Politics & Government

Small-town NC voters who backed Trump want him to keep his jobs promise

Donald Trump addressed a rally in Concord just days before the 2016 election. He promised the crowd that, as president, he would “bring back your jobs that have been taken away.”
Donald Trump addressed a rally in Concord just days before the 2016 election. He promised the crowd that, as president, he would “bring back your jobs that have been taken away.” dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

They helped elect him. Now what do Donald Trump voters in North Carolina’s small- to mid-size towns expect from this businessman who’s about to become the country’s 45th president?


That was the word heard over and over again last week as the Observer asked residents of this former textile town in Cabarrus County which of Trump’s many campaign promises they most want him to keep.

It’s a pledge the president-elect may well repeat Tuesday, when his post-election “Thank You” tour brings him to Fayetteville for a rally.

In Kannapolis, a town in transition, many still feel left behind by the global marketplace. And now they are looking to Trump, who was able to tap into their economic anxiety.

“We need jobs around here,” said Greg Bringle, who’s in the construction business.

“(Trump) said he was going to put jobs back in the United States,” said retired carpenter Aut Steele.

And nurse Kristin Hallman said Trump needs to “keep jobs here instead of over in China and all those foreign countries.” When U.S. companies ship jobs overseas, she added, “tax the hell out of them.”

At the core of my contract is a plan to bring back your jobs that have been taken away.

President-elect Donald Trump, during a campaign rally in Concord

These Kannapolis voters had heard about the president-elect negotiating a deal with Carrier in which the heating-and-air conditioning company agreed not to close a plant in Indianapolis, thereby saving 1,100 jobs that had seemed destined to go to lower-paid factory workers in Mexico. Carrier still plans to cut 300 to 600 positions at that plant and 700 at another facility near the city.

Some Trump critics called the deal, which included tax incentives totaling $7 million, “corporate welfare.” But not Larry Bradley, who seemed to speak for many in Cabarrus – a county Trump won with nearly 58 percent of the vote – in giving him a thumbs-up for protecting at least some American jobs more than a month before he’s even scheduled to take the oath of office.

“Absolutely,” said Bradley, a retired educator. “I’d like to see him talking to some others, getting some of these companies – including his own – to get their jobs back in the United States.” During the presidential campaign, Republican Trump came under fire over the line of Trump clothing – including ties, suits and dress shirts – that were made not in America, but in China, Vietnam and other countries.

Trump was a frequent visitor to North Carolina, holding campaign rallies not only in Charlotte and Raleigh, but also in towns such as Fletcher, Selma, Kinston – and Concord, the county seat in Cabarrus.

Five days before last month’s election, speaking at the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center, Trump laid out the campaign promise that has sparked hope in N.C. towns looking for economic revival after years of losing manufacturing jobs.

“At the core of my contract is a plan to bring back your jobs that have been taken away,” Trump said to raucous cheers.

He pinned the blame for the job losses on NAFTA, a trade agreement with Mexico and Canada that was signed into law in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton, whose wife, Hillary, was Trump’s Democratic opponent this year. Trump has promised to renegotiate or withdraw from NAFTA.

“North Carolina has lost nearly half of its manufacturing jobs since NAFTA,” Trump said in his speech. “We’re living through the greatest job theft in the history of the world.”

The Observer asked Trump voters which campaign promises they most want him to keep.

‘I hope so’

Trump cited Pillowtex, the one-time Kannapolis textile giant that abruptly closed in 2003, wiping out 7,650 jobs – including more than 4,000 in Cabarrus and Rowan counties. At the time, it was the biggest one-day job loss in the history of North Carolina and the textile industry.

Now on the site of the former Pillowtex factories is the North Carolina Research Campus, a public-private research center that partners with corporations, universities and health care organizations, researching ways to apply science to prevent and treat diseases

But those interviewed in Kannapolis say the town lacks the bustle and the job opportunities it had in its heyday, when they worked in the mills or had family members who did.

Bringle’s father worked for 30 years in Plant 1 at Kannapolis-based Cannon Mills, which later became Pillowtex.

“The mill fed my family,” said Bringle, now 54. “They used to have summer help for the high school kids. I worked there two summers – 1979-80. It was a thriving business here. And it’s gone. China’s got it.”

Bringle, a Republican, said NAFTA was the reason he couldn’t vote for Clinton. He believes the treaty devastated Kannapolis.

“Look, our town is dead,” he said. “We were (once) the biggest unincorporated town in America. There ain’t nothing no more. Ain’t no jobs here.”

I think Trump’s going to help us out ... but I can only hope,” said Steele, 85, a retired carpenter who worked in the sheet department at Cannon Mills from 1960 to 1974. “We need work here in North Carolina just like everybody does.

retired carpenter Aut Steele

The city of Kannapolis is trying to revive its downtown, spending $8.75 million to buy 46 acres. The property includes blocks of handsome red-brick buildings lining Main Street and West Avenue, most dating from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Leaders in the city of 44,000 want to partner with local developers on long-term plans that include new apartments, two hotels, retail space, an office tower, a performing arts center and a new downtown baseball stadium for the Kannapolis Intimidators, a minor-league team.

Cabarrus County’s September unemployment rate of 4.3 percent is lower than the national rate of 4.6 percent, a nine-year low.

Former nurse Cindy Williams, 47, isn’t sure Trump can bring many manufacturing jobs back to Kannapolis. But she voted for him partly because she thinks some of his other economic promises – especially reducing taxes and cutting regulations – could help “bring little businesses back to town, to hire people, to put people back to work.”

Trump has also pledged to spend up to $1 trillion improving roads and bridges, which could spur new if temporary jobs. Some GOP conservatives in Congress, though, have been skittish about the price tag.

“I think we need infrastructure (improvements),” said Williams. “And it creates jobs.” Anything that brings job opportunities, she added, can help revive places that have become what she called “ghost towns.”

Angie Besserdich, a 47-year-old stay-at-home mom in Kannapolis, said she wants Trump to do more to make sure the factory jobs that are available go to Americans rather than to undocumented immigrants. Before moving to North Carolina, she lived in Arizona, where she had to compete for time on the assembly line at Revlon with immigrants here illegally.

“I don’t know if we need to build the wall,” she said, referring to Trump’s high-profile pledge to build one along the U.S.-Mexican border. “I just want something done to protect the people of the United States as far as the economy. The little people – I want us to have some rights.”

Bringle and others said they have hope – another word that echoed through last week’s interviews – that Trump will deliver for N.C.’s many small towns, which turned out for him on Election Day. The Republican lost in Mecklenburg and in most of the state’s other big urban counties, whose diversified economies have rebounded since the 2008 recession. But Trump carried 76 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, where many have felt left behind by the global marketplace.

“I think Trump’s going to help us out ... but I can only hope,” said Steele, 85, a retired carpenter who worked in the sheet department at Cannon Mills from 1960 to 1974. “We need work here in North Carolina just like everybody does. We’ve got to eat, too.”

Retired lineman Tony Stamey, 63, who worked part-time at Cannon Mills when he was a teen in the late 1960s, doesn’t think the lost textile jobs will ever return to his hometown of Kannapolis. But other manufacturing jobs? In the time of Trump, he said, “I hope so.”

‘Economic environment’

Trump voters who were interviewed pointed to other campaign promises they’ll be keeping their eyes on.

Securing the border with Mexico, “responsibly” repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, and defeating ISIS – they were each mentioned.

But Trump’s promise to focus on keeping and bringing jobs to North Carolina resonated the most in Kannapolis.

Is there reason for their hope?

Some economists say automation, which will continue, is as big a reason as trade deals for the loss of so many manufacturing jobs.

And the new manufacturing jobs that do exist often require a different and higher set of skills than the old jobs that have disappeared.

Still, some Charlotte-based economists say Trump’s proposals could potentially offer incentives for businesses to invest more and keep more jobs in the United States.

John Connaughton, professor of financial economics at UNC Charlotte, said a provision in Trump’s tax plan that has remained “under the radar” might be a pathway to increasing U.S. economic growth from lackluster (1.8 percent to 2 percent) to real (3 percent to 4 percent). That could lead to more jobs and real wage growth, he said.

The provision would change the depreciation schedule on buildings and equipment from, say, 20 years to immediate.

“So for manufacturing jobs, Plan A could be you build something in Mexico and hire $5-per-hour labor,” he said. “Plan B, you build something in the United States, hire $20-per-hour labor and write it off immediately.”

Connaughton said the kind of deal-making Trump pulled off with Carrier happens sometimes “and we shouldn’t minimize it. But at the end of the day, it’s about managing to change the annual 2 percent GDP growth rate to a 3 percent or 4 percent growth rate. That is the nut we need to crack.”

Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wells Fargo, said his optimistic take on Trump’s economic strategy forecasts more carrot than stick for businesses.

“What Trump is trying to do is say, ‘Let’s hold on to as many jobs as we possibly can. Let’s make the economic environment as good as possible so fewer companies will want to leave,’ ” he said.

Translation: Look for Trump to try to reform the tax code, roll back regulations, lower the corporate tax rate to motivate more risk-taking and investment.

Vitner also thinks Trump will have momentum on his side as he tries to look out for American jobs.

“The backlash against international trade is real. ... It’s happening all over the world,” he said.

And though changes in technology may require more training, he said, they are giving new life to some old industries.

“Pillowtex is not going to come back, with (thousands of employees) in Kannapolis. That’s not going to happen.” Vitner said. “But the textile industry is actually doing much better today than it’s been doing. And there are opportunities for it to grow ... because of changes in technology.”

So, in assessing whether Trump will be able to keep his campaign promise, Vitner said, “it depends on what ‘bringing back jobs’ means.”

What other Trump promises could affect North Carolina?

A sampling:

▪ If the new president rips up trade deals or imposes tariffs, exporters in the state – and their employees – could face tough times. North Carolina exports about $30 million worth of goods a year and more than 158,000 N.C. jobs were supported by exports last year.

▪ Trump’s pledge to dismantle the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law could mean less regulation of the banking industry, including Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

▪ The 350,000 undocumented immigrants believed to be living in North Carolina – according to the Pew Research Center – could be in jeopardy for deportation if Trump goes through with his hard-line immigration plans.

▪ Trump’s promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act would directly affect about 600,000 North Carolinians who are covered through what is also known as Obamacare. More than 90 percent of them have qualified for federal subsidies to reduce premiums.

▪ In his pledge to rebuild the military and develop new technologies, Trump said North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, among other sites, would play a key role. His promise to boost defense fending could also benefit a state that has major military bases, including Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune.