Why one side of Puget Sound became Trump country in 2016 | KUOW News and Information

Why one side of Puget Sound became Trump country in 2016

Jan 4, 2017

When you first hit the road from Seattle on your way to Mason County there are lots of signs that the economy is buzzing, like construction cranes, shiny new buildings and hybrid cars.

But when you wind around past Olympia into Mason County, you're more likely to see a pickup truck with a gun rack than a Prius. And the average wage in Mason in 2015 was about half as much as in King County.

The political contrast is also dramatic. Whereas Seattle is Hillary Country, in Mason County voters bolted on a 13-point swing from Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016.

So what happened?

State Senator Tim Sheldon says the political turn in Mason County away from the Democratic Party this year has a lot to do with jobs. "This election, we had just lost in the city of Shelton 500 jobs. I mean it's a city of less than 10,000," he said.

The old Simpson lumber mill still dominates the landscape in the biggest city, which is Shelton. But it's one of two mills that shut down here in 2015. It’s scheduled to re-open this year but will bring back far fewer jobs.

Sheldon says the days of a booming forest industry are gone. "Years ago you could leave high school and get a high-paying job in the woods," he said. "Now, if you leave high school or don't finish, you're going to have a hard time finding a job."

And Sheldon thinks people out here liked the sound of what Trump was selling, "speaking to economic issues, speaking to trade issues, over-regulation, I think that was very important."

Sheldon himself is emblematic of the economic and political changes in Mason County. He still runs as a Democrat, but he votes with the Republican Party in the state Senate. Sheldon reportedly voted for George W. Bush in 2004, and Barack Obama in 2008. And this year he will only allow that he did not vote for Hillary Clinton. 

The Mason County swing in 2016


Over at Rooster's family restaurant in Shelton, Loretta Collins is very clear about why she voted for Donald Trump:  "We'll have more jobs, we'll be better off, and he's for America first."

Casey Breeze was the Trump campaign chair in Mason County, and he said he talked to a lot of people who voted for Barack Obama in the last presidential race.

"I didn't really have to make too much of a case," he said. "I asked them where they stood now as opposed to eight years ago."

And the answer?

"Much worse off financially than they'd ever been in their lives. And there was almost a sense of desperation to the tone of their voice."

Hillary Clinton also talked about jobs and specific plans, but Breeze thinks her message just didn't resonate in Mason County.

"So Hillary Clinton talked about a glass ceiling, which does exist. She was right on with it," he said. "But what went hand in hand with that was something that she ignored – something we came to call the cement ceiling."

Breeze thinks the cement ceiling is what a lot of people hit in Mason County. It's when blue-collar workers or small business owners feel trapped — held down by a stagnant economy and stagnant wages. And unlike the glass ceiling, they don't believe it can be broken. 

Casey Breeze ran Donald Trump's campaign in Mason County. He says Hillary Clinton was 'right on' about the glass ceiling but missed what he calls the cement ceiling of economic stagnation.
Credit KUOW photo/David Hyde

Joan Williams is not a Republican. She's a professor at University of California's Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco who writes about work and gender issues. And she thinks what happened in Mason County is a lot like what happened in states like Michigan this year, where many blue-collar and middle-class voters switched from Democrat to Republican.

"Hillary was very entranced by the metaphor of the glass ceiling and breaking the glass ceiling. That's really a class-based metaphor,” she said.

Williams is also certain racism, xenophobia and sexism all played a big role in the Trump campaign.

Add to that some tough economic realities.

"High school-educated men's wages have fallen very sharply since 1973, at the same time that the reform-minded elites have been telling them that they enjoy white privilege and that other groups in the society were the ones who needed help."

For his part, Casey Breeze thinks some unusual conservative politics was at work in the election in Mason County. He says within the Republican Party a lot of voters didn't think Trump was conservative enough.

But other Republicans like himself, along with some independents and Democrats, were enthused about Donald Trump for the opposite reason: because he is not a religious conservative like Ted Cruz.

"The last thing on their mind was telling anybody else what to do with themselves and their life," Breeze said. "The bottom line was the economy."

Of course, not everyone in Mason County voted for Donald Trump. Sandy Klempel is a real estate agent who used to work in Seattle, where her views will sound pretty familiar.

"Trump is very scary," she said. "My husband studies history a lot, and he looks back at a lot of dictatorships, narcissists, and Trump fits right into that category."

And she doesn't think Trump is going to bring large numbers of jobs back to Mason County.

Eddie Lucero runs the Jalisco Tortilla Factory in Shelton. He didn't like Hillary Clinton's support for raising the minimum wage. But he's no Trump fan.
Credit KUOW Photos / David Hyde

Eddie Lucero runs the Jalisco Tortilla Factory in Shelton, which supplies retailers and Mexican restaurants. He didn't vote at all this year.

He disagreed with Hillary Clinton on raising the minimum wage, but he definitely didn't like Donald Trump. "I don't like how he talks to people, especially to minorities like women, Hispanics, black people, Arab people," Lucero said.

And Lucero doesn't think Trump can deliver on the economy. "I don't think he's going to bring jobs over here," he said. "This is small community, and I don't think he's going to be focusing on small communities.”

So the big question moving forward out here is can Donald Trump make Mason County great again? If that means bringing back large numbers of high-paying blue collar manufacturing jobs, Sheldon says, “It's going to be very difficult.”

“Years ago we had a very large aerospace company here, Certified Aerospace, employed 450 individuals," he said. "We had Olympic Tool and Engineering. We had Barnes Machine that had well over 100 employees.

"Those companies are all gone now. So we're going to grow, but we're not going to have those large employers."

David Hyde can be reached at dhyde@kuow.org. Have a story idea? Use our story pitch form.