If Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump carries North Carolina in what could be a squeaker, it’ll be because of people like Gary Dillon.
A 54-year-old operator at a chemical company, Dillon says he hasn’t voted “in a long time.” But this year, he’s eager to go to the polls to try to send businessman Trump to the White House.
“He’s not a politician, so maybe he can get something done. Like bring jobs back. American jobs,” Dillon says as he fills up his Ford pickup at the A&L Mini Mart. “I grew up in textiles and I hated to see them go in the ’90s. We need to get the economy back.”
Dillon’s anxiety about the loss of factory jobs in small-town North Carolina – and his hope that Trump can reverse that decades-old trend – was echoed again and again last week in this Rowan County town 40 miles northeast of Charlotte. Other people interviewed in Faith also seconded Dillon’s low opinion of Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Prior to Friday’s announcement that the FBI would review newly discovered emails in the Clinton server investigation, Dillon called her a politician who “keeps getting away with lies.”
In the battle for North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes, the Trump campaign is counting on places like Faith, home to 815 people, three churches, a soda shop on Main Street and a July 4 celebration that goes on for five days and attracts more than 40,000 people. The town, which stretches 1 square mile, is also predominantly white – more than 95 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
During the town’s annual July 4 parade, which mostly salutes patriotism and the American flag, some have hoisted Confederate flags to honor what they call their Southern heritage.
The Trump-Clinton race in North Carolina may be the fiercest and closest in the country. A new Public Policy Polling survey commissioned by the Observer found that, just over a week before Election Day, the two candidates are virtually tied in the state, with Clinton getting 46 percent of the vote and Trump 44 percent – a gap well within the margin of error.
What makes North Carolina so key is that Trump likely can’t get to 270 electoral voters without it. No Republican has won the White House without the state in his column in 60 years.
Both sides know the stakes, so there have been frequent visits to North Carolina by Trump and Clinton as well as their running mates and surrogate campaigners. Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence was in Smithfield on Friday and in Jacksonville on Saturday. All the key Democrats are scheduled to visit North Carolina this week, including President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and running mate Tim Kaine and former President Bill Clinton.
...one of my neighbors yelled across the yard at me, he said, ‘What in the hell is that in your yard?’ And I told him, ‘You read the whole thing?’ Then his girlfriend came out and said to him, ‘You need to get out here and read the whole thing.’
He thought I was pro-Hillary.
Trump supporter Brian Brown has a Hillary for Prison 2016 sign in his yard
Hillary Clinton is strongest in Charlotte and other North Carolina cities, and needs a big turnout from the state’s African-American population. Trump is expected to do best with white voters and in small towns and rural areas.
In Faith, for example, 63 percent of the 380 active registered voters are Republican. Only 14 percent are registered Democrats. The rest are unaffiliated.
People around Faith are quick to admit that they cringe at some of the things that come out of Trump’s mouth, but they say that the candidate’s now-famous slogan speaks to them.
A short hike from A&L Mini Mart is MC, short for Melton’s Cycle. Inside, owner Lenny Melton takes a break from building a custom wheel to answer the question: What does “Make America Great Again” mean to you?
“It means, ‘Bring back manufacturing, bring Made in America back,’ ” says Melton, 39, who plans to vote for Trump. “You ride through every mill town from here back to Charlotte – you’ll see what we’ve lost. There’s nothing here. Nothing. Unless you want to work at Walmart, Taco Bell, Kohl’s, IHOP. There’s no (other) place to work.”
Since 1994, North Carolina has lost more than 369,000 manufacturing jobs.
It’s not hard to find “Trump/Pence” signs in Faith – in yards, and even at some mom-n-pop shops. The Faith Radio & TV Company on Main Street, which is only open on Fridays and Saturdays, displays one, along with a sign in a picture window that reads “God Bless America. Pray.”
But put up a Clinton sign – or what some may think is a Clinton sign – and you could incur the wrath of neighbors in this conservative Republican town.
Trump backer Brian Brown, 44, who formerly worked in manufacturing for Corning Inc., spent $10 at a yard sale for what looked like a Clinton for President sign. On closer inspection, it actually read “Hillary for Prison 2016.”
After he put it up in front of his house in Faith, “one of my neighbors yelled across the yard at me,” reports Brown. “He said, ‘What in the hell is that in your yard?’ And I told him, ‘You read the whole thing?’ Then (the neighbor’s) girlfriend came out and said to him, ‘You need to get out here and read the whole thing.’
“He thought I was pro-Hillary.”
‘Time for a change’
It’s lunchtime and the Faith Soda Shop & Restaurant is filling up with locals and with patrons who’ve driven in from nearby cities and towns. Today’s special – country fried steak, mashed potatoes, and Crowder peas.
Sitting near framed photos of President George H.W. Bush attending Faith’s 1992 July 4 celebration are Republicans Leonard and Carol Robbins. They run a cleaning service just outside Faith, in China Grove. And they are “most definitely” voting for Trump, says Leonard, 72.
For Carol, 69, it’s both a vote for Trump and against Clinton, especially her support for abortion rights.
“I am against abortion,” says Carol, who attends Life Church in Salisbury. “That’s murder, in my opinion.”
But Carol also likes Trump: “He’s a straight shooter.”
For Leonard, the top issues include high taxes and the Affordable Care Act – both are killing small businesses, he says, and Trump has vowed to lower taxes and repeal Obamacare.
Leonard says he was also heartened to hear Trump recently call for a constitutional amendment that would place term limits on all members of Congress.
“We need new blood. It’s time for a change,” he says. “Trump represents change. He’s not a politician. You can tell by the way he talks – he puts his foot in his mouth. But he’s got some great ideas.”
Enjoying chili hot dogs at a table near the entrance are Amber Beaver, 20, and husband Anthony, 24. They’ve driven in from Kannapolis to have lunch at the soda shop – one of her favorite restaurants. Also with them: Their 4-month old son, Aiden.
Many voters their age wanted Democrat Bernie Sanders to be the next president. But Amber and Anthony say they’re solid Trump supporters. They like his promise to get tougher on illegal immigration. And they hope, if he’s elected, that he’ll bring more and better job opportunities to small-town North Carolina.
“The economy has just crashed; it’s terrible. There are no jobs,” says Anthony, who feels like he is competing for work with undocumented immigrants. “They work under the table for less money while we’re out here trying to find jobs.”
Anthony went to trade school – Nashville Auto-diesel College in Tennessee – and wants to someday own his own car lot. His job now is fixing garage doors.
Amber, who graduated from a beauty college, serves food at a Sonic restaurant. She’s planning to go back to school to become an elementary school teacher.
Next week, she’ll be casting her first-ever vote for president. She likes Trump partly because “he’s not Hillary. ... In one interview, she says one thing. And then in her next interview, she contradicts herself.”
Does it bother her that so many women have come forward to say Trump forced himself on them?
No, she says, because she’s not convinced the women are telling the truth. And she thinks they may have taken money “to make (Trump) look bad.”
Settled in a booth at the soda shop-restaurant with three of his employees is Richard Gould, 42, who owns a painting company based in Salisbury. He and his crew are in Faith to paint a house.
He says he disagrees with Trump’s hard line on immigration – some of Gould’s employees are immigrants– and “sometimes I wish (Trump) would just not talk” because of some of the things he says or the way he says them.
Still, Gould, who’s registered unaffiliated, says he’ll vote for Trump this year.
“People say they want a change. Well, he’s change,” says Gould. “I don’t believe (Clinton) is going to do anything different than what’s been done before.”
Hoping for change in 2008, Gould voted for Obama. He didn’t feel like he got it, so he voted for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. Now he hopes a President Trump will do more to help small businesses and the middle class – both under siege, he says.
“I think, somewhere deep down,” Gould says, “(Trump) really believes he wants to help.”
‘Made in America’
It was 1970 and Richard Nixon was president when Tom Jones started cutting hair on Main Street in Faith.
He’s still at it, 46 years later. And if he has his way, Trump, not Clinton, will become the ninth president in office during his tenure at Tom’s Hairport.
In fact, Jones, now 71, has already voted for Trump by absentee ballot.
“He’s right about getting the businesses back in our country,” said Jones, a Republican. “I think that’s great. We’ve been downhill the way we’re going. Our businesses are leaving. ... He’s got a big mouth, but I think he’s doing good.”
Jones, who served in Vietnam in 1967-68, says he wants to see “Made in America” on clothes and other products again.
“I went to buy a shirt one time and it said ‘Made in Vietnam,’ ” he says. “I thought it looked good, but I threw it on the floor.”
But what about the line of Trump clothes – including ties, suits and dress shirts – made in places like China, Bangladesh, Mexico and Vietnam?
“I’ve heard that he’s invested overseas. But he says he’s going to bring all those businesses back,” says Jones. “Now, they can tell you anything. You don’t know if they’ll do it. ... But I don’t have much use for Hillary. And you’ve got to trust somebody.”
A few doors down, on Main Street, Lenny Melton, the owner of the bicycle shop, also defends Trump, though he would have preferred Ben Carson as the GOP presidential nominee.
On Trump not paying federal taxes: He was only following the law. Blame those in power who didn’t change the tax code.
On Trump talking lewd about women on that “Access Hollywood” tape: “He’s not running to be the pope.”
What’s more important to Melton and others in Faith is that they think Trump is the best bet to revitalize the economy in the many small towns dotting the Piedmont.
“My dad’s a truck driver. He’s pulled mobile homes all his life,” Melton says. “Albemarle, Richfield, the next towns down (U.S. Route) 52 – at one point, they had over a hundred mobile home plants. They’re down to about five.”
As for his own cycle business, Melton says more than 80 percent of it is now online. Walk-in traffic?
“There is none. There’s no money around here,” he says. “When people walk in and see a $400 bike, that’s just something that’s out of their range.”
Brian Brown’s “Hillary for Prison 2016” sign has disappeared.
After two-plus weeks in his front yard, someone took it. “Either they) didn’t like it or they needed it worse than I did,” Brown says.
From his porch, he recounts how his front yard became a sort of pro-Trump pilgrimage site in Faith when the sign still stood.
The day after he put it up, “you wouldn’t believe the people that were stopping by and taking pictures of it on their cellphones,” says Brown. “They were posting it to their Facebook and everything.”
Brown has been gung-ho on Trump from the start, voting for him over a dozen or more other more established Republicans in the state’s GOP primary.
Says Brown: “Him being a businessman, he’s not tied to politics and he can’t be bought. I think he’s the man for the little man.”
Staff writer Gavin Off contributed.