WashPo: The Daily 202: To win the Midwest, labor-backed coalition pursues minorities who haven’t voted before in midterms

By James Hohmann, Oct. 26, 2018 |

DETROIT — Instead of trying to woo working-class whites in the suburbs of Macomb County who defected to Donald Trump after voting for Barack Obama, the Service Employees International Union decided early to focus its program in Michigan for the midterms on mobilizing African Americans who didn’t turn out at all.

“We lost by 10,000 votes in the state of Michigan, and there were 200,000 voters that didn’t show up in the city of Detroit. That is criminal, and it way overshadows the number of Obama-Obama-Trump voters in that state,” said SEIU president Mary Kay Henry. “People debate the exact number, but the way you win Michigan is you need to have 40,000, 50,000 or 60,000 more voters turn out in Detroit than have normally turned out in off-year elections.”

Mobilizing infrequent voters is much harder than turning out those who reliably participate in elections and thus need little prodding, but the union of 2 million members has spent tens of millions of dollars on a massive field operation to try expanding the electorate in 2018. Democrats are well positioned to make significant gains in the Wolverine State, including picking up the governorship and two or more House seats, but it will take precinct-level returns to show whether organized labor’s investment paid off.

Its political program is active in battlegrounds across the country, but the SEIU has put extra emphasis on the Midwestern states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania where Trump won unexpectedly in 2016 and Republican governors took a sledgehammer to union power over the course of the past eight years by signing right-to-work laws or otherwise making it harder to organize and collect dues.

A key part of the strategy has involved coupling its years-long crusade to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour with more traditional electioneering efforts. Internal research found that the infrequent voters they’re trying to reach can be motivated more easily by issues that matter to them than individual candidates, who they tend to view more cynically.

— Jessica Jackson-Bowie, 25, was one of 10 canvassers going door-to-door on Detroit’s west side late last week as part of the push to increase minority turnout. They have been trying to get low-propensity voters to sign cards pledging to vote and to hand over their cellphone numbers so they can get personalized text messages reminding them to follow through. They are also handing out yard signs to anyone who will take one that simply notes there’s an election coming up on Nov. 6.

Jackson-Bowie makes $9.35 an hour as a cashier at a movie-theater box office. She’s worked there for three years and had to go back to work two weeks after her son was born in August because she wasn’t eligible for paid family leave. “They allowed me to take as much time as I wanted and told me they’d keep my job open for me, but I needed a paycheck,” she said. “I just hated leaving my baby to go back to work, but I needed the paycheck.”

An SEIU organizer knocked on her door back in June while canvassing, and she was so happy to hear about its “Fight for $15” that she volunteered to help without being paid.“That could be the difference between putting food on the table or not,” she said of a $15 minimum wage. “I want to be able to build a safety net financially for my family.”

Clean water is another issue that motivated Jackson-Bowie to spend four hours knocking on doors while her mom watched the kids. Her 6-year-old daughter is in first grade at a Detroit public school. “They’re doing hydration stations because a lot of the schools have tested positive for lead and copper in the water,” she sighed.

— The young woman was paired off with Deloris Mitchell, 61, who has 15 grandchildren. She spent most of her career as a janitor, rising from crew member to area manager for a custodial company. She saved up enough so that, when her kids started to have kids, she was able to open a small boutique for women called Bougies just off Detroit’s Seven Mile Road. Walking across yellow leaves that had fallen from the trees but hadn’t quite become crunchy yet, she explained that she decided to become a canvasser for SEIU as a side job back in the spring because she was so disturbed about what she sees as a resurgence of racial hostility toward African Americans.

“What really got me started was all the racism,” she said. “Being a single black mom of five sons, racism is a real issue to worry about and something has to be done about it. … Somebody’s got to get out here to fight. I’ve always voted, but I call this being on the front line where you’re really trying to get a change. I’d never been on the front line before.”

Mitchell lamented that it’s been challenging to get the dozens of people she talks to around Detroit every day to channel their disenchantment and frustration with the system into electoral politics. “You’d be surprised: A lot of people I talk to don’t even know an election is coming up,” she said. “You also talk to people who are felons who didn’t know they could vote. [Unlike many states, convicted felons in Michigan get their voting rights restored automatically when they’re released from prison.] It’s a learning experience both ways. I’ve been to neighborhoods I didn’t know existed. I’ve been in some neighborhoods where it literally hurts my heart because it pains me that they allowed our city to get like this.”

She recalled a conversation she recently had with a young mother in a crime-ridden part of town. “I talked to a young girl who said she’s not voting, but then I went down the list of issues and said, ‘Don’t you want to get education or health care for your babies? You’ve got to care for somebody else sometimes. If you don’t do it for us, do it for them,’” Mitchell said. “She wasn’t going to sign the pledge card at first, but I wore her down and by the end she did. If nothing else, I put a thought in her mind. Sometimes you need someone to flip the switch. I’m trying to flip the switch.”

Seconds after recounting that episode, Mitchell spotted a 20-something African American male who gave his name as Markus exiting a house that was on her list. As he approached his car, she called out to ask if he plans to vote. “I really don’t know yet,” he replied. “Really?!” she shot back, sounding like a mom who was disappointed in something her son had done. He paused and respectfully listened to her pitch. When she rattled off several issues, Markus replied that he cares about good-paying jobs. He agreed to consider casting a ballot on Nov. 6. Mitchell smiled broadly. Once again, she hoped, she might have “flipped the switch.”

Other times she knows people are inside in their houses but not answering their doors. When that happens, she often persists in knocking until they come talk to her. “I knock, and I listen for movement,” she said. “If the dog barks and no one tells it to be quiet, I know no one is home. I’ve been doing this for so long that I can kind of feel it.”

— It was a 42-degree autumn afternoon, but the wind made it feel cooler and dusk was approaching. All 10 of the canvassers wore red “Fight for $15” shirts over their coats and sweaters. They’ve been meeting since May almost every weekday at 3 p.m. in a community center, where they receive a 20-minute briefing and then cram into a white Ford van to head out together to wherever their “turf” will be that day. They stay out until 7 p.m.

Anthony Rogers, 38, led a chant as the group trekked to its assigned neighborhood last week. Suddenly he cried out, “What are we fighting for!?” The others yelled back without missing a beat: “Change! Change! Change!” They repeated the back-and-forth twice more. This is their daily warm-up.

Rogers worked on a landscaping crew until allergies forced him to give up cutting grass. Then he got a maintenance job at Checkers, the drive-in chain. An SEIU organizer came by one day and told him about its movement to raise the minimum wage for fast-food workers like him. He went to a rally, learned he could be paid to knock on doors and quit his job. That was two years ago.

Discussing lessons he’s learned as a professional canvasser, Rogers spoke about the virtues of being patient when doors get slammed in your face or people talk to you from behind metal screen doors that they keep closed. “Sometimes you have to go to 10 doors before someone answers because you have people not home, sleeping or working different shifts,” he said. “Be nice. A smile goes a long way. And stay humble no matter what type of attitude they have.”

— The SEIU is part of a coalition called Win Justice that includes three other groups: Planned Parenthood Votes, Center for Community Change Action and Color Of Change PAC. Together, these organizations and their local partners will spend $30 million to engage a universe of 2.5 million voters in three states —— Florida, Michigan and Nevada. The universe includes people of color, women and young people.

Ariana Hawk, 28, is a paid field organizer for Color Of Change in her hometown of Flint, Mich. “I didn’t vote for Obama [either time] because I felt the system was rigged and I didn’t think my vote mattered,” she said. Then the water in her city became undrinkable for her five kids, a crisis that drew national attention. “I didn’t care about the governor’s race four years ago. Now I look back and it’s like, ‘Dang! I wish I had,’” she said.

Hawk has helped recruit a team of 22 volunteers in Flint. Together they’ve knocked on 5,000 doors this year. “I’m only 28, so when people see me they’re shocked I’m even talking about voting,” she said. “You can strike up a conversation and they say, ‘If you care, then I should care.’”

— Another partner organization in Detroit is the Michigan People’s Campaign, which says it has 50 trained organizers who have struck up tens of thousands of conversations with African Americans and Latinos about why they should vote in 2018. Bartosz Kumor, the director of movement politics for the group, said they’ve been experimenting with new techniques of relational voting. “People are matching up the contacts in their phones to the voter file,” he said. “We have a microtargeted list of voters we’re trying to reach. Then they’re texting them and engaging them about what this election means to them personally.”

Many of the people reached had registered to vote for Obama but stayed home in 2014 and 2016. “The voters we’ve been talking to are the voters who are often the least likely to vote,” Kumor said. “We’re talking to them about issues that really affect their lives, from immigrant rights to mass incarceration to family care. In one form of another, what we’re hearing on doors is that people are hurting but there’s also a lot of hope that this election can bring about real change in people’s lives. I think we’ll see a lot of folks who missed 2016 showing up in 2018. Part of it is the consequences of the 2016 election.”

— During an extended interview in her corner office on the eighth floor of SEIU’s national headquarters off Dupont Circle in Washington, Henry said she continues to get pushback from some prominent progressives over her spending so much on trying to reach minority populations who are perceived as unlikely to vote in the midterms. “I have to tell you, in most of my engagements outside of our union, I end up getting into an argument about why it matters, which is kind of shocking to me, because the discourse is still about white working-class defections to Trump,” she said.

The SEIU president emphasized that half of her members are from communities of color. “We also represent white men, and I don’t think they should be written off,” said Henry. “They understand the union as their vehicle for at least economic security, if not a voice in our democracy. Some of our white male members might not see the union as a more global advocacy tool, but they sure as hell care about health care and their retirement. And we’re not going to address those key issues unless the union is bigger than our wages, hours and working conditions. We’ve tested it. We worked with Demos [a progressive organization] in January and February to figure out how to deal with race and class way more head on, so that our white members don’t fall to the divide-and-conquer messaging coming from the opposition, and we’ve found that to be very effective as well.”

Even if Democrats make huge gains the week after next, Henry won’t be content. “Success will require rewarding people’s decision to overcome their own cynicism and decide to act,” she said. “For me, it has to be more than a blue wave. It has to be grounded in people’s deep sense that, ‘I’m overworked and I’m underpaid. Don’t tell me about an economy that’s booming, because it’s not booming in my day-to-day life.’ Having candidates speak to that and workers feel like, ‘If I show up and vote, I can begin to make a change’ are the key ingredients to what we hope will signal the beginning of a turnaround.”

The SEIU sees this as a long-term project. “We talk about it as ’18, then ’20, then ’22,” said Henry. “We have to do what they did — our opposition — which is to play the long game. They chipped away [at union power]. We’ve got to make gains in a similar way.”

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