BALTIMORE: Twenty years ago, when thousands of people still drove past his Edgemere gas station every day on their way to make steel and cars, Carl Hobson put up signs for Democrats.
Now the 77-year-old displays one of the largest “Trump” signs in this blue-collar community. The “Make America Great Again” slogan is impossible to miss under the price for diesel.
Hobson has owned the station since 1964, when Bethlehem Steel and General Motors weren’t just large employers important to the local economy — they were fundamental to the region’s culture.
“People don’t want a third term of [Barack] Obama,” Hobson said. Maryland is a blue state, he said, but “the people in this area are definitely not Hillary people.”
The neighborhoods around the Baltimore County communities of Dundalk and Essex, once the heart of Maryland’s blue-collar, Reagan Democrat constituency, is now a stronghold for Donald Trump. The Republican presidential nominee captured 77 percent of the GOP primary vote here in April, more than in any other region of the state.
In four of its precincts, more than 80 percent of people voting at polls chose Trump over Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich. By contrast, Trump won the statewide GOP primary with 54 percent of the vote. In westernmost Maryland, reliably Republican territory, he took 61 percent.
Maryland hasn’t chosen a Republican for president since George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in 1988 — and it’s not considered likely to turn red this year. Still, the political evolution taking place in eastern Baltimore County not only helps to explain Trump’s appeal nationally, but also has implications for local races.
Few if any places in the state have been as damaged by the decline of manufacturing as the shore communities east of Baltimore, where tens of thousands of jobs have disappeared since the 1960s. And few communities in the state have demographic profiles that so perfectly match what polls identify as typical Trump voters.
A mile from heavily Democratic Baltimore, Trump signs crop up in yards outside the small houses and rowhomes built to support a manufacturing boom that began before World War I.
Trump representing change
Inside, residents worry about their future — and say Trump represents the change needed to shake up the country.
“It’s just a scary situation,” said Linda Jessa. The 59-year-old Dundalk woman was laid off from her job at a non-profit last year, and has struggled to find work ever since.
“I’m hoping with a different type of government there’ll be some more opportunities,” she said. “Just because I’m a little bit older doesn’t mean I want to go out to pasture. I’m not ready to sit home and fade away.”
Eastern Baltimore County has been trending Republican for years. Not only did voters pick GOP Governor Larry Hogan over Democrat Anthony Brown by a 3-1 margin in 2014, they also swept Democrats out of all four General Assembly seats in the Dundalk-Essex-based 6th Legislative District.
Since then, the number of registered Republicans has increased 18 percent — the largest jump in GOP enrollment anywhere in Maryland. The number of registered Democrats fell by 2 percent over the same period. Democrats still outnumber Republicans by 2-1 in the region.
Johnny Ray Salling was a steelworker for 30 years before he was elected to the state Senate in 2014.
“People, I think, just felt like they weren’t being listened to,” he said. “They were tired of just not being heard.”
Trump’s controversial rhetoric since the Republican National Convention last month — criticizing the parents of a soldier killed in combat, calling on Russia to find Democrat Hillary Clinton’s missing emails and suggesting “the Second Amendment people” could stop her from appointing judges — has cost him in the polls and divided the Republican Party.
But dozens of interviews with voters and elected officials make it clear he remains popular here. His disparaging remarks about immigrants, Islam and women meet with arguments about media bias or sensationalism, or a shoulder shrug.