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In an original TRNN series, conservative residents of the working-class town of Westminster, Maryland, paint a political landscape different from that depicted in the mainstream media

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: We’re here in the town of Westminster, Maryland. It’s about 45 minutes northwest of Baltimore. And here on Main Street, where most business is taking place, the population of about 18,000 residents could be considered working-class. Most of the folks here, they make around $48,000 a year.

And although polls show that in this upcoming election Maryland congressional representation will mostly be in the hands of Democrats, this town votes Republican. In the last presidential election, 66 percent voted for Mitt Romney. So we wanted to start off the series asking one simple question: why? And what issues really matter to the people of Westminster? And do they think the Republican Party is serving their interests?

Ernie’s Place has been a staple of Westminster for 35 years. We sat down with Ricky Jones, who was born and raised in this town. He works in the construction industry and said he tends to vote Republican, since the party speaks to the issues that matter to him.

RICKY JONES, WESTMINSTER RESIDENT: The biggest thing here in Westminster is a lot of drugs. A lot of drugs. You see a lot of drug guys standing on the corners selling drugs. You can go anywhere in Westminster city and see it. The police do a great job, but sometimes their hands are tied. You know, they go to court, get their hands slapped or whatever, and the jail’s are just so full and stuff that I guess they don’t have room for any more. They need to build some more, new jails, I guess.

Definitely a lot of heroin, a lot of crack. I think Westminster’s got really bad in the last 20 years, I’d say.

DESVARIEUX: So far this year there have been more than 20 heroin deaths and hundreds of heroin overdoses of young people in Carroll County. Westminster sits in the heart of that county.

To address this problem, the town has built methadone clinics. This is one out of the two clinics built in the last three years.

Jones also said that public assistance is contributing to the destruction of this small town.

JONES: And it should be stopped, really. It’s just someone needs to step in and just take control of this and probably save the state of Maryland billions of dollars in a ten-year course. Back in my day, when you couldn’t make things meet, you went and got another job. But today it’s so much assistance out there that people just say, hey, you know, if I can get it free, why should I have to go work for it?

DESVARIEUX: The number of Westminster residents on public assistance has gone up in the last ten years. For example, since 2000, the number of Carroll County residents receiving temporary cash assistance has jumped 52 percent. A 2012 study by the University of Washington School of Social Work found that it’s become more difficult for people to meet costs and more people have had to rely on public assistance. The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Maryland found that costs related to housing, child care, and food have gone up 65 percent in the last ten years. But according to census data, the median income has only gone up 41 percent.

Small business owner Mark Brown says public assistance is necessary but thinks drug testing should be required.

MARK BROWN, WESTMINSTER RESIDENT: Well, personally, I was on DSSI [SSDI (?)], permanent disability, because I got paralyzed. Learned how to walk again, all that good stuff. So, I mean, that was very beneficial. But then, obviously, I’m not on it now.

So it’s not supposed to be a crutch, like, that you lean on the rest of your life. You know, as soon as you can get off of it, get off of it. But then you’re just talking about people’s work ethic. You’re talking about people’s personality, their character, like, who wants to actually work and feel pride about doing a good day’s work, or would just rather be content and laying back and getting welfare. You know.

And then, like, I don’t–I’ve never been on welfare, and I’m not going to put my two cents too much, but there’s been talk of drug testing to get on welfare, to stay on welfare. And I know that would be more money in the tests themselves, but then if half the people who are on welfare are on drugs and then they don’t get it, there’s a lot more money.

DESVARIEUX: Brown said he’s on the fence politically and could vote for either a Democrat or Republican. He said especially on the issue of taxes, Republicans don’t represent his interests.

BROWN: Taxes are history necessary to fix your roads, to make sure your schools are run properly, pay your teachers, to support the military. I mean, we’re in, like, 18 wars or whatever. You know, I’m just joking. But seriously, they’ve got to eat. They’ve got to have gun. I mean, it’s a necessary evil, where how much–regardless how much I complain, is that going to change that I–I still have to pay taxes. So just accept it and move on. Like, that’s it.

DESVARIEUX: Joe Nash has been living in Westminster since the ’80s. He said homelessness has been one of his main concerns.

JOE NASH, WESTMINSTER RESIDENT: Some would rather I be a wino or a bum. You know. And, I mean, there’s no life there. There’s more you can do for yourself. But you’ve got to want to do it before you can do it.

DESVARIEUX: In 2009, the Rosewood Center Mental Institution closed down. Residents say many patients were just released on the streets.

Also, we found that many residents we spoke to were concerned with unemployment. According to the Maryland Department of Labor, Carroll County’s unemployment rate is at 5.8 percent. That’s below the Maryland state average of 6.4 percent.

Currently, publisher Penguin Random House is one of the largest private employers in Westminster. Its distribution center employs more than 800 people. Workers are not unionized, and a starting salary in the warehouse pays $8 an hour. Men’s apparel retailer JoS. A. Bank has its corporate headquarters in Carroll County. And, also, major defense contractor Northrop Grumman currently employs 400 people.

But major industries in the past ten years have been downsizing. Toolmaker Black & Decker used to employ 2,000 workers, but now only retains a small warehouse and distribution center with 130 employees.

But for Ricky Jones, he said the economy may be in a recession, but it’s up to the individual to find work.

JONES: What you growed up with is basically what you’re going to be. If your family grew up working hard and they had to work two or three jobs to make ends meet, to feed your children or whatever, they did that. But there’s so many families today that’s on the systems that don’t work, and then their kids see the same thing, and it’s like, we don’t need to work; you know, mom and dad, they was on this stuff all their lives; let’s us be on it. The amount of people that’s a couple of years old that’s getting disability and stuff like that for their children, you know, how can you do that? It’s just way out of hand.

DESVARIEUX: “Way out of hand” is how many residents are describing the issues plaguing this small town. And this just the beginning of a series where we’ll take a close look at the issues raised and go back to the residents to show them what we uncover.

Reporting from Westminster, Maryland, this is Jessica Desvarieux for The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Jessica Desvarieux is a multimedia journalist who serves as the Capitol Hill correspondent for the Real News Network. Most recently, Jessica worked as a producer for the ABC Sunday morning program, This Week with Christianne Amanpour. Before moving to Washington DC, Jessica served as the Haiti corespondent for TIME Magazine and Previously, she was as an on-air reporter for New York tri-state cable outlet Regional News Network, where she worked before the 2010 earthquake struck her native country of Haiti. From March 2008 - September 2009, she lived in Egypt, where her work appeared in various media outlets like the Associated Press, Voice of America, and the International Herald Tribune - Daily News Egypt. She graduated from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism with a Master of Science degree in journalism. She is proficient in French, Spanish, Haitian Creole, and has a working knowledge of Egyptian Colloquial Arabic. Follow her @Jessica_Reports.

Thomas Hedges is a freelance photographer, videographer and writer based out of New York/New Jersey. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Salon, Demos, The Nation, NowThis, Brut. Media, Thrillist, and CBS. Hedges formerly worked as a producer for TRNN. Follow him @TAHedges.