Our Pledge To You

News

Steinberg: Wayne County is glad it voted 84 percent for Trump

"There just needs to be a change," said Kristi Hornung, owner of the oldest business on Main Street in downstate Fairfield, a fashion boutique called Carnaby Street. Her biggest complaint is Obamacare. "And if the Democratic Party getting defeated helps us get a change in the health care field, I'm for it." | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

FAIRFIELD, Illinois — Drive 275 miles due south from Cook County to Wayne County. You’ll notice differences right away.

It is warmer here, literally — last Wednesday, when it was 42 degrees in Chicago, it was 67 degrees in Fairfield, the county seat, and with a population of 5,000, the largest town in Wayne County, population 15,000.

Figuratively warmer too. Ask directions at a bakery and the owner will walk out into the street to point the way. Strangers volunteer to put you up for the night. Pop in on the bank president, unannounced, and he’ll visit with you a good long spell. The Rotary meeting starts with a sing-along of “Clementine.”

This isn’t the traditional South, true. But the three vehicles in the fleet of the Fairfield Police Department are pickup trucks.

The occasional Confederate flag can be spied flying in the yards of modest homes that sell for $35,000. There is a free-standing video store.

The police in Fairfield drive pickup trucks. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

The police in Fairfield drive pickup trucks. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Like the South, this is Donald Trump Country. Though he is being sworn in Friday as the 45th president with historically low popularity ratings nationwide, you wouldn’t know it in Wayne.

Line up Illinois’ 102 counties based on how they voted in the presidential election, with Cook County at one end with 74.4 percent voting for Hillary Clinton. Skip over the next 100 counties and you end here, at Wayne, a struggling coal, oil, farming and light manufacturing region that went 84.3 percent for Trump.

OPINION

Why did they vote for him? And what do they expect from his administration?

“I think it’s kinda nice to have a non-politician running the country,” said Larry Williams, 78, enjoying his 6 a.m. coffee with fellow retirees at the Barb Wire Grill on Main Street. “A businessman who’s certainly been successful running a business. Hopefully he’ll make changes to get the deficit down. That would be good. Bring some business back to the country.”

Founded in 1935, Airtex, which makes automotive fuel pumps, once employed 1,000 people in Fairfield and had numerous plants, offices and facilities. Now production has been sent overseas, and about 50 people work in administration. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Founded in 1935, Airtex, which makes automotive fuel pumps, once employed 1,000 people in Fairfield and had numerous plants, offices and facilities. Now production has been sent overseas, and about 40 people work in administration. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Wayne County has been plagued by plentiful drugs and scarce jobs. Airtex, an automotive fuel pump manufacturer, once employed nearly 1,000 people. Last year, Airtex shipped its last manufacturing jobs to Mexico and China, and now 40 people work there.

“This parking lot used to be full,” said L. Bryan Williams, an insurance company owner, who took me on an impromptu tour. “It was good solid pay. Good benefits.”

Our next stop was Ferrington Farms Subdivision. Twenty-five generous lots around a lake. The city put in a road and utilities. Started 15 years ago, the development boasts exactly one home.

“There’s no hope of paying back the money the city dumped into this,” said Williams.

Ferrington Farms Subdivision started 15 years ago, with a nearby 18-hole golf course. Exactly one home has been built. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Ferrington Farms Subdivision started 15 years ago, with a nearby 18-hole golf course. Exactly one home has been built. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Not that Wayne County needed hard times to swing Republican. They have a history of, as one resident put it, “voting for anybody with an R beside his name.” When official boards require both a Democrat and a Republican, that token Democrat can be hard to find.

“The area is very conservative — all voted for Trump,” said Rev. Donna Blythe at the Fairfield First United Methodist Church.

But what about Trump the man? Is she not uncomfortable, as a minister?

“I wish he was always appropriate,” she said. “He’s not.”

There was much resentment against the federal government — Obamacare received particular scorn, as did state government, for failing to craft fracking regulations while oil prices were high, causing downstate to miss out on the shale oil boom that enriched places like Ohio.

Trump’s stance against immigrants played well in a county that is 98 percent white. I asked Cecil Parrent, 80, another retiree at the Barb Wire Grill, if he is looking forward to Trump’s wall.

“Yeah, or control of the border,” he said. “Too many are coming over here with dope. It’s pitiful. It’s ruining our kids. We got so many people now, what are we going to do with everybody. They keep coming in here. We can’t take care of the whole world.”

I visited Fairfield because it’s the biggest town in Wayne County. But towns clustered around Fairfield are even worse off, their hard times ironically helping Fairfield limp along.

“These little feeder towns all had downtowns,” said Kristi Hornung, owner of Carnaby Square, a women’s fashion shop, and at 36, the oldest business on Main Street. “They don’t have downtowns anymore. Flora, Grayville, Carmi, Albion. They filter into our town, shop our businesses, kept us thriving. If we didn’t have those people coming in, I wouldn’t have been here a long time ago.”

Trump was helped by running against Hillary Clinton.

“I just don’t like her,” said Hornung. “I don’t like her politics, I don’t like how she treats people. If what they say is true, she’s not very nice to people.”

Unlike Trump?

She laughed.

The Wayne County Press has been in Fairfield for 150 years, and has had four publishers. The fourth is Tom Mathews.

“Unless things change, southeastern Illinois is dying,” said Mathews. “This town back in the ’70s was robust, growing. Everything changed. We lost our industry and we’ll never going to get it back. . . . Everybody around here is frustrated with the whole Obama agenda. Frustrated with the regulations coming out of Speaker Madigan and Springfield. Illinois is business-unfriendly and that does not help our area.”

But Donald Trump might.

“They’re intrigued with his brash style,” said Mathews. “Intrigued with how he doesn’t take any crap from the news media. I’m a member of the news media and I just enjoy the hell out of it.”

There was a definite joy in seeing the expectations thwarted, the politicians scorned. Trump, despite his vast wealth, was the underdog.

“I think he was the underdog,” said Hornung. “You’re always thinking, ‘Let that underdog win!’ Don’t you think that’s just people’s human nature? Sometimes they like to see the giant fall. Get back down here where we’re at and see what the real world is.”