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Trump finds support in former Democratic stronghold in Maryland

GOP enrollment is up 18 percent in eastern Baltimore County, highest in the state.

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 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 Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. 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.

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 nonprofit 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 Gov. Larry Hogan over Democrat Anthony G. 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.

Voters said they are far more tuned in to an economic message critical of free-trade agreements. Notably, Trump has vowed repeatedly to "bring back steel." (He doesn't offer much explanation about how he would reverse decades of decline.)

Irene Spatafore started a nonprofit six years ago that sends donated supplies to U.S. soldiers overseas. Her late husband served in the Marines before working at Bethlehem Steel.

Spatafore, 82, said she disagreed with Trump's decision to spar publicly with the parents of Humayun Khan, the Muslim Army captain who was killed in Iraq in 2004.

"Shut up once in a while," she said. "Go with the grieving family and shut up."

But the imbroglio, which prompted many Republicans to criticize Trump, did not diminish Spatafore's support for the Republican nominee.

"I just wanted to punish him — sit him in the time-out chair," she said.

Del. Ric Metzgar, a first-term Republican from Essex, said much of Trump's rhetoric speaks to voters' desire to shake up the establishment, even if the specifics of the message rub some the wrong way.

"Trump has attacked things that no other presidential candidate has mentioned or even thought about mentioning, but they are things that are on people's minds," he said. "Eastern Baltimore County is the kind of place where people will tell you exactly where they are."

Trump's core supporters are likely to be white, not to have finished college, and to be concerned about the economy, polls have shown.

Just over 77 percent of people in the 6th Legislative District are white, compared with 58 percent statewide, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Sage Policy Group.

Only 11 percent of residents 25 and older hold a bachelor's degree, the lowest share of any legislative district in Maryland. Statewide, the figure is 37 percent.

But anxiety over the economy — a metric not easily captured with census data — will arguably be the biggest factor in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio and in Eastern Baltimore County.

The last remnants of steelmaking at Sparrows Point disappeared in 2012, idling the last 2,000 workers — themselves a shadow of the 30,000 people employed there during World War II.

General Motors shuttered its plant on Broening Highway in 2005, wiping out 1,100 jobs. The company recently expanded its operation in White Marsh, though still employs far fewer workers there.

Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin stopped manufacturing in 2011 at its plant in Middle River. Martin Marietta, a precursor to the defense giant, employed 53,000 people at the plant during World War II and about 14,000 in later years.

Still, the decline of manufacturing has been a long, slow slide — it doesn't necessarily explain a more rapid shift in politics.

Some propose a counterintuitive explanation: That recent signs of economic improvement have made lifelong residents here uneasy.

Inexpensive housing has prompted new residential development, which has brought new retail and restaurants. Two investment firms that purchased the Sparrows Point steel mill property in 2014 have started luring new businesses to the site — now rebranded Tradepoint Atlantic — such as FedEx and an automotive terminal.

Internet giant Amazon opened a 1 million-square-foot warehouse last year on the former General Motors site.

But the new jobs look very different from those that powered the economy here when Hobson bought his gas station 50 years ago.

"One of the hallmarks of the stereotypical Trump voter is that they don't like change very much," said economist Anirban Basu, chairman and CEO of the Sage Policy Group. "This might be another reason why Trump has so much appeal in the 6th Legislative District. Things are beginning to change quickly."

Tradepoint is a Sage Policy Group client.

The demographics of the community are beginning to change, too — a shift several Trump supporters here noted with apprehension. Trump's remarks about immigrants and Islam have caused controversy, but they have also found resonance in places where some feel that Hispanics, African-Americans and others are competing for jobs.

Census data between 2000 and 2010 show Latinos and African-Americans still represent a small share of the population in Dundalk, Essex, Middle River and Edgemere, but both groups are growing far faster than whites — and at a pace faster than the statewide average.

There were more than 6,800 Hispanics in those communities in 2010, compared with 2,310 a decade earlier.

Chrys Kefalas, a Republican whose family has owned a well-known restaurant in Dundalk for decades, said segregation in places like Dundalk is not all that different from segregation in large cities such as Baltimore. The difference, he said, is that Trump's message is more easily relatable in a place more recently affected by global economic forces.

Kefalas, who ran unsuccessfully this year for the GOP nomination to Maryland's open Senate seat, said he does not support Trump.

"I think Mr. Trump is certainly tapping into a fear of the other — a fear or a concern that someone else is causing whatever problems may exist," he said. "It's resonating because people have seen the losses — they've suffered as a result of globalization."

Trump dominated the Republican presidential primary here. But primaries are different from general elections, and there are signs of caution for Republicans in this part of the county. Twice as many voters turned out to vote in the Democratic primary as in the GOP election, for instance. Democrats were split almost evenly between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Norman R. Stone Jr., a Democrat, represented the region in the state Senate from 1967 to 2015. Like others, Stone blamed state taxes approved by the General Assembly for the shifting politics. Stone — who retired to Anne Arundel County — didn't seem surprised by Trump's level of support.

"It's always been a very conservative district," he said.

Sen. Jim Brochin, a conservative Democrat from Towson who sometimes bucks his party's line, also blamed Annapolis for the change.

"The Trump message of jobs and the economy and the feeling that the Democratic Party has abandoned them has been pretty effective," Brochin said.

"I'm not sure, given what happened in the steel industry, that it's exactly the fairest analysis," he added. "But it's the only one out there."

Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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