The Trump effect in Palm Beach County: His presidency altered business and politics; his personality affected the people
Four years ago, Donald Trump went from a part-time Palm Beach businessman to a president whose decisions and style altered Palm Beach County.
In early 2017, Kelly Smallridge was flipping through a PowerPoint presentation at a luncheon when she stopped on a slide with photos of the new president, Donald Trump, and other Palm Beach County-connected members of the administration.
"I'm not sure where I am going with this," said Smallridge, president and CEO of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County, pointing to the slide. "But there's something here."
At the time, Trump had been president for about two months. He had named two local county residents, Wilbur Ross and Ben Carson, to his Cabinet. And while the country was still getting acquainted with the commander-in-chief, Palm Beach County was getting acclimated to a presidential visit to his Mar-a-Lago club nearly every weekend.
It was all new, and few, including the county's top economic development official, knew what to make of the region's front-row seat to the unconventional presidency.
Today, almost four years and nearly three dozen presidential visits later, Trump's Southern White House years have indelibly changed Palm Beach County. And the way outsiders also view the region, Smallridge said.
"Palm Beach County typically has been viewed as the place you either go to retire or you go to vacation," said Smallridge. "What is happening is there is a new life and a new image that is being painted every time you see Air Force One land. It's this new conversation."
That new conversation isn't just about business and economic development. It's also about politics.
More:What Trump, Biden need from Palm Beach County to win Florida
Trump has changed the local GOP, making it more conservative, more populist, more vocal and, to an extent, more abrasive. The president may also have indirectly altered the rival Democrats, galvanizing their opposition to his government as they first took to the streets and then, later, focused on defeating him at the ballot box.
And, perhaps, he has sent more people to the political center out of sheer partisan combat fatigue. From 2016 to this year's election, the biggest gain in voter registrations in Palm Beach County — 50,262 — were from those choosing not to join a political party.
Trump's local base isn't just excited, some call it a movement
It's a few miles from Palm Beach International Airport to Trump's Palm Beach club along Southern Boulevard in West Palm Beach. But on any given weekend when the president is in town, the stretch of roadway is dotted by the Trumpian faithful from end to end.
They wave flags, hold up signs, give thumbs up to passing motorists who honk in support and jeer at those who disapprove. The show of pro-Trump fervor is a staple of presidential visits as much as Air Force One selfie-taking.
The roadside demonstrations, like the truck and boat parades, are not political conventions for policy wonks. Quite the opposite.
The events are about expressing patriotism, worshipping the leader they believe has been the target of investigative hoaxes by a "deep state" and, now, will save the country from socialism, lawlessness and the Biden family.
“It’s like a mini Mardi Gras — a tailgate party — it’s a movement,” said Willy Guardiola, a Catholic pro-life activist, who has organized hundreds of Trump fans for flag-waving events in the county. Even when Trump is not in town, they show up on overpasses and busy intersections, from Boca Raton to Jupiter.
“It’s an energetic thing that rubs off on people” he said.
Mark Foley, a former GOP congressman, marvels at the scene — with perhaps a modicum of envy.
"I couldn't get anyone to hang signs for me when I was running," quips Foley, who represented a district that included the county from 1995 to 2006. "I've got to give the guy credit. He gets them to hang out in the rain and hold signs and scream and yell."
But Foley said dig below the images — T-shirts, the flags — and you will see Trump has lured all sorts of new constituents to the party.
"He delivered a demographic profile I never thought I would see," said Foley, now a real estate consultant. "The Republican Party, when I joined in 1986, was largely country club members and women’s groups in pearls and men in smoking jackets. Today, they are firefighters, union members, and trade people — electricians and pipefitters, landscapers and car mechanics."
And not only as names on the voter rolls, but also as on-the-street activists.
“If he has done nothing more with the local Palm Beach County participants, he has woken them up from the slumber of thinking somebody else will handle everything," he said. "They’re mobilizing.”
Some say he didn't just rally conservatives, he redefined them
Another change, Foley noted, is a decided tilt farther to the right in the party's policy positions.
That was punctuated, first, in the 2020 Florida presidential primary when Trump crushed his lone opponent, libertarian-leaning former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld. It was then validated — big time — in Palm Beach County when two far-right candidates, Laura Loomer and James Pruden, won primaries for congressional seats.
“I think there's no question it’s more conservative," Foley said. "With him at the helm, he has redirected the ship of the Republican Party to a more active and conservative party.”
Blair Brandt, a Palm Beach resident who is the Florida co-chair of the Trump Victory Finance Committee, said he believes Trump hasn't just rallied conservatives, but also redefined conservatives as anti-establishment underdogs.
“I think there’s a lot of different things he’s doing that is causing a shift in how people engage,” said Brandt. “He has inspired people to get involved because they feel like they are actually being heard and things are actually happening ... People view politics as more accessible and positions more attainable.”
The change, he said, goes far beyond policy positions to include new norms from the podium and ways to communicate.
Trump's speaking style is irreverent, shoot-from-hip and contrasts with what was perceived as "presidential." Via Twitter and his rallies, the president connects with the base nearly 24/7. That, along with Republicans’ quick and adept use of social media, including sarcastic memes, has appealed to young Republicans, who can relate to digital politicking, he said.
“The president has made politics fun in a way,” said Brandt. “He has made it entertaining and interesting — he doesn’t talk in these grandiose political speeches — he shoots straight.”
An example is the rise of TurningPoint USA, a non-profit organization that provides a Greek-life sort of camaraderie for conservative college students who felt ostracized on liberal college campuses. The group pays for hundreds of students from across the country to attend a five-day conference in West Palm Beach every year.
“He has modernized outreach to accommodate the times,” Brandt said. “The Democrats haven’t caught up with that.”
But that conservative tilt has also created friction within the rank-and-file.
A number of Republicans, albeit a minority, have voiced disgust with what they say is Trump's un-presidential behavior and unpalatable policies, such as the immigration family separation policy enacted at the U.S. southern border. Some have broken away from the party because of those reasons.
One group, The Lincoln Project, which includes prominent Florida GOP operative Rick Wilson, is working to eviscerate Trump's re-election with blistering ads.
More:Lincoln Project brings edgy anti-Trump billboards to Mar-a-Lago this weekend
But Annie Marie Delgado, who traded her Republican identity for life as a "Trumplican," makes no apologies for the hard-driving nature of the Trump base.
The former Palm Beach Gardens councilwoman founded Trump Team 2020 in Palm Beach County, which is now the largest network of independent Trump clubs in the state.
In listing her core issues — “right to life, fiscal conservatism, we defend the Second Amendment" — Delgado doesn't stray far from what mainstream conservative Republicans have always called for.
The difference is in unyielding zealousness and intensity.
“Everybody's been through the ‘nice, kind, gentle, hope and change,’ phase and they realize nothing ever happens," she said. "And Trump is the change agent.”
His detractors say he's activated the activists
Throughout the Trump presidency, his weekend and holiday visits have also become lightning rods for local activists protesting all sorts of issues, from immigration policies to energy pipelines to Russian influence in American elections and accusations of abuse of power that led to Trump's impeachment.
The opposition fervor was evident from the start of the Trump administration. On Jan. 21, a day after he was sworn in, about 5,000 people joined a "Women's March" protest in West Palm Beach.
Joan Waitkevicz, president of the Democratic Women’s Club of Palm Beach County, said Trump’s presidency has generated a rise in Democratic activism, particularly around women’s issues.
Because so many women have experienced these issues at some point in their lives — sexual harassment, wage discrimination and reproductive rights — the interest and involvement is coming from women of all ages.
“It’s really nice to see that all generations jumping in,” Waitkevicz said. “We hear, ‘I wasn’t really active until now.' We’ve heard this time and time again.”
But big picture controversies have also spurred the movement's followers.
“Women are drawn more because of the lack of empathy of Trump’s policies,” said Shirley Herman, the club’s treasurer. “I think what’s changed is the urgency — it’s such a threat to democratic process.”
Exactly, said Pam Keith, a progressive who channeled her disdain toward the president's policies into political candidacies. After unsuccessfully running for the Democratic nomination in congressional District 18 two years ago, Keith tossed her hat in the ring again this year in a bid to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Mast.
Whereas the Trump base is psyched by Trump's dispatching of norms and traditions, progressives see "fascist tendencies" in the Southern White House.
"He’s calling into question the election for no other reason other than his political benefit. It’s definitely like fascist tendencies," Keith said. "It’s an existential threat to American democracy. A normal Republican might not inspire that in me, but Trump does, because he seems to only be beholden to himself.”
Enraged by 'fascist tendencies,' far-left progressives have mobilized
At the start of this year, Theo Matz, a 25-year-old engineer from West Palm Beach, pinned his hopes on Bernie Sanders. On weekends, he would either knock on doors to urge voters to support Sanders or make calls from phone banks.
Like many other progressive Democrats, Matz was inspired by Sanders' stances on Medicare for All, free college education and a living wage. And like many other younger members of the party's left flank, Matz also was energized by what he saw as Trump's "fascist tendencies."
Sanders got crushed in the March 17 primary by eventual Democratic nominee Joe Biden, averaging about 17.2% of the vote in the county.
But progressives like Matz are not discouraged.
“I’d like to keep canvassing, organizing, assisting, and doing research for local political groups," Matz said. If 2020 is any indication, he will have options.
In addition to Keith, the progressive, left wing of the party also fielded a candidate, Guido Weiss, to challenge four-term incumbent Lois Frankel, in the Aug. 18 party primary. Frankel won easily, but Weiss's challenge still ranks as the first time the West Palm Beach Democrat faced a primary rival since 2012.
Matz said he will remain active, looking ahead to 2022 beyond. But first, Thanksgiving is coming up after Election Day.
"I have one cousin who is a 20-year-old raging constative from the Midwest," he said. "I’m trying to figure out how we can have a productive conversation.”
What Trump's visits brought to the county, economically
The image has been a marketer's dream.
It's the dead of winter, and many U.S. cities are snowed in. But at Palm Beach International Airport, there is a sunset glow as Air Force One lands on a balmy early evening — a scene that's often been broadcast to the nation live.
For Smallridge, that media spotlight is priceless and helps in efforts to attract businesses, from hedge funds to aviation companies.
"What the president has done is ... put Palm Beach County top of mind and in the forefront," she said. "You could not get Palm Beach County's name out there on a daily or weekly basis from an economic development basis."
It's not just attention, but also policy moves.
Smallridge said the tax reform plan the president signed in December 2017 eliminated the ability to deduct state and local taxes. For high wealth individuals, Smallridge said this was a major change that boosted interest in real estate and relocations to Florida, and the county as well.
"I've never had anyone say to me they are moving here because the president calls Palm Beach County their home. But I've not had anyone say, 'I'm not moving there because the president calls this is home.' But what I do hear is I like the idea of the business-friendly regulatory environment that I'm hearing about."
Smallridge said one other factor is the Palm Beach County residents serving in the administration, including Carson, Ross and Robin Bernstein, who serves as U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic.
More:Major hedge fund moving to West Palm Beach from New York
"She is acutely aware of how economic development works," Smallridge said of Bernstein, who she called an "ally" of the BDB. "She's volunteered to continue to give us business opportunities as now the ambassador."
But with all things Trump, consensus is hard to come by.
Tale of two businessmen: One says Trump hurts, the other says he helps
For Michael Weiner, a real estate lawyer and longtime business advocate, the past four years have prompted something of an existential crisis. For starters, there's the pandemic.
“There are things more important than the Dow Jones industrial average,” said Weiner, who helped revitalize downtown Delray Beach.
Weiner, who is a Republican, fears Trump’s inept handling of the coronavirus pandemic has deeply damaged Palm Beach County’s tourism-dependent economy. The county, like the state, depends on visitors for sales tax revenues and jobs, but the now-out-of-control pandemic has made people reluctant to travel.
And Weiner said he cannot get over Trump’s disregard for human life, which he said was laid bare by Trump’s casual acceptance of COVID-related deaths.
“What number do you finally reach when you realize that a public policy decision is costing too many lives?” Weiner said.
Weiner added that Trump’s short-term approach to government, which seems centered on just caring about the next 24 hours, is not in keeping with sound long-term planning any company owner would practice.
“As a business person, this doesn’t help business,” Weiner said.
But Rick Gonzalez, president of REG Architects in West Palm Beach said he believes Trump’s presidency has been a business boost for Palm Beach County.
“He’s good for business,” Gonzalez said. “There’s maybe a perception, when he’s here, that you want to be close to the center of the universe. He’s the most powerful man in the world and he could have gone anywhere. And look at all these people coming to Florida now.”
Gonzalez, who does work for Trump at his Mar-a-Lago club and his golf resort in Jupiter, said he’s been slammed with business from a range of clients during the past four years.
“He cut taxes and put more money into people’s pockets,” Gonzalez said, adding: “The change has been real, and it’s still real.”
Selfies from glitzy weekend galas at Mar-a-Lago with political figures
For others, the tangible benefits of the Trump presidency in our backyard are less tangible.
Michael McCloskey, a West Palm Beach real estate investor who owns an office tower at 625 N. Flagler Dr., said having Trump here hasn't affected Palm Beach County one way or another.
PHOTOS: Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Through the Years, Inside and Out
“Sure, there are theories that people bought houses so they could be near Mar-a-Lago and rub elbows, but that’s been immaterial to the local economy,” McCloskey said.
A bigger factor, he said, is the coronavirus pandemic. McCloskey said it is prompting people to flee crowded urban cities elsewhere and move to Florida.
McCloskey expects this trend will have long-term positive benefits for both the housing and office market, especially because when people move here, “a lot of them will probably stay.”
Richard Rampell, a Palm Beach certified public accountant, agrees Trump’s frequent presence on Palm Beach “attracts a lot of attention” and fills West Palm Beach hotels with press and people in the presidential entourage.
Rampell believes people are attracted to the glamor.
Sure enough, those who follow social media will see plenty of selfies from glitzy weekend galas at Mar-a-Lago with political figures, Fox News personalities and celebrities.
Another factor is the low-tax environment that Florida provides people leaving high-tax states in the Northeast.
Overall, Rampell said, the president in Palm Beach “enhances the (county’s) image, even if you don’t like Trump.”
Trump Plaza residents don't want the Trump name on the condos
For residents of the Trump Plaza condominiums in West Palm Beach, however, the president's presence in Palm Beach County has meant one thing: risk.
Trump's election to the presidency at first created upbeat feelings at the twin-tower, multi-million dollar condos at 525 and 529 S. Flagler Drive, overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway.
But during the past four years, the towers that once bore his name on their rooftops and ground-level signs gradually have disappeared, as the complex has tried to go incognito about its former ties to Trump.
The Trump Plaza name is a vestige to the time when, in the 1980s, the brash New York real estate developer tried his hand at finishing the distressed Plaza project. Trump struggled to sell units amid an economic downturn, and then ended up handing the condo complex over to his lenders in 1991, minus any personal guaranty.
But the name remained on the buildings. Some residents, especially foreign owners, thought the name added value.
After Trump's election, however, protesters began marching along Flagler Drive, and the waterfront complex became a focus of their ire. The Trump Plaza signs atop the two condos were removed in 2017 to allow for building renovations, including new roofs, but when the work was completed, residents voted in February against putting the signs back up.
One reason was the cost of remaking the signs; but the other was to avoid drawing attention to the increasingly controversial Trump name.
This summer, after nationwide and local protests over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed during an arrest by police in Minnesota, the last public link to Trump disappeared from the property.
In June, Trump Plaza management hastily removed the street-level signs "for your safety," general manager Michael Kampy wrote in a letter to condominium residents.
Two months later, residents voted to permanently keep the Trump name off the signs.