Shelly Henderson gushed about President Donald Trump as she stood in the middle of her Sweet Destination candy, coffee, and gift store on G Street in Reedley’s commercial district.
She watches television news routinely to know what the president is saying and doing. “I’m just so excited about the possibilities that lie ahead.”
Henderson is not alone in her enthusiasm. An informal canvass this month of Trump voters among the “reddest” cities in the central San Joaquin Valley found mostly praise for the president – with a chastisement or two for his seemingly insatiable need to tweet.
Over and over, Trump voters said he is doing what he said he would do. And keeping his word carried a lot of weight with them.
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While Hillary Clinton claimed victory in liberal-leaning California in November, she failed to win the heartland of the state. In the Valley, only Fresno and Merced counties turned “blue.” Elsewhere, from Madera to Tulare counties, Trump handily prevailed.
In some cases, a distaste for Clinton propelled by the scandal over her State Department emails served to drive voters by default to Trump.
His unconventional, often-ridiculed campaign could have scared off voters, but instead the bravado and his “in your face” style curried favor with some in this hardscrabble region where take-charge, John Wayne-like men garner respect. And someone who would shake things up looked good.
“He shoots from the hip. That’s what I love,” said Bert Liberta, 49, as he prepared eggplant parmesan at Luna Pizzeria, a restaurant his family started in Old Town Clovis in 1969. Trump is not a politician, Liberta said. “I’ve been waiting my whole life for that, you know.”
The ‘forgotten’ speak up
Trump’s first month in office, filled with rapid-fire executive orders and come-and-go Cabinet nominations, has been rocky. And residents in the Valley and around the country have responded with “sanctuary city” protests and “A Day Without Immigrants” store closures to show their opposition to the president’s stand on immigration, including an action to temporarily ban travelers from seven primarily Muslim countries.
Amid the fury over the president’s policies, his supporters, whom he calls the “forgotten men and women,” are sticking by Trump. From Chowchilla to Exeter, those who voted for him said people who are critical have been hasty in their judgment of the president.
David Liberta, who is Bert’s brother and co-owner of the pizza restaurant, said he respects Trump because he is unafraid, and David Liberta disagrees with criticisms that the president is racist or sexist. David Liberta said Trump simply is being judged more harshly than past leaders.
“I think it’s freaking people out on both sides, Republican and Democrat, because they’ve never seen anything like him,” he said. “The press has a field day misjudging him. (President Barack) Obama talked about the same stuff – he had a travel ban, he had immigration laws. But Trump’s in office, and they’re just attacking him on everything. They’re treating him unfairly.”
Liberta also said stricter immigration laws are in order because Mexican workers in the Valley send their money back to their families in Mexico, hurting the economy and “pushing taxpaying citizens out of work,” he said.
Advocates for immigrants would argue otherwise. They say Obama’s order in 2011 involved one country – Iraq – and was in response to a threat. Two Iraqi nationals admitted into the United States during the Bush administration were connected to roadside bombing attacks.
By contrast, Trump’s order covered seven countries and no specific threat was identified. And those protesting Trump’s immigration policies cite a 2016 study from the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy that found that immigrants who are in the U.S. without legal permission contribute billions of dollars in income, property, sales and excise taxes, including $3.1 billion in California alone.
I think it’s freaking people out on both sides, Republican and Democrat, because they’ve never seen anything like him.
David Liberta, Clovis
Bert Liberta said people are surprised to hear that his support for Trump is rooted in his family’s history as Italian immigrants.
“When my dad came from Italy they told him, ‘Here’s your freedom, now get a job.’ They didn’t say, ‘Here’s your social program package.’ ”
While Trump is viewed as anti-immigrant, Bert// Liberta said the president’s intentions are misunderstood. “All Trump wants is to make sure we’re going to be safe bringing these people over,” he said in defense of Trump’s executive order.
He is unbridled in his support: Trump is the best U.S. president since Ronald Reagan, he said.
At K&C Donuts and Bakery in the Fresno County farming town of Easton, there is enthusiasm for Trump, but it takes some prying to bring it out.
About a dozen retired farmers, dairymen and business people spent a recent morning laughing and needling each other as they sipped hot coffee and ate glazed doughnuts. Typically this coffee klatch avoids politics, but they agreed to break the rule for a day and discuss the president.
Jim Brandon, who retired from the glass industry, proudly voted for Trump and is impressed with the job he has done so far. “He has gotten more done in a month than most people have done in several years. He said he wanted to get things done and he is doing them.”
Trump even promised farmers he would get them water, and he delivered with huge rain storms, Brandon teased his friends. They all laughed.
Like many, Brandon liked candidate Trump from the beginning because of his brash style and his lack of political correctness. And he sides with the president in his criticism of the media. Trump has been at odds with major news organizations, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN over coverage of his administration.
“They really are not treating him fairly,” Brandon said. “Everybody is against the poor guy. Why not just give him a chance to do his job.”
Hope for the future
It’s easy to find Trump supporters among customers coming and going at the well-trodden Chowchilla Do it Best Hardware, where American flags next to mops, nuts and bolts sell for a dime apiece, and each year there is a canning contest.
Customer David Nimmo said Trump has pleasantly surprised him. “He’s at least attempting to do more than I expected.”
Nimmo, 52, is pleased by the president’s executive order giving federal agencies powers to ease regulations, including the Affordable Care Act’s IRS penalty that fines people who don’t buy health insurance.
Nimmo has insurance through his employer, but his wife does not. He pays cash for her medical care and has had to pay a penalty. He estimates the president’s action will save him about $2,400. “I like that right out of the gate,” he said. (The Affordable Care Act is still in effect until changed by Congress, and taxpayers are still subject to the penalty).
Nimmo took time to chat after buying parts for an alarm system for a youth ministry bus at the Chowchilla Free Will Baptist Church. His religious faith influences his decisions, including political ones. “I vote Christian first and conservative next,” he said. Trump’s announcement that he wants to overturn a law restricting political speech by tax-exempt churches resonated with Nimmo.
During a lull in customer traffic at Do it Best, clerk Tina Middleton said the president “is a Christian man, and we haven’t really had a Christian man in (the White House) for a long time.”
She doesn’t pay much attention to negative stories about Trump. “A lot of what you see in the media is lies,” she said.
Middleton, 53, is soft-spoken and inclined to shyness. When asked, she admitted that she feels like one of Trump’s “forgotten” supporters. She and her husband, Brian, lost a home in Chowchilla during the Great Recession, and they had to close a restaurant, the Bedrock Cafe. They were left in debt. Brian has had a stable income at a manufacturing plant in Chowchilla, but Tina has had to work at two part-time jobs – clerking at the hardware store and working at a school cafeteria – to help make ends meet.
“We’re just now pulling ourselves out of that hole,” she said.
The president’s promise to lower taxes gives her renewed hope, she said. “I feel like he has the heart for the people.”
Farmers weigh in
Trump hasn’t acted very presidential in the eyes of a farmer who has tomatoes, walnuts, wine grapes and almonds growing on thousands of acres in the Valley, including some around Chowchilla where he stopped recently to buy a white plastic bucket and tub at the hardware store.
“He has a bad way of getting himself across to the public,” the farmer said.
But that hasn’t dimmed his support.
It’s encouraging that the president wants to redraft NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), the farmer said. “He’s going to try to make it not just a free trade agreement, but … what would you call it … a fair agreement.”
The farmer is talkative, but he won’t give his name. There are too many “others” who are against Trump, “especially in California,” he said, although he acknowledged he resides in a region of the state that largely supports the president.
Historically farmers have fared better when the president is a Democrat, he said. He doesn’t know why. But, he said, “Trump will work for us.”
His only trepidation is over immigration policy. He needs workers in his fields. He doesn’t envision the president ordering the roundup of hardworking undocumented immigrants. But should that happen, “we would have to reconsider his next term.”
Across the Valley in Reedley, retired farmer Bob Krause, 79, had met three friends at the Doughnuts to Go for their morning coffee chat about life – including politics.
Krause is the lone Trump voter, or at least the only self-admitted one, of the bunch. He long has been Republican, but the Republican Party wasn’t doing well. However, “I would have probably died before I voted for Hillary (Clinton),” Krause said.
In the end, Trump won Krause’s vote because he promised to reduce the number of laws in place, including environmental regulations. “We have too many restrictions,” Krause said. And Trump went into the election, and the White House, not owing anybody anything, Krause and his friends said.
Good for business
In Hanford, Dan Chin, a former mayor of the city, said his Chinese immigrant father, Buddy, taught him how to run a successful business. The family has owned a store in Hanford since 1960 selling bowling supplies and trophies. Inside the Eighth Street store is a small memorial to his father, who was one of the first Asians to participate in competitive bowling.
Chin appreciates Trump’s success as a business leader.
And he is doing OK as a rookie president, too. “For a neophyte politician, he gets a high rating from me for being elected to office,” he said. “But one of the most difficult things he has had to learn is that it is easy when you are running a business to say that ‘You are fired.’ It is not so easy to do when you run a government.”
If he could, Chin said he would advise the president on a few things, including tweeting less and refraining from attacking the news media for reporting what the president is fond of calling “fake news.”
“I always believe that the president should be focused on being a leader and trying to unite us as Americans,” Chin said. “Forget about the election, or voter fraud or a hostile press. Move on from that. Strong leaders lay out a vision for the country and get people behind it. I am looking forward to Donald Trump showing us where we need to go as a country.”
Throughout the Valley, Trump’s emphasis on bringing jobs back to America resonated with voters.
It certainly helped in Kingsburg. While registered Republican voters outnumbered Democrats by more than 2 to 1 – the widest margin of any of Fresno County’s incorporated cities – an economic fallout from the 2012 closures of a Del Monte peach processing plant and a can-making factory added to Trump’s advantage. The closures cost the community about 1,200 jobs. Trump carried all six of the city’s voting precincts by substantial margins.
I really have hope that he’s going to help make life better for us.
June Olsson Hess, Kingsburg
June Olsson Hess has owned the Svensk Butik gift shop in the heart of Kingsburg’s downtown “Swedish Village” for 31 years. She is an icon in the traditional Swedish garb she wears to work daily. She sees Trump through the lens of a small business owner whose shop has attracted visitors from 50 countries over the past six months in addition to her regular customers in town and across the Valley.
“It’s so hard to own a small business in a small town,” she said. “I really have hope that he’s going to help make life better for us.”
Trump, however, was something of a default choice for Hess, who said she never would have considered voting for Clinton because “she was a continuation of (Obama) and I saw so many destructive things in that direction.” The controversy over Clinton’s emails and investigations into the 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, also were concerns for her.
Early in the primary season when there were 17 candidates, “Trump was actually my last choice,” Hess admitted on a sunny midweek morning in front of her shop. “He’s not politically correct, and he didn’t choose his words carefully. But anybody else would be afraid to say anything politically incorrect.”
She didn’t feel compelled to vote for a woman, but she heard a lot of people say they were voting for Clinton for that reason. “I don’t think gender by itself is a reason to vote for someone,” Hess said. “Color doesn’t matter; gender doesn’t matter.”
Across Kingsburg, under the shade of an umbrella outside the local Starbucks, a trio of retiree friends – two Democrats and an independent – took time out from “solving all of the world’s problems” to talk about why they voted for Trump. Again, the desire for a course correction for the government, a dislike of Clinton and an attraction to a rogue candidate landed their votes.
Fresno County parks department retiree John McNulty said he voted for Obama four years ago but voted for Trump last fall. “I was not a Trump fan – and I’m still not – but he was better than the alternative.”
Rich Bastress, a retired banker, and Jerry Dignan, a carpenter, said they were all-in for Trump from the time he announced his candidacy because, Bastress said, “he was an anti-establishment, anti-politician candidate.”
Dignan said: “I just wanted to see some change – good, bad or indifferent.” He was looking for change in 2008 and 2012, when he voted for Obama, but the Obama administration fell short of his expectations, he said. Now Dignan holds out hope that Trump can succeed. “It’s a political machine, and it’s hard to buck that,” he said. “But with all of his arrogance, maybe (Trump) can do it.”
The president’s rough edges need some smoothing, however. Bastress thinks Trump could tone down his “shoot first, aim later” approach to public statements and his Twitter account. “I think Trump wanted to come out strong right out of the gate,” he said. “He could do a bit more thinking before he speaks, a little more research before he does these executive orders.”
And the three Kingsburg men hope that Trump will stabilize his administration after a tumultuous first month in office. “I don’t think you can take much out of the first month,” Bastress said. “But if he doesn’t do what he said he was going to do” – “or at least a majority of what he said,” Dignan interjected – “then I think it’s only going to be four years for him,” Bastress concluded.
It’s almost a sure bet that Trump will have ongoing support from Henderson, the Sweet Destination candy store owner in Reedley.
The 60-year-old retired high school teacher, who has worked with undocumented students, shoots off several reasons why she voted for the business mogul: his freshness, his starkness, his promise to help businesses flourish, and his “I don’t care what other people think” attitude.
“We desperately needed a change,” she said with a big smile as she remembered the joy she felt on election night and of watching parts of the inauguration from her tablet-based cash register at the store.
Carlotta Spurger, 60, grew up in Exeter, population 11,000, an antique shopper’s dream town in the citrus belt best known in recent years for its many murals depicting the area’s history. It’s also Trump country.
Spurger is employed as an electronics technician at a company that manufactures produce-sorting equipment for packinghouses.
She said she is “very encouraged” by the president’s performance so far. But she is worried that the inertia of government will stop the momentum that has cheered his supporters in Exeter and nationwide.
“I hope he sticks to it and does the things he says he’s going to do, because most of the time they don’t,” she said. “They cave to political pressures. That’s why people voted for him. He’s not beholden to the ‘same old, same old.’ ”
Clinton/Trump election results in the central San Joaquin Valley
Source: California secretary of state