YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — President Trump escaped the roiling turmoil of Washington on Tuesday evening — leaving behind the chaotic effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the intensifying Russia investigation and his latest staff shake-up — to rally with his supporters in this former steel town.
“I was looking at some of those big, once incredible job-producing factories. And my wife, Melania, said, ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘Those jobs have left Ohio,’ ” Trump said to a cheering audience of several thousand. “They’re all coming back. . . . We’re going to fill up those factories or rip ’em down and build brand new ones. That’s what’s going to happen.”
Trump’s simplistic view of this city, located in what was once known as “Steel Valley,” is stuck in time. Youngstown suffered closures of steel mills in the 1970s and ’80s that laid off thousands, tanked the local economy and led to a mass exodus of residents. But the region has evolved significantly since then, and few say they expect Trump to revive the steel industry here as he has promised.
Instead, those living in Youngstown and its suburbs are worried about health care, the schools their children and grandchildren attend, the opioid crisis that now kills more Ohioans than car crashes, the care of military veterans, and the region’s overall economy — access to full-time, good-paying jobs in place of the ones their parents and grandparents once had in the mills.
In interviews with dozens of local residents, both liberals and conservatives said Trump has not accomplished as much as they had expected by now — something that many of Trump’s supporters blame fully on Congress.
“It just seems like no one can get on the same page there, not even the Republicans,” said John Morris, 63, a postmaster who lives in the suburb of Canfield and attended Our Lady of Mount Carmel Basilica’s Italian festival on the edge of downtown Friday.
Morris grew up in a Democratic family but has voted for Republicans for about two decades. He voted for Trump, despite his flaws, he said, because he hoped an outsider could change how Washington operates.
“It hasn’t changed,” he said. “We thought things might be different. . . . We thought he would be a lot further along than he is right now, but we didn’t know how many walls would go up.”
Morris said that it is up to Republicans to find a replacement for the Affordable Care Act, especially now that they control Congress and the White House — and that not doing anything is not acceptable. As he spoke, one of his friends, who reluctantly voted for Hillary Clinton, jumped in to say that he’s frustrated that no Democrats are willing to break with leadership to work with Republicans on health care.
Morris mostly watches Fox News Channel, along with the nightly newscasts on the major networks. He doesn’t understand the breathless obsession with examining every tiny connection between Trump and Russia.
“I still haven’t heard anything as far as collusion,” he said. “Whatever comes out, comes out — but it has been six months. It has been six months, and I haven’t seen anything yet. I don’t think anything more is going to come out.”
Youngstown is located in Mahoning County, which voted for Richard Nixon in 1972 but has sided with Democratic presidential candidates ever since. Last year, a wave of Democrats changed their party registrations, and there’s still a sign up on Route 7, next to a gun and ammunition shop, that says: “Cross over. Vote Trump.” Clinton eked out a win here, earning 49.9 percent of votes to Trump’s 46.6 percent, but Trump’s strong showing was considered a victory in itself.
Trump also won the two neighboring counties in Ohio’s Steel Valley, which is now called Mahoning Valley: Trumbull County to the north, which hadn’t voted for a Republican since Nixon, and Columbiana County to the south, which has mostly voted Republican for years.
Mahoning Valley is home to cities such as Youngstown that have struggled with poverty and crime, but also to suburbs filled with moderately priced homes and historic mansions with sprawling lawns, big-box stores and chain restaurants with packed parking lots, upscale fitness studios, retirement communities, drug detox centers, and grocery stores offering both dirt-cheap deals and large displays of organic produce. There are quaint downtowns, food trucks, summer festivals, locally owned coffee shops, luxury apartments in renovated historic buildings, outdoor jazz concerts and farmers markets.
Some of the largest employers in the Youngstown area are local governments, Youngstown State University, and a major hospital and health-care companies that probably would suffer under the GOP’s proposed cuts. Up the road in Lordstown is a General Motors plant that produces the Chevrolet Cruze, but it has laid off hundreds of workers and recently shut down for five weeks because the model isn’t selling well.
To Trump, this part of America is still covered with “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape,” as he put it in a speech to Congress earlier this year.
“It’s a sad remembrance of what the valley used to be,” said Deborah Anderson-Timar, 59, an accountant and Trump supporter living in the Youngstown suburbs whose father once worked in the industry. She appreciates that Trump sees how difficult life has been for communities like hers.
Youngstown has half the population now that it did in the 1960s, and the city in recent years has been tearing down abandoned factories, stores and homes. Although the suburbs are predominantly white, more than 45 percent of Youngstown’s 64,000 residents are African American and 9 percent are Hispanic. More than 38 percent of residents live in poverty, and state authorities have taken over the city’s failing school system.
Jonathan Stevenson, 26, who lives on Youngstown’s impoverished south side, excitedly voted for Barack Obama twice but sat this election out. Although he thought Obama did the best he could and enacted a number of reforms, Stevenson said, he didn’t see much change in his neighborhood.
“The stuff they say they need to fix, they don’t fix,” said Stevenson, who spent most of his life in foster care and now works part-time at a call center and studies business administration at the local community college. “The only way we’re going to change things is everyone coming together, because a president can’t do everything.”
Stevenson, who doesn’t have health insurance, said he doesn’t understand why Republicans want to cut Medicaid and other health-care programs that help not only his neighbors but also those across the valley.
“It’s like water, gas and electricity — if you don’t give people the initial stuff to live, you don’t know who is a failure and who is a diamond in the rough,” he said over an early lunch in a suburban mall food court.
A new grass-roots coalition called Valley Voices United for Change pushed city leaders in Youngstown and Warren, a city in Trumbull County, to pass resolutions opposing the Republican health-care plan, which they argue will lead to a drop not only in the number of people who are insured but also in the number of health-care-related jobs. Sweeping proposed cuts to Medicaid would also be a major setback for local opioid treatment centers that have seen a rush in new patients who gained health insurance coverage when Medicaid expanded in Ohio.
Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat who represents the area, said that he’s tired of Trump name-dropping Youngstown without doing anything to help the city.
“He’s a great marketer, and he tries to use [Youngstown] as the kind of city to paint a picture about why people should support him and vote for him,” Ryan said. “The reality is: People are waiting for him to do something for our area, and he has not done anything that he said that he was going to do.”
Elsewhere in the Youngstown area, longtime residents say they voted for Trump because they wanted to try something different, even if it doesn’t end up working.
James Barkett, 65, a chaplain and counselor for the Mahoning County Juvenile Justice Center who once worked in the health-care industry, considers himself a centrist and believes in investing in social programs. He voted for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and Trump in November because he was “the lesser of two evils” and offered a different approach.
“It’s the same rhetoric every four years, and that’s what people are tired of,” he said. “They’re tired of hearing the same thing: ‘Oh, we need health care, we need jobs, we need better education.’ Well, then, do it. Quit talking about it, and do it — and I think that’s where Youngstown finally woke up and said: ‘You know what, you guys? You’ve been Democratic strongholds for however many elections. We’re going to try the other side for once and see how it’s going.’”
Barkett’s brother-in-law is David Betras, chairman of the county’s Democratic Party, who sent the Clinton campaign a memo in May 2016 warning that her message was not resonating in the Rust Belt.
The tightknit family loves discussing politics, but they have learned that even among themselves, there’s a need to fully hear one another out, said Barkett’s youngest son, Ernie. After protesting at some of Trump’s other rallies, he planned to attend Tuesday’s event and soak up the experience that won over so many of his relatives and neighbors.
“You don’t have to agree with them — but you do need to understand them,” said Ernie Barkett, 21, a senior at Youngstown State University who was a delegate for Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention last summer. “I’ve tried to tone it down, to stop doing the ‘Ha-ha, I told you so.’ The conversation always ends when you start to do that.”