The California primary matters for the first time in decades. 25 voters tell us what they care about

There seems to be no shortage of opinions about the race for the White House, its outsize personalities and the potential consequences of the man — or woman — who is elected this fall. We try to understand why voters make their choices using a variety of tools, each with drawbacks.

Polls can tell us a lot about a group of people, but are a snapshot of a moment in time, taken in a controlled environment over the telephone. Talking to people at rallies can yield vivid quotes, but they come when people are as engaged as they might ever be in the topic at hand — and most people just aren’t that regularly engaged.

So we sent two reporters into California congressional districts that were closely split in the 2012 presidential race to have open-ended political discussions with people as they went about their everyday lives. Can they sense the primary battle coming to their communities? How are they making their decisions for the June 7 primary and beyond?

The reporters  traveled from the Sierra foothills, through the heart of California’s agriculturally rich Central Valley, up and down the region affectionately known as “Reagan country,” deep into the high desert and to the suburbs in the shadow of Six Flags Magic Mountain, having honest conversations about Californians' hopes and fears for the next president. Voters revealed a theme we’ve seen across the country — deep dissatisfaction with the state of politics and distrust of government.

As Donald Trump holds his first Golden State rally of 2016 and the other GOP presidential hopefuls arrive for the California Republican Party convention, here are 25 Californians weighing in on the race.

Joe Naso, 78, retired postal worker, Simi Valley

(Christine Mai-Duc / Los Angeles Times)

A group of buddies are sitting around a card table under the shade of a tent for their twice-weekly game of poker at the swap meet.

Joe Naso assesses Trump’s chances as he throws two chips into the pile.

Naso, a grandfather of 13, longtime union leader and former die-hard Democrat, says his choice is about the future. “Now I’m going for whoever I think is in the best interest of the country…that’s definitely not Trump.”

Naso says if Bernie Sanders wins the nomination, he’ll not only vote for him, but campaign for him as well.

“Generally speaking, I don’t like politicians, because most of them are two-faced,” he says. But Sanders comes across as “legitimately honest and sincere” to him.

Keith Holexa, 63, retired aerospace employee, Palmdale

(Christine Mai-Duc / Los Angeles Times)

Holexa has just a one-word answer when asked about this election.

“Trump!” he says. “I’m Trump all the way.”

Holexa says he’s been a registered Republican for 43 years and has voted in every presidential election. He’s strolling the Tuesday swap meet in Santa Clarita in a cut-off tee and jeans, and has just put down a paperback copy of “Ozzy Knows Best” by Ozzy Osbourne.

“Trump’s got some great ideas,” he says. “He says it like it is, and it hurts a lot of people, but if you can’t say what you think in America, it’s pretty bad as far as I’m concerned.”

He says he’s mostly concerned about dealing with illegal immigration.

“You can come here,” he says of immigrants. “But do it legally, and pay taxes, because it’s just killing our society.”

Holexa says he has many friends who are lifelong Democrats, and lots of them are supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders, he says because of “all the programs that the government will give them.”

Trump may not have any experience, he says, but, “you’ve got to have good people around you. And I think he can get those people.”

Ronald Coupland, 70, retired and sells coins part-time at the swap meet in Simi Valley


(Christine Mai-Duc / Los Angeles Times)

Coupland is sitting apart from the poker game, smoking a cigarette by his cases of coins, his salt-and-pepper hair pulled into a long ponytail.

He calls himself a lifelong liberal. “I grew up in the '60s, picketed and so forth, expected stuff to change. And it didn’t,” he says, teary-eyed. “So I’m unhappy with it.”

He says he’s disheartened at the racial tensions and divisiveness that have made a resurgence in recent years. Trump, he says, is “blowing things all out of proportion, pandering to people’s fears and unhappiness.”

Coupland calls Trump “unstable” and “a buffoon.”

“I wouldn’t want an individual like him being our president, with his finger on the nuclear button. I don’t trust him at all.”

He says he can’t figure out why so many people have backed Trump.

“He doesn’t have any business getting the kind of attention he’s getting, in my opinion. The American people are being pretty stupid.”

A customer who walks up in a baseball cap and jeans disagrees.

“I’d love to see him go after Hillary, I really would. She’s not a good person,” the man says.

“It’s all corrupt, and I agree with that, but I think she can accomplish more for the country and the people than any of the other candidates,” Coupland says.

Pam Salzarulo, 32, stay-at-home mom and math tutor, Santa Clarita

(Christine Mai-Duc / Los Angeles Times)

Salzarulo says she’s been torn about the media portrayals of Donald Trump, which she says have been “polar opposites.”

“I honestly don’t know what to believe,” she says. “It’s like, either he is evil, or he is amazing, and there is no in-between…I mean, he’s a person, so we know there’s got to be the truth in there.”

Salzarulo, a stay-at-home mother of three who tutors in math part-time, says she hasn’t had much time yet to do her own research about the candidates. But what she has seen hasn’t impressed her.

“I don’t feel like I can point to any one of them and say, ‘That would be a good role model for my kids.’”

Rob Kent, 53, contractor and part-time vendor at Santa Clarita swap meet, Lancaster

Kent says he’s been a Democrat for much of his life, and voted for Barack Obama twice. This year, he intends to vote for Trump.

“I don’t hate Obama. I think he did the best that he knew how to do,” Kent says. But he believes the country needs the Republican front-runner's business acumen to improve the economy.

Kent used to be a full-time contractor, but now sells wares at the Saugus Speedway swap meet and online part-time.

“The economy went down the crapper, and I was affected hugely by it,” he says. “Republicans, to me, are more for business and more for bringing in jobs, and that’s what’s needed right now.”

Scott Savage, 57, works at swap meets, Antelope Valley

Savage is a staunch Republican who’s skeptical of Trump.

“He’s just saying what people want to hear. There’s very little substance. It’s all, ‘I’ll work that out later. I’ll get the best people,’” Savage said.

“That does concern me…I want to know specifically, what are you going to do?”

Savage says he’s disappointed in the tenor of the campaign so far.

“It’s childish. It’s ridiculous. I want to hear the facts…not all the crazy locker room crap that’s been going on at the debates. It’s like a bunch of junior high school kids running for president.”

But if Trump wins the nomination, Savage says, he has no choice.

“If he’s the Republican, that’s who I’ve got to vote for, whether I like it or not.”

Tracy Onik, 46, locomotive engineer, Elk Grove

Trump’s incendiary comments about Mexican immigrants and barring all Muslims may have created a backlash but, in reality, a lot of Americans feel that way, Onik said.

“Not many people want to say that,” he said. “He’ll say it, and I appreciate that. He speaks his mind, and I give him credit.”

Onik said he is well-aware that there are people who just don’t “like black people.” He’d rather have their bias out in the open than hidden in the shadows, said Onik, a Navy veteran.

“Speaking as an African American, we’d rather know you don’t like us,” he said. “That way, we don’t have to pretend.”

Onik said Trump’s suggestion that Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers was ridiculous, saying most of the immigrants in this country are doing the difficult, low-paying work that American citizens won’t do.

But he did agree with Trump that the U.S. needs to crack down on illegal immigration. He said providing education, public assistance and healthcare coverage to immigrants here illegally is draining tax dollars that should be reserved for citizens in need, he said.

“Don’t get me wrong. I think he’s saying some good things,” Onik said of Trump.

Erwin Clarin, 42, nursing attendant, Santa Clarita

Clarin says Trump’s generalizations about Latinos and Muslims make him deeply uncomfortable.

“In California, we have too many cultures, too much diversity for him to say that…You don’t say these things without thinking about them for a long time before,” says Clarin, who is Filipino, after sending his children off to school.

“We’re living in a country that you have freedom of speech, you have the right to express your opinions without the fear of what will happen to you,” he says.

Clarin, a Republican who in the past voted for John McCain, said he still doesn’t know whom he’ll vote for. But he knows whom he’ll vote against: Trump.

“If he wins the presidency,” Clarin says, “all I can say is we’re doomed.”

Glyssa Alcazar, 29, works in human resources, Santa Clarita

Alcazar says her kids, a second-grader and a kindergartner, are too young to understand what’s happening in the presidential race. But she still takes extra care to make sure her children don’t see the news or other coverage of Trump.

“They think that if someone is on TV, they’re famous. I don’t want them to see someone with so much hate and someone condoning violence…I don’t want to give them the false impression that this is okay.”

Alcazar says she’s nonpartisan, and that she hasn’t decided whom to vote for.

Carlos Hernandez, 34, restaurant worker, Santa Clarita

“Politics isn’t really what it was before,” says Hernandez, who says he thinks of the Reagan era as a time when politicians discussed issues and policies.

“Now we’ve just got guys bickering, calling each other names. It makes no sense.”

Hernandez, who was born in the United States after his mother came to the country illegally, finds Trump’s statements about Mexicans and Latinos offensive.

“Fact is, there are bad people in the world, but there are hard-working ones too,” he says. “You’re just stirring the pot and creating hate.”

George Woolridge, 38, electronics sales, has 2 kids in kindergarten

(Christine Mai-Duc / Los Angeles Times)

To the Americans who say they’re sick of the divisiveness in politics, Woolridge says, “Bring it on.”

“I have a very strong belief in the way the U.S. government has been designed,” he says. “The United States was designed to work best when no one is getting along.”

In recent years, he argues, the separation of powers of our system has become too blurred. A strong Trump presidency could change that.

“I’m excited for such a strong government backlash so that maybe everyone will finally do their jobs as opposed to making deals in the back room.”

Woolridge says Trump, whose behavior he dismisses as “rabble-rousing,” is the only candidate wholly unconcerned about his public image, and he likes that.

“He seems as though he’s the one candidate that would not be afraid to do what needs to be done,” Woolridge said. “He knows what his popularity level is, and he hasn’t slowed down one bit.”

Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, showed some promise but backed down as soon as his popularity waned. “He essentially became a 7-year lame-duck. I’m not afraid of Trump doing something like that.”

“But do I think we should spend all day choosing the right words to use? No…The politically correct climate today is so extreme.”

Bob Howell, 66, retired lineman for the phone company, Newhall

(Christine Mai-Duc / Los Angeles Times)

“Oh, I love him,” says Bob Howell, sitting outside a Santa Clarita Starbucks with his coffee and morning paper.

“He don’t care if he offends someone … he just calls it like it is.”

“Him being a businessman, he’s going to get the economy back going, and we’ve got to get the military back up,” says Howell, a Vietnam veteran whose two sons who have served in the military.

But with further questioning, Howell admits he believes some of Trump’s statements are “a little extreme,” in particular his call to deport millions of immigrants.

“You can keep people from coming in, but trying to round them all up like cattle – that’s a little extreme,” says Howell, whose ex-wife is Mexican-American.

Howell says he thinks Trump needs to tone down his rhetoric now and focus on issues.

“You can’t be like a wild horse,” he says. “It got people to wake up, but now you’ve got to get down to the brass tacks, getting the issues dealt with.”

Howell says some of the schisms Trump’s candidacy has inspired reminded him of the 1968 Democratic convention, particularly after the candidate’s rally was canceled in Chicago.

“That was just out of hand. Grown men just going at one another,” Howell recalls. “It’s getting close to that now. I don’t think it’ll get that bad, but that’s how heated things can get.”

Kathy Wolfe, 58, works for a Christian nonprofit, Aliso Viejo in Orange County

Wolfe, who was using a Santa Clarita Starbucks to prepare for a meeting with one of her organization’s donors, says she thinks so many people are supporting Trump because they’re “ignorant and desperate for any change.”

“I just can’t even believe that people are falling for this,” said Wolfe, a former Republican who’s now an independent.

“The kinds of things that he says about women he doesn’t like. He calls them pigs and dogs.”

She calls herself an evangelical Christian and said she is baffled by his support from other evangelicals. “Donald Trump is as unlike Jesus Christ as anybody I’ve ever seen…People who really believe those things, I don’t see how they could vote for someone like Donald Trump.”

Wolfe says she recently finished reading a biography about Adolf Hitler, and saw many parallels to Trump’s ascension.

“The people in Germany were completely fed up with their government and their status quo. And so they were willing to overlook a lot of red flags” including Hitler’s anti-Semitic statements and lack of experience.

“They wanted change at any cost, and I think that’s what Trump followers are doing too.”

Wolfe says she used to keep quiet when someone she knew spoke favorably of Trump. Recently, she’s decided to “respectfully disagree” and raise questions about Trump’s morality, his tactics, and his statements about women and minorities.

Ultimately, Wolfe says, she’ll probably vote a write-in candidate.

“I just can’t in good conscience vote for someone who I cannot respect as a human being.”

“The thing that really breaks my heart in our country is the divisiveness,” she says. “It’s like if someone is on the other side of the aisle, they’re the enemy.”

Frank Ditto, 66, retired IT manager, walking his dog Copper in Simi Valley

(Christine Mai-Duc / Los Angeles Times)

Six months ago, says Ditto, he thought Trump’s candidacy was a joke.

“In the past I never would have considered someone like Trump,” says Ditto, a lifelong Republican. “But now, my God, Washington’s not listening to us.”

He thinks Trump is inexperienced and doesn’t have enough knowledge in foreign affairs or terrorist groups.

Still, he said, “I’m putting aside some of that lack of experience in order to get a change.”

Ditto says he’s voting for Trump not because of his policy proposals, some of which he says are “too radical,” but because he thinks the sentiment behind a Trump presidency could help get Congress back in line.

“[The president] has a powerful influence on people, and if they continue to haggle back and forth and do this adding-on that goes through – billions and billions of dollars of pork – he’ll just…campaign against them, and people won’t elect them any more.”

Though he says some of Trump’s statements are too extreme, he is counting on the system to thwart some of his policy proposals.

“Our laws, our courts keep everything in balance,” he said. “Fortunately, our government is set up in such a way that one president coming along can’t change things that much. But maybe he can change what has been going on up there.”

Madeline Arias, 22, student at Mission College, Arleta 

(Christine Mai-Duc / Los Angeles Times)

Arias says she likes that Sanders wants to provide a free college education and give a hand up to students.

“That’s something great if my younger siblings can get a free education, if my children in the future can get a free education,” says Arias, who is the first in her family to go to college.

The daughter of immigrants from Chile, Arias says she’s taken offense to Trump’s comments about Latinos.

Arias says she initially supported Hillary Clinton.

“I thought, heck yes, I want a female president,” she said. “But you see her in debates, on videos and in the news – and she’s constantly changing her answers.

Charlie Chong, 60, sandwich shop owner, Santa Clarita

(Christine Mai-Duc / Los Angeles Times)

Chong, who immigrated from Korea and became a citizen in 1989, has worked 7-day weeks for the last 30 years at his tiny sandwich shop in a Santa Clarita business park.

“I had no life, but my three daughters…they all graduated from the UC system,” he said.

Chong says he’s looking for a candidate who has the most compassion for others.

“This country is so good, that’s why we call it a melting pot, right?” he said. “Muslims, Asians, Vietnamese, Chinese, or Mexican – they all become American in this country. And we have to have that big heart to hold this entire planet.”

Chong says he thinks Hillary Clinton’s campaign embodies that sentiment best.

“I can feel more sincerity in her campaign,” he says.

Chong says Trump’s statements on restricting Muslims entering the country are exactly the opposite of what he’s looking for in the next president.

“We are creating new enemies that way,” Chong says. “Ninety-nine percent of Muslims are just like us, working hard, living hard, they follow the law, they just follow a different culture.”

Wendy Hoffman, 58, school crossing guard, Folsom

Hoffman says Trump has turned the presidential race into a worldwide “laughing stock.”

“To be honest, we have friends in Europe, and this is all just really embarrassing,” Hoffman, a life-long Republican, had been supporting Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who ended his bid.

She said the nation needs to be tougher with undocumented immigrants, who are “sucking off the dole” through public benefits and government health care.

As much as she doesn’t like Trump, she does support his stance on cracking down on illegal immigration.

She’ll vote for him if it comes to that, Hoffman said.

“I can’t vote for Hillary. They’re liars,” she said.

Vonnie Galusha, 57, works with students, Folsom

Galusha, who works as an instructional aide for special needs students, called Trump a reckless demagogue with “too many parallels to Hitler.”

She said the most disturbing aspect of the ongoing presidential campaign has been the scapegoating of Syrian refugees by Trump and others, who want to prevent them from seeking refuge in the United States.

They are fleeing persecution, largely at the hands of terrorists associated with the Islamic State, she said. She said the response by some people in this country was similar that that faced by Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.

“It’s just scary,” she said.

Josh Smith, 25, gun shop worker, Folsom

Smith works behind the counter at STS Guns in Folsom, and is an unabashed supporter of both Trump and the Second Amendment.

He sees Trump as the only candidate who isn’t afraid to speak his mind, regardless of the political consequences.

Smith thinks Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is beholden to the energy companies and, if he’s elected, would open up federal lands to oil drilling and coal mining. That worries a lot of hunters who frequent the gun store – as well as his father in Wyoming and brother in Idaho. They’re afraid of losing unspoiled hunting grounds, he said.

Smith says he’s been following the debates the election pretty closely. A lot of the criticism Trump has faced for his shifting positions on some issues may be legitimate, he said.

“He says what he’s thinking. Even if he’s going back and forth, at least you know it,” Smith said. “The others say one thing and will do another.”

Smith says one of his biggest concerns has been illegal immigration, and he supports Trump pledge  to build a wall along the Mexican border and deport the estimated 11 undocumented immigrants in this country.

“We let all these illegal immigrants into this country, and then we reward them, They get all these benefits,” he said, blaming immigrants for pushing up the cost of health care.

Kelly Byam, 53, veterinarian, Elk Grove

Byam, who calls Clinton the most qualified person in the race, said no one has ever seen anything like this in politics.

“No one has ever seen someone like Donald Trump,” Byam said. “I’ve never heard of a presidential candidate threatening anyone with physical violence. Do you really want that man’s finger on the button?”

Mark Crews, 55, mayor of the city of Galt

Crews says the most pressing political issue in his tiny town just east of the Sacramento Delta has nothing to do with presidential politics -- it’s water.

The city is about to raise its water rates, in part because of mandates by the state brought on by the drought. Crews is the one taking the heat.

“It’s not a partisan issue. Imagine that,” Crews said, smiling.

Crews wishes Washington, D.C. would act that way most of the time, putting the people and the policies that affect them a head of politics.

That’s one of the reason’s that Crews, a Republican and former police officer, is leaning toward Texas Sen. Ted Cruz  for president. Cruz, he said, is a constitutionalist and not beholden to the party bosses or special interests in Washington.

“He’s a wild card. He doesn’t lean toward the rank-and-file,” Crews said. “He’s going to shake the snot out of the people on Capitol Hill.”

The mayor said Republican front runner Donald Trump “scares me” because he is such an unknown. And Trumps antics on the campaign trail have not been presidential, he said.

“Some of the comments he made aren’t the comments of a leader,” Crews said.

Greg Sanchez, 56, farmer and feed store owner, Hanford

Sanchez said that even in the little Central Valley farm town of Hanford, it’s hard to escape the high drama of the presidential race.

“I don’t think anybody has seen an atmosphere like this, with the debates and all the bickering,” Sanchez said. “It almost seems kind of childish.”

The lifelong Democrat owns a feed store that was opened by his father and uncle decades ago and says Washington and Sacramento need to be more aware of how government regulations and laws undercut small business owners like him.

Mandated healthcare and raising the minimum wage cut deep into the stores’ bottom line and, as a result, he keeps fewer full-time employees.

Kelly Grimes, 39, Behavioral Analyst, Valencia

(Christine Mai-Duc / Los Angeles Times)

Grimes says many of her friends have joked that they’ll move to Canada if Trump wins the presidency.

“He’s so reactive that thinking about somebody like that being our president is really scary,” she said after dropping her son off at an elementary school in Santa Clarita. “It feels like we’d be back at war within 48 hours.”

Grimes says Trump’s impact on the discourse in the 2016 presidential race is “dangerous and embarrassing.”

As a behavioral analyst who works with children, she has some thoughts on how he should be treated: “Ignore him. Ignore the behavior, would be my advice to his parents and his teachers.”

“And when he’s finally talking calmly and has something productive to say, you reinforce the heck out of him.”

Deborah Monroy, 26, student, Huron

As the daughter of Central Valley farmworkers who came to the United States from Guatemala, Monroy said fixing the nation’s immigration system is her top concern. And she doesn’t believe any of the presidential candidates out there, Republican or Democrat, will be able to deliver. But she plans to vote anyway.

“I think that no matter who is president, everything is going to be the same,” said Monroy, a student at West Hills College in Coalinga.

She said President Obama promised to address immigration when he first ran for the White House, but he “didn’t keep his word” even after eight years in the White House. She also disagrees with the high number of deportations under his watch.

Monroy, who has a daughter in kindergarten, said she’s also concerned about welfare abuse. Her parents always taught her that hard work was essential in life if you want to raise a family and support yourself.

“I’m concerned about all the government money and taxes going to people who don’t want to work,” she said. “Why should they get that if they don’t want to work?”

Teague Allen, 51, librarian at the Rand Corp., Canyon Country

(Christine Mai-Duc / Los Angeles Times)

Allen has already resolved: there’s no way he’s going to be voting this election cycle.

“I’m so beyond trying to choose the lesser of two evils,” he says. “I don’t want to be apathetic, but I can’t see being emotionally invested in this race.

He’s an independent voter but voted for the Libertarian Party candidate in his last presidential election in 2008.

“It’s entertaining at least,” he says of the campaign. “I can convince myself that it’s not real.”

He calls Trump a “vampire who comes out in the daylight and eats garlic omelettes for breakfast. He cannot be killed, he cannot be shamed or ridiculed. It doesn’t work. No one has an antidote for him yet.”

Of Hillary Clinton, Allen says, “There isn’t anything she wouldn’t say or do to get elected.”

@cmaiduc @philwillon



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