Trump's promise to revive steel industry sparks hope and doubt

Donald Trump talks about renegotiating trade deals like NAFTA and scrapping burdensome regulations as ways of bringing steel jobs back to Pennsylvania, but there are mixed feelings among voters about whether the Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency can really do it, Meagan Fitzpatrick writes.

Republican nominee promises to bring steel jobs back, but do voters believe him?

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump campaigned in Johnstown, Pa., on Oct. 21, 2016. He promises to bring steel jobs back to towns like Johnstown. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Johnstown used to be a thriving Pennsylvania community full of people and jobs, with busy stores and restaurants lining Main Street.

Blue collar families relied mostly on the steel industry for employment. Others counted on coal mining. Longtime residents say it was a safe and pleasant place to raise their children.

Rick Bost grew up there and has seen how much has changed.

"Little by little, it just started falling apart," the 44-year-old said during a brief chat on Main Street a few weeks ago.

It's a quiet place now, where the population of 20,000 is largely older — young people leave to find jobs — and residents say there is a drug problem, which has brought more crime to its streets.

"It used to be better here," said Bost, who works in gas wells. Things need to turn around in Johnstown and this election — with Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton vying for the U.S. presidency — is a chance for that to happen, he said.

And Bost knows exactly how he's going to vote on Nov. 8.

"Trump," he said, emphatically.

Rick Bost lives in Johnstown and has never voted for a Republican but plans to cast his ballot on Nov. 8, 2016, for Donald Trump, the party's presidential candidate. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

The Republican candidate, who trails Clinton in the polls in Pennsylvania, has been campaigning aggressively here. Democrats have won it in the last six elections but Trump's themes are resonating among some voters and he's counting on a win to help get him to the White House.

Trump is connecting with voters such as Bost, who has never voted for a Republican. So why now?

Faith in Trump

Trump "seems like he wants to make America strong again," Bost said, also pointing to a more specific campaign promise as a reason to vote for him: his vow to revive the steel industry.

But how exactly would he make that happen?

"I don't know how Trump is going to do it, but I have faith in him," said Bost.

Trump talks about renegotiating trade deals like NAFTA and scrapping burdensome regulations as ways of bringing steel jobs back to Pennsylvania, but there are mixed feelings among voters about whether he can really do it.

Some, like Bost, are holding onto hope, while others express their doubts.

The steel industry has a long history in Pennsylvania, dating to the 1800s. As mills in Pittsburgh, Johnstown and many places in between pumped out metal that helped build railways and skyscrapers across the U.S., the state earned a reputation as the steel capital of the world.

The big companies, like Cambria Iron Company and Bethlehem Steel, built homes for their workers and schools for their children. Unions were strong and wages were protected. The mill towns flourished for decades.
Joyce Carr, who raised her three children in Johnstown, says there are few jobs for young people in the community. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)
We didn't have much money, but we got by. We had a good life here.- Joyce Carr, Johnstown, Pa., resident

Then in the 1970s, the tide started to turn. Global competition and technological innovations were having an impact and by the 1980s, companies that were once titans were bought out, shrunk or closed down. Jobs were lost and not replaced. By 1988, the overall workforce was half what it was in 1975, according to the Pennsylvania Steel Alliance. 

Walking down Main Street, Joyce Carr stopped to chat about how much Johnstown has changed in the last 30 years or so. Her husband was a steel worker and she had a job at an insurance company. They were a typical blue collar couple with three children.

"We didn't have much money, but we got by," said the now-retired Carr. "We had a good life here."

Quiet Main Street

But Johnstown is a shadow of what it once was, she said as she gestured toward the empty storefronts and for sale signs in the windows of some stores that remain.

"There's not one shoe store downtown," she says. The clothing stores are gone now, too.

"I hope he does it," she said of Trump's promise to bring steel jobs back. "It's going to be hard … if he keeps his word," the undecided voter said.

Walking nearby, Loretta Opila didn't express any hope at all that Trump could return the community to its past economic state.

"I don't think it's realistic to bring the old kind of steel mills back," the retired doctor said.

Main Street in Johnstown used to be thriving but now has many empty storefronts and businesses for sale. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

Further down Main Street, Eric McClingick, 28, was securing his bike to the back of his car next to Central Park. He's not optimistic about resurrecting the steel industry either.

"That will never happen," he said. "That industry has gone away."

An older man sitting on a bench in the park said neither Trump nor Clinton is going to create new steel jobs.

Those jobs are gone

"Ain't going to happen around here, ain't going to happen in Pittsburgh," said the 74-year-old who didn't want to give his name.

Pittsburgh used to be the engine that drove the steel industry in Pennsylvania. There's a famous chain of restaurants there, Primanti Bros., that's been around since 1933. Its original location in the city's Strip District is a frequent stop for political campaign photo ops.

Donald Trump Jr. dropped in last month and chowed down on the signature Primanti sandwich that comes with coleslaw and French fries piled on meat between thick slices of Italian bread.

Sue DiCicco was there for her daily coffee and toast one recent morning. She's a lifelong Democrat whose father worked in coal mining, another industry that was once vital to Pennsylvania's economy and that Trump has similarly promised to revive.

As she waited for her order, DiCicco, 60, said the days of coal and steel are over.

Sue DiCicco doesn't believe Donald Trump can revive the once-thriving steel industry in Pennsylvania. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

"When Trump says he's going to bring this all back, you really can't," she said. "Once those jobs are gone, they're gone."

Even if Trump did manage to get a new coal or steel mill open, young people don't want to work those jobs, she said, and besides, "people aren't using coal anymore, we're looking for different types of energy."

What about other jobs?

More than 300 kilometres east of Pittsburgh, in the small town of York, Mike Testerman was having lunch at the Round the Clock Diner and expressed a similar view about creating new kinds of jobs. 

"I don't know if his plan would work," he said in between bites of fries.

"I like the idea of pursuing renewable energy sources. So I think the way to bring jobs back would be to encourage education and open up new jobs in those kinds of fields."

Testerman plans on voting for Clinton, but his waitress, Tina Nelson, will be voting for Trump.

"I wouldn't vote for Clinton if she was the last person in the world," she said as she set down food for two other customers in the booth next to Testerman.

Tina Nelson, a waitress at Round The Clock Diner in York, is such a fan of Donald Trump she keeps a flag at the restaurant. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

"This country needs change, we don't need any more failed policies," said Nelson, a lifelong Republican. She is confident Trump has a good plan to bring jobs back to the region and it includes lowering corporate tax rates, she said.

At a rally that afternoon in York for Trump and his running mate Mike Pence, several supporters expressed the same confidence — and some blind faith.

"I have no idea," Andy Gassaway responded when asked how Trump will bring back steel jobs. "But I think he can do it." 

Ron Ives, another Trump supporter, also believes he can do it. "But I don't think it's going to happen overnight."

Shawn Huffman also wants "to put steel back into this country."  

Does he trust that Trump can do it?

"I hope so. I trust him more than I trust Hillary."


Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multi-platform reporter with CBC in Toronto. She previously worked in CBC's Washington bureau and covered the 2016 election. Prior to heading south of the border Meagan worked in CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She has also reported for CBC from Hong Kong. Follow her on Twitter @fitz_meagan


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