Salena Zito

JOHNSTOWN – Last summer Marc Roberge walked onstage at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park to perform in front of the largest crowd he and his popular rock band, O.A.R., had faced.

In front of 40,000 mostly Western Pennsylvanians who came out for a night of mediocre baseball followed by fireworks and music, Roberge lost his voice.

“The first thought that raced through my mind was, ‘I want to give everyone their money back,’ ” he recalls.

A blood vessel had broken in his vocal cords. Yet, he says, “What could have been a negative became a turning point in my life.”

People in the stadium rose to give Roberge and his band a standing ovation. It continued throughout the evening, as the band played acoustically while a Pirates team doctor treated him.

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“I felt like I was part of the community,” he says, still emotional about that night. “When I came back to the stage … I was not only surprised that the entire park was still packed with people, I was blown away by the response.”

Leading up to the 2008 presidential election, Western Pennsylvanians were cast far differently by the media after candidate Barack Obama at a San Francisco fundraiser declared, "It's not surprising, then, that they get bitter, and they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them."

Even local politicians alluded to a certain ignorance or to redneck tendencies in the region.

Roberge has a very different view. The Western Pennsylvania that he and his band experienced “was America … and I have to say it felt very good.”

Once again Western Pennsylvania will be under the national microscope as the press, political strategists and Washington insiders watch the race to replace the late U.S. Rep. Jack Murtha.

Will they focus on the people and how they reflect American political sentiment? Or will they again dismiss them as rednecks, not sophisticated enough to understand the impact of their vote?

Two left turns off exit 31 from Interstate 70 heading east, the Carlton Diner sits next to the Carlton Motel in Bentleyville. Step inside, and you’re back in the 1960s: Large booths in brown leather and chrome stretch comfortably across the room, oversized desserts twirl in a curio-like cooler, and the daily special is an event called “The Slop,” a mixture of every conceivable breakfast item in one dish.

“It’s very popular,” says a patron, attempting to convince a newcomer.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.