Up and down Nathaniel Drive lie the rubbled remains of free-trade agreements and blue-collar dreams.
One factory made Major League Baseball caps. Another made carpets. Plants manufacturing men’s trousers and other goods also disappeared the last three decades.
The industrial wasteland along the Oconee River underscores Donald Trump’s America-in-decline campaign riff with low-wage Mexico, cheating China and feckless U.S. politicians to blame for emasculating the country’s working-class strength. The GOP presidential candidate’s “Make American Great Again” theme plays well in this overwhelming Republican, geographical heart of Georgia.
Trump and Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton head into the post-Labor Day homestretch with polls tightening and Americans paying closer attention to the candidates and their issues. It’s 50 days to Election Tuesday and Georgia, while rarely a pivotal player in recent presidential elections, could play an outsized role in 2016.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll last month showed Clinton with a four percentage point lead over Trump, within the poll’s margin of error. Georgia hasn’t gone for the Democratic nominee since 1992 when Bill Clinton — Hillary’s husband — bested George H.W. Bush.
A water tower here in Laurens County boasts of its location as the “the business heart of Georgia,” and it’s a good place to take the political pulse of small-town Georgia. Dublin suffered the worst that previous “free trade” deals offered — plant closures, job losses, economic stagnation — and, recently, has benefited from the best that international trade has to offer, including new factories, decent-paying jobs and, yes, hope.
Laurens County is the new, globally focused Georgia, writ small.
“You’ve got to bring jobs back to America. Trump will do that. He’s very successful at everything he’s done,” said Todd Yates, 43, a Republican and business owner in Dublin. “He’s a proven businessman and not a politician. I don’t like politicians.”
Laurens County, though, defies conventional political and economic wisdom. German, Japanese and Latvian factories employing hundreds of skilled workers lie on the other side of the river and town.
Dublin, with its ideal location along Interstate 16 just two hours from the bustling port of Savannah and the international airport of Atlanta, is experiencing something of a manufacturing renaissance. Its economy, including exports of cotton, soybeans and peanuts, is heavily dependent on foreign demand and capital and the trade rules that undergird international markets.
So Trump’s tough anti-free trade talk appears somewhat crosswise with voters whose jobs depend upon international trade. Trump promises to renegotiate trade deals, including NAFTA, and crack down on China.
Democrat Hillary Clinton, his opponent, once supported the North American Free Trade Agreement, but adopted a tougher stance during her tough primary battle with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. She now opposes the latest trade pact with Asia and has promised to “stop any trade deal that kills jobs or holds down wages.”
Georgians, though, understand the importance of — and support for — fair trade. A poll last month by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows that 72 percent of all Georgians back international trade. More Democrats (86 percent) than Republicans (67 percent) want the next president to support the trade agreements.
Interviews with a dozen Laurens County voters earlier this month provided a knowledgeable, nuanced view of Dublin’s economic strengths and weaknesses and why anti-trade, anti-globalization rhetoric isn’t likely to sway them.
“Trump would get rid of the trade agreements,” said Al Manning, a retired school administrator who works part-time at a comic book store downtown. “Clinton would probably do a better job keeping and bringing in jobs here because Trump would be more about making money and catering to the one percent.”
Manning, a self-described independent and still-undecided voter, spent summers during college working at the J.P. Stevens woolen mill on Nathaniel Drive. The factory, filled with farm boys defeated by the boll weevil, made dress uniforms for the military and the fabric for the Master’s green jacket since 1947. At its peak, 1,600 men and women — the county’s largest employer — worked at the plant in East Dublin.
NAFTA, signed in 1994 by the U.S., Canada and Mexico, ever-cheaper China and baseball’s preference for polyester, led to the factory’s shuttering in 2007.
Trump, to some in Laurens County, harkens former presidential candidate Ross Perot who theatrically warned in 1992 of a “giant sucking sound” of jobs disappearing to Mexico. In Dublin, the sound turned into a roar as factory after factory closed.
Roughly 4,000 jobs were lost, the county’s development authority says, as Mohawk carpets, New Holland tractors, Eldorado stone and Biljo pants went the way of the old Stevens plant. Unemployment hit nearly 15 percent in 2011.
“After 2008 we weren’t doing much manufacturing at all in this country,” said Roger Folsom, chairman of the development authority. “We courted some big domestic companies (like) Caterpillar and Tractor Supply. We’d love to have them here. But we didn’t have the luxury of waiting 10, 20 years for the ideal mom and pop companies.”
European and Asian companies filled the void. YKK AP America, a Japanese automotive company, opened in Dublin in 1992 and has expanded numerous times, employing upwards of 400 workers. Erdrich, a German auto parts company, opened in 2012 and expects to hire 200.
Valmiera Glass, a Latvian company that caters to the auto industry, recently expanded operations and expects 575 workers one day. Polymer Logistics, an Israeli company which makes pallets for Walmart, is building a factory on Dublin’s west side and expects to hire 110 workers.
Dublin clearly, benefits from foreign investment and trade as does Georgia. The state exported $39 billion worth of machinery, peanuts, chickens and other products last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Critics argue that Trump, though, with his talk of trade protection and higher tariffs on so-called unfair trading partners like Mexico, Japan and China, might threaten the state’s increasingly global economy.Abandoning NAFTA or killing the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), currently under review by Congress, could lead to trade wars, higher prices for imported goods and job losses, they say.
Trump recently labeled the TPP “another disaster done and pushed by special interests who want to rape our country.”
Many mainstream Republicans, who generally support trade pacts, are turned off by Trump’s anti-free trade talk.
“I dont trust him. He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said Kris Courtney, a studio artist and Republican new to Dublin. “Trump will sell us out. I want somebody to shake some things up, but not collapse our few blessings in America. I’ll be honest with you: I do not like my choices this year.”
Yet Trump’s anti-foreign diatribes play well with many blue-collar workers who feel betrayed by the New Economy, or the Tea Party crowd which distrusts politicians. Others, like James Malone, a cotton and peanut farmer in nearby Dexter, say Trump doesn’t really mean what he says.
“A third of at least everything we produce goes overseas, so if we don’t have foreign trade we don’t have a market,” said Malone, 63, a Republican. “Hillary, I don’t believe anything she says. I have to vote for Trump even though if he does everything he says he’s going to do it will be bad for agriculture and bad for the economy as a whole. It could have a very negative impact.”
Campaign rhetoric aside, Clinton is considered more of a free-trader and internationalist than Trump
“He’s not for foreigners. We would be in a bad place because Laurens County is mostly run by foreigners — the motels, stores and factories,” said Veronica Kyler, 53, a Democrat and home health care worker who’ll vote for Clinton. “Trump would hurt a lot of people because they’d be without jobs.”
Clinton, though, isn’t likely to win Laurens County. Mitt Romney garnered 61 percent of the vote in 2012; Obama got 38 percent. The president did little better four years earlier, taking 39 percent of the vote to John McCain’s 60 percent. Rural Georgia is still Red Georgia, after all, and issues other than trade and manufacturing will likely weigh more heavily on voters come November 8.
“I like the fact that Trump is pro-business, but I’m certainly not out waving the flag for him,” said the development authority’s Folsom, a Republican. But “he can surround himself with folks who could tweak those trade deals and Ms. Clinton would do the same. We do have to think about America’s future. We’ve been declining for a long time.”
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