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Harley-Davidson Celebrates 115th Anniversary During Tricky Political Times

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Have hog, will travel, will party - that is what is going on in Milwaukee as motorcycle riders gather for a Harley-Davidson's 115th anniversary. The celebration is happening at a politically tricky time for the company - a tariffs-induced dust-up with President Donald Trump. Wisconsin Public Radio's Laurel White went by the party to hear what riders think.

LAUREL WHITE, BYLINE: At least a dozen Harleys are lined up at the entrance to Veterans Park in Milwaukee. And riders rev their engines at the sight of a big microphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)

WHITE: Riders have come from all over the world to celebrate a company that's given them what many tell me is more than a hobby. It's a way of life.

LUIS BURGOS: The motorcycle, the road, the freedom that comes with it - it sounds like a cliche, but it's not.

WHITE: That was Luis Burgos, who rode more than 2,000 miles from California. Just as ready as Luis and his compatriots are to extol the virtues of the open road, they're prepared to weigh in on the political turmoil that's been bubbling around the brand. In June, Harley announced it had started planning to move some jobs overseas in response to retaliatory tariffs from Europe on its bikes. Those came after the U.S. imposed tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. Jim Nolan rode from Arizona. He supports the tariffs even though Harley estimates they're going to cost the company around $100 million a year.

JIM NOLAN: It's going to sting in the beginning. It's going to hurt a little bit, but in the long run, it's going to benefit America.

WHITE: Nolan and others who support the president's tariffs say they send a strong message to countries that have had unfair trade practices for years.

NOLAN: Because other countries take advantage of the good guys.

WHITE: According to a survey released last month by Marquette University, there's a strong partisan divide on the president's tariffs among Wisconsin voters. Almost 70 percent of Republicans surveyed think Harley-Davidson would have moved jobs overseas even if the tariffs didn't happen. And many at Harley's anniversary party don't blame the company for its decision. Cecil and Patty Braisher are from Omaha, Neb.

CECIL BRAISHER: I don't like it, but I do understand it.

PATTY BRAISHER: It's a business. You have to do what you have to do.

WHITE: Earlier this month, President Trump tweeted that many Harley owners planned to boycott the company because of its plans to cut jobs in the U.S. Great, he tweeted. The boycott hasn't gotten much traction, according to Harley dealers, and not a single rider I spoke with at Harley's anniversary party was keen on the idea. Mike Kyzer goes by the name Bonehead with his buddies. He says the president needs to stay out of it.

MIKE KYZER: He doesn't tell me what shoes to wear. He doesn't tell me what pants to wear. He doesn't tell me what motorcycle to buy. He's the president. That's his job - be president.

WHITE: Half a dozen of Bonehead's friends lifted their beer cans to toast that. They think the president should stay in his lane and definitely not tell them what bike to ride. For NPR News, I'm Laurel White in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASEROLOOPS' "MOVE IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.