The Paul Simon city that turned to Trump

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Thomas Darabos, fishing for walleye on the frozen Saginaw River
Image caption,
Thomas Darabos, fishing for walleye on the frozen Saginaw River

Saginaw - a blue-collar city made famous by Paul Simon's song America - surprisingly voted for Donald Trump in 2016. As the president prepares to make his State of the Union address, what do voters think now?

It's January in Michigan, and Thomas Darabos is walking on water.

He finds a spot, carves a hole in the ice, and sits on a bucket. Then he waits for a bite.

He and 10 others are fishing on the Saginaw River. Their frozen breath hangs in the air.

Tall, smoky chimneys used to line the water. Now, naked trees form silhouettes against the blank sky.

"We had all kinds of industry, but everything's gone," says Darabos.

"They've got a couple of factories here and there, but it's not like when I was a kid. Business was booming in Saginaw. Now it's dead."

The 52-year-old was a labourer before injuring his back and shoulder. In 2016, after a lifetime of voting Democrat, he turned to Donald Trump.

How does he feel now? "He's creating jobs," he says.

"He's bringing money from different countries back to the United States. I think that's a good thing."

A few yards away, Gerald Welzin lifts his line from the water and nods. Like Darabos, he voted Republican for the first time in 2016.

"I think he's doing a great job," says the 61-year-old landscaper.

"A lot of people criticise him, badmouth him, say a lot of bad things about him. But you've got to give the man a chance."

Image caption,
Lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel's 1968 hit America appear across Saginaw. Most were sprayed in 2010

On the river bank, a lyric has been sprayed on a huge, concrete bridge support.

"It took me four days to hitch-hike from Saginaw," it says. "I've gone to look for America."

The line is from America, a Simon and Garfunkel song about young love, adventure and optimism. According to a local promoter, Paul Simon wrote it in Saginaw in 1966.

If he came back now, he may not recognise the place.

For decades, Saginaw was a General Motors city. In 1979, the manufacturer employed 26,100 people here.

Now, just one GM facility remains, employing fewer than 500 people (a former GM plant, run by the Chinese firm Nexteer, employs around 5,000 more).

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon in concert

When the jobs went, the people followed. In 1960, almost 100,000 people lived in Saginaw. Now it's fewer than half that.

The population of Saginaw County has also declined, though less sharply.

As a working-class city, Saginaw supported Democrats. From 1988 to 2012, the county voted blue.

More widely, Michigan was part of the so-called "blue wall" of solid Democrat states. And then, in 2016, Donald Trump came along.

Mr Trump's victory in Saginaw County was narrow - he won just 1,074 more votes than Hillary Clinton - but notable.

County by county, brick by brick, the blue wall came down. For the first time since 1988, Michigan voted Republican.

Image caption,
Business owner Rick Coombs outside his workshop

One year on, Trump supporters are not hard to find in Saginaw.

In the city centre, there's a workshop in an empty car park. On one wall - in view of the Democrats' office - is a Trump sign.

Rick Coombs, 32, put it there before the election. "What I really, really liked, was the same thing people dislike about him," he says.

"He's not the most politically correct person, and I'm 100% fine with that."

Coombs, born and raised in Saginaw, owns three businesses, including a gun shop called Reaction Armory.

The Trump sign has been defaced and his companies targeted online. "False accusations, cheesy little Trump comments, poor ratings, things like that," says Coombs.

(He is not alone - in August, a Republican event at a Saginaw pizzeria was cancelled after the business was threatened).

Coombs, though, will not take his sign down.

"One hundred per cent, I'm keeping it up," he says. "You're not going to scare me out of here. That's just not going to happen."

Coombs gives President Trump a "solid eight" (out of 10) for his first year in office. "Look at the numbers, look at the GDP," he says.

He's disappointed the healthcare bill failed, but hopes tax cuts, passed before Christmas, will benefit his businesses. He also thinks the president is unfairly criticised.

"Here's the problem I really have with the left," he says.

"Every president - I mean every president - is easy to make fun of. No matter what he does, they will be against it, simply because it's Trump.

"They're still sore losers. They're still salty about the situation."

Image caption,
An old club in the First Ward area of Saginaw, where a number of homes have been razed

Darryl Wimbley knows he's not a typical Trump supporter.

The 49-year-old was born in Alabama to a black mother and Arab father [growing up, his father spoke to him only in Arabic]. At the age of three, he moved to Saginaw with his mother.

"Back then, to have a baby out of wedlock was unacceptable," he says. "They would send you north."

He spent 20 years as a car salesman, but had to stop after a motorcycle accident. "I said I'd do it for two months and I made ten grand."

In 2008, he voted for Barack Obama. But he has an admission. "The most racist thing I ever did," he says.

"I didn't care what his views were. I didn't care. He was black, and that was it. I didn't question it."

After Obama came to office, he did question it, voting Republican for the first time in 2012. And, when Donald Trump became a candidate, he listened.

"He said a lot of things that I thought, but would never say in public," he says.

Such as?

"Illegal immigrants do cause a lot of crime," he replies.

"I lived in Chicago, I know what immigrants do. I understand MS-13 (a mainly Central American gang), I understand the Latin Kings, I understand Maniac Disciples.

"I've seen it first hand, and most of them are illegals."

After telling his family he supported Mr Trump, his sister and mother stopped speaking to him. Some black people, he says, called him an "Uncle Tom, a sell-out".

But he still supports the president.

"The tax bill I like, the jobs are coming back, we're getting rid of regulation," he says. "A big thing is coal mines for me, because my family are coal miners."

And, like Rick Coombs, he thinks Mr Trump is treated unfairly.

"If you are the person in a room who everyone hates, you could actually give someone a million dollars - and they'll complain you didn't wrap it right."

Image caption,
The Bancroft Building, a former hotel, is an example of Saginaw's regeneration

Saginaw is a sprawling, un-pretty city.

Unloved, unneeded homes have been razed. Buildings - such as the red-brick railway station, closed since 1986 - lie derelict. And graffiti is common.

There are, however, signs of life.

The old Bancroft Hotel is now home to "luxury" apartments, a coffee shop, and a cocktail bar. Twenty-four brownstone homes have gone up by the river.

There are boutiques, craft breweries, and murals on street corners. One piece of graffiti that used to say "Saginasty" now reads "Saginawesome".

Jim Hines, a 62-year-old doctor who lives in Saginaw, thinks the city's future is "bright".

Dr Hines has delivered thousands of babies, owns a medical practice, and spent four years in the Central African Republic, running two hospitals.

He has seven sons, 12 grandchildren, and a third-degree black belt in taekwondo.

He also rides a Harley, has flown planes since he was 16, and - if that's not enough - wants to become the next governor of Michigan.

Image caption,
Jim Hines and wife Martha in front of the "Hinesmobile". The campaign campervan has covered 23,000 miles

Dr Hines grew up in a poor family in Warsaw, Indiana - he met his wife, Martha, in the pizza place where he washed dishes - and is a long-time Republican.

The party will choose their candidate in August, before the state-wide election in November.

He says he is an underdog - early polling suggests the same - but he takes inspiration from another underdog, now sitting in the White House.

"I'm not bashful in my support of Donald Trump," he says.

"Am I going out campaigning saying 'Hey, I'm Trump-like, vote for me?' No.

"But I am an outsider, I am a businessman, I want to put people first."

Dr Hines, a Christian, is not put off by the president's crudeness - "It's not how I would express myself, but I think he speaks from his heart" - or his tough line on immigration.

"To have a sovereign country you need borders," he says. "Immigration - great. But not illegal immigration."

He supports the wall on the Mexican border, and thinks Mr Trump's policies - especially the tax cuts - have rejuvenated Saginaw.

"I think there's a lot of optimism," he says. "There wasn't so much before Trump. It was like 'Saginaw is kind of dwindling away'."

In Tony's Original Restaurant - a cosy, old-fashioned diner - a group of Dr Hines' supporters has come to meet the media (a local TV station is also here).

They are anti-abortion, low-tax people. Judy Anderson, a 73-year-old retired nurse, "had to study and think" before voting for Mr Trump.

But, one year on, she is proud of what he's done - even if she doesn't like his tweets.

"The companies being taxed less are rewarding their employees, left and right," she says. "And that's a positive thing."

On the next table, Sue Lynn, 63, also admires the president. But her language is more colourful; more Trump-like.

"If you've got an infestation of rats, you call the guy to come in," she says.

"You don't care if his crack's showing. You don't care if he's swearing.

"You don't care if he's got tobacco-stained teeth. You want the rats taken out."

Image caption,
Darryl Wimbley - who made more than 1,000 phone calls for Donald Trump's campaign - and Sue Lynn

The monthly meeting of the Saginaw County Democrats fizzes like a freshly opened bottle of beer.

It's a cold, wet night, but more than 50 people have turned up. On the wall, "stronger together" is spelt out in cardboard.

A pot-luck (a buffet where everyone brings a dish) has brought people here early. Members swap gossip over chicken wings and Miller Lite.

When the labourers' union brings more beer, a cheer goes up. It feels like a party, rather than a party meeting.

Things begin with the Pledge of Allegiance - members stand and face the flag - before chairman Paul Purcell zips through the agenda.

There's lots of applause; lots of whooping. After the low of 2016, the Democrats say they're bouncing back.

"Two or three years ago, there wouldn't have been more than 25 people at a January meeting," says treasurer Kyle Bostwick, 34, who works as the deputy clerk of Saginaw County.

"In 2008 - which was a huge Democratic year - we saw these numbers at the end of the election cycle."

Bostwick thinks President Trump's victory wasn't a total shock. "You could feel it," he says. "Something wasn't right."

But - while he is dismayed by the tweets, and dismayed by the diplomacy - his cloud has a silver lining.

"It shook us to our core," he says. "But we had to get all the way to the bottom to realise what we're about, and who we're here to fight for."

Tom Knaub, 63, is a retired television photo-journalist who lives in Saginaw Township.

When he heard Donald Trump won his hometown, nearby Bay City, he "literally cried".

"I was never embarrassed about the United States until now," he says.

"I was in our National Guard [a reserve military force] for 23-and-a-half years. Every time I went overseas, I never had to apologise.

"Now, first thing I do is say, 'I'm sorry'."

Image caption,
Part-meeting, part-rally: Chairman Paul Purcell at Saginaw County Democratic Party's monthly meeting

Knaub dislikes the president's immigration policies - "Our forefathers came here to get away," he says - and thinks he won't keep his promises.

"Look at the carrier plant [in Indianapolis] where he went during his campaign," he says.

"He said 'Look, we're saving the jobs'. Now they're laying off 200 people."

For Saginaw County Democrats, 2018 is a big year. The party is planning for national mid-term elections in November, and a host of local contests.

Hunter Koch, a 21-year-old student at Saginaw Valley State University, already sits on a school board, and will run for the Michigan senate this year.

He thinks President Trump's first year has been a "complete catastrophe".

"The Muslim ban, the talk of the wall - it's the antithesis of our principles," he says.

Koch says the Democrats need an "economic message that really sticks". If they get it, he predicts a "blue wave" in 2018.

Jimmy Greene, a 59-year-old from Saginaw Township, predicts the same.

The difference is, Greene is a Republican.

"Donald Trump was a child on the campaign," he says. "And he is a child in the White House."

Image source, Jimmy Greene / BBC
Image caption,
Jimmy Greene and Hunter Koch

Greene - the founder of the Michigan Black Republican Party - dislikes the president's "small-mindedness, the bullying, the name calling".

He also thinks Mr Trump generates more heat than light. "Bluster is not an outcome - bluster is bluster," he says.

"We got a tax cut, I applaud him for that. But any Republican would have done the same.

"So what exactly is he getting done? He hasn't got anything done, and he's got [control of] the House and the Senate.

"When Obama had the House and the Senate, he passed stimulus, Obamacare. I mean, my god, the man had the run of the world, and he used it."

Greene thinks his party will be "killed" in the mid-terms. "And at that point, most Republicans will finally come to their senses," he says.

"You can already see people like (John) Kasich, (Jeff) Flake, positioning themselves to probably take a run (for the Republican nomination in 2020).

"Quite frankly, us 'Never Trumpers' are already working behind the scenes to stoke that possibility."

Image caption,
The Castle Museum of Saginaw County History was built in the 1890s and is a former post office

The day after the Democrats' meeting, the temperature drops and snow returns to Saginaw.

The sky is heavy. The fields turn white. The magnificent Castle Museum, a former post office, looks like an outpost of Narnia.

On the road out of town, the river begins to freeze. Thomas Darabos, Gerald Welzin and the other ice fishers are nowhere to be seen.

Look carefully, though, and the lyric - the 52-year-old lyric - remains in red spray paint.

Since Paul Simon wrote them, those 15 words have travelled round the world, spreading a message of young love and American adventure.

But they live - they belong - here, on a concrete pillar, in their hometown of Saginaw.

Follow Owen Amos on Twitter @owenamos

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