How's The New President Doing? Voters In One Trump County Talk

Feb 3, 2017
Originally published on February 5, 2017 2:23 pm

Johnstown, Pa. is famous for a few things: a big flood in the 1880s that killed many of its residents, having been a robust steel and coal town, and more recently, suffering from a rapidly declining population.

The town is nestled in a river valley of the Allegheny mountains of Western Pennsylvania. Cambria County, home to Johnstown, chose Barack Obama during the 2008 election, but went heavily for Donald Trump in 2016.

Michael McGough was born and raised in the area and says President Trump scares him, especially after seeing what he's done his first two weeks in office. McGough is a retired county worker and a registered Democrat who generally votes the way the town used to.

"This has always been a very heavy Democratic area. It was for a long time. And then the coal mines slowly started going under," he says. Now most of his friends and neighbors vote Republican.

McGough thinks overall the city is in better shape than it was when he was a kid, even as jobs have been lost and people have left. Back then, he says, you could see a haze over the city and a fine dust on the cars in the morning from the industrial pollution in town. He's worried what could be ahead for Johnstown, and the planet, with a climate skeptic in the White House.

And there are still remnants of that prosperous, yet sully, city. Along the edge of the Conemaugh River sits a vast, mostly abandoned, steel mill called Gautier. At one point, decades ago, Gautier employed 11,000 people. Today it has just about one hundred employees. Back then, operations at the mill were so consistent the lights were always on. There were no switches to turn them off.

Jackie Kulback has been the company's CFO for a decade. Before then she worked at an air compressor company which she says shipped its jobs to Reynosa, Mexico, after NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement — which President Trump opposes.

"I saw people's lives change, and not for the good," she says. Many economists say that automation has cost far more industrial jobs than trade deals, but the bottom line here is an unemployment rate higher than the national average, and wages that are lower.

She says she saw the need for change under the Obama administration and that moved her to get active in politics. Now she's the chair of the Republican party here and campaigned hard to get President Trump into office. So far she's been impressed with him.

"Jobs trump everything," she says. Though she can't say for certain that the President's economic prescriptions will work, she's willing to give them a try.

As for Trump's travel ban, keeping out people from seven majority Muslim nations, she points out that the Flight 93 Memorial is very close to Johnstown. "That hit close to home" she says, acknowledging that even though the 9/11 hijackers were from countries outside the ban, she feels the need to further secure U.S. borders.

Alan Cashaw is the head of the local NAACP and helps to run a modest store near the steel mill called Greater Prospect Store. Cashaw says his expectations weren't high for President Trump and so far the new president has met those low expectations.

When it comes to race relations in Johnstown, Cashaw says he thinks the change in the White House has emboldened some people to commit racist acts. A couple of weeks ago, on Martin Luther King Jr. day, someone drove around town carrying an effigy of a hanged Dr. King in the back of a pickup truck. A sign on the back of the vehicle also read, "In Loving Memory of James Earl Ray," the man who assassinated King.

To Cashaw, there's a silver lining to that cloud. A long dormant anti-racism coalition has been energized and is reacting. Despite his disappointment with Trump, he says he knows the country will survive. "We're the country."

Carolyn Sharp works the cashier at a Lebanese restaurant, owned by an immigrant in town. She voted for Trump.

"I feel like maybe somebody who has a little more power and has a big mouth can actually get some words across," she says.

And she approves of the president's early steps to keep some people out of the United States, even though she comes from an immigrant family herself. She's Serbian.

"My grandma had 14 brothers and sisters and her parents came over here, and they're on the wall in New York on Ellis Island."

It's clear she feels those contradictions. She says she read on Facebook about a local man whose brother was kept out of the country by the president's travel ban and it bothers her. But like others here, she'll give the new president time.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're going to listen now to what some voters think of President Trump's dramatic first two weeks in office. And Steve - lucky guy - you got to go to my home state of Pennsylvania.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah, that's true. That's true - and to one of the places in Pennsylvania where the election was arguably decided. Pennsylvania, as you know very well, David, voted narrowly for Donald Trump, which made him the first Republican to win the state in decades. And among other places, he won a county that, on paper, should've gone to Democrats. It's in the western part of the state.

GREENE: But not as far west as Pittsburgh, we should say just to orient people. You were in the Allegheny Mountains. I mean, I love this part of the country. It's rural. It's beautiful, mountainous - but also some industrial towns with so much character.

INSKEEP: Yeah. All those things are true in the valley, the particular valley we visited. Let's give a listen here.

We're on a ridge overlooking the steel mills and churches of Johnstown, Pa., which is nestled in this river valley below me. It's a very famous city. It flooded in the 1880s disastrously. Thousands of people were killed. It's also been an industrial city over the years and remains so. It is in a county that once voted for Barack Obama back in 2008 but went very, very heavily for Donald Trump in 2016. People visit this observation platform overlooking the city even on a snowy morning.

My name's Steve, by the way. How are you?

MIKE MCGOUGH: Mike McGough, nice to meet you.

INSKEEP: Nice to meet you, too.

McGough is a retired county worker who closely follows the area's politics. He generally votes the way the county used to vote.

MCGOUGH: This has always been a very heavy Democratic area. And then the coal mines slowly started going under.

INSKEEP: So did the steel mills that once used coal from those mines. The county has lost many jobs. And its population has been declining for decades. McGough sees compensations. The government, he says, cleaned the river and the air.

MCGOUGH: If you would've been standing here 30 years ago, you would've just seen a slight haze over everything. I can remember, when I was a kid, my dad - he had a brand-new car. He was so proud of that car. Getting up in the morning - and there just being this real fine dust on the car.

INSKEEP: Now a critic of environmental rules is set to lead the EPA. And a climate skeptic is in the White House. Trump's early moves - banning refugees, hectoring foreign leaders - have not reassured McGough.

You don't think this is going to end well, do you?

MCGOUGH: No. Hell, if we're still alive (laughter) next year at this time, I'd be surprised.

INSKEEP: He says he can hardly stand to talk politics with his neighbors because many of his friends are Republican. And 66 percent of his county voted for President Trump.

We heard that people at the steel mill down below us favored Trump. So we drove down off the ridge, past wood-frame houses and over a steel bridge to Gautier Steel, a riverside complex so vast you can drive a mile without leaving the grounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF FORGING STEEL)

INSKEEP: In a brick building, workers smash red-hot steel into shape. You hear the echoes in this enormous space but see few people. Deb Chiodo started to work here 44 years ago. Back then, the lights were always on - didn't even have switches. And the plant employed 11,000 people. Today, it's about 100.

Were times better then, 40 years ago?

DEB CHIODO: Oh, my God, yeah.

INSKEEP: Talking with another guy this morning who thinks it's actually better now - that the river used to be dirtier, that the air used to be so dirty.

CHIODO: Yeah. Well, there's no jobs now. Yeah, the river's cleaner. But, I mean, unless you can make a living on the river...

INSKEEP: She voted for Trump, as did the chief financial officer, Jackie Kulback, the only other woman who works here.

JACKIE KULBACK: I've only been at Gautier for a little over 10 years. I worked for an air-compressor company before that. And that compressor company was closed down because the jobs went to Reynosa, Mexico - NAFTA. And, you know, I saw people's lives change - and not for the good.

INSKEEP: Economists say automation has cost far more industrial jobs than trade deals. But the bottom line here is an unemployment rate higher than the national average and wages that are lower. Kulback says she got into politics in recent years and is now the county Republican Party chair. Last year, she organized a series of small events for Trump, which gradually became larger and larger events.

KULBACK: And we had people stand in line for an hour to get a Trump sign. And they could get their picture taken with Donald Trump, the cardboard one.

INSKEEP: The cardboard Donald Trump.

KULBACK: Cardboard Donald Trump.

INSKEEP: So what do you think of his first two weeks?

KULBACK: I haven't seen anything that I've been upset about at all. I think he's doing exactly what he said he was going to do. And he has been no-nonsense about it.

INSKEEP: Let's think about some of the things he's done. He named a Supreme Court justice.

KULBACK: Which we're very ecstatic about.

INSKEEP: Neil Gorsuch - you like him. He banned travel from seven Muslim-majority countries around the Middle East and also stopped the flow of refugees.

KULBACK: I think that it's a temporary ban. And this is, again, something that he said he was going to do. Keep in mind, Flight 93 memorial is - what? - 20 miles from here.

INSKEEP: One of the planes on September 11 crashed nearby.

KULBACK: Yeah. I mean, that hit close to home.

INSKEEP: She knows the travel ban does not actually cover countries that the 9/11 hijackers came from. She isn't sure if it'll work. But she is willing to try it. She also isn't sure why the president obsesses over the crowd size at his inauguration.

KULBACK: There are some things - I think, oh, my goodness. Let it go.

INSKEEP: But the things that have sent protesters into the streets, Trump's remarks about Muslims or women, his worldwide business conflicts of interest, the fear that he will trample the Constitution - she says none of those things cost her sleep.

KULBACK: Really, when it comes right down to it, jobs trump everything.

INSKEEP: Are you sure that Trump's prescriptions for fixing the economy or improving the economy are going to work?

KULBACK: The law of unintended consequences could come into play. And, definitely, that is a concern. You try and fix something that's broken, and the last thing you want to do is make it worse.

INSKEEP: But she'll give him a chance, which is also what we heard at Lazarus Cafe when we told the woman at the cash register we were asking about the new president.

CAROLYN SHARP: Ha. I mean, I'm going to tell you right now I'm not a liberalist.

INSKEEP: It's a Lebanese restaurant started by an immigrant. The server, Carolyn Sharp, voted Trump.

SHARP: I feel like maybe someone who has a little more power and a big mouth can actually get some words across, you know?

INSKEEP: And she approves the president's early steps to keep some people out of the United States.

SHARP: I grew up in this country. I've been here all my life. So is that all right for, like, someone who has never lived here just to come over because they want a job, just to come over just for freedom purposes? But how do we know that they're not going to turn crazy on us? We don't.

INSKEEP: Do you know when your family came here?

SHARP: My family, actually, is immigrants from Yugoslavia. And my grandma had 14 brothers and sisters. And her parents came over here.

INSKEEP: Wow.

SHARP: They're over - they're on the wall in New York on Ellis Island. So that's how my family came over.

INSKEEP: There's a wall with names of people who've come through. And they're on there.

SHARP: On Ellis Island, yeah.

INSKEEP: I can see, by the look on your face, you're really proud of that.

SHARP: Oh, yeah, I am.

INSKEEP: The phone rang before we could talk through the contradictions in what she'd said.

Oh, get the phone.

SHARP: Yeah, I will. Thank you. Lazarus Cafe. This is Carolyn.

INSKEEP: Though Carolyn Sharp came to our table to talk some more - and it became clear she feels those contradictions. She read on Facebook about a local man whose brother was kept out of the country by the president's travel ban. That bothers her. But like others here, she will give the new president time. In this town, where the past seems grander than the present, voters are hoping a new president brings a better future. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.