Donald Trump's election win came down to small towns like Ansonia, Connecticut, where 59 percent cast their ballots for him. Locals here are looking forward to seeing what their president will do, reports Andrew Purcell.
On a Sunday night at the David Humphreys House, members of Derby Historical Society gathered to honor the Naugatuck Valley's most famous son. Humphreys was a colonel in the Revolutionary War, George Washington's secretary, and a minister in the first government of the United States. Many of the men and women dressed in 18th century attire, drinking colonial rum punch, believe Donald Trump can "Make America great again."
"The silent majority weren't so silent anymore," said Daniel Bosques, a part-time park ranger and full-time father of two, of the presidential election. The son of Puerto Rican migrants, he voted for Trump despite the racist overtones of his campaign, in the hope that having a businessman in the White House will stimulate the economy.
"I'm a hard-working citizen. My wife is a professional. I couldn't send my son to preschool this year because on paper it looked like we made too much money," he said, referring to income-based preschool funding. "In reality, sometimes we have to scrounge pennies to pay for a gallon of milk. That's the kind of change I want to see: better jobs, better economy, less taxes."
Sandy Mendyk (photo third from right in back), a retired teacher, predicted boom times for the Valley. She left neighboring Ansonia in the late 1970s to join the Army after the factory she was working at burned down. During the presidential campaign, she wrote to Trump, to tell him "no one mentions veterans and the elderly, and I'm both" and felt that he had listened to her.
"There are some people who just won't let it go, and they're doing marches against Donald Trump. My take is: let's wait and see. Give the guy a chance," she said.
The part of Humphreys was played by David Loda (photo above, second from left in back), a "Valley boy" returning to the town he grew up in. During the primaries, he supported Hillary Clinton's Democratic opponent, Bernie Sanders, and although he cast his ballot for the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, he was excited to see what Trump can do.
"In my opinion there's two main parties: the establishment party and the anti-establishment party," he said. "We have not seen this level of involvement in politics in decades. Trump is a vaccine. He's forcing the immune system of our democracy to wake up and become active."
Great expectations of Trump
Trump won 59 percent of the vote in the Valley, a string of post-industrial towns in southern Connecticut that were once Democratic strongholds but have been trending Republican. Clinton won the state easily, due to her strong performance in urban areas and the New York exurbs, but her poor showing here is part of a larger story. Trump's victory was forged in small towns like these, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.
On the western edge of downtown Ansonia, two abandoned factories testify to the region's history as a manufacturing hub. The Ansonia Copper and Brass Company once employed 10,000 workers. The Farrel Corporation made bayonets, cannon barrels and cannonballs during the US Civil War, and later became a manufacturer of equipment for plastics and rubber plants.
Keeping Farrel in Ansonia is Republican Mayor David Cassetti's biggest achievement. A new facility, served by a road paid for with $2 million of public money, opened last year. Because robots do much of the work, it only employs 100 people. The town's biggest employer is Target, which offers retail jobs at close to minimum wage.
Cassetti said he expects great things of the Trump administration: "I know he gets some bad publicity, but he's a straight-shooter, I think, and he's going to do just like Reagan did … Bringing more jobs back to the United States, I think he's proven that before he's even inaugurated, with Carrier and Ford and Chrysler."
The deal to save 800 jobs at Carrier's factory in Indianapolis, in return for an undisclosed package of subsidies, was a public relations coup. Trump has also taken credit for 2,700 new jobs at Ford and Fiat Chrysler, although the CEOs of both companies say the decision to increase production in the United States rather than invest in Mexican facilities was made before the election.
No credit to Obama
Barack Obama inherited an economy in freefall, shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs each month. Trump takes over with unemployment at 4.7 percent, down from a high of 10 percent. Average hourly wages are rising year on year by 3 percent.
Asked whether Obama's administration deserved credit for rescuing the American automobile industry, Mayor Cassetti replied flatly "no."
In a Gallup poll taken a week before the election, only 16 percent of the Republicans surveyed said the economy was improving. Asked the same question the week after, 49 percent said things were looking up.
Cassetti is a popular mayor, chiefly because he has lowered property taxes three years running since taking office. He has also attracted $17 million in grants from the federal government and the state of Connecticut. The change Ansonia needs most, remediation of the abandoned factory buildings, requires a massive infusion of taxpayer dollars.
"You're talking about sites that cannot move forward because of the contamination in the ground. And it's impossible to think that the city, by itself, is going to shoulder the costs," said Ansonia's Corporation Counsel John Marini. "So yes, we do rely on the state to give back."
Trump has promised to rebuild the USA's crumbling infrastructure, although details of the plan, a mix of public funding and tax cuts to stimulate private investment, remain vague. Any spending will have to be approved by a Republican Congress that fought tooth and nail to limit the size of the Obama administration's $840 billion stimulus package.
"Obviously the proof is going to be in the pudding, but when Trump talks about rebuilding infrastructure and bringing manufacturing back, that is exactly what this community needs. We hope he delivers," said Marini.
'Corporate world should run the country'
The question is where the money is going to come from. The non-partisan Tax Policy Center estimates that Trump's tax plan, which cuts the top rate of income tax to 33 percent, slashes the tax on corporate earnings from 35 percent to 15 percent and eliminates the estate tax, will disproportionately benefit the wealthiest and blow a $6.2 trillion hole in the federal budget over a decade.
"We're hopeful for the new administration," Ron Sill told me. "Trump has his other problems and his baggage without a doubt, but his first three months will probably be the biggest first three months of any president that's been elected in the United States." He did not believe that Trump would build his wall with Mexico, nor care whether he was elected with Russian help.
Sill, his two brothers, and two friends get together at the Valley Diner on New Haven Avenue every Monday for breakfast. The Wal-Mart next door closed down last July, and the Adams supermarket followed suit in September. Steady, well-paid jobs like the one Sill held at the Lifetouch School Pictures for 30 years are ancient history.
Sill said he hoped Trump would "drain the swamp" in Washington DC. "I see a lot of bankers coming in. It does dishearten me a little bit, but let's face it, the business, the corporate world, they run the country, and they've got to run the engine at the top, generate the stock market so that taxes will be lower, businesses will grow, and the economy will jump."