Some of the most generous donors to Donald Trump’s campaign thus far — other than the candidate himself — are people with job titles a lot like his. They just don’t make quite as much money.
Excluding retirees, the most identifiable contributions to the billionaire businessman have come from owners, presidents and CEOs, in that order, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of Federal Election Commission data through January.
But they’re hardly corporate titans. They’re owners and operators of mostly small to mid-sized businesses. And while the companies themselves vary, the proprietors share a common trait.
They are fed up with politicians.
“Just get somebody in there who’s different,” said Anthony Forlini, whose Ocean Park, New Jersey, firm disposes of contaminated dirt. “I don’t even care anymore.”
Forlini, who donated $207 to Trump's campaign last year, speaks for many.
Hugh Joyce of Richmond, Virginia, owns James River Heating Air Conditioning Co. and gave Trump’s campaign $2,700, the legal maximum.
“I don’t agree with everything [Trump] does, but what I do like about him, he’s not being bought by anybody else,” Joyce said. “When I see establishment people petrified, I’m interested.”
Plenty of establishment people are petrified — particularly Republican establishment people. And despite constant predictions of a flame-out, prompted by a steady stream of outrageous comments from the candidate, Trump is winning. On Saturday, for example, he obliterated his South Carolina primary competition, capturing every one of the state’s 50 delegates.
And at the Nevada caucuses on Tuesday night, he repeated his success, capturing 46 percent of the vote on his way to victory.
The Center for Public Integrity identified about 500 business owners and/or operators who gave an average of around $660 apiece to Trump. The businesses ranged from heating and air conditioning contracting companies to exterminators to restaurants. There were auto dealerships, real estate offices, retail outlets and small manufacturers.
The Center for Public Integrity then contacted a cross-section of them to learn why they pulled out their checkbooks and sent their hard-earned cash to the billionaire/reality television star.
The message was clear. They are ready for an alternative to any establishment conservative, regardless of how bombastic he is. And many of the candidate’s talking points on immigration, taxes, jobs, education and the economy seem to resonate — even if the backers aren’t clear on the details.
“I like that he’s not on the inside. Washington’s broken. If we send another insider there, we are going to get the same garbage,” said Burl Hiles, owner of Burl’s Termite and Pest Control in Estill Springs, Tennessee, who gave Trump $2,700.
Most campaigns rely on funds from contributors.
But through January, about 70 percent of the $26 million Trump’s campaign has raised comes from Trump himself, almost all of it loans. Another 22 percent comes from small-dollar donors, who have given $200 or less.
But a relatively small portion, roughly $1.9 million, has come from donors who have given more than $200 and are thus required to be named in FEC reports. Of that amount, at least $336,000 has come from business owners and top executives.
Lower taxes for all
One position Trump has taken that pretty much every business owner can get behind is the slashing of the corporate income tax rate from a high of 35 percent to 15 percent.
“No business of any size, from a Fortune 500 to a mom and pop shop to a freelancer living job to job, will pay more than 15 percent of their business income in taxes,” reads Trump’s policy paper on the issue.
Heather Nally, owner of the Micro Diner in Pittsburgh, could use a break on taxes. She’s been running her 29-seat restaurant for almost four years and pays her employees better than the $7.25 minimum wage.
“If I didn’t pay so much money on taxes I might be able to give these people more money,” Nally said.
She contributed $230 to Trump in January.
Trump’s reasoning for the tax cut, in part, is aimed at larger businesses. He wants to prevent corporate “inversions.” That’s the practice of companies reincorporating overseas to take advantage of lower tax rates. This would, in theory anyway, help manufacturing by keeping companies and jobs in this country.
Trump would also lower the personal income tax rate for everyone, but especially the wealthy, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, which analyzed his plan. The largest benefits, according to the study, “would go to the highest-income households.” It would provide an average $1.3 million tax cut for the top 0.1 percent of earners, the study found.
It’s safe to say Trump would fall into that category.
As for the impact of his policy on the debt, well, that’s a bit troublesome, according to the Tax Policy Center. It would cost the government $9.5 trillion over 10 years and could cause the national debt to soar, according to the analysis.
Trump’s business experience inspires a lot of his small business supporters, particularly around job creation.
Trump, in a video on his website, says with characteristic understatement, “I will be the greatest jobs-producing president that God ever created.”
Says Joyce, the donor from Richmond: “The most important thing we can create for America is jobs. I have a great amount of interest and respect to anyone that can grow a business with that many people — a wild amount of respect.”
Joyce says the regulatory environment in the country is “so unbearable — so impossible. We are having so few new businesses start because of the environment. Are we working through it? Yes. Is our business viable? Yes. But it’s terrible when you look at the dollars lost. It’s terrible and nobody cares.”
Forlini, the donor from New Jersey, agrees Trump is best suited to bring in jobs.
“He’s at least the best suited to get that under control just because he’s a businessman,” Forlini said. “Just because he understands whatever comes in he had to work to get that. If we get another liberal in there, I’m out of here.”
Forlini is a Democrat, and he believes “you’re going to see a lot of Democrats moving over to Trump.”
At least one poll says he may be on to something.
Civis Analytics, a data analytics consulting company, interviewed more than 11,000 Republican-leaning individuals and came to the conclusion that Trump’s best voters are “self-identified Republicans who nonetheless are registered as Democrats.”
Education and Obamacare
Trump donor Richard Edwards, of Stevens, Pennsylvania, is president of Edwards Electric & Telecom. He’s frustrated with the nation’s lousy educational system and sees it in his job candidates.
“As a business owner, I get to see the young men who apply to work here and I see the junk in the market,” he said. “Schools are horrible.”
Trump — whom Edwards supported with a $2,700 contribution — has been a bit vague on his education plan, but did release a video blasting one initiative that’s taken a lot of flak from conservatives.
“I’m a tremendous believer in education, but education has to be at a local level. We cannot have the bureaucrats in Washington telling you how to manage your child’s education,” Trump said. “So Common Core is a total disaster. We can’t let it continue.”
The Common Core State Standards Initiative’s goal is to lay out what students, from kindergarten through high school, should be proficient in when it comes to math and English as they complete each grade.
Edwards is also especially upset with Obamacare — a common refrain among Trump donors contacted by the Center for Public Integrity.
“I watched Obama take small business owners and use them to fund all of his garbage,” he said. “Obamacare has taken a great health system and turned it into garbage. My insurance rates have tripled.”
Fairness or xenophobia?
Among Trump’s more radical ideas is the desire to deport the roughly 11 million people who have entered the United States illegally. He also wants to build a wall along the Southern border of the nation and make Mexico pay for it.
Even his staunchest supporters are a little skeptical of the wall idea.
“He’s a little far stretched on that and he couldn’t do it anyways,” said Nally of the Micro Diner. “I don’t think he means that either. I think it’s the way he talks.”
However, she supports legal immigration and a more limited deportation plan. “Look, if they committed crimes or never paid any taxes, send them back,” she said of immigrants living in the United States illegally.
“What’s wrong with doing it the right way?” she asked. “Illegal immigration wasn’t how we built this country, legal immigration was. That’s how distorted reality’s become — is it fair to the ones that are doing it the right way?”
Many of Trump’s supporters weren’t terribly concerned with the details of his proposals. They just want change and they want it now — especially folks in the three top donor states for business owners and top executives: Texas ($41,800), Florida ($37,785) and California ($30,200).
Wendell Reeder, owner of Clarksville Oil & Gas in Clarksville, Texas, and nearby ranches is one of those people.
“He tells it like it his,” Reeder said of Trump, to whom he gave $1,000 last year. “He’s telling the truth — from illegal aliens to taxes. Everything he talks about; it's really the way it is. I hope that we can get someone up there would do what’s best for America and not just what is politically correct.”
Ben Wieder and Michael Beckel contributed to this report.
This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington, D.C. Read more of its investigations on the influence of money in politics or follow it on Twitter.