxes, Ban fracking, Release murderers into our community.”

People almost universally sigh or roll their eyes when you mention you’re in town to cover the elections, but if you’re watching the game in a bar, another ad surely pops up anyway.

“Mehmet Oz will make it easier for domestic abusers to get guns. Mehmet Oz supported the overturning of Roe v Wade.”

In the race itself, Fetterman had been leading well in the polls, but a stroke he suffered in May has brought attention to his health and himself and Oz two are neck-and-neck heading into a high-stakes debate on Tuesday night.

Boyle is not in danger of losing his seat as the representative for Pennsylvania’s 2nd District, but the pollsters are saying his Democratic party is looking odds-on to lose control of the House overall.

20221023_115302 Boyle cutting a ribbon in his local area. TheJournal TheJournal

Before he heads across the road to open a new American Chinese Museum in his diverse district, Boyle tells me he’s not making any predictions about the outcome of the midterms.

“As we head into election day, I have to say this is the least certain I’ve been about an election for quite some time,” he says.

This is a very unique election cycle. Typically midterm elections go against the party in power, 90% of the time that’s the case. You can even look at this numerically: when I said 90%, that isn’t just a rough estimate. There have been 30 midterm elections since 1900; 27 of them have gone against the party in power.

Boyle’s right in that the polls have been see-sawing a bit over the past six-months or so. President Joe Biden’s satisfaction ratings have been poor, but have gone up and down – along with gas prices.

During the summer, Democrats’ fortunes started to turn as a number of issues important to their voters were dominating the news cycle.

Donald Trump’s home in Mar-a-Lago was raided, the Uvalde school shooting made international headlines and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Roe v Wade abortion ruling energised the Democrats’ voter base around abortion rights. 

Democrats also passed a significant piece of legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act. Among other things, the Act places controls on some prescription drugs and extends health insurance subsidies that were provided during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It will bring the cost down hundreds of billions of dollars, that’s why the pharma industry fought like hell against it,” Boyle says of the landmark law. 

It’s the first time that industry has taken a major loss by the way on Capitol Hill. People are still surprised that it happened. It’s gonna save hundreds of billions of dollars. Problem is it doesn’t kick in yet.

Republican-friendly issues 

Timing is indeed key to elections and polling released last week by the New York Times showed that Republican-friendly issues like the economy, inflation, crime and immigration are increasingly being seen as the “most important problem” facing the country, while issues like abortion, democracy or guns are falling away. 

Whether this is simply a result of the changing news cycle or smart campaigning by Republicans is in some ways moot; either way it is bad news for Democrats. 

Boyle, however, says that while inflation may be creeping up the agenda again he doesn’t see any answers coming from Republicans:

“I can honestly say that the other side has absolutely no plan whatsoever. They’re just very quick to point out what’s wrong and the economy, which by the way is not just a problem in the US.”

He adds that, whether it’s in the news or not, abortion will be on the minds of voters on 8 November: 

One woman I’m friends with said to me, when I expressed the concern that maybe this wasn’t as pressing an issue for voters as it was four or five months ago, this woman said to me: ‘Don’t worry Brendan, we still remember our rights being taken away.’ 

PastedImage-10026 Boyle in campaign mode in his district. Instagram Instagram

As we chat about the issues facing voters in this election, the man across from us who suggested the specials agrees that the cost of healthcare will always be among them. 

Tom explains that he lost two brothers during the Covid-19 pandemic and that his sister was forced to have part of her leg amputated after she suffered an embolism.

He remarks that families across America are forced into huge debt when family members suffer accidents or other unforeseen health issues. A labourer for decades who currently works in the city’s biggest indoor arena, he outlines concerns about his own health as he gets older. 

In an echo of the Biden’s recent putdown of the Liz Truss’ doomed economic policies, Tom tells me: “Trickle-down economics never worked; you put money in people’s hands, and that’s how things get better.”

Boyle and Tom have a brief constituent/representative clinic in the diner and they also both tell me about the Phillies’ last World Series win in 2008.

Ireland’s Future

It’s obvious that’s it’s comfortable ground for Boyle, whose father still lives around the corner, but the fact that he’s speaking to an Irish journalist and not a local one owes to him being a regular on Irish and UK TV screens during the convulsions of Brexit. 

He says that exposure wasn’t courted but came on the back of simply speaking out about what was obvious.  

I’d already been in Congress for a couple of years before Brexit, but once Brexit happened, I immediately saw what the ramifications would be for the Good Friday Agreement and for the North. And by the way, it took no great genius to see that. So I’ve been pretty outspoken when it comes to protecting the Peace Process from being the collateral damage of Brexit. One thing led to another and I started to get some requests, and then more. 

“But, look, I feel personally very strongly about this and so I’m happy to do it, even if there isn’t, you know, an obvious benefit, political payoff or benefit.”

PastedImage-48484 Youtube / Ireland's Future Youtube / Ireland's Future / Ireland's Future

On Ireland, Boyle has gone further than simply speaking about Brexit though, and earlier this month he delivered a video message that was played at the pro-Irish unity event Ireland’s Future in the 3Arena. 

During his message on the day, Boyle described partition as a “tragedy for Ireland” and said that the path for “peaceful constitutional change” was already there. 

Ireland’s Future hosted an event in Philadelphia earlier this year and Boyle praised the group for taking on the “necessary hard work” required to prepare any constitutional change. 

But with Northern Ireland still without an Executive and the Protocol issue not yet solved, is now the time to be talking about unity? 

There are always those who will say, ‘oh this isn’t the right time’. I disagree. Frankly, if the issues are fraught, then they’re best handled by addressing them head on and having these conversations in a polite, civil way. That’s far better than just burying them and pretending like they don’t exist.

“What I’d also say is that with Northern Ireland being ripped out of the European Union, against the wishes of a majority of those who voted there by the way, that actually presents quite the right time to talk about what the Constitutional status should be moving forward.

“I recall there were those in the early 1990s who were saying [in relation to the Troubles], ‘Oh the US shouldn’t get involved: it’s too fraught; it’s too sensitive; maybe sometime down the line.’ I’m very glad that those voices were not listened to at the time.”

And on the issue of US involvement, a delegation of US politicians who visited Dublin, Derry, Belfast and Brussels earlier this year faced the ire of the DUP who described them as being “meddling Americans” with a “slavish adherence to Sinn Féin dogma”

Boyle wasn’t part of that particular delegation, but was part of another in 2019 when he and House Speaker Nacy Pelosi were among those who walked the Donegal-Derry border.

“In terms of US involvement, there’s nothing new about how those accusations might be made,” Boyle says. 

They were made back in the early 1990s when President Clinton granted a visa to Gerry Adams over the strenuous objections of many, including 10 Downing Street. There were accusations waged at that time that the US was biased in favour of one community over the other.

“But I think on balance what you’ve seen over the last three decades from the US is that it has been strongly pro-peace and pro-justice.”

Boyle is now the only member of Congress with an Irish-born parent and he laughs when I ask if the influence of Irish-America is declining, saying it was a question he heard repeatedly when he was first elected in 2015. 

In the years since, we’ve seen multiple Congressional delegation trips to Ireland and the election of a fiercely proud Irish-American as US president. 

“I am concerned moving forward if we don’t kind of replenish the pool that it could wane decades from now, but in the immediate term I’m not so sure. I would say to those who are hand-wringing and fretting to maybe take a breath.”

With that, breakfast is over and it’s across Rising Sun Avenue to the American Chinese Museum.

The Phillies won by the way, four runs to three. Next: to the World Series.

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