Clinging to hope in a fading factory town

·National Correspondent
A mural on a factory in Erie, PA. (Photo: Eric Thayer for Yahoo News)
A mural on a factory in Erie, Pa. (Photo: Eric Thayer for Yahoo News)

In the weeks leading up to the inauguration, Yahoo News visited towns and cities across the country, speaking to voters who had supported Donald Trump in the election. As the shape of his administration emerged, we asked voters if they were happy with their choice and optimistic about the future. Here is some of what we found:

_____

ERIE, Pa. — Bill Rieger didn’t believe in politicians. But last summer, after hearing Donald Trump speak here, he began to reconsider his political indifference.

At 57, he had watched for decades as Erie, his formerly vibrant hometown, painfully faded and shrunk. In what was once a beating heart of the nation’s manufacturing industry on the banks of Lake Erie in western Pennsylvania, factories had been boarded up, one by one, taking with them tens of thousands of jobs. A downtown that had been packed with stores and offices when Rieger was a kid was now just a shell.

Rieger had a closer view of the downturn than most. More than 20 years ago, the Army veteran had taken over as owner of Dominick’s Eatery, a 50-year-old diner along 12th Street, the city’s main industrial corridor, where his parents had been taking him since he was a kid. Open around the clock, the place used to be packed with line workers coming on and off their shifts at the plants that lined the street, but as the jobs were lost, the customers vanished too. And those who were left couldn’t afford to eat out because their wages had been cut. “I’m struggling more than I’ve ever in 20 years to keep my business going,” he said.

Politicians had come and gone over the years in what had been considered a reliably Democratic stronghold, promising to help turn things around. But it never happened, and Rieger saw the unkept promises as proof that politicians were dishonest or didn’t really care. No one, he thought, seemed to be in it for Erie, for working people like him and his customers. The last time he cast a ballot for president was for Ross Perot in 1992, a Texas billionaire he believed could lead the country in a new direction because he wasn’t beholden to special interests. When Perot lost, Rieger said, “I never played with politics again.”

Bill Rieger, owner of Dominick’s Eatery in Erie, Pa. (Photo: Eric Thayer for Yahoo News)
Bill Rieger, owner of Dominick’s Eatery in Erie, Pa. (Photo: Eric Thayer for Yahoo News)

Slideshow: Scenes from the road in Donald Trump’s America >>>

But then came Trump. On a whim, Rieger went with a few friends last August to hear the New York billionaire speak at the arena a few blocks from his diner. He was attracted by Trump’s celebrity, but more important, he thought his message was just right for Erie. Once the third-largest city in Pennsylvania, the city’s population had just slipped below 100,000 people for the first time in nearly a century. Its unemployment rate had risen to nearly 7 percent — up from 5.3 percent the year before — though many believed the real rate was higher because many laid-off workers had given up on finding jobs.

Speaking to 10,000 people in a county that Barack Obama won by double digits in the last two elections, Trump promised again and again that he would be the person who could turn things around. He name-checked Erie’s largest employer, GE Transportation, operator of a century-old locomotive plant that, like other local manufacturers, had been hit hard by a downturn in the mining industry. From a payroll that once topped 20,000, the GE plant had just laid off 1,500 of its remaining 4,500 workers, and many in town feared more losses amid rumors that GE would move more production to a newer, nonunion factory in Texas.

“You know why they’re cutting back? One reason: Because we don’t take care of our miners, and we’re not producing coal, and they don’t need to make those big, big beautiful, you could call them locomotives, I guess,” Trump told the crowd in Erie. “Whatever the hell they are, they’re big and they’re powerful, and they don’t need them like they used to, because we don’t make our government work for us.”

“What we’re going to do, folks, is going to be so special,” Trump continued. “We’re going to bring it back. We’re going to bring back our jobs. We’re going to bring back our companies.”

The GE plant in Erie, PA. (Photo: Eric Thayer for Yahoo News)
The GE plant in Erie, Pa. (Photo: Eric Thayer for Yahoo News)

As vague as Trump’s promises were, there was something hopeful about his message that resonated with Rieger in a way that no other candidate’s in recent memory had. He liked that Trump didn’t want to be in “anybody’s pocket” and that he genuinely seemed to care about the country’s struggling working class.

By his own account, Rieger went “insane,” reading everything he could about Trump and the election. If he was going to vote, Rieger said, he wanted “to make my decision based on what I knew, not just because I liked the candidate.”

In November, for the first time in 24 years, Rieger voted, and he voted for Trump, helping him become the first Republican presidential candidate to win Erie County since 1984. Though Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in Erie was narrow — a little over 2,100 votes, or just two percent — it was part of a larger wave of working-class support in industrial and rural parts of the state that helped him capture Pennsylvania, a state no Republican had won since 1988.

Speaking a few weeks after Election Day, Rieger admitted he didn’t think Trump would win, but now that he has, he’s expecting the businessman to try to deliver on his major promises, including creating new jobs and rebuilding Rust Belt cities like Erie. “Erie is a business town, an industry town. If our industry flourishes, everything around it will flourish,” he said.

But Rieger also describes himself as a “realist.” Many others have gone to Washington promising change, only to fail. Trump, he said, isn’t a normal politician, but he will face critics in Washington who are likely to stand in his way. “He’s facing more challenges than any president ever did because of such opposition,” Rieger said.

As much as he likes Trump and is hopeful about his presidency, Rieger admits he worries that Trump could be changed by the very system that he ran against and expresses low expectations for what he might actually be able to accomplish.

A Trump sign in Erie, PA. (Photo: Eric Thayer for Yahoo News)
A Trump sign in Erie, Pa. (Photo: Eric Thayer for Yahoo News)

“I’m not that optimistic that you can change the world in a day, so I would hope to see in 18 months to two years his policies implementing and really actually making changes,” he said.

Trump will have to make some impact over the next four years, he added, “and that’s going to decide if he’s going to have four more.”

But for Rieger, that change won’t come soon enough. The long hours and diminishing returns have taken a toll. In late December, he decided to sell Dominick’s, handing control to two of his employees in the hope that they could keep the eatery going in a town he hopes survives too.