Correction Appended, April 18, 2016
When Maria Andrews’ mother came home with a load of heavy groceries and found a broken elevator at the modest brick Tysens Park Apartments on Staten Island, she wasn’t expecting to get much help from building management.
But then she saw Fred Trump pull up in an elegant black limousine. She put down her groceries and rapped on the limo’s tinted window to complain to the real estate royal who owned her building. To her surprise, the elder Trump came out and helped her carry her groceries up five flights of stairs, Andrews says today — and he stayed for coffee.
Forty years later, the daughter is voting for the son.
At a Staten Island fundraiser for the Republican Party of Richmond County on Sunday, Andrews recalls seeing Fred and Donald strolling around her childhood apartment complex, chatting with her mother.
“He was just a nice man,” Andrews says of Fred Trump. “And Donald was with him a lot. So I was a fan of them from back then.”
Trump has been a national celebrity for decades and his gold-plated name has propelled him to victory in far-flung states from Georgia to Michigan. But as the primary comes to Trump’s home state on New York on April 19, there are few places where he is as big a force. In Staten Island, New York City’s most isolated borough, where the Trump family’s roots run deep, his support is as strong as anywhere in the country.
The locals grew up in his father’s buildings, saw him on television, commuted to Manhattan to work in his towers. Trump conjures up the combativeness, the straight-talking bluntness and success prized among New Yorkers, particularly in the heavily Republican borough.
At a press conference at the Hilton Garden Inn fundraiser lunch on Sunday, Trump recalled the days when he drove with his suited father in a limousine around the island. “In the summers I used to work on Staten Island,” he said. “The greatest people. These people are incredible people.”
If New York City is a microcosm of the national demography, then Staten Island is a holdout of mostly white conservatives in a city that is quickly diversifying. Staten Island went for McCain in 2008, even as the rest of the city voted for Barack Obama. And the borough, a blue collar county with heavy Italian and Irish heritage where the Trumps owned Tysens Park and apartments in Grymes Hill, has long been Trump land.
At the event on Sunday, Staten Island’s women in four-inch heels and men in jerseys with “Trump” written across the back gave him a standing ovation when he arrived, and they didn’t sit down for the entire speech.
Trump repeatedly appealed to the concerns of white voters who feel increasingly marginalized as a political minority in New York City, even though they’re not a racial one. During the event, he got big cheers for saying we need “less political correctness,” and accused China of waging an “economic war” against the U.S. And he recast Ted Cruz’s now infamous dig at “New York values” in his own way. “We’re New Yorkers, we’re smart,” he said matter-of-factly. “We have New York values.”
The family real estate empire was largely built by his father Fred in the post-World War II building boom and included low-to-middle-income housing across the boroughs, some of it built with government assistance. The family faced repeated allegations of racial discrimination and was sued by the federal government in 1973 for refusing to lease apartments to African Americans.
Shelomo Alfassa saw the Trump developments growing up near Coney Island in Brooklyn and still sees the Trump Pavilion developments in Jamaica, Queens, on his commute to work. “I lived right near Coney Island. I grew up hearing the name Trump,” said Alfassa, the director of marketing at a security company.
Because Trump is both a national celebrity and a local businessman, everyone who’s crossed his path has a story to tell. Donald Pagano, a Staten Island-based contractor, said he worked a job in the Trump Tower on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue as a 23-year-old and once rode an elevator with Ivana Trump. He didn’t recognize her as Trump’s wife, so he started flirting with her.
“I said, ‘You have the most beautiful blue eyes, enveloping bigger than the Pacific Ocean,’ something like that,” Pagano said, laughing. “So I always like to refer to myself as ‘the other Donald’ in her life.”
Despite his name recognition, Trump is as controversial in Staten Island as he is anywhere else. The protesters outside his Sunday event carrying anti-Trump signs called him a fascist and a racist. “If greed and avarice and chicanery are New York values, then yes,” Trump is a New Yorker, said Pete McParland, who works in maintenance at the College of Staten Island. “Unfortunately, it’s a very racist borough.”
It helps that in a city that is grappling with racial tensions over police brutality, Staten Island is cop country. On Sunday, Trump accepted an award from the New York Veteran Police Association and told a group of retired NYPD officers he had a “tremendous amount of respect for the work you do.”
“He understands and is sensitive to how tough our job is,” says Lou Telano, president of the New York Veteran Police Association, who says he has spoken with Trump several times on this issue. Telano presented Trump with an award for his “dedication, concern and support for America’s law enforcement.”
With Trump looming larger than life over Staten Island, Democrats have come to contest his popularity. “Donald Trump was here today but he certainly wasn’t welcome in my part of Staten Island,” New York State Assembly Member Matt Titone said at a Hillary Clinton event later that day. “We have to show the world what Staten Island truly is about. And we are about inclusion.”
Yet perhaps more on Staten Island than anywhere else, Trump is still a byword for success.
“All of the stuff Trump had going on in the ’80s. The hotel. The board game. The football. He’s synonymous with wealth,” said Richard Luthman, a Staten Island man who is registered as a Democrat but plans to write Trump in. “Trump is New York.”
Luthman was one of several registered Democrats in the audience who had chosen Trump over their party’s candidates. “I don’t like any of the Democrats running,” says Angela Gianino, a second-grade teacher and registered Democrat. “From the very first day when they threw his name out there, I thought he would be a great President.”
Her sister Jacqueline Allen, a pediatric nurse practitioner, put it this way: “Everything he touches turns to gold.”
Yet despite his family’s history in the borough, Trump rarely crosses the Verrazano Bridge to this part of the city. When he was asked by a reporter what his favorite pizzeria in Staten Island is, he was decidedly vague.
“I have a lot of them,” Trump said. “I have, like, 12.”
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the 2012 presidential election results in Staten Island. President Obama beat Mitt Romney there.