In Kern County, Trump voters hope for a revived economy

Written by

Kern County, just an hour and a half’s drive north of Los Angeles, is California with a twang. Here, the radio dial is filled with country music stations, pick-up trucks outnumber Priuses, and people talk about crop yields and the price of crude oil, not weekend box office numbers and tech start-ups.

Kern County is also a place where it’s easy to find supporters of Donald Trump. Fifty-four percent of Kern County voted for Trump, while 39 percent voted for Hillary Clinton. And Kern County is not an outlier. Out of California’s 58 counties, Trump won more than two dozen of them, all in rural or semi-rural areas of the state with larger populations of white voters than the state’s big cities.

Beverly Miller, a Kern County native who’s studying nursing and is married to an oil rig worker, is elated by Trump’s victory. She says he is the only one who can fix a country that she believes has been crippled by social division and political gridlock. “Just because I am so sick of such a divided country, a bogged down Congress, all of it,” said Miller. “I am sick with everything.” 

But Beverly Miller has little patience for those who say her support for Trump represents some sort of white backlash. She says that idea comes from sore loser liberals in Los Angeles and San Francisco who look down on places like Kern County.

“I cannot stand being called a racist, a bigot,” said Miller. “I have nothing against anyone. Don’t tell me what I feel or what I think. I am so sick of that narrative being shoved down my throat.”

But being fed up with liberals wasn’t the main reason so many Kern County voters chose Trump. Like so many other places in the country, it was economic anxiety. In Kern, those worries are often focused on the oil industry. 

Kern County is one of the most productive oil patches in the world. This one county still accounts for about 80 percent of California’s total oil production. All that drilling for all that black gold created decades of blue collar opportunity for Kern County residents.

Similar to voters in Rust Belt states, many who voted for Trump in Kern County did so out of economic anxiety. In Kern, those anxieties have been focused on the oil industry. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“The median starting salary for someone in the extractive industries is well above the poverty line, it’s close to $45,000,” said Cal State Bakersfield economist Richard Gearhart. “So imagine if you are a 17 or 18-year-old teen, your next door neighbor brings home this bright new shiny truck. What can you do? You want to go work into the oil fields and earn this.  So we are kind of representative of those ‘boom and bust’ oil towns you see all the movies and TV shows about.”

But it’s been more bust than boom in Kern County’s oil business in recent years because of a global glut of petroleum that’s driven world energy prices down.

“As oil prices have plummeted, you have seen massive unemployment spikes,” said Gearhart. “You’ve seen massive increases in poverty. You’ve just not seen good economic outcomes.”

Laid off Kern County oil worker Tracy Halladay, 43 and a father of two, is all to familiar with pain in the oil fields.  “We owned a house,” said Halladay. “We owned everything. And now we are down to nothing. We are down to nothing. It killed Kern County.”

Halladay voted for Trump and hopes the president-elect’s promises to slash government regulation of the energy industry will revive Kern County’s economy and get him and other oil field roughnecks back to work.

Halladay says working on oil rigs is the only thing he knows how to do and the only way he can provide for his family.

“I work with my hands,” said Halladay. “I’m not a brainiac. I work with my hands. I’m pretty good with my hands. Most of us are. That’s what’s Kern County’s all about. It’s an oil town.”

Out of work oil worker Tracy Halladay and his son Cameron. Halladay voted for Trump with the hopes that he’ll revive Kern County’s oil industry and get him back on the job. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But there are people in Kern County who have big doubts about Donald Trump and his ability to really turn things around. One of them is Mike Abbasi, an immigrant from Iran and former oil field worker who now runs a convenience store on the outskirts of Bakersfield. 

Abbasi thinks Trump is a political snake oil salesman and the people of Kern County are buying what he’s selling.

“I honestly believe they are going to be disappointed,” said Abbasi. “They  are going to wake up the next few months and see this man flip flop about everything,” he said. “I have a big doubt. I really have a big doubt.”

Convenience store owner Mike Abbasi believes many in Kern County will ultimately be disappointed by the Trump presidency because he won’t be able to fulfill his economic promises. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)