Local voters will go to the polls in a little more than three weeks, on April 26. As part of our RhodyVotes ’16 coverage, Rhode Island Public Radio political reporter Ian Donnis went looking for answers about how and why Trump zipped to the front of the local Republican presidential field.
Just a few local elected officials are backing Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in Rhode Island, and State Senator Edward O’Neill is one of them.
O’Neill is the only independent member of the Rhode Island Senate. He says his support for Trump grew stronger after he and his wife went to a rally in South Carolina, were 10,000 people turned out to cheer for Trump. Before the event, O’Neill thought the scene might be marked by pickup trucks outfitted with confederate flags.
"The people, though, were very much like you and me," O'Neill said. "They were very polite, very well-dressed, well-groomed. I didn’t see any confederate flags, I didn’t see any gun racks on pickup trucks. I saw people driving vehicles like you would expect to see at the mall or Wal-Mart."
O’Neill concedes Trump is bombastic and not very presidential. Yet he likes Trump’s business background
and negotiating experience, and thinks if elected he would surround himself with brilliant people. He sees Trump as the only candidate who will really go after challenging issues like immigration, national security, and the shrinking of the American middle class.
"Trump’s not perfect," O'Neill said. "He’s got a lot of warts, and those warts concern me. But at the end of the day, you gotta say who’s gonna stand up and protect the borders, who’s gonna stand up and try to get fair deal for people who want a decent living and a decent job and a decent wage?"
O’Neill said it’s average middle class voters who are quietly propelling Trump’s popularity on the GOP ballot in Rhode Island. He sat down to breakfast recently with a few of those voters at Frank’s Restaurant, a diner in Lincoln. As O’Neill ordered breakfast, other Trump supporters talked about the campaign.
"I’m concerned about the perception of him by the public," said O’Neill’s wife, Carole, a retired teacher. She’s worried about attempts to take Trump down.
"They’re doing their level best to smear him – the media and also the core Republican Party is trying to smear him. They’re scared to death of this guy and what this might mean. He doesn’t owe anybody anything, and they’re not used to that."
Another supporter, David Ferranti, is a North Providence fire dispatcher. In the past he has voted for both Democrats and Republicans, but like many supporters, Ferranti likes Trump’s business background.
"I think we need somebody in there that’s going to make a business decision based on what’s better for a country as a whole," Ferranti said.
Ferranti thinks Trump is going to draw a lot of votes even in Democratic bastions like North Providence, because voters are tired of politicians who seem mostly concerned about keeping themselves in office.
"I mean this country is on an unsustainable path to financial ruins," he said. "And we’re passing that onto what will be my grandchildren and probably my great-grandchildren, and I feel as though the only person who’s capable of taking a hard look at this is Mr. Trump."
Trump’s critics say some of his ideas, like deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants, or getting Mexico to pay for a border wall, are just not realistic. These critics say Trump has a long record of making demeaning remarks about women, and has encouraged violence at some of his rallies. Here’s an example from an event in Iowa in February.
"So if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you, seriously?" Trump said. "I promise you I will pay for the legal fees."
As the bell signaled the start of a recent legislative session, State Representative and State Democratic Party Chairman Joseph McNamara said it’s these kind of remarks that will undermine Trump’s campaign.
"By the time the election rolls around, I believe our tent will be so big that Donald Trump’s message of hate, prejudice and fear will not be resonating with the populace," McNamara said.
But Trump supporters remain steadfast. State Republican Chairman Brandon Bell, though he remains neutral on the primary race, thinks most Republicans will coalesce behind Trump if he becomes the party’s nominee.
"I think people will come out and support Donald Trump, or they’re hold their breath and hold their nose and push the lever for him because they don’t want to see Hillary Clinton become president," Bell said.
Bell spoke at a GOP legislative fundraiser at Gator’s Pub in North Smithfield. As a few dozen Republicans mingled over drinks, finding any who consider Trump their preferred candidate was a bit of a challenge.
And yet, Trump led the field of Republicans in the latest poll of Rhode Island voters, conducted by the Taubman Institute at Brown University. The chairman of Trump’s Rhode Island campaign is state Representative Joe Trillo. He said the candidate has a lot of support.
"Right now, what we’re doingis we’re putting together as many volunteers as we can to work on the campaign," Trillo said. "We’re accumulating those people. We have people that are picking up signs, and putting up signs all over the state."
Trillo hopes that Trump will visit Rhode Island before the April 26 primary.
Regardless of what happens with Donald Trump’s campaign, it’s clear that he’s struck a chord even in the blue bastion of Rhode Island. Whether and how other elected officials respond to the concerns he’s tapped about the economic anxiety of Americans is another story.