State Politics

‘It became a bucket list item’ – Triangle Republicans traveling to Trump inauguration

Wake County Republican Party leader Charles Hellwig, poses with Donald Trump at a recent campaign event. Hellwig will attend the inauguration, but said he’s not sticking around Washington for the “social stuff.”
Wake County Republican Party leader Charles Hellwig, poses with Donald Trump at a recent campaign event. Hellwig will attend the inauguration, but said he’s not sticking around Washington for the “social stuff.” Courtesy of Charles Hellwig

Cary resident Cherie Francis figures she spent about 900 hours volunteering last year to help elect Donald Trump. So this week, she’ll take a train to Washington, D.C., to see his inauguration in person.

Francis, a former social studies teacher, supported Trump from the day he announced his candidacy in June 2015 – long before the Republican establishment took him seriously. She’d been an active GOP volunteer since 2008 but says she’d never been so enthusiastic about her party’s presidential nominee.

“I never really thought (an inauguration) was a bucket list item, but it became a bucket list item,” she said.

Francis is among many Triangle Republicans eager to see the changing of the guard in Washington, D.C. – the first inauguration of a Republican president since George W. Bush began a second term in 2005.

The Triangle has been trending toward Democrats in recent election cycles, even as other parts of the state become more favorable to Republicans. Trump got 37 percent of the vote in Wake County – down from 44 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012 – but that’s still plenty of supporters: 196,082 Trump votes in Wake to be exact. He won a majority in many rural and suburban precincts in northern, southern and eastern Wake.

The N.C. Republican Party is taking a busload of 40 people from Raleigh, with plans to attend the full weekend of festivities: The parade, ceremony and two inaugural balls while touring the Capitol and doing other sightseeing.

Others are traveling separately and making it a family affair. Donna Williams, who’s the past chair of the Wake County Republican Party, is taking a train with her son and grandson. She was able to get tickets to the ceremony through U.S. Rep. George Holding’s office. Holding is a Raleigh Republican.

“I don’t know where we’ll be, but I don’t care,” she said. “I’m just excited to be there.”

Unlike Francis, Williams wasn’t initially a Trump supporter – “he was my fourth choice” in the primary – but she warmed up to the billionaire businessman.

“He has reached out to the American people in a way that nobody else has at this point in time,” she said. “Think about who he is and how wealthy he is – he doesn’t need to do this. He really loves his country, and he is willing to put all of that business on hold for us. That means the world to me.”

While Trump’s victory on election night surprised many people thanks to polls that had showed Democrat Hillary Clinton in the lead, Francis and Williams both said they were confident that Trump would win.

Williams said she began to doubt the polls and media narrative in October when she staffed the Wake County GOP’s booth at the N.C. State Fair.

“At any given time you would look up and see 40 different people” in line to pick up Trump signs and stickers, Williams said. Some told her they planned to vote for Trump even though they were Democrats or had never voted. “I was guarding my emotions, but I never once thought that we wouldn’t win.”

Francis said the 16 other GOP candidates wouldn’t have been able to win the presidency. “He was the only Republican that was going to win,” she said. “He’s an alternative to politics as usual. If you wanted change, there was your change agent.”

While she’s been active in politics since 2008 – her opposition to Barack Obama prompted her to volunteer – she was “more involved” in 2016 thanks to Trump. She said the GOP nominees in the last two cycles, Romney and John McCain, “were more like RINOs,” or Republicans In Name Only.

Asked about their hopes for a Trump presidency, both Francis and Williams immediately said “jobs.” They added that they’re looking forward to a stronger military and tougher immigration enforcement.

And while they appreciate Trump’s tough talk, they want his inaugural address to help bring together a deeply divided country.

“I’m hopeful that he’ll give a speech of unity,” Francis said, so “that the people who didn’t vote for him will give him a chance. ... He’s not a politician, so I don’t know that the speech is going to be traditional.”

Williams says she thinks Trump’s business experience will help him heal the country. “I believe that he’s about the only one that can do it,” she said. “I don’t think there’s too many people in Washington, D.C., that can do that right now. Successful businesspeople know how to sit at a table and pull everybody in.”

After the Friday ceremony, Francis plans to join other North Carolinians celebrating Saturday night at a ball hosted by the North Carolina Society of Washington, D.C. The social and service group of North Carolina natives who live in Washington has spent a year planning the event for 900 or so people, including the state’s congressional delegation. The event will feature a band from Greensboro, Foothills craft beer from Winston-Salem, moonshine and Southern food.

“We just want people to come and celebrate,” said society president Andrea Hall. “It’s kind of like a home away from home.”

Charles Hellwig, another Wake County Republican Party leader, said he’s not sticking around Washington for the “social stuff” but is eager to see Trump take the oath.

“I have high hopes for Trump – he is obviously different from any of our recent presidents and I am looking forward to what he will do,” Hellwig said. “If he delivers on some of the things he ran on, we can bring some new blood into our grand old party and I am very excited about that potential.

“I want to be in D.C. for his swearing-in so I can tell my children and grandchildren I was there when it all began.”

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter