‘I think South Jersey is Trump country’: President’s Wildwood rally wakes up hibernating Shore town

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Helena Mantovani (center) of Chester County makes it to her fourth Trump rally at the Wildwoods Convention Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Helena Mantovani (center) of Chester County makes it to her fourth Trump rally at the Wildwoods Convention Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated 10:27 p.m.

Usually a sleepy Jersey Shore town in the dead of winter, Wildwood drew thousands for President Donald Trump’s rally Tuesday night to the Wildwoods Convention Center.

A jumbotron was set up in front of barricades where attendees funneled across with hopes of getting inside for the rally’s kickoff at 7 p.m. Hundreds of foldable beach chairs lined up the barricades where hours earlier people were trying to keep warm in the windy, 40-degree weather and breaking out in “Trump 2020” chants.

Trump held the rally in support of South Jersey U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who recently switched from Democrat to Republican after being one of the lone Democrats to vote against impeaching the president.

It was also a chance for Trump to reach his base in Philly’s suburban counties, which are expected to be fought over fiercely in this fall’s election. In 2016, Trump became the first Republican to win in Pennsylvania since 1988.

Louis Gonzalez of Vineland was near the front of the line for the Wildwood rally. An enthusiastic Trump supporter, he camped out in line since 5 p.m. Monday. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Trump’s speech: Welcoming Van Drew, talking smack on ‘sanctuary’ policies

For Trump — who has strong Garden State connections — the rally ended up being less about welcoming Van Drew to the GOP and more of a chance to tout his track record during his three years in office.

Major themes that came up in his nearly hour-and-a-half-long speech included jobs, the economy, immigration and the Democratic Party.

“While we are creating jobs and killing terrorists, the Congressional Democrats are obsessed with demented hoaxes, crazy witch hunts and deranged partisan crusades,” Trump said. “That’s all they know how to do, the do-nothing Democrats.”

Trump said that Democrats are leaving for the Republican party in a “mass exodus.” He said it was a privilege to be joined by Van Drew, who joined the president on stage and spoke for just a few minutes.

The newest Republican member of Congress was met with “Jeff Van Drew!” chants.

“How about having the president right here in South Jersey?” Van Drew said to the crowd. “What a great day!”

Van Drew spoke about his visit with the president in December at the White House — where he publicly announced his plans to switch parties. He said while there, Trump asked him how he could help Van Drew in this election year.

He personally asked the president to come to South Jersey to host a rally.

“Without even hesitating our president said yes and he is here,” Van Drew said. “A man who kept his word to ensure that the eyes of the world are on South Jersey and all of us.”

This year is a flashpoint election,” he added. “Are we going to allow ourselves just to be like any other nation in the world? Or are we going to keep America great?”

Trump also shouted out many of his other N.J. Republican friends in attendance, including former Gov. Chris Christie, state Sens. Joe Pennacchio (Morris County) and Mike Testa (Cumberland County) and N.J. GOP Chairman Doug Steinhardt.

A South Jersey native herself, Kellyanne Conway took to the stage briefly to deliver her sentiment on the president’s achievements.

“Mr. President, I think South Jersey is Trump country,” said Conway, a counselor to the president who grew up in Atco in Camden County. “Thank you for all you’ve done to add respect and resources to our military…having the best economy in the world, two new trade deals…two dead terrorists. That’s two terms.”

The president also took aim at Garden State Democrats for what he called “sanctuary” immigration policies.

“On no issue have Washington Democrats more throughly betrayed American people than the issue of immigration,” he said to the crowd, pointing to a case in which a Cumberland County jail released a rape suspect as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were on their way to pick him up.

He also brought up a 2018 case in Middlesex County. At the time, ICE blamed the county for failing to honor a detainer and setting Luis Rodrigo Perez free. Perez would later be charged with three murders in Missouri.

“No American should ever be hurt, harmed or killed because left-wing politicians, Democrats, decided to shield and shelter criminals,” Trump said.

Just a few days before the president’s visit to Wildwood, the Justice Department joined a lawsuit to overturn a N.J. government directive that sets strict limits on when state, county and local law enforcement can cooperate with ICE.

At a restaurant near the convention center where dozens of supporters warmed up and saw the speech, Trump’s immigration section drew applause at the bar.

“Democrats stand for crime, corruption and chaos,” Trump said. “Republicans stand for law, order and justice and say what you want, but those are the facts.

In wrapping up his speech, Trump praised New Jersey’s pioneering history — from the creation of the boardwalk to George Washington’s leadership in the battles of Trenton, Princeton and Monmouth for American independence.

“This has always been the home of the proud, loyal and very, very incredible Americans and my friends,” Trump said. “So many people in this [crowd,] I know them well. They’re tough. They’re smart. They’re great people, It’s called Jersey.”

Thousands line up outside the Wildwoods Convention Center to see President Donald Trump. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Wildwood’s reception to Trump 

Doors opened to the Cape May County convention center at 3 p.m. Those in line were hoping to get one of the space’s 7,000-capacity spots. However, rally organizers said they issued a whopping 100,000 tickets for the event.

About an hour before the rally was expected to start, several hundred people began to leave the line for warmer locations to watch the rally, as they suspected their chances of getting in were slim.

Sherry Nelson, 44, of Basking Ridge, N.J. was one of those who threw in the towel.

She and a friend arrived around 11 a.m. on Tuesday after making the two-and-a-half-hour drive. Nelson, a lifelong Republican, is planning to grab dinner and watch the rally on TV.

“We just wanted to show our support,” Nelson said. “We want him to come back to New Jersey again. Since he had such an overwhelming response, so many people couldn’t get in. We want him to come back so we can get another chance.”

Trump supporters cheer as they near the entrance to the Wildwoods Convention Center, where the president was holding a rally. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

She said hearing Trump speak last week at the March for Life — an annual protest against abortion — was monumental. Trump was the first sitting president to attend the rally.

“I mean having the first president come speak for the unborn was unbelievable,” Nelson said. “So he will have my vote for sure.”

This also marked the first time a sitting president has visited N.J.’s southernmost county since the 1890s, according to the Courier Post.

Trump impersonator Tim Carney accommodates requests for photos on the streets of Wildwood. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For Joseph McGrath from Wildwood Crest, the rally was his first chance getting to see a president speak in person.

McGrath started waiting in line Monday at 4 p.m. with his two sons, daughter, wife and neighbor.

In preparation, he wore snow pants, a ski jacket, hat, gloves and brought along hand warmers for the chilling overnight temperatures.

He said seeing Trump in Wildwood is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“It’s huge,” McGrath said. It’s a big boost for the local economy. A lot of good spirits going on right now — everyone seems to be having a good time here. There’s been no problems since I’ve been here and it’s just a great atmosphere.”

The McGrath family (from left) Ryan, 12, Alexis, 9, mother Teresa, father, Joe, and Branden, 14, with their neighbor Mike Nutt from Wildwood Crest, got in line at 4 p.m. Monday to see Donald Trump speak at the Wildwoods Convention Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

McGrath said he also wanted his children to learn more about how the U.S. government operates. He watches the news every night with his family and they also often discuss politics at the dinner table. He thinks hearing the president’s words through a political rally is a teachable moment for them.

He hoped to hear the president talk about the economy, employment and foreign policy — issues that McGrath likes how Trump has been handling.

He was less interested in hearing Trump talk about the impeachment trial in the Senate.

“I think everything that has been happening now, especially in politics, is extremely partisan,” McGrath said. “I don’t think both sides of the stories are getting out and it’s kind of troublesome.”

Trump 2020 merchandise was available on the Wildwood boardwalk. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

As for Van Drew, McGrath said even though he votes Republican, he’s always liked the congressman he described as “a very moderate Democrat.” He said Van Drew switching parties wasn’t a big deal since he’s “done a great job” for his constituents in South Jersey.

Audrey Andrews, who traveled about an hour from Barnegat Township in Ocean County, was inspired to take the trip because of her 15-year-old daughter Isabel, who’s an avid Trump supporter.

They arrived with Isabel’s boyfriend, Ryan, around 7 p.m. on Monday night.

For Isabel, her support for Trump comes from her educational experience: She’s a student at the Academy of Law and Public Safety — a law enforcement vocational school in Long Branch.

“I feel like he advocates for law enforcement so well and it’s so important to him,” Isabel Andrews said.

Audrey Andrews (right) of Barnegat brought her daughter, Isabel, and her daughter’s boyfriend, Ryan to President Trump’s rally in Wildwood. The three took turns sleeping in their car overnight to save their place in line. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Isabel Andrews said she was excited to hear what Trump has planned for 2020 and the years beyond if he’s reelected in November. She also said she doesn’t care if he speaks about impeachment.

“He can do whatever he wants,” she said.

Fifty-eight percent of Cape May County voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

More than 65% of Cape May County’s economy comes from tourism — predominantly during the summer months. The population swells from 90,000 year-round to more than 670,000 in July and August.

With the president’s visit attracting people from across the region and perhaps beyond, business has been booming at Wildwood hotels, motels, restaurants and boardwalk stands — where Trump and “Make America Great Again” merchandise was ever-present in the lead up to the rally.

Red, white and blue banners with Trump’s name on them hung from motels and food trucks claimed their spots in front of the convention center on Sunday, waiting for the crowds that started pouring in Monday night.

Grace Friend of Montclair protests in a parking lot near the Wildwoods Convention Center, where President Trump was holding a rally. She drove two hours and joined a group of about 400 who oppose Trump. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Anti-Trump protest draws hundreds, including Van Drew opponent and MLK III

Indivisible Cape May County — a local chapter of a progressive activist group — held a protest that drew roughly 400 people a few blocks away from the convention center ahead of the rally.

The protest, which was originally supposed to run almost the entire duration of the Trump rally, wrapped up shortly before 7 p.m.

Amy Kennedy, one of the Democrats who’s running to oust Van Drew, attended the protest with Martin Luther King III.

King’s speech was supposed to come at the end of the evening but had to be bumped in the timeline for security, according to Cassandra Gatelein, co-chair of Indivisible Cape May County.

“His team felt that there was a potential security concern,” she said. “There was a lot of Trump supporters lined up along the boardwalk who were being aggressive and heckling and things like that, so we just put him on a couple slots earlier to make them feel more comfortable.”

Protesters gather in a parking lot near the Wildwoods Convention Center, where President Trump was holding a rally. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Joe Piccoli — who’s trip to the protest was a swift fifteen minutes from Cape May Court House — said he decided to attend to stand up for his hometown.

He brought his three kids with him so they could see what grassroots activism looks like.

“I guess it’s supposed to be historical to have the president come here, but when every word that comes out of his mouth is a lie and everything he stands for is hate, it hurts me,” said Piccoli, a 41-year-old realtor. “It makes me sick to my stomach that my greatest foe is coming to my hometown to stir up all this trash.”

Piccoli was a longtime registered Republican, but switched to Democrat in 2016 to vote for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary, then Hillary Clinton in the general election.

He said he’d rather vote for “anybody but Trump.” Some of the posters he brought along to the rally had messages like “Any functioning adult 2020” and “Tweet people with respect.”

Piccoli said the protest has been peaceful, but some attendees of the rally were cursing and giving the middle finger to them.

“We’re staying peaceful and they’re calling us pigs,” Piccoli said. “That’s the reason we’re here, because of people like that, that make the whole world look bad.”

“The main thing is, if you don’t stand up for what you think is right, what do you stand up for?”

The Associated Press contributed reporting. 

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