Michigan's rural Democrats want a seat at their party's table | Opinion

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Cathy Albro has a difficult job: As the chair of the Michigan Democratic Party's Rural Caucus, it falls on Albro and the caucus' vice-chairs to convince the state's Democratic establishment that the counties and candidates in her caucus ― places Republicans routinely win by 20 and 30 points ― deserve more: a place in the state party's strategy, with the investment to back it up, and more attention from the new Democratic legislative majority in Lansing.

Rural Michigan Democrats are in a unique bind. The problems facing residents of rural Michigan counties ― insufficient access to health care, jobs and high-performing schools, or inadequate infrastructure, including broadband internet ― aren't so different from the ones the rest of the state confronts.

But rural Democrats don't have a voice. In the state Legislature and in the U.S. Congress, they are represented almost exclusively by Republican lawmakers who tend to oppose Democratic legislation even when it addresses their constituents' critical needs.

Cathy Albro
Cathy Albro

Take President Joe Biden's infrastructure bill, which includes funding to expand broadband internet in rural America. Outgoing U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, was one of just 13 House Republicans, and the only GOP member of Michigan's Congressional delegation, to vote for it, although U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, who voted against it, was eager to take credit for the expansion in a campaign ad.

The GOP-controlled state Legislature has blocked investments in roads and education, and only barely passed the federal Medicaid expansion, which offered healthcare to hundreds of thousands of uninsured Michiganders.

Now, for the first time in nearly 40 years, Democrats who prioritize those policies hold a majority in in the state Legislature. But Albro and her caucus know that even a party ascendant has limited resources, and making the case for renewed party investment in the areas they represent is a long game.

Still, rural Democrats say, their party should be careful not to count them out, because it needs their votes to keep winning statewide offices.

On the margins

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer easily won re-election earlier this month with 54.4% of the vote. New, bipartisan maps and victories in handful of seats were crucial to the Michigan Democrats legislative flip ― like state Rep.-elect Joey Andrews' win in the new 38th House District, comprising parts of Allegan, Berrien and Van Buren counties, with 50.5% of the vote.

But Whitmer's margin of victory was built, in part, in rural Michigan. Places like Berrien County, where GOP gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon took 51.7% of the vote, but 26,384 Democrats cast ballots for Whitmer. Or Allegan County, where Dixon won 58% of voters, but 22,802 voted for Whitmer. In Van Buren, it was 50% for Dixon, and 15,347 votes for Whitmer. All told, voters outside Michigan’s 10 most populous counties – the 73 counties comprising roughly 36% of the state’s population – cast 723,605 ballots for Whitmer, who beat her opponent by less than half a million votes.

"I feel like we were a big part of Gov. Whitmer’s win, a big part of President Biden’s (2020) win," Albro said. "We helped this time for the top three women on the ballot."

With more resources, rural Dems contend, Democrats can continue to deliver votes outstate — and, in time, to compete in legislative races there.

Investment in rural areas absolutely makes sense for Michigan Democrats, Democratic operative Adrian Hemond said.

"(Michigan Democratic Party Chair) Lavora Barnes is a student of former President Barack Obama, who is a big believer in losing by less in the areas where you’re going to lose," Hemond said. "So if turnout is down in the city of Detroit, as it was this year, you have votes in other areas." (A spokeswoman for Barnes hadn't responded to a request for comment by late Friday.)

And Hemond agrees that in the right circumstances, rural Michigan can be competitive, "especially in the current political moment, where we’re in the midst of realignment."

Democrats aren't going to win a lot of rural counties, said Mark Brewer, a former chair of the state party. "But we can’t get blown out, either. We need to keep the margin as close as possible. If we just abandon rural areas and start losing them 70%-30%, it’s going to be hard to win a statewide contest."

Meet the people Zoom actually helped

The 2016 presidential election was a galvanizing moment for Michigan's rural Democrats.

"People woke up and realized they needed to get serious about talking to folks who weren’t already part of our political coalition or who felt alienated from our coalition," said Evan Bonsall, the first treasurer of the party's rural caucus. In 2017, Bonsall was a student at Harvard University, splitting his time between Cambridge and his hometown of Marquette, a place he describes as "an island of blue" in the Upper Peninsula. He left the caucus to run for the Marquette City Commission, an office he currently holds. "We wanted to focus on holding our own in rural areas, and maybe regaining some of the ground we had lost."

But recruiting Democratic candidates in overwhelmingly Republican counties was hard, and those who did take up the challenge were hobbled by lack of funding, and a lack of support from the state party. A 1966 law that determines apportionment of county commission seats, unaffected by a 2018 state constitutional amendment that created bipartisan redistricting for state and federal legislative districts, perpetuates gerrymandering on those boards. Conservative small-town newspapers, rural Democrats say, are less likely to run stories or letters to the editor highlighting Democratic accomplishments.

Joanne Galloway, executive director of northern Michigan advocacy group Center for Change, said that after 2016 a group of Democrats active in rural county parties concluded that they "needed to do a better job to advance rural issues, and in getting the message out."

"The feeling was that people with the Michigan Democratic Party, and Democrats in southeast Michigan, don’t pay attention to rural Democrats," said Dixon Dudderar, the Region 4 Vice Chair of the rural caucus, representing Emmet, Cheboygan, Presque Isle, Alpena and Charlevoix counties. "We wanted to create a caucus where people from the areas outside the city limits in Michigan would ask for more recognition and a little bit more help."

The distance between rural Democrats was an obstacle. But during the pandemic, Albro said, "We started meeting on Zoom, and we expanded the membership tenfold, because we could have a Zoom meeting, instead of driving into Lansing."

Members have begun to adopt a coordinated communications strategy, and this year, formed a political action committee, MI Rural PAC, that supported 63 rural candidates, albeit with small amounts — $250 for candidates for county office, and $500 for legislative seats.

"Candidates get training from Michigan Democratic Party, but don’t get any financial assistance," says Michael Fields, the caucus' Region 12 vice-chair, composed of Clare, Gladwin, Osceola, Roscommon, Ogemaw and Arenac counties. "People have to feel that running for office isn’t a financial burden to themselves."

To get serious candidates, Albro says, "Not just to put their names on the ballot and never campaign, we have to support them, and that means financial support."


What does the caucus need?

"Everything," Albro says.

That means showing up in every way possible.

"People in those towns have not seen anybody deliver for them," said Brewer said. "They tend to blame Democrats, tend to blame the unions, and over the course of time there's been this growing urban/suburban/rural divide, and I think it’s toxic to our politics. We've got to find a way that Dems can appeal to, and do things for, those communities, and get elected in those communities again."

Much of rural Michigan used to be Democratic, Fields noted. "Ronald Reagan convinced people the government couldn’t do anything right for you, then with NAFTA, people said, 'I don’t see the Democrats doing me any favors,' and drifted away," he said.

Bonsall says that conversations with the state party often center around messaging, Bonsall says, when the subject should be messengers.

"The right messengers are your local community leaders who maybe have never run for office before, maybe wouldn’t even describe as super partisan Democrats, but have been involved in their communities, care about those communities and whose experiences allow them to relate to people in their communities," he said.

He's convinced Democratic candidates' visits to the U.P. this cycle helped keep Republican margins smaller than they might have been. "You're not only showing you care about a community, but you're making it difficult for the attack ads to turn you into an evil caricature of a person," he said.

Democrats emphasize that rural and urban Michigan have a lot of the same problems. But the elephant in the room is racism. Galloway and Brewer its easy to characterize initiatives that benefit the entire state as sops to populous southeast Michigan counties with larger minority populations. "The Republican Party keeps playing on that — Detroit and other urban areas are enemies, they’re dangerous — when there’s more that unites us than divides us," Brewer said.

A long game

The rural caucus' organizers readily admit they've got a lot of road to cover. "We’re not going to happen overnight," Albro says. "It’s a long game."

But Albro has been one of those candidates she hopes to recruit. In 2018, she ran against Libertarian U.S. Rep. Justin Amash. In this year's election, she lost the race for the new 104th District seat to Republican John Roth.

"I got 37% of my district," she says. Viewed from one angle, it's a decisive loss. But as Albro puts it, "That means 37% chose me, a Democrat. "Let’s start with that."

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Opinion | Dems in red counties strive for representation in Lansing