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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Economy vs Race Among the "Original" Reagan Democrats

It appears that the Reagan Democrats of Macomb County might be waking up after all. Eight Mile Road divides the city of Detroit from its northern suburbs. North and west of Detroit is Oakland county. Oakland county tends to be more diverse than its eastern counterpart, Macomb county. Oakland county is one of the most wealthy counties in the nation. The suburbanization of northwest Detroit reflected a largely Jewish population to Oakland county, as well.

The northeastern suburbanization was largely a working class migration from Hamtramck, a largely Polish city that had been surrounded by the city of Detroit. It was this demographic that populated the northern and eastern migration to the cities of Warren and Sterling Heights in Macomb county. When I was an employee of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission in the late '60s, it was clear that Warren was likely the most racially hostile communities in the Detroit Metropolitan area.

As we have been warned, for the older white vote, Obama's race is likely to be a factor. Recall that the Reagan Democrats were largely working class who had turned to Reagan as a result of his appealing to their racism and the opposition of their union, the UAW's support for King and the Civil Rights Movement. While race is and has been salient for these Reagan Democrats, this report by Chris Christoff of the Detroit Free Press shows that the state of the economy shows that Obama is breaking down some of the barriers. Their self-interests may be trumping their racism. Consequently, more and more Reagan Democrats are coming home to Barack. RGN

Economy topping race for voters along 8 Mile

Worries are similar in Warren and Detroit, but anger, distrust influence views about Obama

Leonatti is 76, white and a two-time Ronald Reagan voter. Smith, 39, is black and a Democrat. Both say they're angry about the economy, and both say they'll vote for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.

"I've had enough of Republicans for the past eight years," Leonatti said. Obama, he added, is "fresh and intelligent."

But Leonatti, interviewed at a Warren doughnut shop amid banter over jobs, the Iraq war and Wall Street, was frank about a sensitive topic: Obama's race.

"A lot of people won't vote for him because he's black," said the Ford Motor Co. retiree who lives in Macomb Township. "That's what they tell me."

In Warren, some Democrats and independents are wary of Obama's experience, patriotism and, without prodding, his race.

Still, a recent study showed some independent-minded Reagan Democrats such as Leonatti, who put Macomb County on the nation's political map in the 1980s, are more worried about the economy than the Democratic candidate's race.

Seven in 10 Macomb County voters listed the economy as their first or second top concern, and gas prices rank second on their lists, a July poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research of Washington, D.C., showed.

About 1 in 3 said they believed Obama, as president, would make a higher priority of serving the needs of African Americans than others.

In a September poll, Greenberg found that Obama had picked up support from Macomb County's white, union, non-college-educated voters, and had pulled even with Republican John McCain in the presidential race.

Free Press interviews with more than 20 voters on both sides of 8 Mile showed that Obama's candidacy has blurred the lines of geography and race but hasn't made them invisible.

What role race is playing

The race issue has never been far from the surface, often poking through like a knife.

Whether the issue is consequential, though -- with Obama having held big leads in recent Michigan polls and McCain pulling most of his campaign out of the state last week -- is debatable.

Smith, the Detroiter, said he was heartened that Obama has as much support as he does from white Americans. He said Obama understands the financial struggles of average people and represents the nation's future -- more racially and ethnically mixed.

"I think the country's showing a lot of encouragement, standing behind an African American male," said Smith.

Detroiters -- overwhelmingly black and Democratic -- back Obama, just as they've backed past Democratic presidential candidates.

But Obama's race emerged in discussions at a couple of Warren bars.

Ben Maynor, 82, a retiree and Democrat, said he might not vote in the election. He's angry about jobs going overseas and greedy Wall Street financiers. But he doesn't think a black man can run the country.

"I don't know whether to trust them," he said matter-of-factly over an afternoon beer.

A short while later, across the bar, Paul Gowdy, 62, said he'll vote for Obama. Gowdy, an Irish immigrant who voted for Reagan, said race is not a factor.

"I don't hear anyone running him down because of his race," said Gowdy, a retired executive from Comerica Bank. "The biggest thing I hear is his lack of experience."

Inside voters' heads

Race was a force in the Reagan Democrat phenomenon of the 1980s, when traditional, white Democrats in Macomb County bolted for the GOP. Warren, nearly all-white then, had been a center of suburban opposition to efforts to require busing across school district lines to achieve integration.

A pro-McCain group recently ran ads on county cable TV stations that linked Obama to his former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. The ads ran nowhere else in Michigan.

Today, Warren remains an overwhelmingly white suburb of about 126,000, with a large number of union households, Catholics and a socially conservative streak. Warren voters have reflected the outcome of Michigan presidential elections since 1976.

It's an automotive haven of blue-collar voters where anxiety boils over high unemployment, home foreclosures, gas prices and the Iraq war.

Truck driver Phil Lilley, 46, calls himself a middle-of-the-road Democrat who might not vote in November. He said he doubts either Obama or McCain will deliver on his promises.

Lilley fears for his job hauling steel to automakers. He said he doesn't oppose Obama because he's black, but many people do.

Detroiter Louis Moore, 82, would agree.

At a northeast Detroit senior center, Moore said he'll vote for Obama, but added, "It ain't time yet for a black man to be president of the United States. Maybe in 100 years."

Retiree Alex Collins, 63, who is black, was optimistic. He said he worries most about the economy and his modest, fixed income. "I feel like it's time," Collins said. "We must try a black man We must try a woman. Why not give either of them a chance?"

Josephine Gentry-Huyghe, an Obama volunteer in Detroit, said she hopes to boost voter turnout on Election Day, noting that she'd just registered a 90-year-old resident.

"I read where one-third of white voters won't vote for a black," Gentry-Huyghe said. "Leave them alone. If we can get enough to cancel out that one-third, that's what we've got to do."

Mike Scozzari, 56, president of the Warren Center Line Democratic Club, said some white voters resent black people for what they perceive as preferential treatment, and that carries over into politics.

"This election, they're being confronted with their own racism -- it's looking them in the eye," Scozzari said "They're asking themselves, 'I want a Democrat to win, but, geez, I can't go in there and pull that lever.' "

He added, "I think they'll come around."

Gut-level decisions

Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney acknowledged that racial prejudice among some union members is a concern, and that thousands of union political activists have been trained to disarm prejudice in private conversations with fellow union members by focusing on other issues.

"I'd like to think we're getting to the point where many folks are saying, 'Yep, one candidate's white, one's black, but gosh, we've got to do something about the economy,' " he said.

Mayor James Fouts said Warren will be an election bellwether in Michigan. Voters are more concerned about losing homes to foreclosure and losing their jobs than they are about race, he said.

"A lot of people will make up their mind when they get behind that voting booth, and it will be a gut-level decision," said Fouts, adding that he hasn't decided who he'll support.

Warren resident Edna Saam said she has never voted for a Republican, but she'll vote for McCain. She called Obama too inexperienced and "too showy" in his campaign.

She's unimpressed by McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, and wishes he had picked someone else.

"I'm watching this election very, very, very closely," said Saam, who gave her age as "senior citizen."

Daniel Mastin, 20, of Warren will vote for the first time, and for Obama. During a break at the A&W restaurant where he works, across from the Warren Chrysler Stamping Plant, he praised Obama's promise to give workers a $1,000 tax rebate. Mastin also likes Obama's plan to raise taxes on wealthy people.

"Look at all the rich people who support Obama -- they don't have a problem with it," Mastin said. "They have the money to pay more. I don't."

Contact CHRIS CHRISTOFF at 517-372-8660 or

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