Harley-Davidson Riders Steer Through Trump And Primary Voting

Sep 11, 2018

Rhode Island’s primary election is Wednesday, and we’ve been talking to voters to find out how Trump’s presidency may impact the local election. One group Trump has mentioned among his supporters is Harley-Davidson riders. But over the summer, Trump blasted the American motorcycle company for announcing it was moving some production overseas. Rhode Island Public Radio’s Lynn Arditi checked in with local Harley riders about how they’re feeling about Trump and the primary.

John Rappa is a  retired auto-body worker. And at 80, he sports a thick head of white hair and a muscular build. A heavy gold chain with his initials -- J.R. -- dangles around his neck.  And while he’s officially an unaffiliated voter he’s a big Trump supporter.

“He’s the man. He says it like it is,’’ Rappa said. “And that’s what I like about him.”

During the summer, Trump lambasted Rappa’s beloved bike maker for saying the company plans to move some factories overseas to avoid European trade tariffs. Rappa said he agrees with the president “100 percent.’’

"I mean why not? It’s an American bike, that’s all we talk about, is Harley because it’s made in America,’’ He said. “You know, why should we buy something in China that can be done here? It doesn’t make any sense.”

It’s unclear where, exactly, Harley will move its European production.

But the company already makes some bikes, and bike parts, in Brazil, Australia, Thailand and India.

Rappa rides a 2012 Harley Soft Tail Heritage. It’s one of more than 11,400 Harley-Davidson motorcycles registered in Rhode Island, according to data from the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

On a recent evening, music from the 1950s and ‘60s blared from loud speakers at a classic car show at Oakland Beach in Warwick. The event felt like a throwback to another era. American flags snapped in the breeze blowing off the bay. Drivers rumbled by in old model cars. And Harley riders lounged by their bikes.

Bob Letourneau, a Democrat, says he's never liked Trump.
Credit Lynn Arditi / RIPR

Bob Letourneau was among them. He’s a 69-year-old retired auto mechanic from Providence. He wore a leather vest with an American Flag on the back and the words: “Live to Ride.”  He said he’s also a registered Democrat.

"I never liked Trump. Even when he had that TV show,’’ Letourneau said. “He’s got the same attitude: 'you’re fired.' I don’t think anybody in his cabinet has been there since he got elected. What are you gonna do? That’s him.”

Trump has often touted his support among Harley riders, predominantly white men. But these Harley-Davidson enthusiasts are not all Trump loyalists. Still, Letourneau sympathizes with the president’s anger over Harley’s plan to move some factories overseas.

“So, American made is important to you?”

“Oh yeah, oh yeah. Well, I’m an American. No better reason than that.”

Bob Miller, who describes himself as a Libertarian, says he'll wait until after the candidates debate to decide who to vote for.
Credit Lynn Arditi / RIPR

But Bob Miller said he understands Harley’s decision to move some production overseas.  He’s a businessman who rides a shiny 2014 Soft Tail Delux Harley.

“I think Harley has to do what it has to do to maintain their business and keep their shareholders happy,’’ he said.

Miller is one of the 48 percent of registered voters in Rhode Island who are unaffiliated, according to the secretary of state’s office. He describes himself as a Libertarian and pretty middle-of-the-road – he said he's not a Trump supporter.

Miller has two grown children, both raised in Rhode Island. He said the most important issues for him are the rising cost of health insurance and taxes.

But he said he’s not planning to vote in Wednesday’s primary.

“There’s nobody there that I’m willing to vote for,’’ he said.

Miller said he’s waiting to hear the candidates talk more about the issues.

“When they tell us more about what their positions are about -- and maybe have a debate or two so that I can understand what their positions are, and what they’re looking to achieve, and what they have to offer -- yeah, I might,’’ he said. “But not at this point.”

So Miller isn’t planning to vote in the primary. But what about Trump supporter John Rappa?

“Depending how I feel," he said. "I’m not really sure what I’m gonna do yet.”

Rappa said he’s leaning toward Republican Gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung --  but he hasn’t made up his mind yet.

And Letourneau, the registered Democrat, expressed a sentiment I heard from a number of Harley riders: they’re frustrated with politicians in general.  

“My theory on voting is you’re always voting for the lesser of two evils.’’ Letourneau said. “And that’s the way it always works out. Because before they get in they’ll tell you anything. But after they get in either they don’t want to do something, or the way the political arena is, they can’t do something.”

So regardless of their party affiliation or their views on Trump, the bikers weren’t enthusiastic about voting. And that sentiment could keep some of them from showing up at the polls on Wednesday.