Dayton was once a bastion of the GOP establishment. The story of how the city changed explains the rise of Donald Trump.
By Alec MacGillis, ProPublica
LAST SEPT. 2, Don Phillips sat down at his desk at the Mandalay banquet hall along the interstate just south of Dayton, Ohio, and composed an angry letter to the congressman from the adjoining district, the highest-ranking elected Republican in the country, then-House Speaker John Boehner.
What has Congress done to solve any of these problems that affect all Americans? … What’s going on with the Republicans? No wonder people are so interested inTRUMP. Everyone is sick of electing politicians that do nothing and continue to go on vacations and work three days a week when the Country is in trouble. Congress needs to get in gear and do something to solve some of these problems.
The letter was, quite literally, a “Dear John” break-up declaration. Phillips was once the picture of a Midwestern establishment Republican. He is a successful businessman who started out delivering food to the cafeterias and vending machines at the factories and tool-and-die shops that used to be all over Dayton. Thirty-two years ago, he built the Mandalay, the giant windowless catering hall on I-75, between the industrial park and the for-profit college. He has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1964.
His upstairs office, where elevator music is piped in on the Mandalay’s audio system, has pictures of himself with George H.W. Bush on the walls, a Bush commemorative golf putter leaning against the shelves, and a copy of Karl Rove’s latest book on his desk. There is a framed certificate from 1981 declaring Phillips a member of the “Senate Business Advisory Board” in “recognition of his commitment to preserve and strengthen the American free enterprise system.” For the past few years, Phillips even let the Montgomery County Republican Party use a room at the Mandalay for its headquarters. He had known Boehner for three decades — had considered him a friend, had attended his golf tournaments. Yet the time for the break had come.
Whatever the reason you cannot do what needs to be done to lead your party, the American people need to step up to the plate and get people in Washington that can do the job, whether we are talking about the President, Congress or your job. Can you name any major accomplishment that has been achieved for the American people since you have been Speaker? Everyone we know is disappointed in what is going on with the Congress.
Three weeks after Phillips sent the letter, Boehner announced his resignation. While Phillips was under no illusions that his letter had played a part in Boehner’s decision, he saw his own discontent with the party leadership as part of a swelling dissent that had, by that point, upended the Republican presidential campaign. In 2012, Phillips had supported Mitt Romney in the primaries. Yet this year, the man who housed the Republican establishment in his own building was supporting the man running against it.
“I feel very good about Trump. I’m for Trump 100 percent. I’m a Trump man and a lot of my family are Trump,” he said. His wife, Cay, who often handles the Mandalay’s front desk, had been wary of Donald Trump because of “some of the things he was saying,” but then she read Trump’s latest book and changed her mind. “He really knows what he’s doing,” Don Phillips said. “He’ll put people around him. He has no obligations to Washington. Washington is broken. I definitely feel Trump is the answer to America.”
The disruption that the nomination of Trump represents for the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan has been cast as a freakish anomaly, the equivalent of the earthquakes that hit the other side of Ohio in recent years. But just as those earthquakes had a likely explanation — gas and oil fracking in the Utica Shale — so can the crackup of the Republican Party and rise of Trump be traced back to what the geologists call the local site conditions.
It’s no secret the country has sorted itself into ever-more polarized camps. What is underappreciated is how much that dynamic has played out even within regions, even within a single relatively small metropolitan area like Dayton. The city along the Great Miami River, an hour north of Cincinnati, was once a bastion of moderation and heterodoxy, the sort of place where the spectrum was jumbled with conservative Democrats, liberal Republicans and everything in between. But a combination of trends — among them suburban flight, deindustrialization, the flip of the Solid South to Republicans — changed everything.
By 2016, the Dayton area consisted of an urban core greatly diminished in stature yet also increasingly assertive in its liberalism, to the degree that it had even made itself into a national poster child for tolerance toward immigrants. Meanwhile, Dayton’s outlying areas were both home to a much larger share of the region’s people and commerce and to a conservatism that was far more strident and monolithic than anything the area had known in decades past. Caught in the middle, in a political no man’s land, were people who were at home in neither realm, descendants of conservative Democrats who had drifted from that party as it grew more culturally liberal and coastally oriented, yet who had formed only a tenuous connection with Republicans, one based more on grievance than ideology.
Both parties had been transformed, but such was the nature of the realignment that in 2016, it was the Republican Party that suffered a crackup. For decades, Dayton has been one of the most competitive cities in one of the most competitive states in the country. In 2012, when Barack Obama narrowly won Ohio, he took Montgomery County, in which Dayton sits, by only 3 percentage points, making it the most closely contested of Ohio’s half-dozen biggest urban counties. This year, Dayton became a bellwether once again: When Ohio Republicans went to the polls in March to pick their nominee, of the nine largest counties in the state, Montgomery County was where Donald Trump fared best.
The stresses that created these Trump voters had been building for decades in places like Dayton. For the most part, the political establishment ignored, dismissed or overlooked these forces, until suddenly they blew apart nearly everyone’s blueprint for the presidential campaign.
“You brought everyone else along with you.”
In 1971, another letter to another Republican congressman from Ohio: Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to William McCulloch to wish him well on his retirement from the House of Representatives. This was not something that former first ladies did often — especially to members of the opposing party — but McCulloch was a special case. “You, more than anyone, were responsible for the civil rights legislation of the 1960s,” she wrote. “There were so many opportunities to sabotage the bill, without appearing to do so, but you never took them. On the contrary, you brought everyone else along with you.”
There was little exaggeration in this praise. McCulloch, a country lawyer from tiny Piqua, just north of Dayton, was a conservative in the Old Guard mold that had defined Ohio Republicanism since Robert Taft: fiscally prudent, wary of foreign entanglement, even-keeled to the point of stodgy. He wore red suspenders, returned a portion of his congressional office allowance each year and forswore spending pork for his district. He supported gun ownership and school prayer and opposed many social welfare programs. But he was also the proud descendant of abolitionists and had goaded President John F. Kennedy into pushing forward on civil rights and had then played a leading role in seeing the legislation home after Kennedy’s assassination. “To do less,” he said, “would be to shirk our responsibility as national legislators and as human beings who honor the principles of liberty and justice.”
In this, McCulloch was no outlier among fellow Ohio Republicans. The state leaned Republican back then — in 1960, Richard Nixon had beaten Kennedy in the state by 5 points, almost exactly the margin of victory he got in bellwether Montgomery County. Eighteen of the state’s 24 congressional seats were held by Republicans in 1963 and 1964. And of them, all but one voted for the Civil Rights Act, putting Ohio Republicans in a class of their own in supporting the bill. (All told, 136 House Republicans voted yea, and 35 nay.) The state had, after all, long prided itself on its history as a beacon of liberty: cross the Ohio River from Kentucky and you were free. It had lost the third-most men on the Union side of the Civil War, and its political culture shared quite a bit with Yankee New England, from which many of its early inhabitants had moved, especially in the state’s northern half.
McCulloch’s mantle as Republican civil rights champion was soon assumed by Dayton’s own congressman, Charles Whalen. Urbane and cerebral — he attended Harvard Business School before becoming an executive at the Dayton Dress Company and teaching economics at the University of Dayton — Whalen was the author of Ohio’s fair-housing law in the state Legislature. He carried that commitment to Washington after he was elected to Congress in 1966 and, years later, wrote a book on the passage of the Civil Rights Act. He defied easy categorization: He vocally opposed the Vietnam War, but was also critical of War on Poverty programs and, as a Roman Catholic, opposed Roe v. Wade. “I have always been amused,” he once wrote, “when pundits refer to a Congressman as ‘liberal’ for voting against $150 billion of waste in Vietnam and another Congressman as ‘conservative’ when he voted for it.” Ideological diversity, he said, is “beneficial in that it provides the Party not only with the vitality necessary to keep astride of current political tides, but also the restraint that is helpful in making far-reaching decisions.”
McCulloch and Whalen’s self-confident moral authority was undergirded by the solidity and prosperity of their home base. For decades, Dayton had been an exemplar of American capitalism and ingenuity — back when America not only invented things but still made the things it invented, Dayton did a lot of both. In 1890, it generated more patents per capita than any other city — there were the Wright Brothers and their bicycle shop, of course, but also James Ritty, the saloonkeeper who invented the mechanical cash register to keep his employees from pilfering dough, and John Patterson, who transformed Ritty’s invention into the National Cash Register company, and Charles Kettering, the engineer who turned Ritty’s creation electric. The sound of Dayton in these years was, literally, ka-ching. The Third National Bank was finished with imported marble and mahogany woodwork; patrons did their business at bronze check desks. Local hotels included the Biltmore and the Algonquin — the aspirations were transparent, and not unjustified.
Kettering went on to found the auto parts giant Delco, where he developed the electrical starting motor and leaded gasoline, plus side ventures with DuPont and others to invent Freon and colored paint for cars. In the postwar years, Dayton had a higher concentration of auto workers than anywhere outside of Michigan. The city swelled with new arrivals in search of work — not just African-Americans on the Great Migration, but Scots-Irish up from Kentucky and Tennessee. By 1960, Dayton was still one of the 50 largest cities in the country — bigger than Charlotte, Tucson and Austin.
But as Whalen’s tenure carried into the 1970s, changes were underway. As elsewhere, the arrival of Southern blacks had been answered with white flight. In 1930, nearly three-quarters of Montgomery County’s population lived in Dayton, but half a century later, that share had plummeted to less than a third. They had moved to working-class inner suburbs like Miamisburg and Huber Heights, tight-knit communities with modest, well-kept frame houses and bungalows, and more upscale Oakwood or Beavercreek, which was just across the line into Greene County. The city that remained was the second-most racially segregated of Ohio’s eight largest. And the Appalachian migrants had added a more conservative element to the area’s political landscape.
Midway through President Nixon’s first term, he had been hooked by the 1970 book The Real Majority, which argued that the classic swing voter was the “47-year-old machinist’s wife from Dayton.” This voter tilted Democratic on economic issues, but Nixon and his adviser Pat Buchanan concluded that she could be won over by Republicans who stoked fears about welfare, school desegregation and crime. The irony was that the district with exactly the demographic being targeted by Nixon was being represented throughout the 1970s by a Republican — one with an entirely different sort of politics than what Nixon envisioned.
But by 1978, Whalen was coming under increasing pressure from local Republicans fed up with his liberal bent. Facing a primary challenge, he announced his retirement. The Republican Party in southwest Ohio — as elsewhere — was becoming less northern, less urban, and less liberal. And the city he was born in and represented for a dozen years was headed for trouble
“People was friendly.”
Don Phillips didn’t know what to make of the people he called “the Russians.” They were good for business, renting out the Mandalay for their big weddings. But they were different than his usual customers. The men and women sat separately inside the hall. And the men lived it up like nothing he’d ever seen — dozens of bottles of vodka, hundreds of packs of cigarettes. The butts ended up in the flower pots outside. He’d had to triple the $500 cleaning fee for them. No problem, they said. They just stacked more cash on the desk.
Where were they getting all that money? They were making it big in long-haul trucking. Dayton was a transport town — “logistics,” as the industry liked to call it — since it sat at the juncture of two major routes, I-75 and I-70. Half the population of the U.S. was within an 11-hour drive, something local boosters had taken to citing as a point of pride as so many of the city’s other assets had fallen away. The “Russians” had gotten into the freight business soon after coming to town — after all, you didn’t need fluent English to drive a truck. And now they were doing so well with it that some were driving sports cars around town — Porsches, Maseratis, you name it. Phillips couldn’t figure how there was so much money in trucking, but he kept that to himself. “We’re being nice to them,” he said. “We’re not running them off, we’re letting them come. But when they come they’re going to behave just like anyone else.”
The Russians were actually Turks — specifically, what are known as Ahiska Turks, descendants of people who had migrated north centuries ago. After the Soviet Union broke up, they faced frequent persecution as a Muslim minority in Russia, and in 2004, the U.S. granted them refugee status. Some 11,000 arrived in the U.S. before the refugee status expired in 2007. And in the years that followed, a couple thousand of them gravitated to Dayton, because Dayton had become a good place for starting over with nothing.
By the time they arrived, Dayton’s manufacturing industries had long been hollowing out. Nearly half of the 20,000 jobs that existed in 1990 at five GM plants were gone by 2008, for example. Auto-parts maker Delphi, into which Kettering’s Delco had been absorbed, dropped from 10,000 employees in the Dayton area in 2002 to a mere 800 by 2009. The papermaking giant Mead gave up its home base in Dayton in a 2001 merger.
But nothing hurt as much as the decline of NCR, as Patterson’s company was now called, having long since expanded beyond cash registers to ATM machines, bar code scanners and software. Some 15,000 manufacturing jobs with NCR had vanished from the city even before the company announced in June 2009, barely past the lowest point of the recession, that it was moving its headquarters to Atlanta, complete with this graceless grace note from its CEO: “We had a very difficult time recruiting people to live and work in Dayton.”
Total despair was precluded only by the comforting presence of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on the edge of town. The city’s population was 141,000, down by nearly half over the previous five decades and now just 183rd largest in the country. The broad streets of downtown, spreading out on the flat ground along the river, suddenly seemed too wide, too empty. The elegant Algonquin Hotel was now the discount Grand, where rooms went for under $100. And the median sales price for a home in the city was around $80,000, half the national average.
This made it appealingly affordable for the Ahiska Turks. At the same time, the city did not seem as far gone as other bargain-basement Rust Belt cities like Detroit or Youngstown. The Turks zeroed in on Old North Dayton, which had once been heavily Eastern European. “The neighborhoods were decent, actually. Very decent. Not like really, really bad with huge crime rates,” said Islom Shakhbandarov, the charismatic president of the local Ahiska Turkish American Community Center.
But there was something else about Dayton. “People was friendly — unusually friendly,” said Shakhbandarov. “We started spreading the word that Dayton was welcoming.”
“We became aware of our ignorance.”
Chuck Whalen had been succeeded as Dayton’s congressman by Tony Hall, a Democrat. Hall had grown up in a Republican family in town — his father ran a laundry — but he’d joined the Peace Corps and had come back a Kennedy Democrat. While he had a different party affiliation than Whalen, he aspired to his example. “The Republican leadership was griping about how he was too liberal in some of his ways,” Hall says, “but he was representing his district, and representing thoughtful ways to do things.”
Soon enough, Hall was having differences with his own party leadership. He could tell that many of his Democratic constituents — blue-collar workers, the proverbial machinists’ wives — did not care much for the direction the national party was taking in the 1980s and ‘90s. In 1980, Montgomery County had been one of only two counties in the entire central and western swath of Ohio that Jimmy Carter carried against Ronald Reagan. Eight years later, the county gave a substantially bigger margin to George H.W. Bush than he received across the state. Hall’s constituents were especially down on President Bill Clinton’s promotion of the North American Free Trade Agreement, he said. “A lot of Democrats in the Midwest feel that they didn’t leave the Democratic Party — they feel like the Democratic Party left them,” he says. “They had basic desires and needs and wanted them to represent the working man.”
Many of the Democrats who had moved out to the more working-class suburbs of Dayton started voting Republican. That party had, after all, been making the sort of crime-and-welfare pitch that Nixon had envisioned in 1970 to appeal to these voters’ conservative views on race and social issues. The drift among these voters from the Democratic Party accelerated with the wave of auto plant closings that started after 2000, Hall said. “As long as we had our 10 or 12 auto plants, we were pretty good, but we felt that the NAFTA deal made it a lot easier for companies to go to Mexico — and they did. They shut down our factories,” says Hall. Voters just coming of age “saw their Moms and Dads lose their jobs and they didn’t think anyone did anything for them.”
As those Democrats had, over time, left Dayton for the suburbs and then left the party as well, the party they had left behind in the city had taken on a different character. By the late-2000’s, Dayton was dominated by a staunchly liberal leadership cohort: an assortment of African-Americans (by this point Dayton was 43 percent black), activist-minded elected officials and bureaucrats, college professors, and other urbanite professionals who were doing their part to bring the city back — going to the theater, patronizing the growing bar and restaurant scene on East Fifth Street. And in 2011, this cohort decided to take up a very particular liberal cause: making the city more welcoming to immigrants and refugees.
It was, on its face, an unlikely issue to champion. The city had refugees other than the Turks (Africans, Iraqis) and had experienced an uptick in Mexican immigration starting in the late 1990s — people come to work in construction and fast food and the tomato farms north of the city — but its foreign-born population was only 4.5 percent of the total, barely above the statewide average. Still, word started to come of newcomers having difficulties — the Ahiska Turks were having run-ins with building inspectors as they renovated their homes; undocumented Hispanic immigrants weren’t comfortable reporting robberies to the cops and were experiencing discrimination from landlords.
To Dayton’s liberals, reports of troubles being encountered by new arrivals were a rebuke. “We became aware of our ignorance,” said Tom Wahlrab, then-director of Dayton’s Human Relations Council, a mediator by training who lived in a renovated townhouse in the city’s historic Oregon District. “We said, what could we do with the community for welcoming these newcomers?”
Dayton was becoming a small blue island — Obama won 76 percent of the city’s vote in 2008, compared with only 44 percent in the rest of Montgomery County, a difference that had grown by 6 percentage points since 1980, when Jimmy Carter won 66 percent in the city and 40 percent in the rest of the county. The Republican sweep in the 2010 midterms, which had put the Ohio state government under total GOP control, had put a halt for the time being to any immediate prospects of reforming the nation’s broken immigration laws or figuring out what to do with the 11 million undocumented people living in the shadows. Arizona and Alabama passed strict laws clamping down on illegal immigrants in 2010 and 2011.
But Dayton went in the opposite direction. There was a task force, subcommittees, and a series of “conversations” where residents turned out to talk about what Dayton could do for its new arrivals. There was a report that became an action plan that called for, among other things, expanded interpretation services in courts, health care and government; a World Cup-style soccer tournament between immigrant groups to be held every fall; and the provision of a municipal ID card for those ineligible for a driver’s license. Already, it was the policy of the city police not to spend limited resources trying to ferret out undocumented immigrants.
A public hearing on the plan in September 2011 attracted only three in opposition, anti-illegal immigrant activists from the Cleveland area. Nan Whaley, an Indiana native who stayed in Dayton after attending college and was elected to the city commission in 2005, spoke up for the plan: “We’re recognizing that we’ve had incredible population loss over the past 40 years, and that we’re trying to redefine what an open city looks like.” Two weeks later she and her fellow city commissioners approved the plan, 4-0.
Welcome Dayton, as it was called, hired a director and two “immigration resource specialists.” It added free tax assistance websites in different languages to help immigrants get their earned-income credits. It guided immigrants through the home-buying process. It held “community-building” events called “Voices” where immigrants talked about their background. The orchestra had a Welcome Dayton weekend. The World Cup soccer tournament was a hit. Our Lady of Guadalupe celebrations drew hundreds more than in years prior. Nan Whaley, one of the leading champions of the initiative, was elected mayor in 2013. Just a few weeks earlier, the program had gotten the ultimate liberal affirmation: a spot on “The Daily Show.”
“They got welfare.”
Phil Plummer was caught in the middle. The son of a city firefighter, he had grown up in Old North Dayton when it was still thriving and had, after starting out as a corrections officer, worked all the way up the ladder to be elected Montgomery County sheriff as a Republican in 2008. On the one hand, he didn’t care much for Welcome Dayton, which smacked too much of making Dayton a “sanctuary city,” much as city leaders rejected the term. “The intent was to welcome immigration … but it went a little too far and brought the illegals here,” he said. “They’ve got a policy where police can’t ask anyone their immigration status, and to me that’s an indicator of a sanctuary city. If I can’t ask you your immigration status, it’s tough to enforce the law of the land.” He also fretted about how much undocumented immigrants were costing the city. “Are they paying taxes?” he said. “It is a burden to us — they are going to our schools.”
On the other hand, he found it hard not to sympathize with the new arrivals. “They want an opportunity,” he said, “same as our ancestors did.” He was in favor of reforming the nation’s immigration laws. “We got to be honest with ourselves — they’re not going to deport them,” he said. “Something’s got to be done — we got to quit kicking the can down the road.” He even thought many of the immigrants would end up in his party: “They’re Republicans. They have a good work ethic.” Plummer’s compassion got the better of him when he received calls from a local nun, Sister Maria Stacy, asking if she could visit undocumented immigrants being held at the jail. Sister Maria had been dispatched to Dayton in 2002 from her native Cincinnati to minister to the new immigrants there — organizing English classes, offering help in finding lawyers, and, yes, praying with them in jail when it came to that. “She’s a little radical,” Plummer said. “But we bend over backwards for her.”
Plummer’s nuanced view was also in stark contrast with his counterpart just to the south, in Butler County. Butler was once mostly farmland surrounding a couple small market and manufacturing towns, Hamilton and Middletown, but over time had turned into an exurb to both Cincinnati and Dayton, tripling in population since 1940. Warren County, just to Butler’s east, had once been even less developed and had grown almost tenfold over the same period as tract housing developments flared out across the former soybean fields. Their combined population had vaulted to 600,000 over the course of a half century when Montgomery’s population had stayed flat at about 530,000.
As they had grown, these exurbs had become the Republican bedrock in Ohio. When President Bush’s 2004 reelection came down to Ohio, Butler went for him with 66 percent of its vote and Warren with 72 percent. In fact, those two counties plus two other Dayton exurbs, Greene and Miami counties, togetherprovided Bush’s narrow 120,000-vote margin of victory in the state.
These fast-growing counties had not only drawn the region’s Republicans to them. By concentrating Republicans far from Democratic-dominated cities like Dayton, they seemed to change the very character of Ohio Republicanism from the strand embodied by congressmen like Bill McCulloch and Chuck Whalen. Maybe it had to with the political science showing that the less densely settled a place was, the more likely it was to be politically conservative. Maybe it was the other effect the political scientists talked about, how being surrounded by people with similar politics tended to make one’s politics more extreme.
Regardless of the causes of the transformation, the fact was that part of McCulloch’s former district, stretching north of Dayton, was now represented by Jim Jordan, an arch-conservative who would eventually become chairman of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus. The bulk of McCulloch’s former district had been represented since the early 1990s by John Boehner. He was, by the standards of the day, considered relatively moderate. But by the time he became speaker of the House in 2011, his district had been shifting right for quite some time as well.
No one embodied this shift better than Butler County Sheriff Rick Jones, who was first elected in 2004. Jones looked like he’d stepped out of a Western, with a hulking frame and exemplary walrus mustache, and, in a sense, fashioned himself as a frontier lawman. He made two trips to inspect the Mexican border. And he prides himself on his tough enforcement of immigration laws in his own territory. Jones’ publicity stunts have included posting an “Illegal Aliens Here” sign with an arrow pointing to his jail and sending the Mexican government a $900,000 bill for the cost of jailing illegal immigrants. These stunts earned him a spot of his own on “The Daily Show.” They also did nothing to hinder his easy reelection in 2008 and 2012.
To hear Jones tell it, Dayton was the end of the earth, the darkness to be guarded against. “I tell anybody that’s wanting to commit a crime here, if you’re from another country, I tell them to go Dayton,” he said. “They’re fine. They give you free stuff. They want you to be there. They got welfare.”
Back in Dayton, Plummer viewed Jones’ outspokenness with bemusement tinged with envy. “He’s a crazy guy,” he said. “Of course, that’s a big Republican area, so he can go out on a limb. This is a Democrat town, so I gotta… ” He trailed off, leaving the local political imperatives implied.
“Go ahead, knock yourself out.”
Butler County, Warren County, and the other growing exurbs were helping put the Republican Party in Montgomery County in dire straits. As suburbia had sprawled to the farther-out counties, taking the most engaged and wealthy conservatives with it, the party that was left in Dayton and its inner suburbs was bereft of resources and direction.
There were still plenty of people who voted Republican in the county — George W. Bush had barely lost it in 2004. Some of them were in the county’s middle- and upper-middle-class suburbs, like Kettering and Oakwood. But many of the Bush voters were the blue-collar ex-Democrats of working-class suburbs like Miamisburg and Huber Heights. Vote as they might, their allegiance to the Republican Party — whether what remained of its moderate establishment in Dayton or the newer, more ideological vanguard in the exurbs — was limited.
This had left the Montgomery County Republican Party increasingly adrift. It had been led since 2006 by Greg Gantt, an amiable, mild-mannered Dayton lawyer. But fundraising was a constant struggle and around 2009, he started having to contend with a new coterie of Tea Party activists, mobilized by the conservative backlash against Obama. The ferment they brought into the party throughout the state helped fuel the party’s big 2010 sweep of state offices, which in turn allowed it to control the decennial redistricting process. A year later, in 2012, Republicans would win 52 percent of the House vote in Ohio but 75 percent of the state’s congressional seats.
As time went on, though, these new activists also sought to block and second-guess Gantt at every turn. He found their claims to revolutionary status tiresome — it was as if they thought they were the first ones ever to propose different ways of doing party business. “It’s fingernails on a chalkboard when I hear people talk about ‘the establishment,’” he said. “What the hell is that — is there a secret meeting of all the people in the party?”
Also complicating Gantt’s task was the fact that, at the national level, the party had been for a while now been growing far more Southern-dominated as the realignment of Southern conservative Democrats into Republicans completed itself. It was George Voinovich, the former Ohio governor, who, just prior to his 2011 retirement from the Senate, had deplored the regional shift within his party. “We got too many Jim DeMints and Tom Coburns,” he said, referring to his arch-conservative colleagues from South Carolina and Oklahoma. “It’s the Southerners … They get on TV and go ‘errrr, errrrr.’ People hear them and say, ‘These people, they’re Southerners. The party’s being taken over by Southerners. What they hell they got to do with Ohio?’” Voinovich reiterated this when I spoke with him in early April 2016, prior to his death in June. “Jim DeMint used to say, ‘If you don’t subscribe to his version of the Republican Party, you’re not a really a Republican,’” he said. “I used to tell him that a lot of things you subscribe to are like manure on the rug in Ohio.”
In 2012, Gantt finally grew so tired of the challenge of maintaining his corner of the Ohio Republican Party that he ceded control to one of the new activists, a 30-year-old lawyer named Rob Scott. Scott was a Kettering native who had founded the Dayton Tea Party and served on the ballot committee for a statewide initiative to end Ohio’s estate tax. “They thought everything we were doing was wrong and they knew everything,” Gantt said. “I was trying to make up my mind. I thought, if you are in charge of a divided house, how much fun is that going to be? I said, ‘Rob, if you want it, you got it.’ I sat down with them and said, ‘It’ll take me a year to go around and introduce you to the money people, to teach you everything I know.’ I said, ‘I’m done, but I’ll hang around and show you the ropes,’and they said, ‘No we got it.’ I said, ‘Go ahead, knock yourself out.’”
Within a year and a half, Scott himself was gone, forced out for poor performance in September 2013. The party’s anemic fundraising had shriveled further, it had failed to field candidates for many local offices, and its headquarters office was shuttered. The Republican Party in the fifth largest county in Ohio was homeless, its possessions stuck in storage.
“Stay out of Montgomery County.”
In the early summer of 2014, the U.S.-Mexican border saw a surge of crossings by Central American women, their children and unaccompanied minors. The surge was the final blow to the House of Representatives’ fading prospects to act on immigration reform. It also raised the immediate question of where to house the women and children while their fates were decided. In Dayton, Mayor Nan Whaley announced that her city would gladly do its part to take in some of them. “Of course we would consider being helpful to the country, because we’re an immigrant-friendly community,” she said.
Whaley’s announcement brought instant condemnation from Dayton’s congressman, Mike Turner. Turner was the former mayor of Dayton and was elected to succeed Tony Hall after his 2002 retirement. Even after the 2011 redistricting, Turner’s seat was one of the few remaining competitive districts in the state, and Turner was, by the standards of the House Republican caucus, a relative moderate. But he did not care much for Whaley, who was rumored to be eyeing his seat (she denied it.) And while his new district still included heavily Democratic Dayton, the city’s population decline meant that the district by necessity now included more of the exurban periphery, making it more conservative than it had been in Whalen’s or Hall’s time.
When Turner weighed in on the migrant children fleeing El Salvador and Honduras, he sounded more like Rick Jones than like Whalen or Hall. He called Whaley’s offer “completely out of line,” and said: “When we talk about being an ‘immigrant welcoming city,’ we are not talking about welcoming people who are being victims of an illegal enterprise.” In late July, he fired off a letter to Obama signed by Phil Plummer and five other local elected Republicans saying the Dayton area did not want any of the children there.
A week later, the Obama administration announced it would not be scattering the women and children to cities like Dayton, and instead would hold them in facilities closer to the border. But the episode served to amplify the “sanctuary city” talk swirling around Welcome Dayton. Dayton officials continued to resist the term, saying that while police did not stop, investigate or arrest people solely because of their suspected immigration status, they still investigated the immigration status of people involved in serious offenses and cooperated with federal requests to hold certain undocumented immigrants on retainers, within limits.
Nonetheless, the sanctuary-city term stuck. And the immigration debate became further inflamed when, shortly after the 2014 election, Obama announced his executive action protecting some 5 million immigrants from deportation in lieu of any congressional action on the issue. On June 16, 2015, Trump announced his campaign for president, saying he would build a wall on the southern border to keep Mexico from “sending rapists” across it. Two weeks later, a young woman named Kathryn Steinle was killed in San Francisco by an undocumented Mexican who had been convicted of seven felonies and deported five times, and who said subsequently that he had come to San Francisco because of its lax enforcement of immigration laws.
Steinle’s death provoked an uproar. Trump said this “senseless and totally preventable act of violence” was “yet another example of why we must secure our border.” The House subcommittee on immigration held a hearing on Capitol Hill titled “Sanctuary Cities: A Threat to Public Safety.” There, the lone person called to testify in defense of cities with a lax approach to illegal immigration was Richard Biehl, Dayton’s police chief. Just like that, Dayton’s local debate over openness had intersected with the national one that was shaping a presidential race already showing signs of heading in unforeseen directions.
Back in Montgomery County, Sheriff Plummer had all the more reason of his own to be skeptical of Welcome Dayton: His territory was suddenly a major hot spot in the nationwide heroin epidemic. Just as the Dayton area’s location at the juncture of I-75 and I-70 had made it ideal for the logistics industry, so it had made it a nexus for Mexican traffickers. In November, Plummer’s deputies arrested a 40-year-old Mexican and found, in three homes he owned in the area, $450,000 in cash and 20 pounds of pure heroin, plus several guns. The drugs came from the Sinaloa cartel and amounted to one of the largest seizures ever in the Miami Valley. Medina had been deported from the U.S. three times. “Stay out of Montgomery County and stay out of the Miami Valley,” Plummer said at the news conference announcing the arrest.
The traffickers were also using Dayton as an eager market for their product — a community rife with the economic despair and general demoralization that made places susceptible to the opiate scourge. In 2014, there were 127 fatal heroin overdoses in the county, more than double the rate from just three years earlier and among the highest per-capita rates in the country. The heroin surge was making Plummer even more wary of Dayton’s happy talk about tolerance and integration. “We’ve got three cartels here and they go where there’s less pressure on them,” he said.
As it happened, Plummer now had a new outlet for his misgivings. Just months earlier, the Montgomery County Republican Party — no longer homeless thanks to the offer of space at the Mandalay — had finally settled on a new chairman. He wasn’t particularly political-minded, but he was well-regarded and well-liked and, most important, sufficiently service-minded to take on the thankless task of running a diminished county party: Phil Plummer.
“They’re misleading people.”
The same week as the heroin seizure, Mayor Whaley reasserted her welcome to refugees. This time it wasn’t Central American women and children fleeing violence and poverty, but Syrians fleeing a brutal civil war.
In September, she had joined with the mayors of 17 other cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, in signing a letter saying they were willing to accept even more refugees from Syria than the Obama administration was proposing. On Friday, November 13, ISIS attackers in Paris killed 130 people. The following Monday, Congressman Turner used the attacks to take aim at Whaley’s outreach to Syrian refugees. “While Dayton is a welcoming city,” he wrote to her in an open letter, “in the wake of these deadly attacks and the tragic loss of lives, I urge you to prioritize the safety and security of our community and rescind your invitation to the Obama Administration to send Syrian refugees for relocation in Dayton, Ohio.”
Whaley refused to comply, saying the city would take in refugees if the Obama administration asked it to. “Should the decision be made to place refugees from any country in the City of Dayton, we will continue to be a leader in the welcoming movement and will champion inclusive communities that enable all residents to thrive,” she said.
It was almost as if the two rivals were engaging in a pre-rehearsed duel. As with their standoff over the Central Americans, Whaley and Turner were speaking to completely different audiences; by standing up to the other, the confrontation served each of their interests. Nationwide polls had showed how much partisan sentiments on immigration had diverged; just a decade earlier, Democrats and Republicans had answered similarly on the subject, but since then, they’d polarized even more than on other issues. “For him, it’s an albatross to be nailed to her,” said Matt Joseph, a city commissioner who had helped create Welcome Dayton. “For her, it’s something to get her votes.”
The rhetoric was being amplified in the Republican primary, with the candidates each seeking to outdo each other in their opposition to admitting Syrian refugees. By early December, following the shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., Trump was calling for a ban on any Muslims entering the U.S. Just like that, he had managed to fuse anxiety over immigration with anxiety over Islamic terrorism into a single potent mass.
It was all deeply unsettling to the Ahiska Turks. They were flourishing more with every year. Some were branching into the home health-care business. Some were saving up enough to buy homes in the suburbs. And one of them, Adil Baguirov, who had come to the country as a student years before his fellow Turks arrived as refugees, was getting into politics. He had been elected president of the Dayton Board of Education. He was handsome and well-spoken enough that it was easy to imagine him going far — though he joked that as a naturalized citizen, he couldn’t become president.
The Turks were showing how well Muslim immigrants could fare in America, and how much they could do for a city that needed a boost. And it pained them to see other Muslims, from a country adjoining their ancestral homeland, being tarred as a national security threat. Baguirov had been fingerprinted twice over the course of his 15-month background check for permanent status, he said; the notion of terrorists pouring through the pipeline was absurd. “They’re misleading people,” he said. “Politicians who talk about immigration don’t know anything about anything about immigration.
It was particularly bewildering for Baguirov, because he was a proud Republican. In fact, he was just the sort of new American who Republican Party leaders said the party could bring to its side, if only it tried: He believed in free markets and hard work and personal responsibility and had limited sympathy for those who came to the country illegally, unlike people like him, who had jumped through all the hoops to do it right. The irony was rich: One of the most promising moderate Republican politicians left in Dayton, Ohio in the age of Trump was a Muslim.
“Your freedom and liberty are at risk.”
For Don Phillips, at the Mandalay, Trump’s fusing of immigration and national security had essentially sealed the deal. In recent years, the former George H.W. Bush admirer had grown more and more animated by the usual litany of talk radio issues: his letter to Boehner had cited Obamacare, Benghazi, and the scandal over the IRS targeting Tea Party groups for closer scrutiny. It had even lamented that “pretty soon state’s rights will be a thing of the past” — a striking line coming from a Republican in the area that had produced pro-civil rights Republicans like McCulloch and Whalen.
There were still glimmers of Phillips’ past moderation. For one thing, he thought deporting illegal immigrants was unworkable. But he was with Trump when it came to the Muslim threat. “Bush should have shut down the border after 9/11 and reassessed what we were doing,” he said. “We would not be in this position today with [ISIS] and some of the foreigners coming into this country that don’t like us.”
Greg Gantt, the former party chairman, was supporting his state’s governor, John Kasich, as was Mike Turner, the congressman, while Phil Plummer was for Marco Rubio. But everywhere one looked, it seemed, there were signs that the local Republican establishment, such as it still was, was in disarray. Phillips was not the only fixture of the county GOP with Trump — so was Patrick Flanagan, a former county party chairman who was the longest-serving member of the state Republican committee. Rob Scott, the young lawyer who had briefly run the county party, was not only with Trump but had been put in charge of running his Ohio campaign for the primary.
The crackup was visible in the exurbs, too. One winter weeknight, the Warren County Republican Party met to decide on which candidates for local office to endorse in the March 15 primary. Turnout was high, well over 100 people, befitting a county party that had, over the years, been the scene of high-pitched ideological battles between anti-abortion activists, Tea Partiers and a smattering of moderates. The meeting ran well over two hours as one candidate after another rose to vouch for his or her conservative credentials. One judicial candidate touted the fact that he had a concealed carry permit for his gun; a few minutes later another one-upped him by saying he had 50 guns in his house. A candidate for the seemingly apolitical position of county reporter declared: “Your freedom and liberty are at risk because of the government taking from you and giving to others.” Late in the meeting, a resolution to object to the state party committee’s recent endorsement of Kasich passed overwhelmingly. It had no practical effect, but sent the message that in the heart of Republican Ohio, the party line no longer mattered.
The next day, Sheriff Jones received in his large office adjacent to the Butler County jail the campaign manager for one of the Republicans running to replace John Boehner. The candidate, state Sen. Bill Beagle, was in the business-friendly mode of Republican that Boehner represented, but while Boehner had tried to pass immigration reform in the House, Beagle was seeking Jones’ endorsement. He got it, and within weeks Beagle had put out an ad with Jones that warned: “Americans borders are being overrun by criminals and who knows how many terrorists.”
Jones’ presidential endorsement had already been made. He was with Trump.
“They want security.”
Trump came to Dayton — or rather, the airport just north of town in Vandalia, where one of the shuttered Delphi plants was — on March 12, the Saturday before the primary. It was the day after his rally in Chicago had been canceled amid massive protests, and the friction from that standoff seemed to carry east to the flat empty terrain around the airport, where the access roads were jammed hours before his arrival. The protesters were out early, too. “No Hate in My State,” read one sign. “Trump Make Dayton Great Again: Please Leave.” “Will Trade Trump for 100 Refugees.”
Inside the airplane hangar, the mood was festive. The candidate’s eclectic soundtrack played on endless loop (Stones, Billy Joel, Pavarotti). There were husbands in golf caps with well-manicured wives. There were frat boys. But most noticeable were the many fathers with their grown or near-grown sons.
One moment the plane wasn’t there, and then it was. The crowd surged forward, as it does on the first drumbeat in a rock show. Trump made his way to the podium set up at the edge of the hangar. “Ohio,” he said. “I love Ohio.”
He opened by talking about the protest in Chicago, “a planned attack that came out of nowhere.” It was sad that he had to cancel, but he didn’t want any of his supporters to get hurt. “We have people that are so amazing. It’s not necessarily loyalty to me, it’s loyalty to the country,” he said. “They want security, they want a great military, they want to take care of defense. They want a border. They want a wall.”
He paused, because he knew the chant would follow, and it did.
Build a wall. Build a wall. Build a wall.
“We’re going to build the wall, folks, don’t worry. Who’s going to pay for the wall?”
Mexico. Mexico. Mexico.
It wasn’t even five minutes into his speech and he had them. “Our jobs are being sucked away,” he continued. “It’s unbelievable what’s happening. Our military can’t beat ISIS. Our veterans are treated horribly. Our border is like Swiss cheese. People are just pouring over. On top of that, we’ve divided the country — black and white, income groups, everybody hates each other. Even in Washington, Congress, the politicians hate each other — the Democrats hate the Republicans, the liberals hate the conservatives.”
When a protester managed to penetrate the security perimeter around the podium and started to clamber up before being yanked down, and four agents leaped onto the stage to surround the candidate, the crowd roared in solidarity with the intended target, who looked slightly shaken.
“I was ready for him, but it’s much easier if the cops do it,” Trump said. “And to think I had such an easy life. What do I need this for, right? I know why I need it. Because I’ve done great, I love this country, and we’re going to make this country great again. I owe it. It’s payback time. It’s payback time.”
Don Phillips was not at the rally — he would have liked to go, but was busy at the Mandalay. The people who were at the rally were, by and large, not party people at all. Afterward, out on the muddy field that had taken overflow parking, I met two young men who had voted for Obama in 2008. Now, they were both drawn to Trump.
Alex Jones, 30, shrugged in explanation. “I was naive, man,” he said. “I was doing drugs all the time. As I get older, my view’s not so clouded. I’ve become more conservative.” He worked part time at a pizza shop in Oxford, just west of Dayton, and part time delivering medicine to nursing homes. His father worked at a U-Haul after working at a hydraulics plant and his mother was the activity director at a nursing home. His Trump T-shirt featured an image of the mogul transposed on Shepard Fairey’s famous 2008 image of Obama.
The other, Heath Bowling, a burly, jovial 36-year-old with a prodigious soul patch and a full set of Cincinnati Reds garb, had thought out his evolution more. A father of two, he now ran a small business in Montgomery County, installing siding, and he resented younger people, the underemployed ones around town, some of whom had gotten caught up in Bernie Sanders. “These kids, they expect everything to be free,” he said. He was upset about food stamp fraud, people selling them for 50 cents on the dollar.
But he had not swung all the way across the spectrum. He had only scorn for congressional Republicans and Tea Party Republicans — “I’m so sick of hearing Obama was not born in the U.S. I mean, it’s been eight years now!”
And he was torn on immigration. He didn’t care for Trump’s outright nativism. But it was also wrong to suggest that someone could just come here to work because there was work to be had. After all, he said, “We can’t jump on a plane and go to Croatia and get a job.” Shutting the door would cut down on the heroin, he said. Six school classmates had died from overdoses. He’d heard the stories about the bodies found in the bathrooms at the Cincinnati Bengals stadium, and the one in the porta-john that wasn’t found for five days.
He knew he was relatively fortunate, with the siding firm. His dad was doing OK too — he had retired from the military and was now a foreman at the new Chinese-owned auto-glass plant at the former GM plant south of the city, one of the few bright spots in the area, and one whose foreign ownership seemed to implicitly challenge Trump’s protectionist message.
Back in 2008, Bowling had been working as a lawn-care guy, spraying the lawn at the DHL shipping hub in nearby Wilmington when word came down that DHL was leaving, taking 3,500 jobs from the area. “A guy came out and said, ‘Dude, today is not the day. Roll that hose up and turn the water off.’ I said, OK.”
“He puts it clearly.”
Over my days in the Dayton area, I spoke to other people like Heath Bowling — people who were supporting Trump who were not ideologically conservative, or even particularly “angry,” but were simply politically adrift.
Contessa Hammel, 43, worked at a Speedway gas station after four years in the military and had never voted in 25 years of eligibility because “I didn’t want to make an unintelligent decision.” Now she spends her weekends doling out Trump signs. I found her hard at work in West Carrollton, just outside the city. “He makes it simple for people like me,” she said. “He puts it clearly.”
Jerome Brewer, 40, an auto-body repairman in Miamisburg who’d swung between the parties, voted for John Kerry in 2004 and for Hillary Clinton against Obama in 2008 but for John McCain and Mitt Romney against Obama. The auto-body business had slowed after the GM closings — “If you get a little dent now you can live with it so you’ll be able to put food on the table.” He’d seen Mexicans get jobs at his shop, making half his pay. “Trump is talking about all the issues people I know are concerned about that no one would be talking about if it weren’t for him,” he said. “For the first time since Reagan there’s a candidate I’m really liking, rather than voting for the lesser of two evils.”
I spoke with Brewer at the First Baptist Church in Miamisburg, where he had just cast his primary ballot for Trump. Trump got 36 percent in Ohio that day, roughly what he’d gotten in many other states he’d won, except that in Ohio the opposition had consolidated behind John Kasich (who had also been helped by Democrats and independents casting an anti-Trump vote on his behalf). Trump had lost badly to Kasich in the well-off suburbs of Columbus, the capital. He’d lost to him in the better-off suburbs of Dayton, places like Oakwood and Beavercreek.
But overall in Montgomery County, Trump had gotten more votes, in finishing second, than Hillary Clinton had received in winning the county in the Democratic primary. And he had cleaned up in the working-class suburbs like Miamisburg. In one precinct that voted at First Baptist, the Trump share was 57 percent; in another it was 60, among his highest in the entire state.
The stories of the Trump voters I spoke with started to blur together. Their fathers had had solid jobs in Dayton and had voted mostly Democrat (and, they would add in a candid aside, were not so enlightened about race.) They themselves had less solid jobs, and voted mostly Republican, when they voted, but with little sense of attachment.
Tony Hall, the former Democratic congressman, understood why Trump would appeal to these voters. Nobody had paid attention to them for a long time.
“Trump isn’t saying anything other than you’ve got trouble and I’m going to take care of it, you got shafted and I’m going to take care of it,” he told me. “The Democrats are not addressing their issues and haven’t been for years … Their constituency is the working people and the poor and they forgot about them for years … They want someone to sit down and have a beer with them and listen to them and address some of their issues and do everything they can to bring jobs back.”
They had a home in neither party as it now existed in greater Dayton. They were certainly not part of the Democratic Party of Welcome Dayton — the world that, the day before the Trump rally, had hosted a visit to town by Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, stumping for Clinton. But they also weren’t part of the Republican Party that had left Montgomery County and moved to the exurbs, whether it took the form of Warren County’s ideological infighting or Boehner’s country-club complacency. They were stranded between these two poles, in the older, frayed inner suburbs of Montgomery County.
Don Phillips saw these people a lot as the campaign headed into summer, and as Dayton prepared for its moment in the sun, hosting the first presidential debate last September. They came to party headquarters at the Mandalay to pick up Trump signs. But, he said, marveling: “These are not Republicans.” Or not Republicans as he’d known them. They were no one’s constituency, until now.
Read more of ProPublica’s coverage of politics and lobbying in our ongoing series, The Breakdown.