In rural Minnesota, high hopes for President Trump

Bill Batchelder runs the Bemidji Woolen Mills company.
Bill Batchelder runs the Bemidji Woolen Mills company. He put up a semi-truck-sized Trump sign before the election. He hopes the new administration will lower taxes and make health care more affordable.
John Enger | MPR News

Before the election, there was no mystery about how Bill Batchelder planned to vote.

He had put up the largest pro-Donald Trump sign in 50 miles on a piece of land right by the Bemidji airport.

Batchelder, who runs the Bemidji Woolen Mills company commissioned the sign before the election along with a few friends. It wasn't alone.

"Have you been on Highway 2 between Duluth and Grand Forks?" Batchelder said before the election. "You can count the Hillary Clinton signs on one hand. There's hundreds of Trump's signs."

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Minnesota didn't go for President-elect Donald Trump, but many of its rural counties did. As Trump takes office, supporters in northern part of the state have high hopes for the 45th president.

Now after the election, Batchelder said he's still surprised by Trump's national win. But he's optimistic, and said he hopes the new president will inspire a return to an older style of patriotism.

"Just work a little harder for your country," he said. "Ask for a little less."

He hopes Trump will build up immigration law, if not an actual wall, and he hopes he'll cut taxes and regulations on small businesses.

Mainly though, Batchelder hopes Trump will make health insurance more affordable for him and a handful of his most senior employees. His company plan expired at the end of last year. He's waiting to see what happens to the Affordable Care Act before buying a new one.

"I'm walking on egg crate right now," he said. "I'm holding my hands, saying a prayer that something is going to happen."

Beltrami, Koochiching and Itasca counties all supported Barack Obama four years ago. This time, they counties all swung for Trump by wide margins.

Former Beltrami County commissioner Joe Vene said it's not really a shift at all.

Vene is a lifelong independent. He supported Obama last time around and said he wanted change. In November, he voted for Trump for the same reason.

That's what the whole region voted for, Vene said.

"I think they're looking for change," he said. "Though they may not necessarily know what that change will materialize as."

When Vene voted for Obama, rural northern Minnesota was lagging far behind the rest of the state economy. Unemployment in Beltrami County was nearing 8 percent. Itasca reached 10 percent.

During the Obama years, the local economy improved. Beltrami County is under 5 percent unemployment, and the state Department of Employment and Economic Development says more rural Minnesotans are entering the middle class.

But it's not improving fast enough for everyone, Vene said. The area has lost 30 percent of its manufacturing base in the last decade.

Vene hopes the new administration will energize business, and bring industry back to northern Minnesota.

He was disappointed by the change the last administration brought. So was Rod Anderson, a Bemidji butcher who still runs a small shop at age 76.

Anderson is used to political disappointments. Whoever he votes for, he said, his taxes stay high.

"Before I got into business for myself I was a Democrat," Anderson said . "Then I got into business and I find out the Democrats were trying to make the business people pay all the taxes."

Anderson had a bout with stomach cancer 17 years ago. Ever since then, he said, getting health insurance has been expensive and confusing.

He voted for Trump, but he almost didn't live to see the inauguration. A few weeks ago Anderson had a brain bleed. Surgeons in Fargo had to drill two holes in his skull to relieve the pressure — a procedure he said will cost him thousands.

Anderson's hopes are high for Trump. He hopes that this time, things will get better.