In Waukesha, small businesses wonder whether Democrats or Republicans can change their lives

presdiential masks
Masks of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump hang along the small The Joke Shop's walls, teasing Waukesha residents about the candidates for the upcoming presidential election. (David Jordan/ MEDILL)

By David Jordan and Nona Tepper

On Main Street in downtown Waukesha, a sleepy Milwaukee suburb, the perspective is decidedly local.

Most shops close at three on Saturdays on a street devoid of national chains, except a Subway. Business owners advertise for one another in their windows and stop to talk about the challenges they face to keep the lights on.

And so, when you mention politics in Waukesha, business owners chat about the decision to disband the city’s Downtown Business Association or the repaving of Main Street this past summer.

Neither national candidate is mentioned immediately, perhaps due to skepticism in the conservative city about whether either Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump can truly make a difference to this town of roughly 70,000.

Indeed, some proprietors are voting for one candidate because they don’t like the other. Others are opting to skip this presidential election altogether.

The future of his business is the most important factor this election for Nolan Rumsey, general manager of That’s No Smoke, a shop that sells electronic cigarettes and supplies and is named after the smoke-free tobacco products sold.

“[Opposition to vaping is] bipartisan because it has to do with money,” he said. “I think Trump can’t be bought by big tobacco and lobbyists.”

Trump’s reputation as someone who doesn’t care about popular opinion is heartening to Rumsey. Since opening in June, That’s No Smoke has been successful, filling a niche in Waukesha for a diverse group of customers, including young shoppers taking up the hobby to fit in with friends or lifelong smokers using the device as an opportunity to quit smoking traditional tobacco cigarettes. Recent regulations, however, threaten the viability of That’s No Smoke and the entire electronic cigarette industry.

In August 2016, Congress passed the first round of laws on electronic cigarette vendors, saying that any service to the devices–including setting up the small product for customers–classifies them as a manufacturer and places the retailer under greater scrutiny from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“I am now a glorified vending machine. I am on a gag order,” Rumsey said of the regulations adding: “When you look at where these laws begin, it is usually in city councils like Madison,” referring to the state capital with a largely Democratic city government.

Rumsey largely blames Democratic politicians for the new regulations. But he is also skeptical of certain Republicans, including Trump’s vice presidential candidate Mike Pence, who passed legislation that increased regulation of vaping liquid manufacturers while governor of Indiana.

According to Rumsey, politicians like Pence and others were inspired to pass such regulations thanks to pressure from big tobacco lobbyists who worried vaping would cut into traditional tobacco manufacturers’ profits.

Rumsey believes Trump is the only one who can protect him from the next round of regulations, set to be implemented in 2018. “The first regulations were stifling, but the next will be more sweeping,” he insisted. “The future looks bleak.”

Down the street Robert Ashton isn’t as concerned about the future of his business.

He opened Ashton Arts a few years ago after a career working as a property developer in commercial real estate. His incorporated the art gallery as a hobby business, and is driven by passion, not profit, maintain the brick storefront. “My goal was to fill the gallery with my art, and I did,” said Ashton.

Like Rumsey, Ashton worries that government regulation can sometimes hinder small businesses. Speaking of both his career in construction and his time at the gallery, he says that government administration can dominate his day-to-day work. “There is a lot of paperwork, we didn’t earn money on it, but it was part of doing business,” said Ashton.

A lifelong Republican, Ashton said he initially was unsure who he would vote for this year, since Trump’s platform scares the hell out of him.

“My initial inclination was not to vote, but that is not a solution to anything,” said Ashton.

Despite his fiscally conservative leaning, Ashton said he’ll switch parties and vote Democratic this year, if only for the presidential portion of the ballot. He views Clinton as the better of two options.

Jackie Archimede also feels skeptical about each candidate. She’s not sure if either the Democrats or Republicans could truly make a difference for her son’s small novelty store. Despite the focus placed on businesses during the campaign, Archimede does not see either party’s platform on this issue as informing her vote and believes both parties are all talk, and no action.

“Small businesses are overlooked anyways,” she said. “It is always the big companies that get the attention.”

Archimede helps her son John run The Joke Shop, a Main Street pillar that’s been in operation for 43 years and a gag store that John took over two years ago. The Archimede family helps John run the store without a salary so as to keep The Joke Shop’s overhead costs low and the business afloat. On a recent Saturday, John’s mom and grandmother were working together, both of them helping John run the store on the promise of a free meal later.

Archimede’s apolitical attitude is reflected in the even distribution of political gag gifts at The Joke Shop.

Located across the street from the Waukesha Democratic field office, a few candidate inspired masks and hair pieces have made their way onto The Joke Shop’s plastic vomit and practical joke filled shelves. Clinton and Trump are neck in neck in the number of masks sold at The Joke Shop–there’s one left of each. Wigs styled in the likeness of Trump have been one of the best sellers. There are also still holdouts from this year’s Democratic primary.

“We still have people coming in telling us if we had Bernie Sanders they would buy him,” Archimede said, laughing.

But for Dan Italiano, both of the current nominees are a joke.

Italiano leans against his brightly colored bar top at Magellan’s on Main Street while his staff prepares for a wedding reception in the back of the restaurant. Italiano’s owned Magellan’s for nine years, and feels optimistic about the business’s future. “Short of an economic collapse, I think we’ll stick around,” he said.

Italiano is a self-described political junkie with an opinion on nearly every political figure in the state. But this fall he may skip the presidential election and begin voting further down the ballot, largely because he sees both Trump and Clinton as despicable people.

“I don’t like either candidate. In my mind, it’s picking the best of the worst,” he said, adding: “I don’t trust either one.”

Italiano said his dislike for both candidates makes him unique in a race that has become increasingly partisan. He recently posted a meme Facebook that said something along the lines of: ““If you truly believe in your side, I don’t care how you vote.”

Italiano’s tolerant stance reflects his previous voting experience. In 1992, the Waukesha bar owner said he voted for the Independent nominee Ross Perot for president. But now he calls that vote “overwhelmingly wasted.”

Now that Italiano has a wife and kids, his political views have refined into what he calls fiscally conservative and socially liberal. He generally identifies with the Republican party.

Policies like the Affordable Healthcare Act put him in a difficult position, as Italiano would like to see his roughly one dozen employees with health insurance, but worries that the costs of providing insurance will cut into his bottom line and may limit his ability to grow his business.

Although he is still below the 50-employee threshold set by the ACA for mandatory health care for workers, he worries that the regulation places an undue burden on the businesses that are legally bound to provide health insurance. “Healthcare for employees is the nail in the coffin,” he said, adding: “I don’t want to start incurring $20,000 or $30,000 bills if I don’t have to.”

Still, in the midst of a hotly contested election, he wishes there was more understanding between the parties.

“I think at the end of the day we all want the same thing,” said Italiano. “It is just a matter of recognizing we have different hot button issues.”

Masks of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump hang along the small The Joke Shop’s walls, teasing Waukesha residents about the candidates for the upcoming presidential election. (David Jordan/ MEDILL)