The Democratic town that took a chance on Trump

The Democratic town that took a chance on Trump

Tom Slater reports from Erie, Pennsylvania, a Rust Belt city refusing to be written off.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater
Deputy Editor

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Topics Politics USA

This report accompanies the release of spiked’s new film, Deplorables: Trump, Brexit and the Demonised Masses. Watch it now here.

‘I was going to ask how was the food, but the clean plates speak for themselves.’ So says our server at Dominick’s Eatery, in the heart of Erie, Pennsylvania. We’d each just had a meatball omelette, this place’s speciality. The plates didn’t lie.

The spiked team were in Erie last September to interview people for our new film, released today, Deplorables: Trump, Brexit and the Demonised Masses. It’s about the populist revolts of 2016, and the anti-voter, anti-‘redneck’ fury it unleashed from the elites.

But Erie, which backed Trump, isn’t so easy to caricature. This Rust Belt county, on the edge of the Great Lake Erie, voted for Obama twice, before backing The Donald. Until 2016 it was a Democratic stronghold: a Republican presidential candidate hadn’t won here since 1984.

The owner of Dominick’s, Tony Ferraro, doesn’t want us to talk about politics – it’s one of the conditions of him letting us film in his establishment, talking to him and his staff and his punters, around lunchtime on an overcast early autumn day.

But there’s still plenty to talk about. Dominick’s – an Erie institution, founded more than 50 years ago by two guys called Dom and Nick, hence the K in the name – is a good place to start to understand the story of Erie, a rough diamond that has seen better days.

It’s on 12th Street, once the economic heart of this old manufacturing town. Now, it’s a graveyard to former glories – lined with empty factories with punch-card windows, some beginning to be reclaimed by nature.

Charles, the kitchen manager here, has been working at Dominick’s since 1989. Back then it was open 24/7, serving workers and their families in the day and graveyard shifters and bikers in the small hours.

Dominick's, on 12th Street, at the heart of Erie's old industrial hub. Picture by: spiked
Dominick's, on 12th Street, at the heart of Erie's old industrial hub. Picture by: spiked

‘We can’t stay open 24 hours now, just on weekends, because there’s just not enough business during the week’, he says. Though daytime custom still seems healthy: ‘They love the meatballs, the homemade sausage, they just can’t get enough of us.’

Tony arrives, and takes a seat at the counter for our interview. We soon get on to how much things have changed. ‘In its heyday, 12th Street, that was it, that was the main strip, a lot of factories, a lot of industry’, he says. ‘But when they’re gone, they’re gone, and ultimately that affects all the businesses around.’

Erie County was once a proud manufacturing town, and a thriving community. But in recent decades there has been an exodus of businesses, jobs and people. Since 2010 alone, it has shed more than 8,000 residents. As of 2018, the population stood at around 272,000.

It isn’t just blue-collar manufacturing jobs that have been lost, either. Government data, analysed last year by the Associated Press, suggest that since 2008 there has been an exodus of professional jobs, too, from accountants to computer workers to engineers – jobs that are increasingly, AP notes, ‘the backbone of the US economy’ as manufacturing dwindles.

Salena Zito, roving Rust Belt journalist and co-author of The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, says this is a big part of the story of how Erie – and America – went red in 2016. ‘Erie is a good microcosm of understanding how America went from supporting Barack Obama twice to supporting Donald Trump’, she tells me, at her home in Pittsburgh.

‘It is a county, a city, that is in transition and has been left behind for decades, I would argue for generations’, she says. ‘Job losses and population have really just bled throughout that area. Those kinds of things break up families. And when families break up, communities break up.’

From the Hammermill Paper Company to the plumbing-equipment firm Zurn Industries, big industrial and manufacturing companies were once central to the community. But none more so than GE Transportation, a division of the General Electric Company, which built locomotives in Erie for a century. At its peak it employed 20,000 people; everyone knew someone who worked at ‘The GE’.

No longer. GE Transportation was spun off and merged with the Wabtec Corporation this year. The Erie Times-News proclaimed it the ‘End of an Era’. It also led to a confrontation with workers, who called their first plant-wide strike since 1969, following Wabtec’s attempts to implement a diminished pay structure for new hires as well as mandatory overtime.

But Scott Slawson, president of the Local 506 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (or UE), says things were going downhill long before the merger: ‘Over probably the past 30 to 35 years, many products we built here in Erie were shipped to offshore locations, and some within the United States… mainly to right-to-work states [which limit union rights] or other sites that are not unionised.’

The ‘final blow’, he tells me, came in 2013, when GE cut 950 jobs in Erie and moved one sixth of workers to a new facility in Fort Worth, Texas. And dwindling work at the plant didn’t just hit workers at GE. ‘Every single job here directly affects four jobs in the economy’, Slawson says, from suppliers to bars and restaurants.

Scott Slawson, president of UE Local 506. Picture by: YouTube
Scott Slawson, president of UE Local 506. Picture by: YouTube

He puts Erie’s decline down to a ‘perfect storm’ of political and corporate developments. ‘Our own government and businesses went on the attack against organised labour… and NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] played a role in sending a lot of the work that we do here in Erie to places like China, Mexico, Vietnam.’

So is this why Trump, who promised to ‘bring back our jobs’, connected with voters in Erie? Slawson, a Bernie Sanders supporter, says that he knew of members of his own union who backed Trump. But he thinks voters were as much repelled by the Democratic establishment as they were won over by the Republican insurgent: ‘Erie has been a Democratic region for a very long time and we’ve gotten a lot of lip service for a very long time… There’s always a promise of “we’re going to do better for you”. But nobody ever sees it.’

He cites Hillary Clinton’s failure to campaign in Erie as fatal (Trump packed out the Erie Insurance Arena with a rally in August 2016). ‘Trump made an appearance here and he made a lot of promises here in Erie. Now, has he carried through with any of them? No, he hasn’t. But people, at that point, were looking for something different. And let’s face it, Trump was different.’

One of the people at that August rally was Joe Orengia, a body-builder, Vietnam veteran and small businessman in his early seventies. We meet at his business, Joe’s Gym. As we walk in, he’s sat behind the counter in a ‘Veterans for Trump’ t-shirt. (He was so enthused by the Trump campaign that he even put out his own ‘Pump for Trump’ line of workout t-shirts.)

His enthusiasm has not waned one bit. ‘I finally see some hope, because things are getting better’, he says, as we sit down to interview him on camera, among the barbells and benches.

Orengia was brought up in a blue-collar Democratic family, but grew more and more disillusioned with the party as he saw the Erie of his childhood fade away. ‘My dad raised seven kids as a janitor. We had food on the table, we had a car, everything was going good. You couldn’t do that nowadays.’

He once worked as a bridge-builder and iron worker, putting up buildings at GE and Hammermill. ‘They’ve actually torn down half the buildings that I put up’, he says. ‘It’s nice because you see the lake now, but I don’t know how anybody’s going to make money looking at the lake.’

The jewel of Erie – Presque Isle State Park. Picture by: Wikimedia Commons
The jewel of Erie – Presque Isle State Park. Picture by: Wikimedia Commons

The jewel of Erie is the beautiful Presque Isle State Park, a wooded peninsula, lined with beaches, curling into the lake, drawing thousands in the summer months. Tourism, alongside a growing insurance and healthcare sector, is one of the ways in which Erie is trying to reinvent itself. But Orengia is unconvinced: ‘They’re putting up hotels and stuff like this. They’re dying in the winter. This isn’t a recreation town. Bring the industry back.’

During the 2016 race, he says anyone in Erie could see what was coming, even if the pollsters couldn’t. ‘I was driving eight miles. I counted 22 Trump signs. I counted two for – I think his name was – Gary Johnson. And I saw two for Hillary — and one of them said “Hillary for Prison”. But the polls say Trump’s losing, and I’m like: no way, fake news.’

In the end, Trump won a narrow victory in Erie, albeit one that overcame Obama’s 16-percentage-point win here in 2012. It was close to a 50-50 split, as Slawson is quick to point out to me. And a lot of it, he says, could be put down to who Trump was up against. ‘I think they saw Hillary Clinton as another career politician who wasn’t going to do anything to drive change.’

But for Orengia, at least, Trump was also a vote for something: for someone who might drive the sort of change that Hillary Clinton would not. ‘He’s giving us some hope here that it can change. Obama did the same thing, hope and change’, he says. ‘But… it didn’t work. So it’s time for a new idea.’

The Obama-Trump comparison comes up a lot here. This might be a surprise to those who are keen to present the Trump vote primarily as a ‘whitelash’, in the memorable words of former Obama adviser Van Jones on election night – a racist backlash stirred by the first black president and Trump’s xenophobic campaign.

But it’s an explanation that doesn’t map so easily on to Erie. For one thing, Erie has a long and proud history of welcoming refugees. According to a recent Washington Times report, no other small American city received more refugees between 2012 and 2016 than Erie – from Bhutan, Nepal, Sudan, Syria and Iraq. And for the most part, the report suggests, the newcomers have been embraced and welcomed.

Joe Orengia – in his business, Joe's Gym. Picture by: spiked
Joe Orengia – in his business, Joe's Gym. Picture by: spiked

Nor does the racism smear wash with Orengia: ‘I’ve got four biracial grandchildren. I love ’em to pieces. I love their fathers, they are the greatest guys’, he says, smiling, before getting serious: ‘It has nothing to do with racism… I used to live in the ghetto on the east side. Half my friends were African-Americans… And they come up with this race thing all the time. Knock it off.’

Whatever one thinks of particular politicians, even one as ‘different’ as Trump, places like Erie offer a valuable lesson in not writing off their supporters. Voters aren’t caricatures; they bring to the ballot box their own politics, motivations and histories, often springing from the problems affecting their communities. Those paid to pontificate about them would do well to try actually talking to them.

In their more generous moments, metropolitan commentators put the success of Trump in the Rust Belt down to a sense of hopelessness. People were lashing out. Perhaps there’s some truth to that. But in Erie, at least, there is also a palpable sense of hope, an insistence that things can get better – though the people I spoke to see change coming from different directions.

Orengia, when we spoke last year, felt like Trump was delivering for jobs and the economy: ‘I haven’t had a vacation in five years. Before, it was because I didn’t have the money to do it. Now I don’t have the time to do it.’ In July 2018, unemployment in Erie had hit an 18-year low, according to the US Department of Labor, but I’m sure even Joe would concede that Erie remains a shell of what it once was.

Slawson is, as you might imagine, less impressed by Trump’s record. For one thing, Trump’s steel tariffs, he says, have hit the locomotive business. But with the Erie strike coming amid an upsurge of union agitation across the US – from the West Virginia teachers’ strikes last year to the autoworkers strikes today – he has other reasons to be cheerful. ‘We need to start taking on a fight and say we’ve had enough of this crap. That’s what we’re seeing, and I’m proud to see it.’

That steeliness isn’t hard to find, even back on 12th Street, where a painting on a red-brick wall reads ‘Robust Belt’, next to a picture of Rosie the Riveter. Even in Dominick’s, where we still can’t talk about politics, you glimpse that optimism. ‘Erie has taken a hit, like all cities. It’s coming up slowly, but surely’, says Charles. ‘That’s what I like, that’s why I think I’m not ever going to leave here. Like I said, born and raised here, and I want to see the city get good again, honestly.’

Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics USA

Comments

david bogshed

26th September 2019 at 5:16 pm

What a wonderfully refreshing article, it is nice to see that there is a bright and positive side to American politics and that the American workers is still hail and hearty. I remember before Trump was elected reading an interview with some American voters who had supported Obama and were democrats but were voting Trump because of all the broken promises, they said , ‘ We really want to see a woman in the White House but not her’, referring to Hilary Clinton.
The Democrats still do not understand that identity politics, who you are and where you are from does not translate to ordinary working people who are not in awe of people from different backgrounds because we meet them all the time and find out that they are very similar to ourselves. There is a a very deep and rich vein running in the west that still believes in equality, freedom and pride in the places we grew up in.

Janet Mozelewski

26th September 2019 at 4:26 pm

When the media demonizes a person as much as they do Trump I always wonder why. It is out of all manner of reason. I have come to the conclusion that the biggest problem the political establishment and the MSM that supports it have with Donald Trump is he is an outsider. He isn’t one of them. It has very little, if anything, to do with his policies.
I see cities in the UK that have voted Labour for generations. Places like Stoke. The fact is that whether Labour were in power or in opposition nothing ever got better. Labour banked the votes and then ignored them. (They overwhelmingly voted Brexit but I saw one of the bright young Labour MP’s on TV openly saying that Labour would collude with the Lib-Dems to frustrate Brexit.)
I think the time has come when many Labour voters will no longer comply and vote as expected. Brexit is breaking the habit of a lifetime.
I read with interest Jimmy Carter’s views of Trump…what came over most of all was that he felt he should be given a fair chance and that the media were unfair with him.
Obama …made pretty speeches and wore sharp suits. But how much of the Yes We Can did he actually do?
Perhaps I have a faulty memory….but under Obama refugees were separated from their children at the border, people continued to be detained without trial,shooters went on killing sprees and gun laws were never changed, and hurricanes made landfall with the same regularity. But its all Trump’s fault. Thing is, in places like Erie ….and in places like Stoke….they won’t be taken for granted any longer. They got fed up with being spoken for and not listened to.

James Patton

21st September 2019 at 9:28 pm

The article is interesting, but oddly naive. If the population is voting for Trump after voting for Obama twice… then who failed them? If the their economy was destroyed after Bill Clinton signed NAFTA into law… then who failed them? This article won’t address the elephant in the room, the horrible right-wing policies of the Democrats over the past several decades. The Republicans certainly did them no favors, nor will they, but when you have a 2 party system that both represent Walstreet and the banks, then all you seem to have is to differentiate candidates on personality. And Trump is an oddball, which gave them hope he was different… simple enough.

Dominic Straiton

20th September 2019 at 7:06 pm

Trump will be seen as great President (maybe the greatest) or an also ran on the question of China. Everything else is noise.

Amin Readh

20th September 2019 at 9:51 pm

He can barely read and write, he is semi illiterate. He is a racist. He is a bigot. He is a narcassist. He is completely in it for himsself. He got elected by stoking up White fears.

Great? He is easily by a large margin the worst. But there are deluded people like you… who will ignore that this buffoon has not got a single achievement under him. All because he makes the right sort of noises. Bigotted noises.

Jim Lawrie

21st September 2019 at 4:57 pm

narcissist, luvvie.
The word is semi literate, not “semi illiterate”.
“He is easily by a large margin” – unnecessary verbiage. Anyway, the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years is an achievement.
This is the last time I do this for you. From here it is straight to English remedial and basic economic classes for you my girl.

Jerry Owen

21st September 2019 at 5:23 pm

I’m still waiting for your evidence that Laura Kuennsberg is a Brexit supporter , clearly it seems you have none !
You need to brush up on your grammar .

Amin Readh

22nd September 2019 at 2:25 am

@ Jerry Owen

Wait away. I am waiting for the evidence that sh isn’t. Given you are the who made original claim.

” You need to brush up on your grammar .” No I don’t. Here is a better insult, you tit!

Amin Readh

22nd September 2019 at 2:37 am

@ Jim Lawrie

” The word is semi literate, not “semi illiterate”.” Same thing. And it is a term and not a word.

““He is easily by a large margin” – unnecessary verbiage.” Lol, the effing irony! Back at you.

“Anyway, the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years is an achievement.”

Nothing to do with him. Steady trend since before him. He hasn’t effed it up, yet. Look it up.

“This is the last time I do this for you. From here it is straight to English remedial and basic economic classes for you my girl.”

Yawn! Guff like this doesn’t work you tit. If I wanted to I can go back and check all your comment for pelling mistakes and very likely find plenty.

It just highlights the fact that you had NOTHING to counter argue. Yet you still felt the need to show some enmity.

The only thing of argument you actually brought up… you were wrong.

Lol! i doubt you’ve read a book since leaving school. You must be one of those WC non elites O’neil keeps harping about… the great unwashed.

joe younger

22nd September 2019 at 9:26 am

Listen, we get it you don’t like President Tump, but to claim that he hasn’t done anything is an over the top political analysis even the most Liberal pundits wouldn’t (well they haven’t yet, anyways)try to foist on the American electorate…

1. Biggest middle-class tax cut in American History…
2. Completely dissolved the NAFTA trade agreement that so badly hurt the American economy…
3 Building a Wall along our Southern Border to prevent vast ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION into the USA…
4.Biggest GDP recovery of the Economy in 49 years…
5. Lowest Un_employment rate in 50 years…(regardless of what you believe…)
6. Lowest Black, Hispanic, and Minority Un-employment rate in History…
7. With Drawl from the Paris Climate Accord…also hurting the American Economy…
8. Enacting EO to disrupt China’s strangle-hold on the US economy…(tariffs, and currncy manipulation…
9. Over 2,000,000 jobs created in less than 3 years…
I could list about 25 more, but you would just revert back to your Obama narrative(“whats He going
to do wave a magic wand and bring back jobs”)but I get to tired of hearing that meme on CNN…Face it, you either have a personal grudge against the President, or your livelihood(most likely welfare, food-stamps, and/or Section 8 Housing)is being threatened by his aggressive agenda to get Americans back to work…I really could care less which it is but to each his/her own…
For what it is worth, President Trump has a University Degree, so we know your comment about him being “semi-illiterate” is blatantly false…I would challenge you to give me an irrefutable reference to a single “racist” remark he’s ever made(PLEASE, don’t start with the “Mexicans are rapists” remark because we know that is not what he said)…There is no such thing as being semi-illiterate, you mis-spelled spelling, the “N” in O’Neil should have been capitalized, You should always capitalize “I” when you refer to yourself, it’s narcissist, not narcassist, “she” is spelled with a(n) “e” at the end…and your word “tit” is really quite to vulgar to comment on(useless verbiage in fact!!!)

Amin Readh

23rd September 2019 at 2:24 pm

@ joe younger

“Listen, we get it you don’t like President Tump”

Who is we? Are you speaking for yourself or others? How many others?

1,2,3 – Things he has done that could go either way. Time will tell. He has given tax cuts to the rich. Squeezed out the poor. Cut funding from many necessary programs. And of course under more proxy wars military spending is going up.

And virtually NO ONE thinks idiotic trade war with China is going to go anywhere. Even that frightful German seems to have reversed his support.

3. Oddly I think a border wall does work. Especially if you back it up with force. But it is Trump doing it. It will be the Americans themselves who will tear it down.

“4.Biggest GDP recovery of the Economy in 49 years…
5. Lowest Un_employment rate in 50 years…(regardless of what you believe…)
6. Lowest Black, Hispanic, and Minority Un-employment rate in History…”

Not in 49 years and nothing whatsoever to do with him. It is a trend under Obama and it continues. But soon effects of trade ward with china will kick in. Do look it up!

” 7. With Drawl from the Paris Climate Accord…also hurting the American Economy…”

Utter bull. This is just anti-science.

” 8. Enacting EO to disrupt China’s strangle-hold on the US economy…(tariffs, and currncy manipulation…”

You have already mentioned that. This idiocy is yet to bear fruit. CHina will win, of course.

“I could list about 25 more”

No you couldn’t. You have YET to list one.

= =

“For what it is worth, President Trump has a University Degree”

Huh!? Did you miss the new about how such people buy university degrees in US?

His illiteracy is provable by the fact of his many many many gaffes and his inability to read and write.

“I would challenge you to give me an irrefutable reference to a single “racist” remark he’s ever made”

Send them back. Mexicans are rapist.

“There is no such thing as being semi-illiterate”

Why not?

“and your word “tit” is really quite to vulgar to comment on”

You little cockw*nk!

Janet Mozelewski

27th September 2019 at 10:58 am

You mention bigotry a lot -while displaying it yourself. How do you know Trump can ‘barely read or write’? Who told you? Where did you source the information and why did you choose to believe it? (The answer to that is the pro-Democrat mainstream media and your own predisposition to want to believe what they say.) Or perhaps I have misjudged you and Mr Trump wrote a letter to you that was deplorable both in content and spelling?

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