Located across the Schuylkill River from Reading, a vast city of rowhomes, the Berks County borough of Wyomissing, Pa., remains as it was intended over a century ago: the ideal suburb. Curving boulevards and tidy avenues, canopied by trees, feature beautiful housing amid parks and trails. Then, beyond Penn Avenue, sprawling before semi-detached houses, are the Knitting Mills – a monument to the community’s foresight.
Planning ahead is a tradition in Wyomissing, where, early last century, founders Ferdinand Thun and Henry Janssen meticulously designed a town for posterity. From the beginning, these visionary German immigrants ensured that the Knitting Mills – then known as Wyomissing Industries – adapted to the times. And so, as women’s fashion dramatically changed in the 1920s, Thun and Janssen’s enterprise became the world’s top manufacturer of women’s hosiery. When the Great Depression struck, they redeployed workers to build attractive homes for all economic classes in Wyomissing and its sister community, West Reading.
Over time, evolving fashion tastes couldn’t save the knitting business, but again, Wyomissing was able to respond. In the early 1970s, the VF Corporation pioneered outlet shopping at the former mills. Since then, retail, accelerated by the pandemic, has transitioned from brick to pixels. Last year, VF’s longtime outlet closed. Now, the Knitting Mills’ historic brick buildings comprise a massive, ongoing mixed-use development project. The tradition of adaptability continues.
One tradition in Wyomissing, though, is changing. The borough’s civic leaders, including Thun and Janssen, tended to be Republican. But in November, for the first time in memory, Wyomissing favored the Democratic presidential candidate. From voter registration to local governance, Wyomissing appears Republican, but the community’s swing from Donald Trump to Joe Biden reflects a shift in modern politics: Suburban prosperity – especially among younger professionals – is translating into Democratic votes. Phil Wert, a West Reading councilmember, observed how many of his under-50 Wyomissing friends lean Democratic. “I see Wyomissing in the next 10 years being more reliably Democratic … when it comes to presidential and statewide races,” he told me.
‘In 1990, 61% of national political campaign contributions by physicians went to Republicans.’ By 2018, nearly two-thirds of contributions went to Democrats.
A booming “eds-and-meds” economy is fueling Wyomissing’s gradual political shift. The Knitting Mills complex, for example, houses the corporate offices of Tower Health, which oversees its flagship, Reading Hospital, but also suburban Philadelphia hospitals. Meanwhile, where Wyomissing Industries’ foundry once stood, Philadelphia’s Drexel University will open a medical school this fall. In the past, such employers would supply legions of Republican voters. Today, the medical profession leans Democratic.
This shift preceded the 2020 election. In recent decades, and especially post-Obamacare, younger physicians joined health systems like Tower Health or Drexel. The result, as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2019, was “fewer business-owner physicians who back the GOP for its pro-employer policies.” This new dynamic, in turn, flipped doctors’ political contributions. As the Journal noted, “In 1990, 61% of national political campaign contributions by physicians went to Republicans.” By 2018, nearly two-thirds of contributions went to Democrats.
In 2020, the electoral consequences were evident in Wyomissing and throughout Pennsylvania. Hershey – home to the iconic chocolate company but also to Penn State’s College of Medicine – flipped from Trump to Biden. Even Montour County, a GOP bastion, delivered notable gains for a Democratic candidate. Its county seat, Danville – headquarters of Geisinger’s large health system – went for Biden. This trend among white-collar workers is national in scope. As Kenan Fikri, the Economic Innovation Group’s director of research, told me, “We’re seeing the country’s political realignment really break strongly along occupational lines, not just urban/rural ones.”
“Eds and meds,” Fikri noted, “are at the heart of this realignment.”
In Wyomissing, many residents live within walking distance of Reading Hospital, its clock tower reminiscent of Independence Hall. Not far from the hospital, a few progressive-minded yard signs adorn borough properties. According to Kevin Boughter, Berks County’s Democratic chairman, “tons of Biden signs were out [in Wyomissing]” before November, “and four years ago, it was completely the other way around.”
‘We’re seeing the country’s political realignment really break strongly along occupational lines, not just urban/rural ones.’
Of course, Wyomissing’s rejection of Trump could prove an aberration. After all, it’s not modern progressivism but traditional values – reflective of this region’s conservative German roots – that make Wyomissing a Rockwellian community. Berks, moreover, is a GOP stronghold despite heavily Democratic Reading’s large population.
In the near future, perhaps enough suburban voters, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, could reflect the disposition of what The Week’s Matthew Walther recently called “Barstool conservatives.” As he put it, these Americans – including Barstool Sports’ CEO, Dave Portnoy – detest state-level lockdown policies, “the language of liberal improvement [and] the hectoring, schoolmarmish attitude of Democratic politicians.” Barstool is partly owned by another Wyomissing company, Penn National.
For now, Wyomissing’s landscape offers that elusive quality found in certain towns: a sense of engagement with the community. This is due, in large part, to nonideological local government leaders who are focused on preserving Wyomissing’s quality of life. “It’s really been about public service,” the borough’s Republican mayor, Fred Levering, told me. “People who serve because they love the place.” Levering noted how the local council meets in Borough Hall, the former Thun mansion where portraits of Wyomissing’s founders adorn the chamber’s walls. He referenced a comment he made in a local documentary: “I often glance over there and think, ‘My job is basically don’t screw this up.’”
In the case of its politics, though, Wyomissing and similar eds-and-meds suburbs will be battlegrounds in next year’s midterm elections. This is especially true in Pennsylvania, which will have a heated gubernatorial and U.S. Senate race. Long term, Wyomissing’s prosperity might only further accelerate its shifting politics. As Wert observed, millennials are buying homes in the borough, and efforts are underway to restore passenger rail between Reading and Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, just steps from Drexel’s main campus. Such developments will undoubtedly change political demography. Republicans will have to plan ahead for this ongoing realignment.
Charles McElwee edits RealClear’s public affairs page on Pennsylvania. He is managing editor of the Commonwealth Foundation. He is the 2020-21 John Farley Memorial Fellow, part of The Fund for American Studies’ Robert Novak Journalism Program. Follow him on Twitter @CFMcElwee.