The 2016 presidential election was an eye-opening experience for Democrats seeking the White House. The key takeaway was never, ever neglect Michigan.
The 2016 Hilary Clinton campaign learned a hard lesson when the decision was made to not campaign in Michigan during the final days of her campaign for president. Mitt Romney learned from his mistake in 2008 when he turned his back on Detroit, the city in which he was born and where his father served as governor of the state of Michigan. The infamous New York Times op-ed column written by Romney and titled, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” was remembered by Michigan voters and led to him losing the nomination in his bid for president.
Michigan voters didn’t forget, and our displeasure was reflected in the final vote tally for former president Barack Obama. With that being said, of the current 18 declared Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls (or those with exploratory committees), each are methodically making their rounds to Michigan in early swings through the Midwest. Representative Beto O’Rouke (D-TX) stopped by Center Line, Ferndale and Detroit in March just before his official campaign kick-off. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) will be the keynote speaker for the NAACP Detroit branch’s Annual Freedom Fund Dinner on May 5.
Also, Independent-turned-Democrat-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat, Senator Bernie Sanders visited union members in Coopersville near Grand Rapids, held a rally in Warren at Macomb County College and munched on soul food with Detroiters at Sweet Potato Sensations. During the intimate gathering at Sweet Potato Sensations, Sanders was joined by the restaurant’s owners, Democratic National Committee Black Caucus Chairwoman Virgie Rollings and about a dozen local activists and business leaders.
Espy Thomas, who describes herself as “Queen of Awesomeness”, is co-owner of the thirty one-year-old, family-owned restaurant, which specializes in everything made from sweet potatoes – pies, cheesecake, pancakes, waffles, grits, cookies and more). Thomas said of Bernie Sanders that she was “eager to offer her space so African Americans in Detroit would be able to hear what he stands for and the opportunity to ask him questions.” She said she likes to use her venue as a melting pot for people from the community to come together to get information.
Sanders opened the dialogue stating, “Trump is a pathological liar who has failed to honor promises central to African-American voters and waged an all-out attack on the principles of racial and economic justice. The cuts in his budget reflect that. He is intentionally, in a calculated way, trying to divide us by the color of our skin and economics.” Sanders said his government “will be about bringing everyone together – black and white, gay and straight, poor and rich.” He went on to say, “Justice is not having half of the people in our country living pay check to pay check, stressed out to meet their essential needs.”
He added that whether Walmart likes it or not, as president, he is going to “raise the Federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, to a living wage.”
Claricha Evans, owner of Elevated Education Center childcare facility told the Senator that while she agrees with people making a living wage, “the reality is I would not be able to afford to pay each member of my staff $15 per hour, so what supports would you put in place.” Sanders answered, “That’s where the federal government steps in… our [administration] would provide you with the subsidies and support you need to provide the quality care with well trained workers that are well paid.”
Camille Proctor, executive director and founder of The Color of Autism Foundation asked Sanders, “What would you do for the special needs community?” She went on to say, “There is a disparity of services for African Americans that go undiagnosed or receive inaccurate information and Black people end up cycling in and out of the criminal justice system due to developmental disabilities and misdiagnosed mental health issues.” She said she fears that her “13-year-old son, who is on the Autism Spectrum, may encounter law enforcement in the street and not understand how to yield and end up injured or incarcerated.” The Senator responded saying, “It’s a question of changing our priorities. Do we have to spend more money on the military than the next ten nations combined, or do we pay attention to children with special needs? I think the answer is pretty obvious.”
He further outlined what his administration would do, stating, “We might want to adequately fund public education and make sure we have people in the schools that are well trained to take care of your son and the thousands of others with that need. When we do that, we begin to make life better for your son and other children and create good and important jobs to do that.”
Jumping in on the education topic was Lanissa Freeman, Ph.D., support services director (special education) with Southfield Public Schools. Freeman said, “The national teacher shortage is killing us – 200 vacancies alone in the City of Detroit – we cannot get teachers to take and keep the positions because of the low pay.” Sanders responded, “We have to respect education and teachers by paying them appropriately, and that can only be done by adequately funding the education system,” which is something he intends to do if elected president.
Playing to the crowd, Sanders hammered home the point that the “racial injustice situation is unacceptable in our country.” He noted that African-American babies have the highest infant mortality rate in the country. He said a vote for him will ensure that “this country adopts a Medicaid/Medicare-for-all single payer healthcare plan to address the healthcare disparities that the African-American community experiences.”
Lack of affordable housing, unaffordable water and home foreclosures in Detroit peppered the discussion, and residents asked how the Senator would address these concerns as president. Sanders said, “When I talk about infrastructure, it’s not just about roads and bridges; it is affordable housing. We can put people to work building that housing, refurbishing that housing.” Shifting to climate change, he said, “We need to weatherize our older buildings to cut people’s fuel bills in half. When you have an energy-efficient house, your fuel bill goes way down. Let’s invest in that and put people to work doing it and combat climate change in the process.”
I asked the Senator what his position is on a bill that I helped to write in November 1989 while serving as a legislative assistant on the Washington staff of Congressman John Conyers Jr. The bill was titled H.R. 40 Reparations for African Americans and was reintroduced by Conyers each year until his retirement in 2017. I went on to explain that Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) had reintroduced the bill as H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. Sanders said that as president, “If the Congress passed the bill, he would sign it.” He further stated that he likes the anti-poverty bill, H.R. 2055, that expands the successful 10-20-30 formula that House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) co-introduced with Senator Cory Booker’s (D-NJ).
The companion bill, S.1066, better targets federal grant dollars to high-poverty urban, rural and tribal communities and demands ten percent of all federal funds go to rebuilding distressed communities. To which, Senator Sanders said, “There are communities that have struggled economically with high levels of poverty and the inability of Black small businesses to get loans.” Lacking the human capacity and financial resources to move ahead without some assistance, he said that should be at the top of the list for building up businesses in those communities along with education and healthcare.
At the rally, where the attendees were predominately white progressives, the union members that introduced Sanders made it clear that Macomb County (a suburb north of Detroit) is a pivotal spot on election and delegate maps. Known affectionately as the home of Regan Democrats, the county is predominately populated with white ethnic voters (largely unionized auto workers). Noteworthy, Macomb voted 63 percent for John F. Kennedy in 1960 and 66 percent for Reagan in 1984. Obama won Macomb County by a comfortable 53-45% margin in 2008, the same margin he won nationally, and he won the county again in 2012 by nearly 4 percentage points.
However, the county voted for Donald Trump by an overwhelming 11 points ahead of Democrat Hilary Clinton in 2016. Needless to say, the blue-collar crossover voter is being courted. The middle-aged white male line-up voicing support of Sander’s campaign at the rally were fairly typical of his progressive camp featuring Professor and Adjunct Lecturer Craig Register, University of Michigan Residential College, and Dennis Nazelli, former Michigan labor leader and organizer with Teamsters and UAW.
The Sanders’ campaign shored up its diversity when Abdul El Sayed, former Detroit Health Department director and 2018 candidate for Michigan Governor, and 25-year-old self-described multi-racial Monique Becker, owner of a Detroit real estate development company and activist in the African-American community, offered their views of what a vote for Bernie means for the diverse ethnic and black residents of the state.
At the podium, Becker talked about the income inequalities that affect her generation. She said, “I support Bernie because he speaks plainly, yet thoughtfully and sanely about the real issues facing our nation. I know that his plan for universal healthcare supports me as an entrepreneur who does not have to choose between investing in my community, my American Dream, and the security of my body and mind. His policies support me as a young woman of color in a world stacked against me.”
Will Michigan ultimately “Feel the Bern” for 2020? That is yet to be determined as the Democratic field will naturally thin, and Republicans will undoubtably double-down with Trump as their nominee. Some voters may feel Sanders is too far to the left, which may push conservative Democrats to vote Republican, while others believe in his campaign promises enough to risk their vote to put him in office.