By DAVID SKOLNICK
The road to Republican Nirvana for me to meet Connie Spagnola – who wakes up every morning and thanks Jesus for making Donald Trump president – begins in downtown Youngstown, along Market Street, through the South Side, the city’s crime hub.
A dozen people have been murdered over the past few years near Market, which is cluttered with vacant properties and pockets of vacant land. A company that runs halfway houses for criminals has taken the lead in purchasing abandoned buildings and demolishing them.
As you leave Youngstown and enter suburban Boardman, you begin to see businesses and things only get busier as you near U.S. Route 224. This is Mahoning County’s retail center. There are dozens of chain stores in retail plazas and Southern Park Mall, the county’s only large shopping mall. You pass car dealerships, upscale restaurants, more chain stores and then, tucked away in a strip plaza, is the Mahoning County Republican Party headquarters.
There’s a large mounted wooden elephant head that sticks out from the wall, plenty of elephant furniture, several tables, and the large-screen TV is blasting President Trump’s latest rally speech.
Then there is 76-year-old Spagnola. Her desk is at the front door. She is wearing a white T-shirt that reads “Pray for America” on an American flag design. When the office is open, you can usually find Spagnola, for whom the rise of Trump is a source of great joy.
She tells me she can talk “about him all day. I love him.”
She praises his honesty and integrity.
Immigration reform? “He’s doing it the right way. We’re only going to get rid of the bad people: the drug dealers and sex offenders. We’re not throwing everyone out. It amazes me that people don’t understand that.”
The wall along the country’s southern border? “I can’t wait until that wall goes up. It will bring a lot of jobs to people.”
Trump, she says, makes her feel safer than she’s ever felt.
This is typically a quiet time in local politics for Republicans in this Democratic-controlled county, but a group of about a dozen people at party headquarters is busy getting ready for a pro-Trump rally.
A man in his 30s comes in looking for a Trump hat. The office doesn’t have any, but a store a few doors down has Trump merchandise, and Spagnola suggests he go there.
She tells me Democrats call on occasion to find out what’s going on, primarily to see if there are pro-Trump events they can possibly disrupt.
She gets together with her “girls,” a group of about 10 women – most are retired – at party headquarters to grow the Republican database in preparation for the 2018 statewide election, to talk politics and to organize a weekly group to pray for Trump.
The small group of volunteers is working on signs for the upcoming pro-Trump rally. Spagnola is busy answering the phone, grabbing files, handing over money to another volunteer to purchase items for the Trump rally, and mediating a dispute between a few other volunteers.
Spagnola was born in Youngstown. She became a hairdresser. In 1978, she sold her salon, and moved to Las Vegas. She returned to Youngstown in 2010 for a short period, leaving because of the winters. She moved back permanently in 2013. She lives on the West Side in the Cornersburg neighborhood – one of the nicer areas of the city that’s seen more than its fair share of deterioration since the steel mills closed nearly 40 years ago.
For most of her life, Spagnola was a staunch Democrat because her parents were. But that changed in 1980 when she voted for Ronald Reagan, the first time she cast a ballot for a Republican for president. She switched back and forth over the years, but that came to an end in 2008.
The reason: Barack Obama.
Few people make her as angry as Obama who was a horrible president, she says. She is convinced Obama is a Muslim who wasn’t born in this country. Someday, she says, the truth will come out.
Hillary Clinton doesn’t make her happy either. Spagnola says if she showed up at her door, she wouldn’t let her inside. She’s lost friends because of her switch to the GOP, but believes those who don’t talk to her weren’t really her friends.
There’s nothing Trump can do that disappoints her. When Obama was president, she said she didn’t know who was coming into the country so she had to keep the door to her home locked all the time.
She’s fed up with the negative stories about the president – “the media is the worst” – and Democrats who criticize him – “I have no respect for them.”
Spagnola says Trump gets an unfair rap as a bad guy when he’s trying to help the country. She says that Trump is president because people are tired of career politicians.
Spagnola contributes $25 at least once a month to Trump’s campaign. She started by giving only $10, but Trump needs help to get his message out. Just because Trump is personally wealthy doesn’t mean he should be spending his own money, she told me. It should come from his supporters.
Spagnola pulled out a notebook. She had recently watched a Fox News show and wrote down a lengthy list of items she’s confident Trump will accomplish as president.
Securing the border. Repealing and replacing Obamacare. Appointing a Supreme Court justice. Tax reform. Renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. Lifting restrictions on energy production. Deporting criminal illegal immigrants.
“I like all of those,” she says.