California Counts

A collaboration between Capital Public Radio, KQED, KPCC and KPBS to cover the 2016 elections in California.

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Trump Campaign Resonates in Rural Sierra County

Kelly White, owner of Loyalton's only convenience store and gas station.


Katie Orr | KQED

Voter turnout has been falling in California for years, but that’s not the case in the conservative northeastern part of the state. In rural Sierra County more than 85 percent of eligible voters are registered. And they cast their ballots, too — usually for Republicans.

The hamlet of Loyalton is no exception. On a recent morning inside the town’s only convenience store and gas station, owner Kelly White greets some regular customers. She makes small talk and rings up their purchases. Kelly’s husband is Andy White, whose grandfather started the business in 1923.

“He sold Model T’s out of a livery stable,” Andy White says.

You can’t buy a car in Loyalton anymore. You can’t buy much of anything aside from your basic necessities.

The town, about 25 miles northwest of Reno, sits on the eastern edge of a vast valley filled with ranches and farms. The view of the mountains is breathtaking. But talking to people who live here, it’s clear that things have been on the decline for a while.

“It’s been a struggle, with the mill closing,” White says, referring to a sawmill that once operated just outside of town. “I used to have three employees working in the back shop —  three mechanics. Now I’m [the mechanic] and my wife’s writing service.”

The sawmill closed in 2001. A power plant next to the mill closed in 2010. Now the site sits largely empty, a silent reminder of better times.

There’s a certain frustration in this county of about 3,000 people, the feeling of having a way of life taken away by what some regard as one-size-fits-all government regulations that have curtailed mining and logging.

Some of that frustration is vented through political discussions. After a meeting of the local Republican women’s club, members mill around and chat. Longtime Loyalton resident Vicki Barney says she’s afraid she’ll be “crucified” for saying so, but she supports Donald Trump.

“He’s not a career politician,” she says. “Yeah he’s a millionaire. He’s got a lot of money. That doesn’t bother me.” Barney says wealthy people like Trump helped build the country.

Outside the meeting hall, county Supervisor Jim Beard says he also likes Trump. He says a lot of people in Sierra County think government doesn’t understand them.

“They have no clue who we are,” he says. “All they know is they want to be able to come up here and go snow skiing during the wintertime. And then as long as we’re not in their way, it’s OK for us to be here for now.”

Loyalton's power plant closed in 2010. It sits next to the town's sawmill, which was shuttered in 2001.
Loyalton’s power plant closed in 2010. It sits next to the town’s sawmill, which was shuttered in 2001.(Katie Orr/KQED)

Gas station owner White says he’s disappointed that his preferred candidate, Ted Cruz, dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination. He says he has no choice but to vote for Trump.

“America’s gosh darn teetering right now,” he says. “We need to get this country back on the right path. And I hope to heck Trump can do it.”

There are some liberals up here. Cindy Ellsmore chairs the county Democratic Party. She notes the county uses an all-mail ballot system, which could contribute to its high voter turnout. As for her vote, Ellsmore says she’s leaning toward Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“I am tired of the incremental changes that are happening,” she says. “I totally support President Obama and what he’s been able to accomplish. And I think it’s amazing considering what he has to deal with. But I think it’s time to just do it.”

Ellsmore rejects the notion that Sanders and Trump are similar just because they’ve both been labeled outsiders. But she does say there’s a feeling of everyone being tired of politics as usual, which could be good news for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee in Sierra County. Because if history is any guide, this will be Trump country come November.

This story is part of California Counts, a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what’s important to the future of California.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #CACounts.

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