One year in, President Trump still divides urban and rural Oregon.
One night this summer, a superintendent at O’Neill Construction Group in Southeast Portland received a disturbing phone call from someone driving past a construction site. Calls from citizens weren’t unusual; people often reported safety and security issues. This time, however, the caller complained about the black and Latino workers and asked if they were working there legally.
He called two more times, says CEO Maurice Rahming, and spoke in a threatening tone. Workers feared for their safety.
Similar incidents occurred on other O’Neill sites, and Rahming says he has no doubt about the cause: the election of President Trump. “Certain things prior to him being elected were taboo that now are not,” Rahming says.
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In some rural Oregon communities, Trump and his rhetoric are viewed more favorably. David Schott, spokesman for the Southern Oregon Timber Industry Association, says some of Trump’s comments are “boorish and stupid.” But he doesn’t care. He’s happy about the president’s policies, including a plan to loosen logging regulations.
One year ago, we published an article about the difference between rural and urban attitudes toward the 45th president. As 2018 gets underway, the schism remains as wide as ever on almost any issue: immigration, healthcare, trade tax reform.
The rural business owners we spoke to praised the Trump Administration for understanding and supporting business growth. They pointed to an economic recovery and stock market boom. Tax reform and trade policies show promise for some legacy industries, even if the full implications remain hazy.
“Oh my gosh, it’s benefitted us tenfold,” says Tom Hall, president of Medford-based S&B James Construction Management. “Everything the man’s done has been pro business. For goodness sake; just look at the stock market.”
Steve Swanson, President and CEO of the Swanson Group timber company, is a proud Trump voter, and his enthusiasm for the president has yet to wane. Economic conditions are recovering, regulatory pressures are easing and confidence in markets is improving.
“He’s doing the best he can fighting an uphill battle against an entrenched bureaucracy,” Swanson says of Trump’s first year.
Jessica Gomez, CEO of Rogue Valley Microdevices, acknowledges that many economic forces are beyond the president’s control. But she says Trump played a role in the upturn.
“I’m sure the Trump administration has had a positive effect to some extent,” Gomez says. On other issues, Trump hasn’t had enough time in office to effect significant change, she says.
“We might change our minds later,” she says. “We’re just going to have to wait and see.”
The Republican tax plan passed under Trump, Swanson says, created consumer confidence that led to more housing starts, a boon to the construction and timber industries.
“Oh my gosh, it’s benefitted us tenfold. Everything the man’s done has been pro business.” —Tom Hall, S&B James Construction Management
Back in Portland, anxiety, not confidence, describes the mood afflicting many business owners. John Gorham, the restaurateur who owns Toro Bravo and Tasty & Sons, says his younger employees feel apprehensive about the tax reform bill passed under Trump. They worry the limitation on tax deductions for mortgage interest will increase their home payments. He says the changes prioritize large corporations, and do nothing to aid small businesses.
On another key issue, healthcare, Trump voters again rejoice. Hall says dismantling regulations in the Affordable Care Act will cut his healthcare costs.
“We’ve always paid all healthcare for employees,” Hall says, “but with Obamacare, we have to pay for other people’s healthcare — people who are not my employees. If you don’t have to pay for your own healthcare, you don’t have any motivation to be healthy.”
Trump’s Department of Labor has also proposed supporting small business healthcare by loosening regulations on association health plans, under which small business owners can pool together to purchase insurance. This would likely make the plans cheaper for cash-strapped small business owners, but excuse health plans from covering 10 classes of essential benefits.
The healthcare policy changes that Hall praises give some Portland community and business leaders feeling a bit unwell.
Khanh Le, director of the Main Street Alliance of Oregon, an advocacy group for small businesses, says some small businesses owners he’s talked to rely on the Affordable Care Act for coverage, and worry about Trump’s effort to repeal the policy. “If they have an emergency issue,” he says, “that could put them in bankruptcy.”
Both Gomez and Schott found hope in Trump’s promise to revive American manufacturing. “A lot of the jobs created in the last few years have been service- and tourism-oriented jobs,” Schott says. “They’re not really good jobs.”
Schott thinks the president will make good on his campaign promises in that sector. Already, Schott sees manufacturing recovering in the midwest, and hopes that momentum will make its way to Oregon.
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In a tight labor market, some economists and businesspeople worry Trump’s toughness on immigration will make it hard to fill openings. But Schott says that despite his harsh words, Trump hasn’t done anything to harm workforce diversity, at least not in Southern Oregon. Mexican immigrants form the bulk of the labor force there for mills, farms and contractors. Schott doesn’t see that going away any time soon.
“He (Trump) doesn’t necessarily have hardline immigration policies,” Schott says. “He has always indicated we will need a bunch of Mexican labor.”
More concerning for Schott are so-called sanctuary cities, “where criminals can go free.”
“With Obamacare, we have to pay for other people’s healthcare, people who are not my employees,” —Tom Hall
In one such city, Portland, fear and apprehension run through businesses, especially those that employ undocumented workers.
A directive under the Trump administration changed the focus of immigration agents from deporting gang members and felons to removing anyone charged with or convicted of any criminal offense. The resulting ICE raids in Woodburn earlier this year, Le says, had an acute impact on the small businesses he represents.
“Overnight business dropped because people were afraid,” he says. “Trump creates uncertainty that makes it hard for small businesses to thrive.”
More important than what Trump has done, supporters say, might be what he’s undone: rules and regulations that hampered business. This is the attitude that prevails in Oregon’s timber industry, sustained by the free flow of natural resources.
The logging industry needs freedom to expand sales targets, Schott says, and that seems likely under Trump. Currently, Schott says, the Department of Natural Resources sells 30 million board feet per year of around 150 million board feet of dying timber in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, one of the largest natural areas near his Medford home.
That’s poised to expand. Schott anticipates the Trump administration’s DNR will open up natural resources to mining and timber. Schott says renewed preventative logging efforts could reduce the fuel load in Oregon’s forests, preventing another record-breaking summer of wildfires. Washington, he believes, finally buys into this vision.
“Overnight business dropped because people were afraid. Trump creates uncertainty that makes it hard for small businesses to thrive.” —Khanh Le, Main Street Alliance
Renegotiating NAFTA and pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Schott says, haven’t had much effect yet, but he’s optimistic about Trump’s protectionist trade agenda. He thinks the United States needs to work toward energy self-sufficiency, instead of relying on other nations for its oil or natural gas.
Hall agrees. He says Trump’s openness to oil exploration and constructing new pipelines will lower energy prices.
“This will help the 99% of people who drive a car to work” he says. (That number isn’t too far off: 86% nationally, and 70% in Portland, according to the American Community Survey and the U.S. Census Bureau).
“I’m a business person. I’m not focused on social issues. I don’t put a high priority on what Mr. Trump tweets.” —Steve Swanson, Swanson Timber Group
The Trump supporters we talked to say they want to keep the political discourse focused on policy, not the rhetoric that alarms Rahming and his Portland colleagues. They dismiss Trump’s insensitive or racist comments and personality flaws as political theater.
“I’m a business person. I’m not focused on social issues,” says Swanson. “I don’t put a high priority on what Mr. Trump tweets.”
“It’s very apparent that he’s a businessman who identifies and attacks problems. There’s no political correctness.”— David Schott, Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association
Gomez was more ambivalent. The news cycle that devours Trump’s tweets and comments can eclipse policy discussions, she agrees. But the Latina businesswoman, who dismissed Trump’s comments as campaign rhetoric a year ago, now says the off-the-cuff jabs have gotten out of hand.
“It’s not appropriate for a president,” she says. “I still feel like it’s a lot of campaign stuff. But then it’s weird because he’s not campaigning anymore.”