Trump voters in Pa. waiting to see about cabinet picks

Joe Petrilla says rust belt Democrats gave Donald Trump the presidency - and could take it back.

BEDFORD, Pa. - Lifelong Democrat Joe Petrilla says he has been through too many layoffs and jobs to tolerate a new president who breaks promises to the working class.

The 56-year-old maintenance man from the mountains of central Pennsylvania, high above bleak Johnstown, says he will hold Donald Trump accountable after he assumes the presidency, because it was people like him - rust belt Democrats - who delivered swing states Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin and the presidency to Trump. And they can take it back in four years, he warned.

But for all that stated caution, Petrilla is unfazed by evidence that the Republican president-elect may have walked back some of his strongest campaign rhetoric since winning four weeks ago.

So what, he and others like him said in recent interviews, if Trump's cabinet picks include the kind of uber-wealthy and Wall Street-connected elites he blamed for ruining the livelihoods of ordinary Americans?

These voters gave Trump a long leash during a campaign in which the candidate frequently shifted positions, and they are providing the same suspended disbelief for whatever contradictions emerge as he prepares to assume the presidency next month.

"He's going to select who he wants and who he thinks will be best for the country," said Petrilla, who worked briefly in the Johnstown steel industry, which has descended into ruin. "No matter who he has, as long as it's going to benefit the people here, in the country, I'm all for it.

"But once it turns the other way - where it's benefiting them and ripping people off - then absolutely not."

In interviews in the days after Thanksgiving, Petrilla and other formerly Democratic-leaning or inactive Pennsylvania voters shared their expectations about Trump. They remained enthusiastic or cautiously optimistic, albeit perhaps because few said they were following Trump's transition in the news. Or because they trusted their gut when they elected him and believed there was no reason to question him yet.

Few were aware that Trump had nominated former Goldman Sachs partner Steve Mnuchin to be Treasury secretary.

They also said they did not know he had selected billionaire Betsy DeVos to lead the Education Department and were surprised to hear this was a woman who has spent years advocating for the diversion of public school funds in favor of "school choice."

One woman, Kimberly Bowen, whose family had lived for generations off the now-decimated steel industry in Bethlehem, had no idea that a man who profited off the bankruptcy of American steel companies - Wilbur Ross - was Trump's nominee to lead the Commerce Department.

"That's a nonissue," Bowen said once informed of Ross' nomination. I couldn't care less."

Like others who spoke, Bowen, 47, said she had not kept up with the news since Trump's election, but remained impressed and buoyed by the Manhattan real estate billionaire for whom she switched parties this year.

"He didn't take no crap from anybody," she said, chuckling.

Since defeating Hillary Clinton with stunning wins in Pennsylvania and other long-reliably Democratic states battered by globalization, Trump has reversed several major positions that, during his high-intensity campaign, had brought crowds in rust belt communities to their feet.

He said he would no longer pursue criminal prosecution for Clinton, despite zeroing in on jailing Clinton during the final weeks of his campaign. "Lock her up!" was the refrain followers shouted time and again on the stump as Trump smiled broadly.

Trump also has said he is no longer as keen on building a full wall along the border with Mexico. He also has said he believes key portions of Obamacare, the health-care law that conservative Republicans up till now have unsuccessfully fought to eradicate, are worthy of preservation.

In some ways, these flip-flops - and his followers' apathy to them - are unremarkable, given the extent to which Trump said untrue things while on the campaign trail.

Trump's veracity was so suspect that his own former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, recently blamed reporters for taking what the candidate had said so seriously while many voters clearly had no problem with his inconsistencies.

"You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally," Lewandowski said during an election postmortem held Thursday at Harvard University. "The American people didn't. They understood it. They understood that sometimes - when you have a conversation with people, whether it's around the dinner table or at a bar - you're going to say things, and sometimes you don't have all the facts to back it up."

Bowen and her jobless husband, Robert George, 50, did not graduate from high school. They live along the Lehigh River a few miles from the casino that now stands on what used to be the Bethlehem Steel plant. Bowen watches her grandchildren during the day while her husband, a former roofer who broke his back, collects federal disability.

"My grandfather worked at The Steel. And his father worked at The Steel. My dad's brother used to work there. My grandfather's brothers worked there," Bowen said.

Trump's nominee for commerce secretary made millions from buying bankrupt U.S. steel companies and reselling them in deals that left retirees facing lower pensions. Trump has praised Ross for his deep knowledge of manufacturing.

Mnuchin, Trump's pick for treasury, made a fortune during the housing-market crash of the Great Recession, which left many Americans holding mortgages to homes worth less than they had paid for them.

Such details, however, were inconsequential to these voters. All said they believed in Trump's potential ability to change things. For now, at least, they said they had no reason to believe their gut feeling about him were wrong.

"I want to see after the new year what happens to this country," said John Stan Sr. of Hazleton, who stopped watching the news two weeks ago when his cable TV was shut off. His notary business has been down, he said.

Stan, 48, who emigrated as a child from Australia after his parents left authoritarian rule in Romania, said he and others in the onetime coal-country region of Luzerne County remained enthused about Trump. It made no difference to him what Trump has said or done just yet.

"I voted for Donald Trump because what he said is, maybe we're going to be OK," Stan said. "But we don't know that yet."

Stan had never voted before this year. He helped flip Luzerne County in northeastern Pennsylvania, a longtime Democratic stronghold, for Trump. Now, people are waiting for tangible results.

"They want good things to happen," he said. "More jobs. More security."

Another voter who came out of dormancy to vote for Trump this year, Carol Jean Keyser of Pottstown, expressed frustration with Obamacare and her own lack of good health insurance. But she could not articulate whether Obamacare needed to disappear or expand sufficiently so that she could benefit from it. Nor did she feel capable of expressing an opinion about Trump's cabinet picks so far.

"I can't really form an opinion because I don't really know too much about politics itself," Keyser said. "I feel that Donald Trump could make a right decision. I trust his decisions."

Before this year, Keyser, 56, had never voted for president, she said.

"They're all a bunch of crooks anyway," she said.

But her welder-husband has been out of work for several years, forcing the couple to downsize from a Boyertown home they could no longer afford.

A year ago, they moved into a house they inherited from a deceased relative in Pottstown. The borough hardly resembles the place whose residents long ago manufactured the steel used to help build the Golden Gate Bridge.

Few newcomers know, also, that the Hill School, a remnant from Pottstown's heyday, was the boarding school of choice for two of Trump's sons in recent years.

Keyser, a part-time licensed practical nurse, said she will consider Trump a successful president if she lands a full-time job during his time in office.

"I do home care. And it seems like it's so hard to find a full-time home-care position that would offer benefits," Keyser said. "I think if I could get that, I would be totally satisfied."

After a lifetime of choosing Democrats for president, Petrilla, too, said he would be counting on more than lip service from Trump. But he was not keeping tabs on details.

Single and childless in his 50s, he still lives in the Johnstown suburb of Windber, where he was raised. He spends afternoons with a beloved nephew who has Down syndrome.

"That's what I live for," Petrilla said.

After graduating from high school, he worked for eight years at a Windber warehouse that packaged eye hooks for bras to be manufactured in Johnstown. It went out of business.

He then studied accounting, but gave that up when he landed a good-paying steel-plant job. That, too, ended with a layoff when he was in his early 30s.

Since then, Petrilla has held eight property maintenance jobs.

"I'm fed up with everything that's gone on these past 15 years," he said.

A few days ago, his local newspaper published a story on its front page about Trump's proposed tax reforms. Petrilla had not seen it but expressed dismay when told about it.

An independent think tank found that middle-class families as a whole would receive tax cuts of about 2 percent under Trump's proposals while the nation's richest 1 percent would enjoy 13.5 percent cuts.

"I'm only going to get 2 percent?" Petrilla said. "I disagree with that."

Petrilla said he does plan to withhold his vote from Trump in four years if he feels he was fleeced. He says he expects jobs to return and life to become more affordable as proof that Trump delivered.

"If it looks good to me from now until the four years, then I will vote for him again," he said. "But if it don't look good and he's going back on his word or he's just out for himself as a businessman, then I won't vote for him."

mpanaritis@phillynews.com

610-313-8117@Panaritism