One Square Mile Johnston: Why Did This Democratic Town Back President Trump?

Jan 31, 2017

Ken Schiano of Cranston and Ralph Petrocchi of Johnston are among the Democrats who backed Donald Trump last November.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

Democrat Hillary Clinton won the state of Rhode Island in November, but then-candidate Donald Trump beat her by 14 points in Johnston.

That marks the biggest swing in a Rhode Island community going from Democrat to Republican in the presidential election. As part of our series "One Square Mile: Johnston," Rhode Island Public Radio's political reporter Ian Donnis went looking for answers for why this blue town turned red.

You don’t have to look far to find Donald Trump supporters in Johnston. In fact, it’s as easy as walking into one of the Brewed Awakenings coffee shops on Atwood Avenue, a busy main artery lined with strip plazas, Italian restaurants and other small businesses.

Brewed Awakenings is a frequent gathering point for a group of pro-Trump retirees, like Ralph Petrocchi.

"People say to me, well, you left the Democratic Party. No, I didn’t -- the Democratic Party left me. And I’m sick and tired of them giving away my money to everybody, and all of our money to everybody who doesn’t deserve it," Petrocchi said.

Petrocchi said he’s a lifelong Democrat. But he got turned off by what he considers excessive American foreign aid to other countries.

Like many others in this middle class town west of Providence, Petrocchi sees Trump as a sharp break from business as usual in Washington: "I think he knows the problem. As a person who’s not a politician, he’s a businessman. And he’s gonna run this country like a business, and that’s how it should be run."

State Rep. Stephen Ucci (D-Johnston) is hanging out with the pro-Trump retirees this morning. Ucci said he voted for Clinton. But he believes dissatisfaction with the status quo explains why Johnston voters saw Trump as a change agent.

"I think a lot of people are just frustrated, thinking that nothing’s coming out of Washington," Ucci said. "So it was really kind of a backlash on a national level against some of the Democratic policies. And a lot of the people I’ve talked to think the party doesn’t reflect them any more and that it’s gone too far to the left."

Too far to the left is a relative term. So it’s worth remembering that Johnston Democrats lean to the right, especially on social issues like abortion. That’s due in part to the scores of Italian immigrants and their children who moved to the town after first settling in Providence. Johnston is now considered home to the second-highest proportion of Italian-Americans in the US.

Johnston Democratic Town Chair Richard Delfino Jr. said Clinton was good on the issues, but failed to get her message across.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

Democratic Town Chairman Richard Delfino Jr. said many residents in this overwhelmingly white, Catholic town get their information from Fox News, and take a dim view of issues like undocumented immigration.

"They don’t want to hear about the racial divide, they don’t want to hear about illegal immigration," he said. "You talk about the issue of abortion, I mean, Italian families in Johnston go to church on Sunday and they hear from their parish priest, someone they trust and somebody they rely on."

Delfino said Trump validated the feelings of Johnston voters who think race relations got worse during the Obama years, and that undocumented immigrants are cutting the line to enjoy the benefits of being in America: "If you talk to some of the older people in the town, they say, you know, no one should be entering this country and be illegal – there’s a legal way to do it. And just like our forefathers did it, so should this new wave of immigrants come through a legal process."

Immigrants-rights groups say there are millions of undocumented immigrants in the US, although that’s a small percentage of the total number of immigrants.

Regardless, Delfino said if more Johnston voters got to know the Hillary Clinton he knows, she would have won them over. He’s met Clinton three times, most recently at the Atwood Grille last summer. Delfino said the real Hillary came through when she held his infant grandson for about 20 minutes.

"I saw that side of her," he said, "and I’m going to tell you it was genuine and it was sincere and it was real. She wasn’t going through the motions as a good politician, like hold the baby and then move on. It was so interesting, because her staffers were saying, you know, we have to move on."

Delfino thinks Clinton was good on the issues. But he said her campaign left a vacuum by failing to communicate a clear message. In the end, the presidential race turned on a margin of just 80,000 votes in the key battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Those tight races limited Clinton’s time to campaign elsewhere, let alone cuddle with babies in Rhode Island. But Delfino said it was hard even to get Clinton lawn signs to distribute in Johnston.

Meanwhile, he said, Trump appealed to Johnston Democrats’ conservative values, while also offering a simple, clear refrain: "You know, making America great again – that’s a great slogan, you know, whatever it means. It meant something to a lot of those people in my town, whatever it means – whether it meant better road repair, bridges, whether it meant national security, whether it mean, you know, a crackdown on illegal immigration ….. whatever you want it to mean."

Trump’s make America great again message struck a chord with Johnston voters, but it didn’t translate into support for Republicans in races for local offices. In fact, there are so few Republicans in Johnston that Delfino, the town’s Democratic chairman was unaware he has a GOP counterpart, Robert Matteo.

Matteo said running as a Republican in Johnston is tough. He lost a 2012 race for Town Council. He said people will say they’re sorry, but they just don’t vote for Republicans.

Yet when it came to the presidential race, it was Clinton who faced an overwhelming wave of opposition.

"The Democrats that we talked to here, all seemed to be very leery of a Clinton administration," Matteo said. "They weren’t really clear on Hillary’s message. I’m not sure if that went through to voters here at all. It seemed to be lost."

Now Democrats have lost the White House, they’re the minority in Congress, and it may just be a matter of time until the US Supreme Court has a conservative majority. Democrats also lost a lot of ground in state legislatures and gubernatorial offices during Barack Obama’s eight years as president. So if Democrats want to fight there way back, they’ll have to win over voters in scores of communities across the country like Johnston.