Not every Vermonter traveling to Washington is coming to protest the Donald Trump takeover. A score or so of the state’s residents gathered on inauguration eve at a downtown D.C. steak house to celebrate the advent of a new national leader.
A tofu-tinged meeting of Onion River Co-op members it was not. The proudly carnivorous venue and the sentiments expressed at it set this group of Vermonters well apart, culturally and politically, from many of their neighbors back home.
“These are good people,” Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said as he surveyed the scene at the Ruth’s Chris Steak House located less than a mile from the White House. Welch, who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) presidential bid, had handed out tickets for inaugural festivities to several of the Republicans on hand.
“I prefer any of these Vermonters to Trump himself,” the state’s sole U.S. House member added. “If your car went into a ditch, they’d definitely pull you out.”
The Republicans interviewed at Ruth’s Chris and in Vermont by phone on Thursday all voiced positive expectations for the incoming administration. They said they’re excited to be present at the dawn of a decidedly different era in American politics. But some also acknowledged concerns about the 45th president’s ability to govern successfully.
“I do have lingering doubts,” said Vince Illuzzi, a former state senator from the Northeast Kingdom. Although he’s a career-long Republican, Illuzzi has been a strong advocate for the rights of unionized workers.
“I don’t support Trump’s positions across-the-board,” the 63-year-old Derby attorney said in a phone interview as he prepared to fly to Washington early on Inauguration Day. “And I see that a lot of his cabinet choices also don’t support all his positions.”
Trump’s critics aren’t being fair to him, Illuzzi added. “I think he’s entitled to the presumption that he’ll do good for the country. There’s too much doom and gloom before the guy has even gotten out of the gate.”
Joy Limoge, a Williston real estate lawyer, worried that Trump may “lack the decorum needed to conduct world affairs.” But she also said she appreciated his willingness to speak forthrightly. “He says what he feels, and that’s refreshing,” Limoge observed.
Trump’s mold-busting manner likewise appeals to Anne Galante, a retired Vermont gynecologist who spoke enthusiastically about the new president while seated near the head of a long white-tablecloth banquet at Ruth’s Chris. “The choices have always been between Coke and Pepsi,” Galante said of the two main parties’ presidential nominees. “Trump is Mountain Dew — Mountain Dew laced with steroids.”
Some right-of-center Vermonters see Trump’s victory as an affirmation of their views. The state has moved “too far to the left,” said Underhill resident Ellie Martin. “I decided 20 years ago to come out of the closet as a conservative. Now we’re celebrating proudly.”
Like many of the Vermonters attending the inauguration, Martin did not initially favor Trump for the Republican nomination. Ben Carson was her first choice, Martin related, but she said she had no difficulty switching allegiance to the New York real estate mogul. “They’re both outsiders,” she said of Carson and Trump. “I’m so ready for an outsider.”
Martin doesn’t see herself as a confrontational ideologue, however. She said she wants to promote unity in Vermont by encouraging dialogue between Trump fans and Hillary Clinton supporters. She’s started the effort on her Facebook page, under the heading of “Can We Talk?”
Welch is all in for kumbaya sessions with Vermont Trumpsters. “Democrats need to do a better job of listening,” he said on the way out of Ruth’s Chris. “A lot of working-class Americans just weren’t buying what we were selling in the election.”
The Affordable Care Act is one Democratic initiative that many Vermont Republicans cite as especially objectionable.
“Look at the mess with Vermont Health Connect,” said Rutland City Treasurer Wendy Wilton, who ran unsuccessfully for the pursestrings post at the state level in 2012. “Trump’s going to clean it up.”
Galante, the retired gynecologist, criticized “Obamacare” from a professional perspective as intrusive and officious. “It’s very bureaucratic,” she said. “You have to deal with mountains of paperwork, and it takes away a lot of the doctor/patient privilege.”
Wilton and Galante, along with many of the other Vermont Republican partiers in D.C., also pointed to the state’s economic status as a key reason for backing Trump.
“The middle class has absolutely been hollowed out,” Wilton said. “I see it every day in Rutland.” The new president’s promise to make massive investments in infrastructure could bring lots of good-paying jobs to Vermont, Wilton suggested.
“My biggest hope for Trump is that he pulls things together economically,” Galante added. “We’ve got to provide employment for the students who leave Vermont after graduating. The way it’s heading, we’re going to have a population of trust fund babies and retirees.”
Trump’s deal-making in the business world indicates that he knows how to bring about economic growth, realtor Limoge commented. “The key to me is the kind of people he places around him. We’re seeing a lot of businesspeople brought in, and while not all of them are great, I do think he’s doing a good job in that regard.”
Some of the female Vermont Republicans interviewed in Washington and by phone admitted to chagrin over Trump’s denigrating remarks about women.
“Of course it’s a concern,” said Shelly Lapierre, a Malletts Bay resident dining at Ruth’s Chris. “How could it not be? But I think in terms of his overall politics, not that part of him.”
To Wilton, Trump’s incendiary comments about women and minorities amount to no more than harmless “schtick.” It’s not to be taken literally, she suggested. “I can personally look beyond that kind of rhetoric.”
Darcie Johnston, the impresario of the dinner party, said she was pleased to see so many Vermonters gathered in support of a conservative president. Johnston also expressed excitement over her planned attendance at Friday’s inauguration parade, which she had helped organize for the past month as a Trump team member in Washington. In a voice graveled by laryngitis, she also said she’s looking forward to dancing at the Freedom Ball taking place Friday night at the D.C. convention center.
Her commitment to Trump will be rewarded with a job in the new administration, Johnston reported. But she declined to specify the agency at which she’ll be working in “some kind of liaison post.” Announcements of appointees will be made by the president himself, Johnston noted. “I’m not going to disrespect that.”
Welch will also be present at the inauguration ceremony. “We underestimate how fragile democracy is,” he said in explaining why he is not joining 60 fellow Democratic members of Congress in boycotting the event. “The peaceful transfer of power is integral to democracy,” Welch declared. “I want to show respect for that.”
On Saturday, however, “all bets will be off,” Welch added. “We’ll be fighting him,” he vowed — starting with the anti-Trump women’s march that he plans to join on Independence Avenue.