Trump’s N.J. Rally: Frigid Wait Is Worth It for President’s Fans



Jan. 28, 2020

Many hotels in Wildwood that normally close for the winter have reopened in anticipation of Mr. Trump’s arrival.Credit...


WILDWOOD, N.J. — The crowds in this oceanfront town swelled well beyond their usual winter size on Tuesday, filled with thousands of President Trump’s supporters who had braved bitter cold, lack of sleep and long lines for a chance to hear him speak.

It was the president’s first rally in New Jersey since he took office, and he was greeted enthusiastically by a sea of people adorned in Trump paraphernalia.

Those at the front of the line had arrived at around 2 p.m. on Sunday and had spent two days bundled in blankets, comforters, “Keep America Great” banners and woolen “Trump 2020” hats.

Just before 3 p.m. on Tuesday, the first wave of ticket holders anxiously made their way toward a security checkpoint inside the Wildwoods Convention Center as Queen’s “We Will Rock You” blared from speakers.

“I’m so excited,” said Traci Dunham, 53, who grew up in nearby Wildwood Crest. “I love him.”

Ashlee Estrada, 12, had slept overnight in the parking lot — “It was really, really cold,” she said — with her brother and mother, an immigrant from Peru who became a citizen five years ago. The family lives in Wildwood and said they were excited to be part of history.

“It’s the president,” Ashlee said as she headed inside, “coming to this little town.”

Two hours later, as the rally kicked off with a rendition of the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” thousands of people remained outside in a maze of switchback lines, optimistically hoping they would somehow get in before the convention center reached its 7,400-person capacity.

Others were more realistic.

“I know I’m not getting in,” said Debra Matty, 59, of Haddonfield, N.J., who was the very last person in line at 5 p.m. “I’m just here for support. One more body, one more voice.”

Within 10 minutes, 48 people were lined up behind her.

A carnival atmosphere filled the boardwalk nearby, as supporters of Mr. Trump mingled near a blocklong corridor of T-shirt and button vendors. Some heckled a group of protesters who were cordoned off in a parking lot below, resulting in a volley of competing chants.

“Four more years,” Mr. Trump’s supporters shouted.

“Dump that Trump,” the protesters answered.

Marianne Bryant, a lawyer from Voorhees, N.J., said she had taken a day off from work to be part of the protest, her first.

“I feel like this nation is definitely headed on the wrong track,” Ms. Bryant, 68, said. “I haven’t been this scared since the Vietnam War. I don’t think we can take four more years of him.”

All eyes were fixed on a Jumbotron in the convention center parking lot as Mr. Trump took the stage just before 7:30 p.m. The crowd outside erupted in applause and chants of “U.S.A., U.S.A.” Mounds of debris, chairs, blankets and food filled the parking lot as a steady flow of people began to drift away.

Mike Whilden, of Millville, N.J., stood watching the Jumbotron until the end.

“He doesn’t mince words,” Mr. Whilden, 63, said. “He’s a straight shooter.”

Mr. Trump’s decision to stage one of his raucous rallies in Wildwood, motivated by a desire to support a local congressman who recently switched parties, upended the usual rhythms of this beach community about 160 miles south of New York City.

Seasonal workers were back on the job. Motels reopened and restaurants and bars had emerged from a winter hibernation. The LED lights on the towering Ferris wheel near the convention center had been specially programmed to pulse in patterns of red, white and blue.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, regardless of your political view,” Nick Holland, 29, said on Monday as he worked the front desk of the local recreation center.

As his impeachment trial continued in Washington, Mr. Trump headed into what in some ways was enemy territory. New Jersey is a Democratic stronghold that Hillary Clinton won in by 14 percentage points in 2016 and where a so-called blue wave helped flip four Republican congressional seats in 2018.

Mr. Trump’s campaign rallies have typically been in states that he won in 2016 and that are considered critical battlegrounds in this year’s election.

But Wildwood, in Cape May County, is in a district far friendlier to Republicans.

It leans conservative and is represented by Representative Jeff Van Drew, a freshman congressman who opposed impeachment and last month defected from the Democratic Party to join the Republicans with a pledge of “undying support” for Mr. Trump.

The president in turn promised to campaign for Mr. Van Drew, and the rally was announced not long after the congressman switched parties. Mr. Van Drew traveled with the president, and addressed the crowd at the rally.

Russ Hickman, 55, of Dias Creek, N.J., was fifth in line. A maintenance worker at the public school district in Mr. Van Drew’s hometown, Dennis, Mr. Hickman said he had voted for Mr. Van Drew as a Democrat and would eagerly support him for re-election as a Republican.

“I figured he was pretty much that anyway,” he said. “It just makes me pulling his lever a little easier.”

Several of the Democrats vying for a chance to unseat Mr. Van Drew addressed the crowd of protesters, as did Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of the civil rights leader.

“There’s definitely way more of a progressive movement down here than people realize,” said Shayla Woolfort, a chairwoman of Cape May County Indivisible, which organized the protest.

“The racism, the violence, the corruption, we reject all of it,” Cassandra Gatelein, another of the organizers, said of the Trump administration. “We definitely want to stand in solidarity with all the marginalized communities that he is hurting.”

Like many other people involved in the local planning for the event, Tracey DuFault, the executive director of the Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce, said the rally was an economic boon for a tourist town with a wintertime population of about 5,000. It is believed to be the first time a sitting president has ever visited Wildwood.

“I think people just want to be in the area because it is such a historic event,” Ms. DuFault said.

As the chamber’s leader, she had spent the past several weeks updating and publicizing a list of businesses that still had rooms available. To meet the surge in demand, she said, about 20 hotels and motels had either reopened or had booked guests on floors that were typically closed in the winter.

Joe Tartamosa, 43, and his son Nick, 16, were among those who planned to stay overnight in a hotel after the rally.

They had left their home in Woodbury Heights, N.J., to arrive at 4:30 a.m. on Monday to lock in a spot close to the front. Mr. Tartamosa said that he hoped the event would instill in his son some of Mr. Trump’s conservative views.

“I believe in his values and what he’s doing,” Mr. Tartamosa said of the president. “I believe it’s better than what the other side has to offer.”

Wildwood, one of New Jersey’s most popular beach destinations, is known for its wide sandy beaches, an expansive boardwalk and an assortment of amusement and water parks that operate on oceanside piers.

At 11 a.m. each summer day, loudspeakers blast Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America.” The beloved tradition came under scrutiny last year after revelations that Ms. Smith’s recording catalog featured racist songs, but the mayor at the time said the patriotic medley would not be altered.

Maggie Warner Wisniewski, a spokeswoman for Morey’s Piers, which operates several hotels and amusement parks, said it had become clear after rooms in the company’s Starlux hotel sold out that the 52-room Blue Palm, which is normally closed in winter, would have to be pressed into service.

“It’s just kind of putting Wildwood on the map,” Ms. Wisniewski said.

One hotel that reopened for the event handed out miniature flags to guests who were checking in, and was running shuttle buses to the convention center every 30 minutes.

Eric Hanson, the manager of the Blue Water Grille restaurant, said that he and his mixologists had crafted a bipartisan menu of drinks for the occasion, with names like subpoena-colada, MAGA-margarita and impeachment punch.

“You’ve got to have fun with it,” he said.


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