President Trump visits Illinois

Granite City splits over whether Trump tariffs deserve credit for reopened steel mill

 The U.S. Steel flag flies below the U.S. flag outside the Granite City Works. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

The U.S. Steel flag flies below the U.S. flag outside the Granite City Works. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

GRANITE CITY — Excitement mixes with trepidation in Granite City as the town prepares for a visit by President Trump on Thursday.

"We've got lots of working people," said Diane Wingerter at the Novel Idea Bookstore at the corner of State Street and Niedringhaus Avenue. "It's always been an industrial town."

That's what brings Trump to Granite City Thursday, to make a speech on trade in front of some of the 800 workers rehired at the U.S. Steel Granite City Works shortly after the president announced protective tariffs in March.

U.S. Steel President David Burritt directly credited Trump's tariffs at the time, saying, "Our Granite City Works facility and employees, as well as the surrounding community, have suffered too long from the unending waves of unfairly traded steel products that have flooded U.S. markets."

Although the 800 people rehired this year made up a fraction of the 2,000 laid off when the works closed in 2015, many credit Trump with getting the plant going again.

"That's what they're saying," Wingerter said. "I haven't investigated all the ins and outs of that decision."

Ohers beg to differ.

"I don't think it's because of the tariffs," said Sue L. at Ernie & Annie's, famous for its deep-fried tacos at 935 Niedringhaus. "They were going to do that anyway."

 Ernie & Annie's is down the street from a couple of Granite City steel plants. (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

Ernie & Annie's is down the street from a couple of Granite City steel plants. (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

Others have credited rising oil prices, which have recharged the Texas oil industry, which uses steel in pipelines. The Granite City Works began rehiring workers last year, well before the tariff announcement.

Gary Gaines, a third-generation retired steelworker, said he was always optimistic the steel mill would survive. "I always believed it would start up again, and fortunately that's the way it worked out," he said. "Good things are happening there. And I'll tell people whether it's Trump's fault or not I'm just happy it's going."

Meanwhile, Trump's protectionist tariffs have led to retaliatory tariffs on soybeans and pork, hurting farmers, which Trump attempted to ease by announcing a $12 billion agriculture handout this week.

Regardless, it's still a major event to have the president come to the town of 29,000 with a history of strong unions and welcoming immigrants, which narrowly voted for him in 2016 over Hillary Clinton.

"Whether or not I agree with him, I still respect the office," Wingerter said. "I'm excited."

"I want him to do good," said Sue L. "He's our president."

But she added that the presidential motorcade "blocks up the roads some," and that she had made a point of doing necessary banking on Wednesday ahead of Trump's visit.

She also declined to give her full name, saying, "I'm not giving my last name so Trump can have me investigated."

The visit just happens to be timed with the local United Steelworkers Union leadership being away in Pittsburgh for contract negotiations. Gov. Rauner is also begging off, claiming previously scheduled events.

Local Republican Congressmen Mike Bost, of Murphysboro, Rodney Davis, of Taylorville, and John Shimkus, of Collinsville, are expected to attend the speech. Bost has been targeted nationally by Democrats seeking to retake the U.S. House in a re-election battle against St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly. It's worth noting that the union has already endorsed Kelly and Rauner's Democratic opponent, J.B. Pritzker.

"The union has no official position on Mr. Trump and the tariffs, as far as I know," Gaines said. "They're not pro- or anti-Trump or pro- or anti-tariffs. They're just happy that the mill has started up again."

Although Trump's speech is an invitation-only event inside the Granite City Works, protesters against the president and those in support are planning events nearby. A protest is set for Civic Park, 1315 Niedringhaus, organized by Action Metro East, joined by a variety of groups including the Piasa Palisades Sierra Club, out of Alton, and Chicago Women Take Action, among many others.

Trump supporters plan to counter that up the street at Jerry's Cafeteria at 1920 Edison Ave. Gaines said he was at a loss at protesters protesting protesters.

"What are you anti-protesting?" Gaines said. "I thought you should be supporting the president. People are protesting the president, and the other people should be supporting the president. This is just my opinion. If you're against the protesters, you're kind of against people's right to protest. And I don't understand that. What is up with that that you don't like people getting out there and speaking their minds?"

That said, Gaines added that the owner of Jerry's Cafeteria is "a good guy" who's "taken some heat over this maybe unfairly."

The outside events are set to start at 1 p.m., with Trump scheduled to speak inside the Granite City Works at about 2:40 p.m. 

Otherwise, Granite City was taking a matter-of-fact approach to the presidential visit. With Mayor Ed Hagnauer also away on a scheduled trip, Economic Development Director James Amos said the town's police will be able to handle things. Emphasizing that it's a U.S. Steel event and that the city isn't the formal host, Amos said, "We're doing what we can do to make sure things go well," adding, "We're beautifying the route" of Trump's motorcade.

Wingerter said it's the first time a president has visited Granite City since Jimmy Carter came to town in the '80s after leaving office. President John F. Kennedy visited on the campaign trail before being elected in 1960.

President Barack Obama never stopped by?

"No, darn it," Wingerter said. "I guess I didn't call him."

Gaines, however, later pointed out that Obama did visit Granite City during his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign.

 Barack Obama stumps in Granite City during his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and state Rep. Jerry Costello seated at right. (Norma Gaines)

Barack Obama stumps in Granite City during his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and state Rep. Jerry Costello seated at right. (Norma Gaines)