'York Project' Revisited: 2008 Voters Weigh In On 2016 Race

Dec 16, 2016
Originally published on March 1, 2018 10:36 pm

In 2008, NPR gathered more than a dozen voters in a York, Pa., hotel. They had dinner and got to know one another, and over the course of several meetings that fall they spent hours sharing their views on an often uncomfortable subject: race.

The York Project culminated when the voters gathered after Barack Obama's victory. Obama supporters were exultant. Some who voted for Republican John McCain had mixed feelings. They were excited about the historic moment but disappointed in the result.

Now, after a very different election, Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep traveled back to York to follow up with four of those people. Their lives and their city have changed. Some of their viewpoints have changed, too. Yet this time, those whose candidate lost in 2008 were now on the winning side.

Pennsylvania mattered in this election. The swing state helped decide the result. And York County went decisively for President-elect Donald Trump.

When we gathered four of the '08 participants in York's Colonial Courthouse, they shared a range of ideas about what led to Trump's victory — and what kind of future his presidency might hold. (If your browser supports Flash, read more about the original York Project voters here. To hear Morning Edition's followup conversation, click on the audio above.)

Below, the four York Project voters who sat down with us again.

Cal Weary, 42

2008: High school drama teacher; voted for Obama

2016: Owner of a business that promotes arts education; voted for Hillary Clinton

Hear his 2016 profile.

Weary, a registered Republican, crossed party lines in 2008 to vote for Obama. At the same time, he asserted in 2008 that any black advance causes some white people to feel like something is torn away from them.

He says he sees Trump supporters who try to distance themselves from the white supremacists who also backed him. Even if other Trump voters don't consider themselves racist, he says, they are in essence enabling racism.

"I think that they definitely are saying that it's not that big a deal to them," he says.

Weary suffered a heart attack just before the 2016 election, an event he now sees as a metaphor.

"You could kind of look at what just happened to us, was kind of like a heart attack," he says. "Now we're at a point of, I mean, do we have another one? Or do we start therapy?"


"The day after the election I sat my kids down, 7, 5 and 2 — and they are biracial ... and I told them, 'Kids, today at school a lot of people are going to be happy and sad about what happened. ... Some of them might say some things that you might not understand or that might be mean. Today it's OK, just let it run off of you because a great thing has happened.' "


" 'Make America Great Again'? Make America great, but when you say 'great again,' what 'again' are you referring to? Because depending on what 'again' you're referring to, it might not be such a great America for all of us."

Sarah Yacoviello, 39

2008: Former teacher; voted for McCain

2016: Works in development for a nonprofit; voted for Trump

Hear her 2016 profile.

Yacoviello was a reluctant McCain supporter, and says she again had serious reservations this time around — so much so that, until now, only her family knew she supported Trump. That Trump is not your typical politician is refreshing, she says — but she sighs when asked if he's a role model, and says no.

Instead, her support for Trump ultimately came down to his promises to cut taxes and reduce regulations on business owners. As someone who works in fundraising for charities, Yacoviello sees how policies helping affluent businesses end up affecting everyone else.

"The working class needs [philanthropists], and our country needs them," she says.

Yacoviello says that, although she thought in 2008 that McCain better reflected her conservative values, she has grown to like Obama.

"He's a good man, he was a good husband, he was a good father, a good statesman, a good spokesman for our country," she says. "It's hard as a conservative to say these things, but I really do have a great deal of respect for him."


"I have this dichotomy that I can't reconcile in my mind. I feel like there's a social justice that has been won here with electing a black president, but I also feel the social injustice of abortion."


"I'm actually ashamed for not thinking of it [before NPR's roundtable discussion]. 'Make America Great Again' ... that is very subjective, and it isn't considering everyone, and perhaps 'Make America Greater' would have been a better slogan."

Margie Orr, 71

2008: Receptionist; voted for Barack Obama

2016: York City School Board president; voted for Hillary Clinton

Hear her 2016 profile.

Back in 2008, Orr predicted the system wouldn't be fair to Obama because he was black. Eight years later, she thinks she was right.

"He's had a rough time of it, with the other party coming into office," she says. "He's tried his best with him being who he is. I think he's been an excellent president — a very good, excellent role model."

And she's sure he was opposed because of the color of his skin — even though his mom was white.

"The country wasn't prepared to have a black president," Orr says. "It's mind-boggling to me, because he's half of everybody — but any percentage of blackness that you have within yourself, you face racial conditions."

Even though he had a white mother and was raised by her parents, she says, "he's still black, and there lies the problem."


"When it flashed on the screen that he had indeed won, I mean, the joy, the jubilation, just made you feel like there is nothing wrong with the United States."


"I'm actually afraid for the country now — I am. The way he denigrated women, made fun of physically handicapped people — and I'm saying to myself, 'How can you people condone that?' "

Don Gettys, 74

2008: Constable; voted for John McCain

2016: Constable; voted for Donald Trump

Hear his 2016 profile.

Gettys says York, an old manufacturing town, has been through tough times — but right now, his hometown is on the upswing.

"There's new businesses downtown, they're trying to get more people downtown," he says. "I think there's been a lot of improvements."

Though Obama was not his guy in 2008, Gettys appreciates the work the president has done to open up U.S.-Cuba relations, but he does not like "some of the immigration that's gone on."

The appeal in Trump, Gettys says, is that the country will be run like a business.

"I just hope he gets the country back together and gets rid of the divisiveness and gets everybody on the same page," Gettys says.


"I don't think there's a problem with a black man; I personally just don't think Obama's the right one. For some reason, the media, they don't say anything bad about him when he does something wrong. It's never reported."


"I think that one of the things he's trying to do to make American great again is to bring jobs back to America, so people here have a job. They're moving jobs out to Mexico and every place else. They're closing factories, sending the stuff to China, and our people are out of work."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


And I'm Steve Inskeep with the sound of a reunion. Voters talked with us about race during President Obama's 2008 election. We brought some of them together again after this election. And some hugged when they saw each other coming in out of the cold in York, Pa.

MARGIE ORR: (Laughter) Thanks.

CAL WEARY: I'll steal your warmth. I'll be honest. Good to see you.

INSKEEP: And you remember Don.

ORR: Hi. Yes, I remember Don.

INSKEEP: The four come from different walks of life yet quickly found connections.

DON GETTYS: Pike was your brother.

ORR: Yes.

GETTYS: Pike and I were friends in high school.

ORR: What?



GETTYS: Small world.


ORR: Hi, Sarah.

YACOVIELLO: How are you? Good to see you.

ORR: And I hear you've had another little one.

INSKEEP: It's not a big city, though York is in a state that made big news this fall, voting Republican for the first time in decades. In our group, two voters are black. And two are white. We ate pizza together and talked inside an old brick courthouse, a courthouse that marks a historic event here in York.

It's a replica of the building where Americans drafted the Articles of Confederation. That's a predecessor to the Constitution created back in 1777. We sat around a table covered with a green-felt cloth and listened to some more recent history. We played a recording of a radio story of our talks back in 2008.


MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: And we're listening together to the way this month's election can change the outlook of a roomful of Americans.

INSKEEP: The last time we talked, Obama voters were exultant. Voters for Republican John McCain had mixed feelings - excited about the historic moment, disappointed in the actual result. The people whose candidate lost in 2008 are the people who were on the winning side this time.

GETTYS: I personally am happy with Trump. I was happy with him from the very beginning.

INSKEEP: Don Gettys remembers waiting to see how far his candidate could go.

GETTYS: I just wanted to see what he did.

INSKEEP: Gettys is white, a retired police officer now working as a constable. He voted Trump not because he needs a job but because he feels others do.

GETTYS: I always felt it was a beautiful country. It's a good country. And I think everybody has opportunity. And hopefully, with Trump in there, there's going to be more opportunity, more jobs that won't be leaving the country. I just hope everybody gets an equal opportunity to do it.

INSKEEP: Cal, where - you look like something's on your mind.


WEARY: Oh, man.

INSKEEP: Cal Weary is a father of three and runs a performing arts space. He's black and also Republican and a kind of admirer of Donald Trump.

WEARY: He was interviewed. And they said to him, how much do you sleep? He said, I sleep three hours a night. He said, because I'm trying to make deals. I can't be asleep. So I applied that to my life. And for a number of years, I slept three to four hours a night.

INSKEEP: Because you heard that Donald Trump...

WEARY: From Donald - because it made sense to me.

INSKEEP: Yet Weary voted for Hillary Clinton. In this room, he reminded his fellow York residents of Trump's remarks about immigrants and women.

WEARY: I can't get past the stuff that was said right in our faces. It wasn't someone just saying he said it. We heard his own voice say it.

INSKEEP: What do you make of all that? Where does that fit for you?

GETTYS: Well, you know, there was just an article I saw the last couple days about - the KKK said they're backing Trump. But he's never asked them for support.

INSKEEP: Constable Don Gettys doesn't blame the president-elect for some of his supporters.

GETTYS: It's just a group that are jumping on this because he was elected. And - matter of fact, some of the things I've heard about his life - he's not a racist at all - far from it.

WEARY: But I think, in the same right, you had people who said, you know, we're afraid that Obama's a Muslim back then.

INSKEEP: Weary was trying to explain what really bothers him. Back in 2008, he says, many voters feared Obama because they thought, based on no evidence, that he was Muslim. This year, he argues, many voters on the other side have reasons for fear.

WEARY: And here you have somebody who's not only being backed by racist organizations but bringing people on board who are the voice of those organizations.

INSKEEP: He means people like Steve Bannon, a close Trump adviser who once declared his website to be the platform for the alt-right, a label that's claimed by white supremacists.

WEARY: So, I mean, it's being put right in our face.

INSKEEP: You were going to say something, Sarah?

YACOVIELLO: I don't think anybody can say that his remarks have been nothing short of inflammatory.

INSKEEP: Sarah Yacoviello is white, a mother of young kids and a fundraiser for nonprofits. She voted for Donald Trump on economic issues and now says she needs him to address racism.

YACOVIELLO: In order to stop it in its tracks, it has to be denounced. And that's one of the things that makes my heart heavy with the decision I had to make.

INSKEEP: Margie, you've been listening to this all politely. What's on your mind as you listen to...

ORR: This election is unreal to me. And when I say unreal, I mean I can't wrap my head around any of it.

INSKEEP: Margie Orr is black, the head of the local school board - and voted for Hillary Clinton.

ORR: I'm actually afraid for the country now. I am. The way he denigrated women, made fun of physically handicapped people. And I'm saying to myself, how can you people condone that? You all condone that?

INSKEEP: Across the green-felt table cloth, Trump voter Don Gettys says he looks past Trump's words.

GETTYS: I think one of the things he's trying to do to make America great again is bring jobs back to America so people here have a job. They're moving jobs out to Mexico and every place else. They're closing factories, sending the stuff over to China. You know, our people are out of work. He's trying to push out some of the illegals. They'll come in, and they'll work under the table for nothing. And the American people can't get a job.

INSKEEP: Now, Don Gettys used that phrase, make America great again. It came up several times in our conversation. It powerfully appealed to millions of Trump voters, of course. And it's still the president-elect's central slogan. Yet the black voters at our table found it dismaying. And Cal Weary tried to explain why. He says it's all about the last word.

WEARY: Great again - make America great. But when you say great again, what again are you referring to? Because, depending on what again you're referring to, it might not be such a great America for all of us because some people are sitting there thinking, yeah, I wish we could go back to when I could say whatever I wanted to. And I could go down the street and not be bothered by a bunch of blacks always being right up here. And they're living in my neighborhood now.

That's how - some people are thinking that way. I guarantee you there aren't many black folks who are going, make America great again. Oh, you mean back to when we had segregation, and we had our own stores? 'Cause, I mean, people aren't necessarily looking on our end for that sort of thing.

ORR: This doesn't look good. It doesn't sound good. I mean, come on. He could have and maybe could've been elected to have a different view on things.

INSKEEP: He might've spoken differently and still won, you think.

ORR: Right. Right. But he chose to use those terms and that type of rhetoric to his advantage. And people just fed into it. They fed into it.

YACOVIELLO: So I'm actually ashamed for not thinking of it. I mean, you just kind of enlightened me, in all seriousness.

INSKEEP: Trump voter Sarah Yacoviello is having one of the moments of understanding that have peppered our talks in York, Pa - not that she's changed her support for Trump. But she suddenly grasps how other people may view the exact same thing.

YACOVIELLO: Make America great again - and that - I mean, that is very subjective. And it isn't considering everyone. And perhaps make America greater would've been a better slogan - maybe not as catchy.

ORR: What part of your life weren't you OK with?

INSKEEP: So I want to be clear on this. You're saying you're just realizing now that the slogan which seemed OK to you before is really jarring to other people. And you understand why.

YACOVIELLO: Listening to Cal and Margie just now, actually - yeah - showed me that. I didn't think about it. And there are a lot of things that I don't think about.

INSKEEP: Let's imagine forward four years. If we all got together four years from now again.


INSKEEP: Set a condition for me. What's one thing that could happen in the next four years - just one - that would make you think all the angst of this election was worth it and that things worked out OK. Put something on the table that you expect and need to happen in the next four years. I'll start with you, Margie.

ORR: Oh, my goodness. I sincerely hope that we don't have a problem with race riots in - that's what my - yeah. I'm actually afraid of what could happen here in the United States in these four years coming up.

INSKEEP: People turning against each other.

ORR: People turning against each other.

INSKEEP: How about you, Sarah?

YACOVIELLO: Just one issue? I mean, health care reform would be wonderful to see - making health care affordable and reasonable.

INSKEEP: She'd also like to see a stronger economy, as would Don Gettys.

GETTYS: More jobs, better jobs. When you get people working, they're not sitting back and at home. And they're going to go out and work. And they're going to be more productive. And they're going to increase their life and their way of living.

INSKEEP: Yes, Cal?

WEARY: Oh. It's a hard question for me.

INSKEEP: Remember that Cal Weary is the black man who voted for Clinton yet identifies as Republican. As we heard on the program yesterday, he thinks of Trump's election like a national heart attack yet also came to feel it was a shakeup that needed to happen. Here's what he's hoping for now.

WEARY: I really hope that what happens is that we see that our system actually can work in distress and that, regardless of how great a president or horrible a president that President Trump is - that we start to see our kids really embracing poli sci and looking for what we want to be next.

INSKEEP: Political science?

WEARY: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Embracing democracy is what you're saying.

WEARY: Or a republic.

INSKEEP: You want people to be more involved.

WEARY: Right - embracing it and really, like, getting out there and finding out what works for us for what we will become. So to ask me about four years from now - my question is, what comes next, and how does our youth get us there?

INSKEEP: Cal Weary, Don Gettys, Margie Orr, Sarah Yacoviello - four very different American voters who sat across a table in York, Pa. We met them during the 2008 election and again this week. And at npr.org, you can see photos of them then and now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.