These Lifelong Democrats Voted for Trump and Aren’t Sorry
A baker, a mechanic, and a former union rep, all from the Rust Belt or Midwest, all Democrats, and all fed up with the status quo, say they voted for Trump and would do it again.
Jefferson, Ashtabula County, Ohio
It is 1:45 in the morning and Bonnie Smith’s alarm has just gone off. That alarm is a reminder that, seven days a week, she is living her lifelong dream of owning a bakery.
“I come in at two-thirty in the morning. We start making doughnuts from scratch. After that, I go into the breads and pies or whatever I have going out—like right now I need to do cupcakes, and I have a couple pies I have to put out, but I also have to check what orders are going out. Then we start soups, and by eleven o’clock we start lunch,” she explains.
At sixty-three, she is two years into her second career in the small town of Jefferson, running a Chestnut Street bakery that is a throwback to simpler times: pretty pink-and-green wallpaper decorated with cupcakes surrounds a fireplace and tables and chairs that fill the front of the bakery.
By 9 a.m., already half of her sugar cookies, tea cakes, cream wafers, brownies, mini tarts, and thumbprints are gone. With the help of her grandson, a fresh batch of sugary glazed doughnuts makes its way from the kitchen to a tray in the display case.
The aroma is irresistible and intoxicating and gently teases the senses.
A young mother enters with her three-year-old daughter, Evelyn, who immediately makes a beeline to the display case filled with colorful cookies and pastries and, with the willfulness and determination only a toddler possesses, plants her face against the case to get a closer look at the cupcake with rainbow sprinkles on top.
To the girl’s delight, Smith hands her the confection, and minutes later Evelyn’s face and fingers are covered in pink icing. The imprint of her little face on the display case—a smudged outline of a tiny nose and lips—makes Smith smile broadly.
As Smith started making soup for the anticipated lunch crowd, the diminutive brunette was sporting a white apron with Legally Sweet embroidered across the front, the name of her shop and a hat tip to her 30-plus years at the Ashtabula County Sheriff’s Office.
She started working as a cook in the sheriff’s department when the youngest of her three children was five years old. It was the same job her mother had.
But Smith wanted more.
So she went back to school for criminal law while she worked as a cook in the courthouse. She then moved over to dispatch and up through the ranks in the sheriff’s department until she made deputy, all the while raising her three children with her husband, an electrician for Millennium Inorganic Chemicals—one of the last big blue-collar employers in the once-mighty manufacturing county of Ashtabula, wedged between the shore of Lake Erie and the Pennsylvania state line, northeast of Cleveland.
Smith was raised a Democrat, her parents were Democrats, she is married to a Democrat, and she worked for elected Democratic sheriffs in a county that had not voted a Republican into local office for as long as anyone you find can remember.
Until 2016, that is, when Ashtabula picked Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton and swept in a local ticket of Republicans underneath him.
Bonnie Smith was one of the unlikely participants in that unforeseen realignment that happened across the Great Lakes region in hundreds of communities like Ashtabula County, flipping Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Iowa into the Republican side of the electoral college after serving as what journalist Ron Brownstein dubbed the reliable industrial Democratic “Blue Wall” for decades.
How Democratic was Smith, and how recently? In March 2016, she voted for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the Ohio primary contest. Voting Republican wasn’t even on the table for her, until suddenly it was, just a few months later.
“I am not sure what happened, but I started to look around me, and my town and my county, and I thought, ‘You know what? I am just not in the mood anymore to just show up and vote for who my party tells me I have to vote for,’” she says.
She was not alone. Ashtabula County had given its votes to John Kerry, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and Michael Dukakis. It gave Barack Obama a 55 percent majority share of its vote twice—before turning 180 degrees to prefer Trump over Hillary Clinton by a margin of 57 percent to 38 percent, a 31-point swing from one election to the next.
At first look, the numerical magnitude of Ashtabula’s swing, in a nation presumed frozen in partisan polarization, is what seems notable. At second look, the remarkable aspect is just how common that kind of change was in 2016 in the states that make up the Rust Belt.
Thirty-five counties in Ohio, long the nation’s premier presidential bellwether, swung 25 or more points from 2012 to 2016. Twenty three counties in Wisconsin, 32 counties in Iowa, and 12 counties in Michigan switched from Obama to Trump in the space of four years.
With few exceptions, these places are locales where most of America’s decision makers and opinion leaders have never been. Trump only carried 3 of the nation’s 44 “mega counties,” places with more than one million in population, and only 41 of the country’s 129 “extra large” counties with more than 400,000 but less than one million. Those 173 sizable counties are home to 54 percent of the U.S. population, and in 135 of them Trump even lagged behind the net margin performance of losing 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney. Trump crawled out of that mathematical hole in the all-but-forgotten communities—thousands of them.
It took a lot of Bonnie Smiths, in a lot of places like Ashtabula County, to wreck political expectations—and if their political behavior in 2016 becomes an affiliation and not a dalliance, they have the potential to realign the American political construct and perhaps the country’s commercial and cultural presumptions as well.
For Smith, who lives with her husband, George, on a working farm in nearby Saybrook, the political tipping point—even more than the job losses and the decay of the area—was a result of her faith and her growing disconnect on cultural issues from the candidates she had previously supported.
“I had looked the other way for far too long, had accepted that I was supposed to be more modern in my views when I wasn’t comfortable with the views my party started to take,” Smith says, making clear that this was a difficult decision to have made and to discuss publicly. “And I took a stand for myself, my beliefs, for life, and for my country.”
She says she also took a stand for her community: “All of this decay has happened under their [the Democrats’] watch.”
The shopping district where Legally Sweet sits is struggling; a Family Dollar store is around the corner, and the majestic Ashtabula County courthouse, where she worked for years, is across the street. Shuttered businesses dot both sides of the street.
“The town closes up about three o’clock on the weekdays and, like, one o’clock on Saturday. There’s nothing here. The people come in and… you’re making it but you’re not. You know? You’ve got enough to skimp by for the next day, but that’s it,” she says.
The statistics on the area’s own economic development website paint a picture of an Ashtabula County stuck in transition and trying to creatively reinvent itself to get out of the Great Recession, from which the wealthier America on the East and West coasts recovered years ago. As of May 2016, the local economic partnership wrote that the county’s employed workforce level was still stuck under 42,000 people—nearly the same figure as at the bottom of the national recession in 2010, a fall from 46,000 in its pre-recession high.2 Nationally, the number of employed Americans had bounced back to pre-recession levels by 2014.
The physical reality of the county’s industrial footprint tells the same story. Empty, idle, hulking coal-fired power plants line the lakeshore, and the docks that once attracted waves of Italian and Scandinavian immigrants to unload coal and iron ore now see little activity. The county’s population, according to the Census Bureau’s 2016 estimates, is 98,231, almost exactly what it was after the 1970 census, a span that saw the country as a whole grow by 59 percent.
A Democrat for decades, Smith didn’t quite know what to expect when she went home one day and told George she was thinking about supporting Trump. He told her he was already there. “So there was that,” she says, laughing.
America’s political experts, from party leaders to political science professors to journalists to pundits, did not expect the Smiths, or enough people like them, to vote for Donald Trump. Virtually every political and media expert missed the potential of Trump because they based their electoral calculus on assumptions that they hadn’t bothered to check since the last presidential election. To recognize the potential of the Trump coalition, analysts would have had to visit places they had stopped visiting and listen to people they had stopped listening to.
“I am kind of that voter that was hiding in plain sight that no one saw coming. I was right here all along. I’ve seen the job losses here, the rise in crime, the meth and heroin problem, society essentially losing hope; something just gave in with me,” Bonnie Smith says.
Viroqua, Vernon County, Wisconsin
Joe Keenan looks like a guy who has spent his entire life working with his hands. They are callused and faintly smudged—not because they are unclean but because years of tinkering, plowing, and bailing have left their marks. And they are muscular, a sign of the constant use of them over a lifetime.
“Oh yeah, I grew up on a farm,” Keenan says, and subconsciously rubs his hands together.
At around five-eleven, he has a stocky build. His sandy brown hair and beard are sprinkled with gray, and while both are cropped short, the humidity from a fresh rain causes wiry curls to emerge.
He is wearing blue jeans and a royal blue pocket T-shirt with a Joe’s Repair logo over his left breast pocket; he is a quick-witted, to-the-point, pure no-nonsense Midwesterner who loves to laugh at his own puns.
Keenan is sitting with a group of acquaintances at the VFW in Viroqua on a shiny red barstool; he is a stone’s throw from his home and the small business he owns.
This is the place to get a drink in this town of four thousand souls.
Located in the southwest corner of Wisconsin, surrounded by the lush Driftless region, with the Mississippi to the west and the Kickapoo River running through the center, Vernon County includes a latticework of throwback small farms in an era of large conglomerate-farming enterprises.
“The geography of the area helped us keep our farms smaller and family-owned,” says Keenan of the Driftless region, which is known for the hilly topography that is a hallmark of much of the Upper Mississippi River Valley, a quirk that happened when glaciers that formed ten thousand years ago never reached the area to flatten it.
“I grew up here. We moved into the Volk area when I was five. Before that, we were down on the rural edge of Vernon County on the De Soto area. My folks came from Iowa, basically followed their parents from Iowa to Wisconsin. I always like to say only one came across, but there’s a lot of us here now,” he says.
“I own a repair shop, farm machines and so forth,” he explains. He mostly makes house calls to repair the farm machinery, essential to local farmers to get their crops out of the ground and out the door in the most expedient way possible. “You break down and can’t move your crops, you don’t get paid; you don’t get paid, you can’t feed your family, your livestock, you are dead,” he explains of the vital work he does to keep area farmers’ businesses rolling when something breaks down.
There is a diversity among farmers here; the descendants of the Germans who migrated to the area over a century ago, a robust Amish settlement, and a new wave of organic farmers.
Keenan is one of 11 kids; his mother was one of 16, his father one of 8. He started doing serious farm chores at around 6 years old. “We milked the cows. I also was involved in loading hay bales off the wagon. In those days, we didn’t have a thrower and so everything was by hand. We backed the wagons into the haymow and unloaded them by hand and stacked everything. The time-consuming part of it taught you a lot about work. I came from a family that was all about pride in your work,” he says.
The social side of Keenan’s life followed true-to-form for a dairy farm kid in western Wisconsin. “When I graduated from high school I married my high school sweetheart.” True to his working-class Catholic roots, Keenan grew up in a Democrat family. “Although I always thought my mom may have been a closet Republican,” he says, laughing.
Keenan is not afraid to say who he voted for in 2016; he is also not afraid to say who he voted for in 2008 and 2012.
“I voted Obama, Obama, Trump,” he says.
Why did he vote for Obama? “Well, in politics change is a potent message and he had a potent delivery. I thought the country needed something different, he was poised, confident, and had a good message and I bought it the first time,” he says.
Keenan’s support for Obama was not unusual in Vernon County. The Democrat won 60 percent of the local vote in 2008, beating Senator John McCain by 23 points in this rural rectangle that is home to 30,814 people—a wider margin than he scored statewide.
Joe Keenan’s vote the second time for Obama was more personal; he did not care for Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee.
“I have a sister who married into the Mormon religion and I find the religion too secretive and controlling for me. I was concerned that might influence how he governed, and so Obama got my vote again,” he says. And again in 2012, Keenan’s vote mirrored the total vote of his rural county on the Mississippi River, which picked the incumbent Democrat over Romney by 15 points.
By 2016, Vernon County had flipped to support Donald Trump— both in the presidential primary and in the general election—one of 23 counties in the Badger State to swing from Obama to Trump. Only Iowa saw more localities change hands, as both states moved hard to the GOP. Wisconsin hadn’t been painted red in the electoral college since 1984.
Hillary Clinton’s inability to repeat Obama’s victories in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan alone denied her the electoral college majority she needed to become president. She needed only 38,875 voters across those three states to choose her instead of Trump—and she left plenty on the table, getting 598,012 fewer votes in those three states than Obama had, including almost 2,000 fewer in Vernon County alone.
Vernon’s history of voting for Democrats is not just a past-tense assessment. In 2016, even as Trump carried it by 5 points, incumbent Republican senator Ron Johnson lost the county to Democrat Russ Feingold, despite carrying the state. Johnson lost Vernon County in his 2010 race too, as did Republican governor Scott Walker in 2014.
Keenan finds it comical that some people are embarrassed to admit they voted for the Manhattan businessman, and he uses it to needle them.
“Trust me, I am the only person in my family who is not afraid to say I voted for Trump.”
He and his relatives are devout Catholics. “It is an important part of who we are, who I am.” They were also devout Democrats.
Viroqua is an interesting mix of rural and hipster, or perhaps the better word is “hippie.”
On one hand, there are the descendants of farmers who have worked the rich soil for over a century; on the other, there is an evident counterculture on the county seat’s Main Street that seems more Vermont than Vernon County.
During the 2016 Democratic Party primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Viroqua was plastered with Sanders signs everywhere.
The hippie lifestyle here is legit. The local farmers’ market on a warm spring Saturday has tie-dyed shirts, pottery, and organic everything from honey to beets to chocolate. Kickapoo Coffee, an austere shop just across the street with pour-over coffee and organic pastries, has two young men in flannel shirts and full beards playing the fiddle as young people line up for the organic coffee.
La Farge, a tiny Vernon County town located along the Kickapoo River, is home to the second-biggest employer in the county behind the medical center: the Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool (CROPP), the farming co-op that makes Organic Valley brand dairy products, and claims to produce four in every ten gallons of organic milk sold in the United States.
Organic Valley was born when the small farmers of Vernon County recognized there was power in numbers and formed CROPP. It began as just a seven-farm collective, but today it includes more than a thousand farmers nationwide.
Downtown Viroqua is sprinkled with antique stores, trendy shops such as the art gallery that specializes in local artists, and a fair share of closed businesses as well. And the city has received a modicum of national recognition for its “food scene,” with local restaurants serving farm-to-table dishes to draw in customers.
An elderly woman outside of the art cooperative sits on a bench watching the crowd of younger families file past her with their organic vegetables, honey, and Amish jams and fruits, and remarks forlornly, “By 3 p.m. no one is on this street; not that way when I was a young woman.”
Her reflection expresses part of the complexity of Viroqua—the past of a downtown Main Street filled with shoppers frequenting local stores now struggles to reemerge. The new movement has had some successes, but there are still gaps in the Main Street storefronts. Vernon County’s population after the 2000 census was essentially no different from its head count in the 1900 census—but the decade and a half since 2000 has seen modest growth and, more significantly, the county is now younger than either the state or nation as a whole, the holy grail of statistics for localities in the graying upper Midwest. Twenty-six percent of Vernon Countians are now under the age of 18, increasing the chances that the county can replace its population sustainably.
Keenan’s extended family has done its part in that; he grew up with lots of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins living all around him.
“Yeah we spent quite a bit of time together. It was always looking forward to the big family gatherings. There was never a shortage of food. Regardless of how many people you had, there was never a shortage of food. You know, it’s funny because when they would do that, it wasn’t just family showing up, it was always the neighbors too,” he says.
After high school and a youthful marriage, “I went into the repair business. Farm repair, started at an implement dealer. I always sort of had that knack, of course I followed an older brother who only could break things. So, naturally I learned how to fix the things he broke on the farm,” he says.
His wife has a similar background. “We both were basically five miles from each other. It was funny, because we’d taken over both family farms; and when we were dating, ten miles back and forth wasn’t that far, but when you’re hauling feed, ten miles is a long ways,” he says.
Keenan raised a family on the farm repair work over the decades. “I made house calls, raised three boys from that business,” he says.
His middle son now lives in Japan, teaching English to Japanese students; his youngest son is a nurse and lives in La Crosse. “And my oldest son is 31 and lives with his wife on the family farm. He is really good at breeding cattle.”
Going back to his vote for Obama, he repeats: “You know, in politics ‘change’ is a very good line, but I don’t think any of it really meant anything. My vote ended up going for a guy who went back and apologized for everything we have done in our history, that is something that I know I can’t do because I don’t look back on anything that I’ve done. Because if you know that you’re doing right, you can’t go back and apologize,” Keenan says.
“So here’s what I haven’t told you: my firstborn was a stillborn child, and she was the little girl. And I know that everything that we go through in our lives makes us who we are today. And that’s for the whole nation. And I can’t imagine going back and apologizing for everything in our lives, because it makes us become stronger for everything that we go through. And the bad things actually make us better, if you aren’t bitter.”
They strengthen your character, he adds. “The biggest disappointment with Obama was the direction of the country, it just tanked and I don’t mean the recession, I mean where he took the country in the face of that. I kept hoping he’d get it right, I kept hoping he was going to change, the simple fact is he did want to change the country, but not in the right direction.
“Why I liked Trump was because he is going to clean out Washington,” Keenan says. “You know, when I was little I remember going to visit my grandpa and grandma, I got to stay down there for a week. They had just taken this farm property over, which that eventually became the family farm. They were clearing rats out of a building, and I’ll never forget how they got the rats out of the building. It’s the same concept—they have to want to leave. Trump is the kind of guy who is going to make the rats in Washington want to leave, he is going to be so disruptive, so outside the norm, that the swamp will drain because the swamp can’t stand him and how he is running things.
“That is how you really change things. You make it so offensive for the swamp rats to be there, so unlike anything they had experienced, rip their power out from under them, and that is what he is doing. But that, that gets the country going in the right direction.
“In 2015, when they first walked out on the stage, I truly wanted Ohio’s governor,” Keenan says of eventual third-place finisher John Kasich. A friend sitting three barstools away spits his beer out: “You got to be shitting me!” he says, then apologizes for the mess.
“Not when they first walked out, now come on now, think in the moment,” Keenan replies, trying to explain his motives as they both break out into laughter. The Kasich moment, he says, lasted a week; then he went to Trump. By the following spring, when the Wisconsin primary rolled around, Keenan and Vernon County gave Trump a big 11-point margin over his nearest competitor. That support happened even as Trump was losing the state overall by double digits to Senator Ted Cruz, in his biggest stumble on the way to the GOP nomination.
“The one thing you saw with Trump is he didn’t pretend to be anything else but himself. Nothing stuck to him. To me, you know, if you aren’t afraid of the skeletons in your closet, you can do a lot of things,” he explains.
Since Trump has been in office, Keenan has not regretted his vote, taking the president’s side in his ongoing battles. He has been disappointed in the press and other elected officials, both Democrats and Republicans, in their reactions to Trump. “Well, I think they’re more concerned about destroying him and they have no concern about the country,” he says.
“Look, I am never going to blindly support someone again, but I will tell you this: I do like how he is taking on the establishment since becoming president. I like that he doesn’t back down, no matter how exhausting it is; if he is standing up for us, I will stand up for him. It really is just that simple. He is a reflection of our frustrations, but he is also a force that makes people want to be part of, like working together and you accomplish something, part of a thing.
“It is like when I finish a job and fix something that no one said could be fixed, or if we are all working together on the farm and accomplishing something, it is being part of that, is what it is like to support Trump, because honestly you are supporting yourself and your country.”
Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania
Within moments of meeting Ed Harry, you understand he is the kind of guy you want on your side.
His impression is blunt and immediate; you also understand that if he were to become an adversary, he would be a relentless opponent.
Harry sits in the last booth of D’s Diner, a Plains Township eatery just over the border of Wilkes-Barre’s city limits. He is leaning against the tiled wall facing the dining room and the broad rectangular windows that look out onto the parking lot; white eyelet lace curtains and red-white-and-blue stars in the windows add to the charm of the diner.
Up front, the place is filled with customers at a chrome lunch counter as waitresses busily fill coffee cups, take orders, and greet regulars with a warm hello and the universal diner question that implies familiarity: “The usual?”
“The usual” repeatedly is, of course, the answer.
A double-layered white cake with whipped white icing and toasted coconut sits on the counter covered in a glass cake dome. It is 7:30 in the morning and already two pieces have been served.
For 29 years D’s Diner had been Eddie’s Place; when the owner fell ill in late 2016, it closed. But unlike most businesses that close in this county, this one reopened with a new owner and a remodel.
But the menu, the hospitality, and the servers remained, as did the loyal customers. The waitress explains there is a line to get a seat at the counter or in a booth on most days; that was certainly the case on this day.
Outside on Fox Hill Road, some businesses are gone or vacated; there is a Ford dealership, a pet cemetery, and a smattering of homes.
Overlooking the diner on a hillside less than half a mile away is Pennsylvania’s first casino, the Mohegan Sun Pocono.
For generations the Wyoming Valley—where Luzerne sits along the banks of the mighty Susquehanna River—has been the home of the quintessential blue-collar worker, the sons and daughters of the sons and daughters of immigrant coal miners and factory hands.
Today, Luzerne County is one of the sweet spots for finding the kind of Trump voter who has received the most public attention— the Red-Blooded and Blue-Collared voter.
Harry, like so many others in Pennsylvania with a lifetime of loyalty to the Democrats now disrupted by globalism and Donald Trump, fits the bill—and he’s quick to spot others who do too.
On this day, seven men under the age of thirty, dressed in utility uniforms and hard hats, take seats across from Harry in an oversized booth. They squeeze a chair in on the end. He nods and smiles; they nod and smile.
“You see all of those young men,” he says, loud enough for them to hear, “they probably all voted for Trump. They were all Democrats and they all voted for Trump,” Harry says.
Harry orders the ham-and-cheese omelet with white toast; he doesn’t notice that they heard him.
As Harry makes his way toward the restroom, one of the young men grins sheepishly, leans over, and says, “Shhhhhhhh, you know we can’t talk politics when we have our company uniforms on,” pauses, and then pulls out the familiar red Make America Great Again ball cap from his back pocket.
His friends laugh, as he hurriedly stuffs the ball cap safely back into its hiding place.
For most of his life, Harry was a Democrat. He still is. “I wasn’t just a guy who voted straight Democrat up and down the ballot, it was religion to me, it was my identity, and it was also an essential part of my job,” he says.
Harry’s father worked the coal mines here in Luzerne County for 33 years, as did his father before him and his father before that, four generations to be exact, part of the great Welsh migration that came to this part of the country in the mid-19th century.
When Harry was a senior in high school, his father almost died in a mining accident. “I don’t know how he didn’t die, but his belt got caught on his buddy’s there in a shaft hanging from a 60-degree angle. At that time, he weighed like 260 pounds, so my dad’s weight brought him against the side of the shaft, saved his life,” Harry says.
“He came home and walked in the house when he wasn’t supposed to be there. He was working the afternoons, so I wouldn’t expect him home until after 11. He was there like 7, 7:30. I’m doing homework. He comes in and gets a glass and fills it up with whiskey and drinks it straight down, which was quite unusual since he normally drank beer. He filled another glass up and drank half of it and then sat down and started crying.
“First time I ever saw my dad cry, and he told me what happened. His biggest concern was, ‘How am I going to support my family now, when I can’t go back in the mines because I’m afraid?’”
His father eventually took a Republican patronage job at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT). His son called that moment the time his father “sold his soul.”
Harry’s mother was first-generation American, and his maternal grandfather was Russian: “He worked on the railroads, spoke broken English up until the day he died,” he explains.
After high school, Harry went to college “mostly to satisfy my parents,” but then the Vietnam War got in the way. Harry spent four years in the U.S. Air Force, two years rotating between Thailand and Vietnam and two years working for the NSA.
Harry says his unit’s primary function in Southeast Asia was to cancel attack flights. “If the pilots gave out their strike coordinates in the clear and they get canceled, chances are they’re going to get shot out of the sky, because the Vietnamese had a very sophisticated communications-intercept system. They knew exactly where they were going to come in.
“I rotated back just after we broke the whole Laotian war. Our commander was given 12 hours to get to the Philippines to tell them how and where we got that information, because it was top, top, top, top secret. When he came back he said that they had every intelligence organization that existed [in] 1968 and ’69; from the White House intelligence to the Defense Department to the CIA, the NSA, all of them there.”
In the end, he wound up on a different assignment. “I had been scheduled to go to train the CIA operatives in Laos on how to use the equipment they never used before. Me, a kid from Allentown.
“The funny thing is, when I rotated out, they rotated another kid from Allentown in to do the training. He ended up getting shot, but he survived okay. That’s a long time ago,” Harry says.
When Harry came home, the experience left him with the ability to do only two things for an entire year. “I went to night school and I drank. I drank a lot.”
But college didn’t really stick, “and drinking has no good end-game,” he says.
So he got a job locally, working for a supermarket service, but lasted only a year before he got laid off. “Then I took a job in a state facility, in a mental institution, as a custodian, and honestly, I loved it.”
It was there he discovered his calling: persuasion.
Harry became part of the organizing force during the explosive rise of public-sector unions in the United States in the early ’70s, which was very similar to the previous rise of industrial-based unions during the Great Depression.
Teachers, firefighters, sanitation workers, police officers, as well as secretaries and custodians, beefed up the union membership rolls in record-breaking numbers in the early ’70s.
Harry’s job was part of an extensive campaign to turn public-sector facilities in Florida into union facilities.
“I would go to mental health centers at five in the morning, stand outside that gate, and pass out notices of a meeting for maybe that night or the next to test the interest of the workers,” he says.
Beforehand, he would go in and meet with the management to find out where he should be, or shouldn’t be. “Usually nobody showed up in the beginning, so it’s a process.”
He was there for a six-month assignment that turned out to take two years, ending up at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “I was there to win over the custodians, all the maintenance people, all of the assistants to the deans, etc.
“It turns out I was very good at winning over the trust and confidence of people. It wasn’t an easy job, you know, these guys understand that if the shop they work in doesn’t become unionized they might be risking their jobs. But I was taught at a young age your work ethic was your word, and whatever you did in your life you were only as good as your word,” he says.
After two years he left Florida and brought his skills to work in his hometown. “My job switched to being someone who did contract negotiations, and I also handled arbitration cases and labor board stuff,” he says.
When he returned home he found that his father’s patronage job was gone, the Republican governor had termed out of office, and a new Democratic governor, with Democratic patronage hires, was now in charge of PennDOT.
“So I am registered as Democrat, which pissed everybody off; I was sort of disowned. To make a long story short, I ended up helping Dad get a job back with PennDOT because of all the Democratic friends I had. I did not participate in my sister’s wedding. I wouldn’t be an usher because we had words over politics.”
Eventually they made peace.
Politics for him became part of the job; he always voted Democrat; so did his friends. As he rose up in the ranks he became deeply involved in national politics, eventually serving as a delegate at the national convention for Bill Clinton in 1992.
From 1980 until he retired he was in charge of the eight or nine northeastern counties in Pennsylvania for the Democrats. “I coordinated all the phone banks, the door-to-door knocks, anything that was related to any election, from gubernatorial elections, to presidential, to local.”
Harry also spent much of his time as a union arbitrator, representing members of his union—a position that earned him their trust, a critical relationship to have to convince voters which candidate for office would have your back.
Harry adjusts his navy blue Penn State ball cap. At 70, he looks 15 years younger despite his bushy gray hair; his eyes are dark and piercing, his beard trimmed neatly, his voice deep and commanding. If anyone went to central casting looking for a blue-collar union boss type and Harry was in line, he would be the first man picked.
The job eventually started to take its toll.
“I can remember one arbitration case I had, a PennDOT driver, drunk. Didn’t think anything of it. I go to the arbitration case, he comes in drunk. In our position, you can’t say no to anybody. You have to represent the people—which a lot people thought, ‘How could you?’”
He pauses, rubs his deep-set eyes, then continues. “I represented pedophiles, rapists, bookies. I had to. I don’t have any other choice. When you are an arbitrator, that is no different than being an attorney. You have to fulfill that requirement. You’re taking their money, so you have to defend them; good, bad, and the ugly.
“I’ve been in the middle of an arbitration case when I find out the evidence that gets presented by the other side and I’m not aware of it, and I should be because my people should be telling me, so I’d call a time-out and say, ‘Let’s go talk’ to the person I am defending.
“And I ask them: ‘Did you know about this? Why didn’t you tell me? Well, just so you know, we’re going back in there and the case is over.’ Boom, so I’ve done that, gone back in and said, ‘My apologies for wasting everybody’s time.’ Then I withdraw my grievance and leave. Because that is the right thing to do.”
In 2003, he retired after 25 years. “I didn’t want to work any longer. I was burned out. I ended up protecting people who shouldn’t have been protected. They should have been fired. The whole workforce changed from people who looked forward to going to work, to people who make excuses not to,” he says.
Even after his retirement, he served as the president of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Labor Council, serving as the powerful business agent for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). He was still the face of the labor movement in Luzerne County, he was still the guy who met with the local politicians, negotiated events, helped folks find jobs, and led protests when Washington stopped listening.
But when the establishment Democrats stopped caring about his people, he stopped caring about them.
Harry’s fracture from the Democratic Party started with the trade agreements that he says are structured in such a way that they incentivize corporations to base themselves overseas. “Outside of our country they don’t have to worry about paying decent benefits, living wages, and providing salaries as a worker moves up the ladder,” he says.
“My party, the party that was supposed to be the party of the working guy, the guy I stood up for and worked for all of my career, was no longer part of this new ascending Democratic coalition. Blue-collar America essentially had the door shut in its face,” he says.
Traditionally, Luzerne County has been emblematic of the heart and soul of the working-class wing of the Democratic Party. Its residents personified the character traits of the New Dealers; they supported government social programs that served as a safety net for the residents, they were pro-life, pro-gun, they joined unions and churches alike, they were multidenominational but were likely found in someone’s pew most Sundays.
Drive through Wilkes-Barre, or Hazelton, or the dozens of coal-patch towns that make up this Wyoming Valley county, and you will see churches of all denominations clustered in every corner. Each one was built to accommodate the wave of immigrants that flooded this region a hundred years ago, and each represented a different ethnic group that established footholds in tight-knit city blocks.
Today, those ethnic churches stand like stone sentinels guarding parishioners who have long been gone; most have closed. In the past decade, dozens of churches have been shuttered, some demolished or left vacant. The once glorious stained-glass windows have been sold or vandalized, their prized artifacts spread to other parishes across the country.
The small groceries, movie houses, diners, taverns, and schools that surrounded them are also gone. Many of the homes are worn away by decay, neglect, or abandonment. When the jobs left, the people left.
This area thrived during the country’s first industrial revolution. It is sputtering during the technological revolution. Automation and technology are its enemies.
“Economically, we have been struggling for a generation, probably two; the mills, factories, and coal mines are essentially all closed, the labor unions have weakened, we don’t have the members or the power to persuade or punish big corporations if they cut jobs or benefits or threaten to pack up and leave if we don’t concede,” he says.
Even when the unions did concede, the final humiliation was that those companies left Luzerne County anyway, according to Harry.
When this region was nothing more than a frontier settlement, a new form of coal, anthracite, was found along the riverbanks of the Susquehanna all throughout the valley. But that discovery presented a problem: anthracite was so hard and dense, it could not sustain a fire. Tradesmen could use it for forging, and they did during the Revolutionary War, but little else; and no one had yet figured out how it could be used for commerce. It wasn’t until a couple of decades into the 19th century, when Judge Jesse Fell invented an iron grate capable of maintaining a fire using anthracite, that the Wyoming Valley found its way into the center of the Industrial Revolution.
That invention changed the course of the Wyoming Valley in the final decades of the 19th century; it brought commerce, great wealth, and a massive migration of European immigrants to the county. Coal-patch towns, unincorporated towns, and company towns began to dot the valley at a rapid pace.
The coal brought the canals, the canals brought the railroads, and the railroads brought the rapid transportation of commerce that lured the immigrants, hundreds of thousands of them, including Harry’s ancestors.
At the turn of the 20th century, it is estimated that as many as 100,000 immigrants ended up in the coalfields and coal towns of Luzerne County. The first wave came from Wales and England, like Ed Harry’s family; then came the Germans, Poles, Italians, Slovaks, Russians, and Ukrainians. By 1930, immigration had taken Luzerne County to its peak population of 445,109 souls. Today, with only 316,383 people in residence, evidence of the immigrant influence is everywhere, from the architecture to the old ethnic clubs, to the current heritage festivals that dot the county’s calendar.
“They were mostly poor people, peasants from the Old Country who came here to make a better life, to become this great thing called ‘an American,’ and to work. Oh, did they work,” says Harry.
One hundred years ago, miners here produced nearly 100 million tons of coal—ten years ago that number had tumbled to 1.7 million tons. But even though for decades coal has had barely an echo of its former impact, the people of Luzerne still identified with the life.
“It was that promise of a better life that became their identity, and that identity has been passed down generation after generation; even if you never stepped in the same coal mine your father or your grandfather did, you still identified as that being part of who you are,” he says.
In an irony only nature could produce, the same high-heat geological forces that made Luzerne’s coal eons ago ensured it would not cash in on the region’s economic boom of the 21st century— fracking. The Marcellus Shale formation that has revitalized much of northern Pennsylvania with oil and gas production ends before it reaches the Luzerne County border, along what one prominent geologist called a “line of death.”
The same heat that made the coal “cooked out” whatever gas existed in prior millennia. So while counties just north or west move on to a new fossil-fueled economic era, Luzerne must stare at its past.
The enduring self-identity of the mining life is part of the mystery of Luzerne that reporters and pundits and national Democrats missed when calculating who a Luzerne County voter is, according to Harry. They made the same mistake in places like this around the country.
Throughout and after the 2016 campaign, national news outlets were full of derision for this easy-to-spot hard-core type of Trump voter. “Trump owes his victory to the uninformed,” screamed a piece in Foreign Policy magazine two days after the election, under the unnuanced headline “Trump Won Because Voters Are Ignorant, Literally.” It became formulaic for analysts who did not understand the Trump voter to ascribe their motivations to either economic desperation or a lack of intelligence, or both. “Why are white, uneducated voters willing to vote for Trump? Job unhappiness to be sure, but I would posit that it is also because they have not been adequately educated to understand just how dangerous a President Trump would be to the Constitution,” wrote one Newsweek pundit.
Those insults say more about their writers than the Luzerne County voters who too many journalists, sitting an easy drive away in their New York bureaus, did not come to meet. The common analytical inaccuracy of describing Trump supporters as unthoughtful rubes is driven as much by the lifestyles of the analysts as the intellect of those analyzed.
Luzerne County might be just 135 miles from the heart of New York City, but it is light-years away from many of America’s cultural influencers who live there, and that disconnect made it difficult for most of those analysts to crack the code on the Red-Blooded and Blue-Collared voters.
“They were not able to understand that you didn’t have to work in a factory or a coal mine to identify with the sentiments of that worker, it was part of your legacy, your heritage, if you grew up here. So you would see someone who spent their whole life in a factory and a young person who was college-educated and doing okay sharing the same sentiments about how the system needed an overhaul,” Harry says.
In 2008, Barack Obama beat Republican nominee Senator John McCain of Arizona by 9 percentage points in this county; he beat Mitt Romney in 2012 by 5 points.
Four years later, Trump crushed former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in Luzerne by a whopping 20-point margin. Not since Ronald Reagan had Luzerne County voted for a Republican for president by any margin, much less a runaway. More important, Trump’s 26,237-vote edge in Luzerne alone accounted for nearly 60 percent of his margin statewide in the Keystone State. He had similar rock-star status in the Pennsylvania primary in Luzerne County, racking up 77 percent of the local vote over Senator Ted Cruz and Governor John Kasich, compared to 57 percent statewide.
The state and federal governments are the top two employers here now. The third largest is perhaps the best metaphor for the new economy in which Luzerne County struggles to find its place. It’s the Internet giant Amazon.com, which has a monstrous fulfillment center in Pittston Township, where the average annual salary for warehouse work is $27,040, well below the standard of living paid by the smokestack jobs it replaced.
“That salary makes it difficult to support a family, people start losing hope, especially people who aren’t book-smart but excel at working with their hands. We just don’t have room for them anymore,” Harry says. “We have cut them out.”
Harry saw the rise of discontent years ago. “This did not happen overnight, people just didn’t wake up on election night and say, ‘I am going to do something different,’ ” he says.
“And this did not end on election night either. I would argue that the election of Donald Trump wasn’t about him, but about those of us who want something more from Washington. Maybe we just wanted to shake things up. Maybe we wanted to send a message. Maybe it was a lot of both,” he says.
Unlike the 3,832 Democrats in Luzerne County who changed their party registration to Republican, ostensibly so they could vote in the closed 2016 Republican primary, Harry did not. He didn’t formally leave his party at the beginning of the election—but his eye did wander.
At the diner, Harry dusts the crumbs from his white toast off of his deep-navy Penn State sweatshirt and switches from coffee to pop. As the young utility workers at the next table leave, he tips his hat, and they return the gesture.
“I made a promise to myself, four years out, after Obama won his second term, that I would never vote for a Bush or a Clinton. That was absolute. Nothing would ever change that. I thought they were both corrupt,” he says of the former Democratic nominee and Jeb Bush, son and brother of a former U.S. president.
“When Trump first announced, I laughed. I just couldn’t believe that he even had a chance,” he says, but Harry was dead set on someone outside of the establishment so he started to look at the other choices.
“The only other nonpolitician was Dr. Ben Carson. Everybody else, outside of [Kentucky senator] Rand Paul, I didn’t really have any use for. Put them in a bag and shake them and they all come out the same.”
As the campaign went on he wasn’t committed to anybody. “The one I liked the best was Jim Webb,” Harry says of the Democratic ex-senator from Virginia and former secretary of the navy, “and I thought he was probably the best candidate out of everybody, but he didn’t last except for a couple of months.”
The more he listened as the campaign went on, he explains, the better he understood that the Democrats definitely hated Trump, and the Republican establishment hated Trump. All the lobbyists on K Street hated Trump. The Chinese came out against him. India came out against him. Mexico came out against him.
“I figured I must have a candidate, because everybody who’s coming out against him are all corrupt, and he’s an outsider. So, I said, ‘I think I found my candidate,’” says Harry.
Then he made the announcement. “I had decided to go to the rally he held here in Wilkes-Barre and I ran into a local radio reporter who knew me as a Democrat union official. She said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I guess I saw the light. I’m going to support Trump.’ She said, ‘You want to get interviewed?’”
He told her bluntly, “Actually, I don’t care.”
During the course of the interview she asked him if he was involved in the labor community in the area.
“I said, ‘I just happen to be president of the labor council.’ When we got done, I said, ‘Well, that should get me a resignation tomorrow.’ Sure enough, I got a phone call from them the next day,” he says. He voluntarily resigned, and he did it in person, in front of the entire council.
Harry has lost trust in everything big in this country. “Big banks, big Wall Street, big corporations, the establishment of both parties and their lobbyists, and the big media corporations; gone are the days of the network news just delivering the news,” he says.
“This Russian shit day-in and day-out is just absolute nonsense, as far as him being in cahoots. I watched ABC last Thursday; the first ten minutes dealt with nothing but the allegations that he was in bed with the Russians. The big storms that hit the Midwest got a minute. Nothing else got any time. It was just all this bullshit.”
Harry is optimistic about Trump. “But it is going to be a hard slog, he has to work against the Democrats and the Republicans.
“In his heart I know he wants to do well. But Washington’s culture is so embedded that it may be a year before he gets a handle, or 18 months before he gets a handle on everything,” he says.
And no, he does not care about what Trump tweets. “We knew exactly who he was when we voted for him, tweet and all.”
Harry is looking forward to watching Trump negotiate and spar with Washington. He’d like to see him bring them to their knees, but is realistic. “I used to hate to negotiate labor contracts,” Harry admits. “Absolutely worst job in the world. Time-consuming, petty, you had to play games, it’s a tough thing to do, and you’ve got a responsibility for everybody you represent to do the best you could, and you got to be good to the employers because you don’t want them to go out of business,” he says.
“It’s a fine line that you walk, and you had to be conscious of all of that. I think he’s learning that right now, because what he was used to doing as a CEO, and he can’t do that now.
“What I liked about Trump was that it was more than about Trump, it was about people, it was about being part of something bigger than just me, I felt as though I was part of something important and worthy of accomplishing something better than what we have had,” Harry says.
As long as Trump stays away from becoming a Bush or a Clinton and stays tough, Harry is in for the long haul with this new alliance. “If he becomes one of them, then I think this movement continues, without him.”
Adapted from The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics. Copyright © 2018 by Salena Zito and Brad Todd. Published by Crown Forum, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.