Michigan has gone through a wrenching economic upheaval in recent years, but as he runs for governor, Mark Schauer hopes that one thing hasn't been lost: the power of an old-style populist appeal to rev up workers and get them to the polls to vote Democratic.
Michigan has gone through a wrenching economic upheaval in recent years, but as he runs for governor, Mark Schauer hopes that one thing hasn’t been lost: the power of an old-style populist appeal to rev up workers and get them to the polls to vote Democratic.
For months Schauer has been campaigning through factory towns with a speech about the battle between the haves and have-nots that echoes themes used by Democrats since Packards and DeSotos were rolling off the assembly lines.
Standing before a lively crowd of Chrysler retirees at UAW Local 869 in working-class Warren, a smiling Schauer holds up his Laborers’ card from his job securing work for construction unions and talks about being pepper-sprayed during street protests against the state’s new right-to-work law.
Before African-American leaders and unions in heavily Democratic places like Detroit and Flint, he rails against the wealthy “CEO governor” whose budget overhaul cut taxes on businesses while reducing breaks for pensioners and others.
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“Rick Snyder’s policies may work for the wealthy, but they’re not working for the rest of Michigan,” Schauer declared to the UAW retirees.
Schauer, 53, a former congressman and state lawmaker, is using a well-established playbook, but with a complication: It didn’t deliver a Democratic victory in 2010, when Republican businessman Rick Snyder was elected governor.
Now, next month’s election will provide fresh insight into whether the economic disruption in Michigan, as it struggles to shed old problems and diversify into new industries, has changed the political underpinning of a state important to both parties.
From 2000 to 2009, Michigan lost nearly 860,000 jobs — more than 300,000 of them in union ranks — as unemployment peaked at 14.2 percent and the state’s largest city, Detroit, slid into financial disarray.
In 2010, Snyder was elected on the strength of a proposed turnaround plan. He and the GOP-led Legislature cut business taxes by $1.8 billion, reduced state spending by more than $1 billion and brought on the court-supervised reorganization of bankrupt Detroit.
In other economically challenged states, even some Democrats shifted to a more pro-business approach in an effort to attract new investment. But Democrats here say they can still win with a traditional labor-heavy appeal if they run a better campaign than Virg Bernero, who lost to Snyder in 2010.
“The playing field is broad for us,” Schauer said in an interview. “It’s reminding people who’s been in charge and what they’ve done.”
The campaign focuses on repercussions of the GOP measures, including higher tax bills for retirees and homeowners, education funding cuts and nominal reductions in the pensions of 30,000 current and former Detroit city workers.
Snyder “got tough on all the wrong people” to solve the state’s problems, Schauer says at his campaign rallies. He says the jobless rate remains high despite a recovering auto industry.
Snyder, who’s targeting middle-of-the-road voters, argues his decisions were pragmatic, especially in expanding Medicaid and aiding Detroit. He insists that voters have accepted that sacrifices are necessary to get past the Rust Belt decline. He’s touting the creation of nearly 300,000 jobs, the lowest unemployment rate in six years and a focus on economic “gardening” — helping in-state companies expand their business contracts with other Michigan firms.
An EPIC-MRA poll released last week showed Snyder slightly ahead, 47 percent to 39 percent, with a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
Unions have long been the ground troops of Democratic campaigns, but they’ve lost a third of their Michigan membership in just a decade. Schauer, a disciplined, upbeat campaigner, insists he can get better turnout by using Barack Obama’s state-of-the-art voter database for the state. Nearly 1 million Democrats vote in presidential but not gubernatorial elections.
“The name of this game is to try to re-create as much of the Obama coalition as possible,” said Democratic consultant Joe DiSano.
But some skeptical Democrats say that voters have been rattled by the state’s problems and that Schauer needs to offer more of his own ideas for the economy.
Criticism of Snyder “can get you only so far,” said Democratic strategist T.J. Bucholz. “The electorate wants some meat behind Mark Schauer’s ideas.”
Snyder, a low-key, self-described “nerd” accountant and former computer company executive-turned-venture capitalist, casts Schauer as a “professional politician” who would revert to government dysfunction.
“Let’s not let professional politics mess up Michigan again,” he said during his only debate with Schauer. “The progress is happening, let’s keep going.”
Jim Mesich, a meat cutter from Warren who voted for Snyder in 2010, said he now favors Schauer because of the right-to-work law.
“I need someone I feel would help me maintain my job for me and my family,” said Mesich, 57.
Clarence Carson, 68, a retired Chrysler plant welder from Roseville who has split his votes between parties, said he’ll stick with Snyder. He “keeps the money straight,” said Carson.
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