Voters await economic revival in a part of pro-Trump America
Lydia Holt and her husband tuck money into these envelopes with each paycheck to whittle away at what they owe. They both earn about $10 an hour. She did the math; at this rate, they'll be paying these same bills for 87 years.
In 2012, Holt voted for Barack Obama because he promised her change, but she feels that change hasn't reached her here. So last year she chose a presidential candidate unlike any she'd ever seen, the billionaire businessman who promised to help people like her win again.
Many of her neighbors did, too — so many that for the first time in more than 30 years, Crawford County, Wisconsin, a sturdy brick in the once-mighty Big Blue Wall, abandoned the Democratic Party and that wall crumbled. Some 50 counties stretching 300 miles down the Mississippi River — through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois — transformed in one election season into Trump Country.
They voted for Trump for an array of reasons, and the list of grievances they hope he now corrects is long and exacting: stagnant wages, the cost of health care, a hard-to-define feeling that things are not getting better, at least not for people like them.
Here in Crawford County, residents often recite two facts about their hometown, the first one proudly: It is the second-oldest community in the state. The next is that it's also one of the poorest.
There are no rusted-out factories to embody this discontent. The main street of Prairie du Chien butts up to the Mississippi River and bustles with tourists come summer. Pickup trucks crowd parking lots at the 3M plant and Cabela's distribution center where hundreds work. Just a few vacant storefronts hint at the seething resentment that life still seems harder here than it should.
In this place that astonished America when it helped hand Trump the White House, many of those who chose him greeted the frenetic opening acts of his presidency with a shrug. Immigration is not their top concern, and so they watched with some trepidation as Trump signed orders to build a wall on the Mexican border and bar immigrants from seven Muslim countries, sowing chaos around the world.
They are still watching and they are waiting, their hopes pinned on his promised economic renaissance.
Jim Bowman, director of the county's Economic Development Corporation, says some of the economic anxiety here is based not on measurable decay, but rather a perception that life is decaying. There are plenty of jobs, but it's hard to find one that pays more than $12 an hour. Ambitious young people move away. Rural schools are dwindling, and with them a sense of pride and purpose.
"If you ask anybody here, we'll all tell you the same thing: We're tired of living like this," said Mark Berns, leaning through the service window in the small-engine repair shop that he can barely keep open anymore.
Berns watched Trump's first days in office half-hopeful, half-frightened. He bemoaned what he described as Trump's quantity-over-quality, "sign, sign, sign" approach to governing.
"I just hope we get the jobs back and the economy on its feet, so everybody can get a decent job and make a decent living, and have that chance at the American dream that's gone away over the past eight or 10 years. I'm still optimistic," he said, sighing. "I hope I'm not wrong."
Marlene Kramer is also optimistic Trump will make good on his promises. Her priority is health care.
Kramer, who voted twice for Obama, used to watch Trump on "Celebrity Apprentice." ''I said to myself, 'Ugh, I can't stand him.'" When he announced his candidacy, she thought it was a joke. "Then my husband said to me, 'Just think, everything he touches seems to turn to money.'" And she changed her mind.
She's 54, and she's worked since she was 14, all hard jobs: feeding cows, standing all day on factory floors. Now she works at a sewing shop, where she's happy, and gets to sit. But there's no health insurance.
Kramer said she's glad the Affordable Care Act has helped millions get insurance, but it hasn't helped her.
She and her husband were stunned to find premiums over $1,000 a month. They opted to pay the penalty of $2,000 until Trump, she hopes, keeps his promise to replace the law with something better.
Across town, Robbo Coleman leaned over the bar he tends and described a similar political about-face. He held up an ink pen, wrapped in plastic stamped "Made in China."
"I don't see why we can't make pens in Prairie du Chien or in Louisville, Kentucky, or in Alabama or wherever," said Coleman.
Coleman doesn't love Trump's moves to build a wall or ban certain immigrants, but he's frustrated that other politicians stopped listening to working people like him.
"We've got to give him some time," he said. "He's not Houdini."
Farmer Bernard "Tinker" Moravits is also willing to wait and see.
Change is what he looked to Obama for and now expects from Trump. The price of milk and agricultural goods has plummeted, and it's getting harder to keep things running. He wants the president to reduce red tape and renegotiate trade deals to benefit American farmers.
He has several choice words for Trump's move to build "his stupid wall." Moravits employs Hispanic workers who have been with him 15 years. He trusts them to do a dirty, difficult job that he says white people aren't willing to do.
But unlike many transfixed by Trump's presidency, Moravits doesn't stay up-to-the-minute on the news.
"The play-by-play don't mean bullshit," he said. "It's like watching the Super Bowl. What counts is how it ends."
Moravits isn't sure Trump is going to "Make America Great Again" for farmers. But he feels he had to take the gamble.
He laughed, then shrugged and pantomimed rolling the dice.
AP data journalist Angeliki Kastanis contributed to this report.
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