It’s a warmer-than-usual March morning in rural Beecher City when Dallas Buzzard and his wife, Sherry, welcome a group of coffee drinkers to their home. On the kitchen table sit two boxes of locally made glazed doughnuts.
The group includes Dallas’s brothers, Virgil and Ronnie Buzzard. His sister, Mary Jo, and her husband, Bruce Kessler, are also here. They’re joined by Virgil’s wife, Vicki.
The men get together nearly every morning, usually to talk about their plans for the day. But on this first Saturday of March, they delve into politics. Their bent is deeply conservative; their support for President Donald Trump unabashed.
A white ball cap sits on Bruce’s head: “Presidential Coalition” is inscribed on the front, “Trump Team” on the back.
When someone mentions the news media, eyes roll.
“CNN and MSNBC, you flip it on any time during the day or night, and they’ve got somebody they’ve brought in to put Trump down," says Dallas, 78, a retired railroad worker. "Some is justified, maybe to a certain extent, but not 24/7."
Bruce, his brother-in-law, sees something more sinister behind the talk on cable news and elsewhere.
"It seems like there is a movement out there to put Trump down at every turn,” says the retired state worker, 82, who lives in Altamont. “But he’s really done a lot for the country, in the year that he’s been in there. I think he’s a man with a vision and he knows how to go after it."
Dallas mainly tunes in Fox News. But he’ll sometimes surf to CNN and other channels.
"To see what they're putting out, and see if their tilt has ever changed,” he explains. “Which it hasn't. If you take over the news media and you’re the one feeding people information, they’re going to believe it. And if you can fool part of the people part of the time, as Lincoln said, that’s usually good enough.
“I’m thinking Fox News is one that will show both sides. Not that I agree with them all the time, but where else is there somebody who will stand up and say, ‘Hey now, let’s see if we’re really putting out the truth, or are we putting out a position that is our position?’"
Dallas admits the president isn't perfect. But who is?
"I think there was only one perfect man," he says. "Jesus.”
No resident of the White House will ever be perfect, members of the coffee klatch agree.
“If you dwell on his inadequacies, his weak points, which he has – if you dwell on that, that means that’s all you’re looking for,” Dallas observes. “You’re not looking for the good side. And this is the side you never hear from the media.
“Some of the things negative are true. But they never put out the positive."
Tax cut enthusiasm
In January, Effingham business owner Tony Griffith told his 65 full-time employees that he would give each of them a $1,000 bonus. Griffith owns Griffith Trucking in Effingham, which also incorporates the moving company Broadway Express. He also owns Heartland Peterbilt in Effingham, which sells and services trucks, and Heartland Classics in Effingham and Newton, which sells classic cars.
The announcement came just days after Trump’s State of the Union address, in which he made the case that the tax reform he pushed and a Republican Congress passed was the reason companies across the country boosted wages, awarded bonuses and increased benefits.
In Effingham, it would have been difficult to find an employee of Griffith’s who didn’t celebrate the positives of a Trump presidency.
“I'm excited for my employees," Griffith said at the time.
He anticipated he would save about $100,000 under the new law.
"This gives them hope that they are not just working at some hum-drum job, paying them the same until they die," Griffith said.
"I’ve never really had anything like this happen before," said 24-year-old Brian Roberts, who lives in Stewardson in Shelby County. "It’s the first job I’ve ever had to get any kind of bonus or anything."
Husband and wife Kristi and Rich Stoddard were also enthusiastic. With three children, they said it was a more than welcome gesture.
“Anytime your paycheck increases, it’s definitely a good thing for your family," said Kristi Stoddard. "It’s nice to see they’re putting money back into the middle class."
"We’ll be able to pay more bills," added her husband. "We might be able to go out for dinner. Do the little things we might not be able to do until this kicks in. Honestly, your paycheck, you know where it’s going even before you get it. Now we have a little extra."
A blue voice
You can count Brian Poelker among that tiny percentage of Effingham County residents who didn’t vote for Trump.
The retired teacher lives in Heartville, just south of Effingham. He’s been bothered by a lot of Trump's comments. Unlike the coffee-drinking friends up in Beecher City, Brian thinks the media has been fair.
"I enjoy 'Morning Joe' (on MSNBC), and they kind of do both sides there," he says. "They have Republicans on there, as well. I think people need to look at what is said and evaluate it. I don’t have a problem with the news media. I read it, and I try to evaluate what’s there based on what’s said. In my opinion, I think there’s liberal and conservative and they’re going to present their side."
Brian, 65, voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008. While that puts him decidedly in the minority around these parts, it doesn’t make him uncomfortable.
“Effingham County has always been very Republican, as far as their votes are concerned," he says. "So? That’s why you vote. That’s why you live here. You get your vote."
Brian taught science in public education for over 30 years near Peoria, and at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, before retiring a year-and-a-half-ago. Public education is one of the issues he's most passionate about.
“That’s one of the things that disappointed me during both his campaign, when I think he came out really negative about public education, and in his inauguration," says Brian.
He retrieves a note from his pocket. A quote from Trump’s inauguration speech is scribbled on it:
"An education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”
“That bothered me," Brian says. "That really, really, bothered me.
“You ask Mr. Doan if we have an education system flush with cash,” he adds, referring to the Effingham Unit 40 school superintendent. “I don’t think we do."
Brian has also been bothered by Trump's comments about women, a disabled reporter, and the use of nuclear weapons.
"Of course you know the one statement, with ‘grabbing the …’ That bothered me," he says. "When he came out talking about the disabled reporter and made fun of that guy. When there was a protestor at a demonstration and, I’m paraphrasing, ‘Beat him up. I’ll pay the legal bill.’ That stuff bothers me. Or when he said, ‘How many nukes do we have here? Why don’t we use them?’ I really hope he has enough people working for him to temper some of the comments he makes."
Brian's background as science teacher colors his perception of the president's views on the environment.
"I don’t think he took much account of the research scientists … especially when it comes to climate change," he says. "That’s a long-term problem, and I didn’t think Mr. Trump took long-term views of much of anything."
He supports "responsible" gun control.
"I think background checks need to be tougher," he says. "If you’re just a normal person, taking the courses and stuff and doing what you’re supposed to do, a law-abiding citizen, whatever, if you pass everything, OK.
"I don’t like these magazines that hold all these rounds," he adds. "I don’t like military weapons in the civilian population."
Church and Guns
The group of coffee drinkers near Beecher City meets every day, as long as the Buzzards' garage door is open.
“If they’re shut, then that means we’ve gone to a doctor or something and then they go on down the road to Virgil’s," explains Dallas.
Sunday is reserved for church-going. Some in the group head to Kaskaskia Church or the Methodist Church in Beecher City, others to one in nearby Cowden, or the Church of Christ in Effingham.
"We never could get along," Bruce Kessler quips about their church affiliations.
"We're diversified," adds his wife, Mary Jo.
Regardless of religious affiliation, they all look askance at a push to remove "In God We Trust" from a government building in Wentzville, Missouri. They recall a woman speaking on television in favor of its removal.
"She wasn’t making any sense," says Mary Jo. "But she wanted that removed and didn’t think any place should have anything about God on it – our currency, or anything.
“And I thought, ‘Where have you been?’ This constitution was built by our forefathers, who spoke that God is supposed to be intertwined in this government. And it’s not had that, I mean it has, but it’s getting farther and farther away."
“And then the guns!" she suddenly exclaims, drawing a few knowing chuckles from her friends. "We believe in guns."
"They'd love to take them away," says Sherry Buzzard.
Bruce and Mary Jo Kessler say they have reason to stand firmly in support of the right to bear arms. In 2008, their home was invaded by two men.
“One had a gun and one had a knife," Bruce recalls. "And it wound up they was going to take all our jewelry, money, anything of value. They put me down on the floor and Mary Jo on the floor and had a knife to her throat.
“And the steel off the barrel of that gun was up against the back of my head, and believe me, I was doing a lot of praying. I just asked for a moment to equalize it, and God gave it to me."
Bruce told one of the men to feed his dog some lunch meat. When the man went to the refrigerator, Bruce could see that he didn't have a gun.
"So I bounded into my bedroom, where I had the gun," Bruce says. "And he said I made a big mistake and at that time he pried open the door and I kind of had it blocked and once he saw I had the gun, the game was over."
Gun control? The Buzzards and Kesslers aren't fans of the idea.
"If they’re used right, they don’t hurt a thing," Bruce says. "It ain’t the gun that actually does the damage, it’s somebody behind them."
Dallas attends the local Tea Party meetings at the Culver’s fast food restaurant in Effingham.
He also mails out sample ballots ahead of elections, with a voter guide attached.
The voter guide portion is put together by the Illinois Family Institute, and includes the message, “Boldly bringing biblical principles to public policy in the Land of Lincoln.”
It lists 12 questions or issues that range from the banning of counseling for minors “who suffer from unwanted same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria,” to last year’s state income tax increase, defunding Planned Parenthood, Medicaid-funded abortions, and sanctuary state status.
It tells voters which statewide candidates support or oppose each issue.
In the 2016 general election, nearly 75 percent of registered voters turned out in Effingham and Shelby Counties, a whopping number that underscores the passions that race generated.
But in other elections, the turnout has typically been much lower.
"You’d like to have more people vote, but people make choices,” says Brian Poelker, the Heartville Democrat. “You choose to vote, you choose not to vote. That’s your choice. It’s the way it goes."
Brian and the Buzzards certainly have different views. But they seem to share some common ground.
For example, both frown upon big money in politics and think the state's 8,000 units of government could be consolidated.
"I think that stuff needs to be looked at," says Brian. "Illinois has got more units of government and school districts and all the other than any of the other states – and probably more than several states put together, in some cases."
"When you get million and billionaires in there, then they can put out ads that are lies," says Dallas. "Let’s don’t call them untruthful or deceitful, let’s call them lies."
The Buzzards and Poelker also think there should be more compromise and less gridlock on the national level and in Illinois, where a two-and-a-half-year budget impasse finally came to an end last summer at the cost of a controversial income tax increase.
“I think people in government need to sit down and look at, ‘We’ve got this problem, what can we do to solve it?’ and I think discussions like that need to be ongoing," says Brian.
“I guess I’m partial or biased, but it seems to me like the Democrats’ idea of compromise is doing it their way,” says Dallas.
He also casts a wary eye on some Republicans. More than two dozen broke with Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner last year to approve the income tax increase, which Rauner opposed. Dallas and others call them “RINOS,” or “Republicans In Name Only.”
“Cavaletto is gone,” Dallas says, referring to John Cavaletto, R-Salem, who initially voted for the tax increase and has chosen not to seek re-election. “He voted wrong, so he’s out the door.”
Rauner himself has lost the support of Dallas. The governor won the state by just over 50 percent of the vote in 2014. In Shelby County, he took over 70 percent of the vote from Democrat Pat Quinn and nearly 77 percent in Effingham County.
Things have changed in the minds of some voters. Rauner signed legislation allowing sanctuary cities and Medicaid-covered abortion.
“That’s why I could never vote for Rauner again,” says Dallas. “Someday I might be judged. Well, I know I’ll be judged. And I don’t know if God will say, ‘Were you a part of killing babies or not?' Or, 'What did you do to not encourage it?’”
Abortion may be the issue that those who gather for glazed doughnuts at the Buzzard table are most passionate about. Many say it’s the thing that no longer permits them to vote for any Democrat.
“I used to,” admits Virgil Buzzard. “I used to a lot. Both ways. I went for the guy.”
The others nod.
“Depending on what they stood for,” says Virgil’s wife, Vicki.
“It seems like they all backed Obama, and as far as I’m concerned, he’s a communist,” adds Virgil.
“It’s the platform,” says Sherry Buzzard. “If the Democrats are for abortion, they’re all that way.”
“It’s right in the Democrats’ platform, a woman can kill her own baby anytime she wants to and she needs help paying for it,” Dallas says. “Now that’s in the Democrat party platform.”
“Which means we pay for it,” says Sherry. “We’re paying for a baby to be killed.”
Lincoln Day Dinner
Dallas, Virgil, Bruce, and Mary Jo attended Effingham County’s Lincoln Day Dinner on March 4, which featured Rauner and his GOP opponent in the March 20 Illinois primary, State Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton.
“Like many of you, I helped elect Bruce Rauner,” Ives told the local crowd. “I believed him when he said he had no social agenda. I believed him when he said he was going to be the conservative reform governor and take on the political ruling class. And then very quickly, I became disappointed.”
The Buzzard brothers planned to vote for Ives.
“He’s a Democrat," Virgil says of Rauner. "He’s not a conservative."
“A wolf in sheep’s clothing," adds Mary Jo.
"He might as well get on his Harley and leave the state of Illinois," Bruce suggests.
Contact Keith Stewart at email@example.com or 217-347-7151, ext. 132.