PUEBLO — In an epic troll of her rival Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton’s campaign kicked off her speech in this heavily Latino working class city in Colorado’s rust belt with a performance by a local mariachi band.
Clinton’s speech in Pueblo, about two hours south of Denver, came less than a week after Trump campaigned in a part of the state voters here describe as a neglected former boom town, once home to a robust steel industry that was responsible for solid union jobs and a place in the middle class American dream.
But where Trump used his stop in this critical battleground county to defend his use of the American tax code to pay few, if any, federal income taxes, Clinton talked about how she would protect Americans from Trump-like “bullies,” and how, if elected, she would wake up each morning in the White House trying to figure out how she could best help families in places like Pueblo— and with whom she could work to do it. As president, she said she would push for affordable higher education, paid family leave and immigration reform. She would close loopholes on corporations and would not raise federal taxes on the middle class.
“I want to make it easier to raise your kids,” she said. “We’re going to lift families out of poverty.”
Clinton chose Pueblo because of the large Latino population — four in 10 residents are Hispanic — but also because of its relationship with the steel industry, her state campaign spokeswoman Meredith Thatcher said. And speaking to a crowd of 2,600 in a building on the State Fairgrounds, Clinton came prepared, ripping her Republican rival for using Chinese steel for his buildings as a real estate developer.
“He could be buying American steel, he should be buying American steel,” Clinton said to booming cheers. “If he wants to make America great again he can start by making America with American steel.”
This reliably Democratic county has seen its independent voter registration rise in recent years, a reflection of national trends. Still, registered Democrats strongly outnumber Republicans and hold more elected offices. A brick union hall in downtown Pueblo bears a banner urging voters to Dump Trump. In 2012, Barack Obama won Pueblo in part because of the Latino vote. The county, however, was recently listed by Governing magazine as one of the top 50 battleground counties in the nation.
With a revitalized downtown, the area has moved away from steel as its economic base, as plenty of other former steel towns have, in response to a global downturn in the steel industry, said Jerry Carter, a homelessness advocate who works for a local nonprofit called Steel City Supporters, as he waited for Clinton to speak in the front row of her rally.
“However, the generations that grew up here and that are a product of the steel city and the success that it was, many of those traditions, those blue collar-type jobs, exist here in the community still,” he said. “We’re still a working-class city.”
According to the most recent census figures, the median household income in Pueblo County is roughly $42,000, about $15,000 less per year than Colorado as a whole. It has a higher percentage of people living in poverty (roughly one in five) than the state. A Clinton supporter, Carter believes the Democrat’s economic policies will do more for an area like Pueblo— one not unlike Rust Belt cities in swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio— than Trump’s.
Standing off to the side of the stage and sporting a “Bill for 1st dude 2016” button on a red checkered shirt was Troy Pacheco, who works in the utility industry.
“She supports unions and she seems like the better candidate for us, for our family,” he said. “She supports immigration. We just like her policies a lot better.”
Nearby, a heavy equipment mechanic from rural southern Colorado named Bob Hasselbrink was explaining to a man next to him that he doesn’t think Americans are faced with the best choices in this presidential election season. Personally, he said, he doesn’t think Clinton has done anything too terrible, but “You give ammunition to the Donald Trump types and the Breitbart types and all them, and they’re going to twist it into something terrible.”
In an interview, Hasselbrink called Clinton’s rival an “obnoxious brute,” and said Clinton is the better choice. He bemoaned the hollowing out of the middle class, the death of the unions.
“This part of the country, Pueblo for sure, has been hanging on,” he said. “The population has been steady. Up until Ronald Reagan this [area] was bursting with growth. People actually worked at the mill, they had vacation homes, they had a boat. They were able to live a nice middle class life. Ever since Ronald Reagan and his attack on the unions, everybody has been just trying to keep their head above water.”
Speaking from a stage in the center the room, Clinton railed against Trump’s economic policies as trickle-down economics and his tax policy as one that would benefit the wealthy— like Trump— at the expense of middle-class America.
Out in the crowd, Paul Stringer, a retired local Democrat in a blue Clinton-Kaine ball cap, said he believes Trump is a bully backed by the Russians. Stringer added that he thinks Trump’s sniffles during Sunday’s presidential debate were caused by cocaine.
“I have the opinion that Trump is either a severe drug addict or he’s mentally ill,” he said. “He has the symptoms of a personality disorder, lack of empathy, paranoid ideation, grandiosity, and a lot of other symptoms.”
Stringer longs for the days when the Clintons were last in the White House.
“We just about stayed out of wars, we didn’t have terrorist attacks, and we had a wonderful economy,” he said. “I was in a 401(k) plan and so I had equities in the stock market. It blossomed during the eight years he was there. We liked the economy. We had peace, we had harmony. I mean, it couldn’t have been better.”
Across the room, Brandy Holm, a 19-year-old CSU Pueblo student and registered voter, would have been three or four years old when Bill Clinton left office. This presidential election will be her first. Holm, who lives an hour away in La Junta, came to see Clinton in Pueblo with her mother. It was the first political rally of her life, and she said she doesn’t exactly count herself a supporter of the former Secretary of State.
Having Clinton and Trump on the ballot in her first presidential election is disappointing, she said. “I’ve waited 19 years and this is what I’ve got to decide from?” she said. “And this is how people are acting now?”
She said she’s skeptical about Clinton, but wanted to hear the candidate speak for herself.
“While it seems like Hillary has done some things that a lot of people don’t agree with, I think she might be the better option,” Holm said. “I think she’s probably going to make things work out a little better.”
Photo credit: Allen Tian, The Colorado Independent