In 2 Indiana Manufacturing Cities, Presidential Politics Play Unexpected Role

Apr 29, 2016
Originally published on May 4, 2016 4:13 pm
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The country's number one manufacturing state is Indiana. It's home to Gary and Kokomo - two cities with very different economic fortunes. NPR's Asma Khalid reports that those economic fortunes affect presidential politics in an unexpected way.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: We're going to take a road trip to two cities. First stop - Gary, Ind., a city built by U.S. Steel on the shores of Lake Michigan. In the 1970s, tens of thousands of people worked in the mills. But like other steel cities, it got rusty. Jobs were lost, buildings abandoned. Then, in the '90s, a businessman came in and promised a new future.

CHUCK HUGHES: I met him. And, you know, I mean, at the time, everybody was excited, man. It was rumbling - man, Trump's coming. Donald Trump, you know - hey, I was excited like everybody else.

KHALID: That's Chuck Hughes. He was a city councilman when Donald Trump got a license to build a casino in Gary.

HUGHES: Trump promised that he'd build the tallest, greatest hotels. I heard him say this out of his own mouth.

KHALID: But Hughes says, that was just talk. He drives me to the harbor to show me.

HUGHES: That's the hotel over there.

KHALID: This hotel looks more like a motel - a drab shade of tan with boxy windows, no gilded walls or crystal chandeliers.

HUGHES: Yeah, I mean, he didn't stick around long enough to make an impact in this community. No, he left. I mean, he left (laughter).

KHALID: Trump ran the casino here for about a decade before he sold it. And that was not his only investment. Twice he brought the Miss USA pageant here. Trump came to Gary during dark days. There was high crime and few jobs. But most people in the city don't think Trump's investments paid off. Gary is still struggling. There are weeds growing out of boarded-up houses on nearly every block. But it wasn't always this way.

SAM WOODS: You know, all you really needed was a strong back and do what you're told.

KHALID: Sam Woods started working in the steel mill here in the early 70s.

WOODS: Jobs were so plentiful, if you got fired from one steel mill, you can go and put an application and get started working the next week at another steel mill in northwest Indiana.

KHALID: But now, he says, those middle-class jobs are disappearing. Fewer people work in the mills. Woods is one of the lucky ones who still has a job here, and he's a longtime Democrat.

WOODS: Bill Clinton was one of the best presidents we've ever had, but he sucker-punched us. The worst thing he did was he pushed NAFTA.

KHALID: Woods thinks Hillary Clinton will also try to push through trade deals like TPP that will hurt manufacturing. And so he's going to vote for Bernie Sanders.

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KHALID: On this weekend, the mayor, Karen-Freeman Wilson, is talking up Hillary Clinton at a black church. After the service, I meet her outside. And she says Trump's investments in Gary taught them a lesson about the businessman-turned-candidate.

KAREN-FREEMAN WILSON: He's gotten in, pulled as much equity as he can out of a project and gone on to the next thing. You have to have a long attention span if you're the president. I just don't think he has it.

KHALID: These days, gaming is one of the major employers around here. But for Trump and his early investments, there are no fond memories.

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KHALID: Let's drive two hours south to another manufacturing hub - Howard County. The auto bailout pushed by President Obama had a direct impact here.

So we're driving around the main Chrysler transmission plant in Kokomo, Ind., and it's massive - kind of like island on the southeast edge of town. Thousands of people work here. I mean, even on the weekends there are loads of cars in the parking lot. But there was a point in 2009 when unemployment was around 20 percent. And these parking lots - they were pretty empty.

This city got hammered during the recession. Randy Rusch used to work for the auto electronics company Delco. I met him at this popular local brewery.

RANDY RUSCH: I just remember when I got, you know, notified that I was let go, 800 people were let go on the same day.

KHALID: He came here the day he got laid off.

RUSCH: So there were a bunch of people meeting right here, so their - that whole bar section was full of people, all of whom were leaving Delco.

KHALID: People in Kokomo say the city felt like a ghost town. But then in 2008 and 2009, the federal government intervened with the auto bailout. It rescued Chrysler and GM - two major employers here. And the unemployment rate now is down below 5 percent. Rusch is a conservative planning to vote for Ted Cruz. And he tells me he feels conflicted about the bailout.

RUSCH: It's like, you know, you sort of see - I see the negatives here. I see some positives here.

KHALID: His pension got cut, and he blames the Obama administration for that. There are, of course, plenty of Democrats around here who say the auto bailout saved Kokomo from a depression. But there are also union guys, like Ted Kenworthy .

TED KENWORTHY: A lot of guys, they - when they hear me say this, I really catch a lot of flak. They want to say, well, if wasn't for Obama, we wouldn't even have a job. And I go, bull. That is not - I don't believe that.

KHALID: Kenworthy says Chrysler would have survived without help from Washington.

KENWORTHY: We would have been better off had they let us go through the regular process of bankruptcy and come back and build our company back up instead of the government stepping in and bailing us out.

KHALID: Kenworthy did not vote for Obama and neither did most of Howard County. Despite the auto industry's recovery, in the last election, Obama lost this county by about 15 points. Kenworthy plans to vote Tuesday. He's still undecided, but he knows for sure whom he will not vote for.

KENWORTHY: I will not vote for Hillary. I think she could probably be the worst thing this country has ever seen.

KHALID: Kenworthy wants a Republican in the White House.

KENWORTHY: She scares me to death. She's too much of a liberal. Put people to work. Quit giving people everything.

KHALID: And so even though Hillary Clinton is the candidate running on President Obama's record and the legacy of the auto bailout, some people here will not support her. And maybe that's the lesson of these two cities - economic investment, in Donald Trump or President Obama's case, isn't always enough to buy political goodwill. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.