What does the timber industry, the spotted owl, and Donald Trump have in common? The answer is Grays Harbor County, a community that feels left in the dust economically.
The county has long been known as one of the most Democratic counties in the nation, yet Grays Harbor gave Donald Trump one of his biggest presidential primary wins in the state: Over 84 percent of Republicans in the county voted for Trump.
“There’s nothing here anymore,” said Trump supporter George Vukich of the once booming timber town.
“It’s going to be dead. It’s going to be dead,” he continued “We don’t have any logging anymore, we don’t have any sawmills anymore. We don’t have any laboring jobs anymore.”
They are concerns that weigh heavily in Grays Harbor County, but to understand how Grays Harbor got to this point, we need to take you back decades ago to the county’s at the turn of the 20th Century.
“It was just lined one business after another crammed packed, street car systems servicing all through Grays Harbor,” said John Larson, executive director of the Polson Museum in Hoquiam.
Larson pointed to pictures in the historic mansion turn museum that showed a region teeming with wealth.
“One of the statistics I always love to throw out. Aberdeen in particular, and I use them as an example here had more millionaires per capita than any city in the state," he said.
“If you go back to the 1880s, there was no indication of which would become the big city of our state,”” Larson continued.
It was a place rich from timber and wood exports, but how does that relate to politics?
The power of the unions, typically a reliable Democratic voting bloc.
“This County for decades, all you had to do was be a Democrat and have basically an unblemished record and they’re going to be supportive, not the case anymore,” said Billly Swor, a veteran longshoreman with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in Grays Harbor County, ILWU Local 24.
Grays was a county so blue that not even widely popular Republicans such as Ronald Reagan or Dan Evans could win the county in decades past, even when Washington State went red during those election cycles.
So what happened? The decline of the timber industry, triggered in part by the landmark spotted owl decision in the early ‘90’s.
“That’s when our work slowed down,” said Mike Brown, President of ILWU Local 24. “There were a lot of upset people, because it put a lot of people out of work. Not only us, the log truck drivers who brought the wood out of the hills, the loggers.”
“The environmentalists won out and the exports slowed down. They’re coming back a little bit now,” continued Brown.
Their port is now beginning to diversify beyond timber but unemployment is the third highest in the state at 8.2 percent. Only Ferry and Wahkiakum counties post worse numbers.
County Unemployment Rates (via Employment Security Department)
The closure of the mills, as recently as 2009 has left scars.
“A lot of friends I went to high school with worked at the Weyerhaeuser sawmill for years,” said Brown. “It was devastating to see them all lose their jobs.”
It should come as no surprise that jobs and the economy rank number one among voters in the region in 2016.
“It’s hard to get a job around here,” said Susan Smith, who’s currently unemployed. “I’ve been looking for almost a year and a half now, and I haven’t gotten a job yet.”
When KING 5 interviewed Smith for this story, she was an undecided voter.
“I don’t think the choices are real great,” she admitted.
However, voters George Vukich and Buster Emery, interviewed while having a drink in an Aberdeen watering hole, say their decision are set in stone; Trump is their guy.
“People are tired of the same old story,” said Vukich.
“I’m telling you—we need somebody different than what’s been in there,” said Emery.
“He’s trying to make it better for his family. I think he’s going to make it better for my family. I think he makes better for everything,” Emery continued.
When asked how? Emery replied: “I think he’s going to figure out when he’s get in there.”
Trump appeal in Grays Harbor spreads beyond this bar. It’s proudly on display in parts of the county, evident by Trump signs large and small. But, it’s not how everyone feels.
“I would be the most shocked person on this planet if Donald Trump would be elected president of this country,” said Billy Swor, of the Longshoremen’s Union.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union initially backed Bernie Sanders. They now support Clinton.
“She has a lot of connections, and she changed her position on TPP (the trans pacific partnership trade agreement), and that really garnered her some support from union members. I think there are more Hillary Clinton supporters than Trump supporters in our industry,” said Brown.
However, the longshoremen acknowledge that with the changing politics in Grays Harbor County have come more Independent minded voters.
Ralph Larson, who owns Duffy’s Restaurant, an Aberdeen staple, says he’s not excited about either candidate.
“I guess I’m one of the ones who is going to vote against someone,” said Larson.
His grandson, Erik Larson - happens to be Aberdeen’s 24 year old Mayor, elected last year in a wave of new mayors across the region. He’s a Democrat but understands the psychology behind the politics.
“Whenever people feel like they’re not being represented, the party in power is going to be the one that takes the hit,” explained Larson.
“You see a lot of Independent community members running without a Party affiliation for local and county seats. You see people who had historically voted Democrat potentially voting Republican, or voting Independent.”
As in other swing regions, Larson notes voters appear to be paying more attention to candidate over Party.
During the August Primary, Governor Inslee won Grays Harbor County by only four vote. Republican challenger Bill Bryant briefly managed to turn the county red, before Inslee regained a narrow lead in the late returns.
During the presidential primary in May, the county was around 4 percentage points less Democratic, than the state average, according to analysis by Ben Anderstone of Crosscut.
Compare that to 2008, when the county was nearly 8 points more Democratic than the state average, indicating a double digit swing toward the GOP.
Trump might be the candidate most emblematic of the drift in the Republican electorate in recent years, toward a more populist and trade-skeptical approach, and Grays Harbor is the sort of place where that drift is likely to serve the GOP well,” said Anderstone.
No matter which Party wins races in Grays Harbor this November, the voters there agree on this: they want a seat at the table.
“We’ve been beat down pretty good. We’re looking for a change to go up,” said Ralph Larson.
“You see two hours up the highway, transportation is in gridlock a lot of times, people see that and they think, ‘why not us get a little bit?’ You can have the cake, but could we get a few crumbs.”
Larson’s grandson, who admits his perspective comes from living through the transition of Grays, said he wants to respect the history of the old timber town, while also moving it forward.
“I just see Aberdeen as this great opportunity that nobody really sees, and I see it. I want to show everybody what I think we can become,” said Mayor Larson.