GILLETTE — Lula Belle’s Cafe is a freestanding white-stone building between the railroad tracks and the bottom end of Gillette’s sloping main street. Smoking is still allowed inside, and the ashtrays between mugs of coffee suggest that’s the way the customers like it.
Clientele varies from ranchers and retirees lingering over their coffee in the morning, to railroad workers taking in big daily specials on their lunch break, and all manner of coal miners and oil field workers throughout the day. It is a jovial home of coarse but friendly jokes, homestyle food and a smell of cigarettes that lingers in clothes long after one departs.
Jena Meader, who has worked on and off at Lula Belle’s since she was 12 years old, said she never has seen the cafe more jovial than the morning after Donald Trump surprised the pundits and upended the polls to become president-elect. On that day she was threading through the crowd serving coffee and food as the restaurant did a brisk trade. All day long people talked loudly about their surprise, and their excitement, at who would be 45th president of the United States. In Campbell County, 15,778 people voted for Donald Trump. Just 1,324 cast their votes for Hillary Clinton.
“Everyone was relieved,” Meader said. “They felt the coal industry would rebound.”
The optimism that Trump will bring coal back has reverberated throughout Gillette in the six weeks since the long campaign ended. The hope extends not only to coal, but also to oil and gas — the markets for which went bust over the last few years. It is an optimism fueled by Trump’s rhetoric and businessman background.
Meader can’t remember a day of equivalent joviality at Lula Belle’s per se, but she said she can remember it’s opposite: Nov. 6, 2012, the day President Obama was re-elected. Lula Belle’s that day was “somber,” she said.
When President Obama first won office in 2008, Meader does not remember a depressed mood. The crowd at Lula Belle’s is “blue collar, intelligent people,” she said, and though almost wholly Republican, they were still cognizant of a historic event — the election of the nation’s first black president.
But the Obama administration’s policies toward coal turned residents here strongly against him, she said, and by the day of his second election, the customers of Lula Belle’s felt he was a president who didn’t have them in mind.
The attitude in Lula Belle’s come November 2020 could depend on President-elect Trump’s ability to keep his promise to coal country. Can he stave off a decline that some research suggests is more a result of market forces than the “war on coal” oft-cited in Campbell County as being waged by the Obama administration.
At nearby Brothers Coffee, a smoke-free place where speakers usually broadcast Christian rock music, owner Judi Sipe said similar optimism permeated the day after the election. It enveloped its owner, a diminutive woman who calls many of her customers “babe,” hosts open mic nights and sells Trump t-shirts along with the coffee and snacks. The day after the election, she described the pervading sentiment as one of relief.
“Gillette won’t die like a lot of people thought it would,” she said.
One of her regulars is a dispatcher on the railroad, who comes in after his night shifts for a cup of coffee and breakfast. The day after the election, he told her he soon anticipated getting more hours as coal-train traffic picked up. For that to happen, a Trump administration would have to reverse a year long slide for coal that until recently seemed to show little sign of settling.
The challenge is significant, but so is what it would mean to the community, and to individual miners.
Richard Reavey, vice-president of external affairs for Cloud Peak Energy that has two major mines in Gillette, described his outlook on the next four years as “cautiously optimistic.” He hopes to see federal coal leasing revived and a “reset” on the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. What the industry most needs is regulatory certainty, which Trump’s team could deliver with a well-thought-through replacement for the Clean Power Plan, he said. A new plan would regulate carbon dioxide emissions in a way that “coal producers, utilities and mainstream environmental groups can live with.”
No matter what, “it’s great to have a fossil fuel friendly administration,” he said.
In 2016, three of the largest coal companies in Gillette, Arch Coal, Alpha Coal Resources and Peabody, went into bankruptcy. That was a result of depressed coal markets due to cheap natural gas and a global economic slowdown, according to University of Wyoming economist Robert Godby. After 2008 there was little growth in demand for electricity.
The hurt on the big multinational coal corporations was compounded by overseas investments they’d made in metallurgical coal that wound up being a mistake. Their bankruptcies were followed by layoffs at Gillette mines. Over March and April, more than 500 Gillette coal miners lost their jobs. The effects on the town were widespread.
Toward the end of summer, however, coal in the Powder River Basin got some seasonal relief. Utilities restocked and production during the third quarter of the year, from July through September, rose to surpass the previous quarter by nearly 30 percent, according to data from the Wyoming State Geological Survey. While that’s still almost 15 percent less production than in the same quarter in 2015, it meant some mines started to hire again, exciting laid-off coal workers.
That was the case for Mark Frausto, a military veteran and laid-off mine mechanic featured in an Oct. 4, WyoFile story. At that time, he had been on unemployment for five months. He was frustrated, continually searching for jobs and ready to leave Gillette. But later that month he saw an opening for a mechanic at the Buckskin mine, owned by Kiewit Mining Co. He applied immediately.
Frausto interviewed, and the next day, while working on fencing at his dad’s property outside of town, he got the call. The job was his. When he showed up at the mine, people kept coming up and shaking his hand and congratulating him, he said. Now he alternates between day or nighttime 12-hour shifts
Between new hires and the election results, Frausto said spirits at Buckskin were high. While he isn’t particularly political — either on Facebook or in conversation — he does believe Trump will bring back more energy jobs as per his campaign rhetoric.
“I think our energy industry is gonna go back again,” he said. “I think it’s gonna boost up.” Trump promised it on television for all the world to see, he said.
Mostly, however, Frausto is just relieved to be working. He is beginning to pay off bills that had piled up during his long run of unemployment, including medical expenses for his wife Desirae.
“We can see the light,” Desirae said on a recent Saturday. Frausto’s two daughters from a previous marriage — Alita, who is 14, and Kiana, who is 12 — were with them for the weekend, up from Douglas. The girls sat in front of the TV early in the afternoon on Saturday talking about boys and wondering if their father would drive them home Sunday or Monday.
Frausto, standing over them with arms crossed and legs spread, had that question settled. It would be Monday. “Daddy’s working tomorrow,” he said, grinning. “Gonna get some overtime.”
“Save the community as well as the coal mine”
Branden Walsh, an employee at Arch Coal’s Coal Creek Mine, is also getting overtime, for the first time in a while, he said. Coal Creek has yet to staff back up after reductions, so there’s work to go around. “As much as I can take,” he said.
Walsh watched the elections at the Fireside Lounge, a roadside bar toward Gillette’s western edge, with a room full of pool tables and a crowd that runs to the younger, and rowdier, side. “There was a lot of cheering and it was quite the party afterwards,” Walsh said of the moment it became clear Trump would carry the electoral college. “People were buying drinks all around.”
When miners realized they wouldn’t see a Hillary Clinton presidency, “it felt like there was kind of a weight lifted,” he said.
Walsh has acted as an unofficial voice for a group called Interfaith Workers Justice, a non-union workers’ rights group. He was upset at the way some of the big multinational companies treated their workers during layoffs, by slashing benefits and health insurance. He also worries about companies walking away from their obligations to perform environmental reclamation on mines, because he thinks the industry needs to leave communities like Gillette healthy in the long run.
Of president-elect Trump, Walsh said, “I think he will try and bring jobs back, I think he was sincere in his talks to do so.” His message for Trump is that he hopes Trump will realize really helping coal miners and coal communities means more than that.
“Loosen up on the coal mines a little bit, but at the same time make sure that they’re going to take care of reclamation and their employees,” he said. “Save the community as well as the coal mine,” he said.
While he hopes Trump recognizes that need, Walsh also is aware from the President-elect’s rhetoric that his chief focus is on the jobs side, he said. When told of a $30 billion package Hillary Clinton had proposed for coal communities, Walsh said he didn’t think the federal government could really afford such a bailout. “It’s easy to promise billions of dollars worth of revitalization projects when you’ve got blank checks,” he said.
Trump offered something that resonated more to the miners: helping them mine on by helping the business they work in.
“I don’t think there were many Hillary supporters at the coal mine, and if there were they didn’t say much,” Walsh said.
If Trump can’t fulfill his promise, Walsh said he’ll have a hard time holding his support in the community. After all, in Gillette, Trump’s promises resonate far beyond coal. Whether explicitly or not, he promised to keep alive a way of life, and an industry that brought this town from a small ranching community to the coal capital of the most productive coal-mining state in the nation. Along the way a community formed that most residents say provides an excellent way of life, funded by what seemed for a time to be boundless mineral revenues. It’s a place, and a culture, that many believed had become threatened with extinction.
As Walsh put it: “Everybody is pretty much banking on him.”
But just before closing on a slow Thursday afternoon at Lula Belle’s, in the heart of dark red Campbell County, there is at least one person who doesn’t believe president-elect Trump will be filling Gillette stockings with coal this Christmas.
For the dissenting opinion, Jena Meader gestures from behind the counter towards Duffy Jenniges, who she calls Lula Belle’s “resident Democrat.” With the exception of his faded ball cap, which says “Duff” in large letters, Jenniges doesn’t differ much in looks from other patrons There’s a worn flannel jacket on his back, a cigarette dangling in his fingers, and others in the ashtray next to his coffee cup. But Jenniges is indeed a Democrat.
While other left-leaning voters in Gillette have told WyoFile that they prefer to keep quiet about politics, Jenniges, a former railroad worker and union chief now long retired, said he’s not afraid of his label. Still, he understands the trepidation of like-minded Campbell County voters.
For Democrats here, he said, “It’s like a big game of whack-a-mole. If you stick your head up, somebody’s gonna whack it.”
Jenniges ran for Gillette’s House District 52 against Republican Bill Pownall in this year’s general election, and got roughly 18 percent of the vote. It was at least Jenniges’ fourth time running, he said.
“I don’t stand a chance in hell of winning, but at least for three or four months I get to tell everybody what’s on my mind,” he said.
Jenniges blames natural gas, not regulation, for coal’s decline in the last year. On top of that, he thinks automation of coal jobs presents a longer-term threat in the Powder River Basin. Mining technology has evolved to the point where the mines need fewer and fewer laborers, he said.
Needless to say, Jenniges does not have much faith in the president-elect’s ability to keep his promises to coal country.
“The people running around this town right now think come the 21st, the sun’s gonna come out and jobs are gonna fall from the f****** sky,” he said. “They might be a little disappointed when things don’t turn into Nirvana.”