Trump found surprising support among discontented Pennsylvania voters

The "silent" Trump voter speaks

Larry Hildabrant got up 15 minutes early on Tuesday to make sure he would once again be first in line to vote at his Pen Argyl polling place.

It's a point of personal pride for Hildabrant, 56, who runs a painting business. But when he arrived at 10 minutes to 7, 14 of his neighbors were already in line. And like him, at least some were Donald Trump voters.

"You could drive around this area and not see a Clinton sign anywhere," Hildabrant said Thursday at Detzi's Tavern in nearby Wind Gap. "Well, that's not exactly right. I saw a couple of 'Clinton for prison' signs."

Throughout Pennsylvania, in rural and rusting places well beyond the borders of the state's biggest cities, a wave of energized voters undetected by pollsters poured into polling places Tuesday, drowning Democrat Hillary Clinton's hopes of being the country's first woman president and lifting Trump to the presidency.

They backed Trump for many reasons, but there were common threads to their support for the real estate mogul turned reality show star: frustration with a broken political system in Washington, D.C.; distaste for a return to Clintons in the White House; and an affinity for Trump's no-nonsense style.

Now that Trump has been elected, they hope he will shake up Washington. And while they may not agree on where his priorities should lie, they do expect his decisions to upend the status quo and change their lives for the better.

Along with Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan also went for Trump, with white working- and middle-class voters sharing similar economic experiences and hopes for the next president. These voters were part of a "blue wall" of states that Democrats had counted on, said John Russo, a visiting scholar at Georgetown University and former director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.

Many lost their jobs and were forced to replace them with work at lower wages, making them — and others across the country — skeptical of reports of an improving economy, Russo said.

"They wanted a break from what had been going on in the past," he said. "Both Republicans and Democrat have failed working-class people."

On Thursday, The Morning Call chatted with Trump voters in Northampton County, Luzerne County and Johnstown, Cambria County — Democratic strongholds that Trump turned red —asking what they expect from the president-elect and why they so strongly supported him.

Northampton County

Change took awhile to reach Northampton County. It happened, Hildabrant said, with the the influx in recent years of New York and New Jersey residents seeking lower taxes and cheaper housing prices. And then it just kept coming.

When a developer planned to build a Lowe's store and a Wal-Mart in the Slate Belt, residents showed up in droves to oppose it. Many had hoped the land would attract an industry with good-paying jobs to replace the many lost when the slate quarries and textile mills started to close. People also fretted about the traffic the big retailers would have created. Hildabrant said he doesn't mind driving a few extra miles to shop if it preserves the Slate Belt's rural character.

It's a region that turned out big for Trump, helping flip Northampton County from Democrat in the 2012 election to Republican, giving Trump a net gain of 5,400 votes.

An Army veteran and registered Republican, Hilldabrant would like Trump to start his term by repealing Obamacare, which he considers a "train wreck." It's one of the things Trump has promised to do in the first 100 days of this administration, though on Friday, he told the Wall Street Journal he would retain parts of the law.

A devout Catholic, Hildabrant also would like to see Trump end same-sex marriage. "Gay marriage has got to go," he said.

That hasn't been high on Trump's list and it would be a heavy lift because it's a right the Supreme Court endorsed last year. Trump has said he does not support same-sex marriage and would have preferred the issue be left to the states. He also has said he would appoint Supreme Court justices that would overturn the landmark ruling.

Hildabrant would like Trump to secure the border and address illegal immigration. A couple of years ago, he hired a company to waterproof his basement. Two of the three workers it sent didn't speak English. And though they were hard workers, Hildabrant said they were undocumented. He knows that, he said, because he asked the crew's foreman.

The "big, powerful, beautiful wall" along the Mexican border may never be built and Mexico probably won't pay for it," he said. But Trump's rhetoric on the issue signaled he takes border security seriously, he said, unlike Clinton.

Hildabrant thinks illegal immigrants should be deported and made to apply for citizenship.

"They have to go back, get in line with the rest of the people," he said.

The plan Trump outlined for his first 100 days during an October speech in Gettysburg is lengthy and includes repealing Obamacare, starting work on a Mexican border wall, and renegotiating or pulling out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He also wants to get a conservativejustices confirmed to replace Antonin Scalia, implement a massive reduction in taxes, simplify the tax code and hike defense spending.

Getting that agenda enacted will take time, said Mary Barket, a Republican activist who helped organize a legion of volunteers on Election Day to drag Trump voters to the Northampton County polls.

She hopes those supporters will be patient while he navigates the swamp in Washington. If they are, she believes he can shake things up.

"Something had to change in D.C.," said Barket, leader of Pennsylvania Women for Trump. "That was the big message."

A Nazareth resident who volunteers with her local food bank, Barket is not a fan of raising taxes to fund social programs, which she calls "forced charity." She initially supported Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in the Republican primary but she never had a problem with Trump.

She wants Trump to repeal Obamacare, which she and her husband rely upon for their insurance. Small business owners, they were forced to switch plans this year when their provider dropped out, their deductible shot up and they got hammered with costs.

"I was philosophically and principally opposed to it, and then I had to have it," Barket said.

She'd also like Trump to roll back regulations that she believes hurt job growth, and to repeal Obama's executive orders that lifted sanctions against Iran; increased environmental regulations; and would close the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

Trump has said he plans to address Obama's orders that shield from deportation immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children and that ban water-boarding in terrorist interrogations.

Luzerne County

Modest homes sit perched on the hills above the Susquehanna River in Luzerne County, where 58 percent of voters cast their ballots for Trump. But just four years earlier, residents there picked President Barack Obama over Republican candidate Mitt Romney. And in 2008, they soundly rejected Republican John McCain.

This year, the shifting tide was clear in October, when more than 8,000 people packed a Trump rally at Mohegan Sun Arena near Wilkes-Barre Township in October.

Lucille Stritzinger, a 53-year-old registered Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2008, rode that tide, staunchly supporting Trump. Standing outside her home in the borough of Plymouth, Stritzinger said the economy has been weighing on her mind. For the first time, she said, she feels poor — no longer a member of the middle class.

But before Trump can deal with the economy, Stritzinger expects him to tackle immigration. She doesn't expect the president-elect to build a wall but to put restrictions on the refugees and illegal immigrants coming to the U.S., she said.

"We simply can't afford to keep putting them up," said Stritzinger, who noted her own family emigrated from Syria. "I know that sounds terrible to put it that way, but my taxes are going to people who are coming here illegally."

"We need this country to start paying more attention to what's happening in our country," she added. "That's what it sounds like Trump wants to do."

Stritzinger said it will be hard for Trump to accomplish anything in his first year as president. And unlike Hildabrant, she opposes a complete repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

"I want him to keep Obamacare, only because it helped my daughter out," she said. "Fix it where it needs to be fixed. The price of Obamacare I guess it can be high. My daughter is working a part-time job, and what she has to dish out to pay for Obamacare is not helping."

Just across the river in Hanover Township, Paul Halesey, 54, mowed his lawn outside a stately home, his Trump-Pence sign still displayed in his yard. Halesey is a Republican, so voting for Trump wasn't outside his comfort zone.

He would like Trump to return a sense of unity to a country sharply divided over the election. After watching footage of Trump's meeting with Obama at the White House on Thursday, he said he was hopeful.

Halesey, a pharmacist, also would like to see Trump address immigration. He doubts Trump will build a wall but hopes he can close the open border with Mexico that has fed the drug trade, an issue, he said, that is hitting home in Luzerne County.

"I just went to the wake of a 19-year-old that died of an overdose," Halesey said. "I've seen it right in our area here, where people I've known were affected by drugs."

Halesey doesn't want to see the Affordable Care Act completely dismantled. The cost to people and businesses is far too high, but repealing the whole act would be too difficult, he said. And some aspects have been positive, he added.

"Twenty-six-year-olds staying on their parents' health care, that's a good thing," said Halesey, who has a college-age child and another a little older. "He's going to have to keep some parts."

Johnstown

About an hour east of Pittsburgh, the city of Johnstown looks serene when viewed from the elevation of 1,693.5 feet at the historic Johnstown Inclined Plane. But up close, from the ground, it is mostly a place of urban despair.

Vagrants mill around the sad downtown park city leaders have gamely tried to dress up with a Christmas tree. Shuttered businesses outnumber stores that are still hanging on.

Further out of the city square, homes are vacant, long-closed steel mills echo with silence and a once thriving high-tech military defense industry retools for an unknown tomorrow.

"You go through good times and bad times but I don't think I've ever seen this city look quite this bad," said T.J. Apryle, fourth-generation owner of Apryle's Jewelers on Market Street.

This former union and Democratic stronghold in Cambria County — and the rest of rural, hard-scrabble southwestern Pennsylvania — voted overwhelmingly for Trump, who promised to make things great again.

"I'm a registered Democrat but I did not vote that way," said Johnstown native and retired electrical company worker John DiGuardi, 70, as he watched his grandchildren play in the park. "Everyone I voted for were Republican."

DiGuardi worries about his grandchildren living amid the drugs and poverty that, he says, have ruined the city.

"Johnstown used to be named one of the safest cities in America," he said. "Just last night someone got shot in the west end of town. It's sad, because you just want your kids and grandkids to grow up in a safe place."

DiGuardi joined the chorus in Cambria County, where Trump won 67 percent of the vote. In Clearfield County, he won 73 percent. In Somerset County, he won 77 percent. In Bedford, he won 83 percent.

Johnstown, the regional economic engine, sputtered to a halt with the steel industry, which went from 13,000 well-paying jobs in the post World War II era to 2,100 by the early 1990s when Bethlehem Steel followed US Steel in closing its plant there. Since the closures, the city's population has shrunk about 30 percent to 19,966. The Johnstown Metropolitan Statistical Area now posts the highest unemployment rate in Pennsylvania, at 7.2 percent, state and federal statistics show. And annual income, at $37,000, is about $15,000 less than the national median.

"There's not much here for young people," said Apryle's mother, Ann Marie, who also voted for Trump. "We hope the economy picks up here with him. That's the reason I voted for him. I like what he had to offer."

But even in supporting Trump, Johnstown's residents aren't overly optimistic. They've learned the hard way that promises made on the campaign trail are rarely kept.

At rallies in Johnstown and across Pennsylvania, Trump said he would bring back steel jobs, put miners back to work, restart manufacturing and invest in infrastructure.

"I think a lot of people would like that," said Nick Everett, who is 31 and unemployed, with felony drug charges on his record.

In recent years, cuts in defense spending have hit Cambria County hard. Its military defense industry, which was built after the steel closures and came through federal earmarks delivered by the late Democratic U.S. Rep. John Murtha, has shed an estimated 2,000 high-paying Jobs. Those layoffs happened because of the loss of defense-related contracts worth $782 million when the GOP-controlled Congress cut earmarks and reduced government spending through sequester in 2010, the year Murtha died, according to a county study commissioned by the Department of Defense's Office of Economic Adjustment. That's the second highest defense spending loss in the nation, according to the study.

"Mr. Murtha was a stalwart of defense contracting," said John Forte, a 47-year-old mechanical engineer and Army reservist from Johnstown. "We are missing that." Forte said he hopes Trump and the Republican Congress will restore defense spending and help the region as Murtha did.

Trump has pledged to increase defense spending, but to get Congress to approve that, he may have to battle staunch conservatives in his own party, said Ray Wrabley, a political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. And even if he succeeds, it won't solve all of the city's problems, he said.

"I don't see defense spending being part of the answer," Wrabley said. "The bigger problem is you are not likely to see large-scale manufacturing come back to the region to employ 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 people."

Taylor Clark, a 22-year-old University of Pittsburgh political science and history major, knows that. He reluctantly went for Trump because of his opposition to Obamacare, which he said was hurting his family's men's clothing store that dates to 1890. With Johnstown's literacy rate at about 85 percent, he noted, some may not understand that Trump can't act unilaterally.

"I don't believe Donald Trump can bring back steel," he said. "I know the president of the United States is not responsible for Johnstown, Pennsylvania."

Morning Call reporter Laura Olson contributed to this story.

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