MEXICO — Lisa Shardlow owns a barbershop in this quiet western Maine town whose fortunes are tied to the hulking paper mill across the river in Rumford.
Every day for the last several months, patrons have come in to get their hair cut or colored or styled. Many talk politics while they wait. She hears a lot.
“Everyone that came in here the last few weeks supported Trump. I mean everyone,” said Shardlow, 54, a confident and well-spoken woman whose husband is a superintendent at a golf course in Turner. “People said they were tired of politics as usual. They wanted a shake-up.”
That’s the simple explanation of how a town like Mexico went from overwhelmingly supporting President Obama four years ago to favoring Donald Trump this time.
To understand how the New York billionaire could do so well in communities that also supported Obama is to understand the dynamics of communities like Mexico. It has much in common with the Rust Belt cities and towns that propelled Trump to unexpected Electoral College wins in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and, ultimately, to the White House. Mostly rural. Mostly white. Mostly frustrated non-college-educated blue-collar workers whose jobs have gone elsewhere.
Four years ago, when Obama won re-election, he carried Mexico by a 67-26 percent margin. This year, Trump won Mexico 50-42 percent over Democrat Hillary Clinton. According to an analysis of Election Day results in Maine, among 2nd Congressional District towns with more than 1,000 registered voters, Mexico was the town that saw the biggest shift away from supporting a Democratic presidential candidate and toward a Republican candidate from 2012 to 2016.
In conversations with voters here last week, most said they were willing to overlook Trump’s unpolished way of speaking, his frequent caustic comments about women and minorities, and even his lack of specific ideas. They didn’t care about Clinton’s emails or where Trump likes to grab women. They cared about their jobs. The economy. Their safety in the world.
They know Trump alone can’t save the mill from closure, if that is its fate, just as it has been the fate of so many of the state’s paper mills in recent years. Bucksport. Millinocket. Madison. Jay.
But voters were willing to give the New York businessman a chance. So were all those other mill towns.
‘WORLD HAS CHANGED … FOR THE WORSE’
In some ways, Trump’s lack of specifics helped. Whatever he does, it’s sure to be different. The townspeople felt they knew what they’d be getting with Clinton: Four, or even eight, more years of the same. And the last eight years haven’t been good to Mexico, a town of about 2,700 residents, down from more than 5,000 in 1960.
People are moving away because there aren’t enough jobs. The economic uncertainty has brought desperation and empty storefronts and opiates, too. More people seem to be on welfare or live in subsidized housing, and that frustrates those who stayed in town because it’s familiar, and mostly quiet and pretty in autumn.
Dana Richardson, who was tending an empty bar, Tommy Guns Pit Stop, at lunchtime last week, said most people he talks to in town wanted change. It’s an interesting argument because Obama won on a message of hope and change eight years ago. Whatever change happened, though, hasn’t reached Mexico. Or maybe people just didn’t like the change they saw.
“If the world has changed, I think people feel like it’s changed for the worse,” said Richardson, 58, who worked in construction for years before his body broke down. “It’s more violent. It’s less prosperous. There is more welfare.”
Leo Grassette gave 41 years to the Rumford mill. He’s 80 now and still works part time at the Mexico Trading Post. He doesn’t have a career to worry about. If the mill closes and takes with it all the jobs, it won’t affect him. His pension is safe. But Grassette and his wife of 57 years have children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.
In the 15 presidential elections held since he began voting, Grassette had never voted for a Republican. That changed last week.
Like many, he felt Clinton was dishonest but it was more than that. She talked more about why Trump was bad than about why she was good.
“Democrats used to be for the working class,” Grassette said. “I don’t feel that anymore.”
JOBS AND THE ECONOMY
Mexico’s identity has always been linked to Rumford. Like so many Maine communities, Rumford once thrived on the back of its paper mill, founded by Hugh Chisholm at the turn of the 20th century. Chisholm’s family ran the mill for 66 years, employing a large share of working-age men in the region. It was the golden era of papermaking.
Since 1967, though, the mill has changed ownership five times and, following each transaction, provided fewer jobs. The mill still employs about 600 people, but there is widespread anxiety about how long those jobs will last. Nearly every paper mill across Maine has either shut down or is knocking on death’s door. When Catalyst bought the Rumford mill in January 2015 for $62.5 million, there was a sliver of hope. By September of that year, one machine had been shut down and 50 people were laid off.
“I think people wonder often if Rumford will be the next mill to close,” said Shardlow, the barbershop owner.
This is where Trump’s support was fortified – in once-booming towns besieged by economic uncertainty. The mills closed, in many cases, because their owners found cheaper labor and fewer regulations overseas. Bad trade deals made it possible, Trump said. He vowed to undo those deals and bring jobs back.
The decline in Maine’s paper industry is not necessarily tied to jobs being shipped overseas. It’s tied more to demand for the product, which is shrinking in an increasingly paperless world. But again, that didn’t matter to Mexico voters, either. Trump was speaking broadly about jobs and taxes. About bringing them back and lowering them, respectively. It didn’t matter if he offered few specifics to back that promise other than “Make America Great Again.”
It wasn’t a Democratic or Republican thing. Registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans more than 2-to-1 in Mexico.
Other mill towns in Maine swung heavily toward Trump as well.
In addition to the massive shift in Mexico, Rumford also favored Trump by a 50-41 percent margin, after having supported Obama in 2012. Millinocket, which used to be a town with strong Democratic support, much of it tied to union workers, backed the Republican 53-41 percent, after strongly supporting Obama four years ago. The story was the same in Madison, Jay and Bucksport. All helped re-elect Obama four years ago. All went with Trump this time.
It’s hard not to think jobs and the economy were driving that shift.
Shardlow knows that her success, like that of most businesses in town, is tied to the 115-year-old mill, now owned by the Canadian firm Catalyst, which she can see across the river from her parking lot. Gray-white smoke billows from its stacks. The smell of sulfur lingers.
While she and her husband are doing OK financially, Shardlow cares about the economy and jobs because they affect her business, too. But she also cares about health care. She didn’t want to be forced to buy insurance, so she and her husband paid the tax penalty and rolled the dice. She worries about the flow of heroin into the U.S. from south of the border because her 23-year-old son is an addict. He’s in jail now for breaking into a house and stealing guns. It was her house. She’s the one who turned him in.
Shardlow is an independent-minded voter who has supported candidates of both parties in the past. This year, like so many of her patrons, she backed Trump.
“For me, I just couldn’t trust Hillary,” she said. “And I like that (Trump) isn’t in anyone’s pocket.”
THE PENDULUM OF DEMOCRACY
Gary Morrison, 65, worked at the mill for many years before retiring in 2011. His wife died a year later from complications with diabetes.
Morrison didn’t ride the wave toward Trump. The Republican candidate was simply too dangerous for him. Now, he looks around the town he’s called home for the last 40 years and is surprised by what he sees.
“These people who are saying that they voted for change, a lot of them actually fear change,” he said. “And that anger, that fear, he gave voice to all of it.”
Morrison said uneducated voters seemed to help Trump most. The candidate famously said early in his campaign that he “loves the poorly educated.”
“Honestly, I think a lot of them are too busy trying to survive to look at the candidates in any meaningful way,” Morrison said.
The big swing from a president like Obama to someone like Trump, who is likely to be vastly different but remains a giant unknown, is part of the pendulum of democracy. It swings forward and if enough people think it’s too far, they vote to correct.
It happened from the Reagan-George H.W. Bush era to Bill Clinton. Then it swung back with two terms of George W. Bush. Then Obama burst onto the scene as a fresh voice offering hope and change. He made history by becoming the country’s first black president. But he also helped polarize the nation and, for better or worse, Hillary Clinton was tied to him. The pendulum swung back to Trump.
Welfare was a big source of frustration among Mexico voters, and it’s a topic that Republicans have done better seizing upon. Many said the town, along with neighboring Rumford, has been too generous with benefits. For blue-collar workers, one of the hardest things to reconcile is the idea that someone may be getting something he or she didn’t work for.
Grassette, the longtime Democrat, said it this way: “I’m not against helping people, but you’ve got to help yourself.”
Dean Benson, a police officer in town, and his wife, Trish, who works at the Time Warner office in Rumford, split their vote. He voted for Trump. She knew she couldn’t support Trump but she couldn’t back Clinton, either.
So she went for Libertarian Gary Johnson.
Dean, 45, said he felt confident Trump would treat police and the military better, which was important to him. Trish, 35, said she’s concerned about Trump’s bullying ways and what message that will send to the world. She also worries that he doesn’t care enough about education. One of her children has special needs and she’s scared that those services could be among the first things cut.
Tiffany White, 28, lives in Mexico but works at a farm in Canton, three towns to the south. Her boyfriend, she said, was a big Trump supporter but she didn’t like either candidate. When it came time, she stayed home.
“Why bother?” she said while waiting for her buffalo chicken tenders to arrive at Dick’s Restaurant, a local eatery. “But the people I know who voted for Trump either were really for him or felt he was the lesser of two evils.”
White was apathetic about voting, but other millennials in town were motivated. Town Clerk Penny Duguay said she registered 170 new voters prior to Election Day, most in their 20s.
Shardlow said social media was a big component of Trump’s rise as far as she’s concerned. She said people were tired of being told by the traditional media what to believe because, to her, they seemed to be favoring Clinton. The more the media warned about the dangers of Trump, the more people gravitated toward him.
But as much as the media failed to effectively understand the level of frustration in middle America, most people just didn’t care about what the media was talking about.
They cared about jobs and taxes and welfare.
And more than that, they seemed to care about preserving the last remaining shards of their town, their state and their country.
“I used to walk the streets and I’d know everyone,” Shardlow said.