INKSTER, Mich. — Sitting on the crumbling porch of a small, boarded-up house where Malcolm X once lived, community activist Aaron Sims recalls Inkster as the place where African American workers on Henry Ford’s assembly line settled because they weren’t welcome in the nearby factory town of Dearborn.
Sims describes several years of fighting to save the dilapidated home where the civil rights leader lived during part of his formative years, shares his hopes of turning the modest property into a museum for his small, struggling suburb and talks proudly of twice casting his ballot for Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.
But when the topic turns to the 2016 election, the 41-year-old lawn care company owner says he has a secret of sorts: He voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.
“With Hillary, it was like they were coming with the same old, same old politics from back in the day,” Sims said. “Trump says what he says, but I knew it was something different. I decided I’d rather take my gamble that way.”
As 20 presidential contenders descend upon Detroit for the second round of Democratic debates Tuesday and Wednesday, party officials and African American political leaders point to Clinton’s loss to Trump in Michigan as a cautionary tale of what can happen when a Democrat takes black voters for granted.
Trump won thanks in large part to the collapse of the so-called blue wall in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. While Clinton faltered among white working-class voters in all three states, she also notably underperformed in the urban centers of Philadelphia, Milwaukee and – most of all – Detroit.
In Wayne County, home to Motown and its immediate suburbs, Clinton collected 76,000 fewer votes in 2016 than Obama did in 2012. That drop-off is the biggest among the nation’s more than 3,000 counties, according to certified election results compiled by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The majority off the falloff occurred in the city, which is 80% black. Clinton received nearly 47,000 fewer votes than Obama. She lost the entire state of Michigan by just 10,704 votes.
“If you don’t come into my community and talk to me, don’t talk about my issues, don’t ask me for my support, then guess what? Don’t automatically assume I’m going to vote for you,” said Jonathan Kinloch, Democratic chairman of Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, which encompasses Detroit’s western half. “We can’t make the same mistake Hillary made in 2016 and assume that because Donald Trump is such a vile candidate, that black people will rise up and just zombie to the polls.”
This time, party officials say they are being vigilant about engaging Detroit’s black voters earlier, with Michigan again expected to be a pivotal swing state in Trump’s bid for a second term. Democrats point to the two nights of debates in the city as a prime opportunity for the presidential contenders to outline solutions to urban issues, topics that largely were absent during last month’s debates in Miami.
“This is the perfect backdrop for it, this audience full of Detroiters who would love to have the candidates address these issues that matter to their day-to-day lives,” said Lavora Barnes, who chairs the Michigan Democratic Party. “All of these candidates should have an urban agenda, and they should be asked about it while they are sitting in the very urban city of Detroit.”
Thousands of African American voters from across the country who gathered at the NAACP’s national convention in Detroit last week got a glimpse of what’s likely to come. Nine Democratic presidential candidates made brief appearances and promised better education, economic opportunities and government funding for black communities, with a few also denouncing Trump as a racist.
Perhaps aware of the criticism from some black voters and political leaders that Clinton took them for granted, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey tried make the case that he would show up for more than just their vote.
“This is the most import election of our lifetime, and we in the African American community will determine the destiny of our nation,” said Booker, the former mayor of Newark, New Jersey. “I will make sure that when we come to communities like Detroit, we don’t just talk to people, but we invest in these communities.”
For 48 of his 59 years, Reginald Pinkins has lived in a two-flat on the same stretch of Lenox Street in the Riverbend neighborhood on Detroit’s eastern edge. When he was born, nearly 1.7 million people lived in the city. Last year, the population dropped again to 673,000.
“It was beautiful,” Pinkins says as he points down Lenox, where two-story brick homes used to line the street, with garages dotting the back alleys. Now there are just a handful of homes scattered amid overgrown fields that Pinkins says are visited more often by coyotes and deer than people.
“See back there where all those trees and weeds are? There’s an alley back there,” he says, shaking his head. “And over there, that used to be an apartment building.”
“That” is the eight-story concrete husk of a building marred by blown-out windows and graffiti, a structure that opened in 1926 as the Hotel Savarine, a “stag hotel” for single men that later became an apartment building and has sat vacant for nearly two decades. Pinkins remembers when workers began to restore the 118-unit tower in 2006, only to watch the project stall and “neighborhood robbers” remove all the windows.
Asked what he’s looking for in a presidential candidate, Pinkins sighs. “I just want things back in order, the way they used to be. I want these fields cleared, streets fixed and some jobs over here,” he says. “Trump is just taking more away from those who can least afford it, giving more to the rich and all his talk is just dividing everyone.”
Pinkins says he worked as a butcher at Detroit’s landmark Eastern Market until the company shuttered 20 years ago. He now does auto detail work when he’s not caring for his 99-year-old grandmother. He says he voted for Obama twice and credits him with improving people’s lives through the Affordable Care Act and for saving Detroit’s auto industry during the Great Recession.
In 2016, Pinkins said he assumed Clinton would win and was out of town visiting a relative and didn’t vote. He said he didn’t know any of the current candidates aside from former Vice President Joe Biden but planned to start paying attention with the Detroit debates.
“It’s never too early,” he said with a smile. “We need a big change.”
While it’s not evident in Pinkins’ neighborhood, parts of Detroit are in the midst of a renaissance after years of political corruption and the city’s 2013 bankruptcy.
After decades of decay, the downtown has been revived, the city’s Midtown neighborhood is booming complete with a new streetcar transit line, and the historic Corktown neighborhood west of downtown is swiftly redeveloping.
While state and city officials have played a role in the renewal, many Detroiters credit Dan Gilbert the most. The billionaire owner of Quicken Loans has invested nearly $6 billion into the city through his various companies, including his Bedrock real estate firm.
Crystal White, a 50-year-old automotive worker, lives in a Bedrock building downtown. On a recent Monday night she joined her bicycle club for Detroit’s weekly Slow Roll, an event that draws thousands of bicyclists for an organized ride that snakes through the city’s streets.
To connect with Detroit’s black voters, White said, a presidential candidate needs to have an agenda to bring back urban neighborhoods – a strategy to improve decaying schools, rebuild crumbling infrastructure and provide access to good-paying jobs. Detroit remains America’s most impoverished major city, with many areas still riddled with trash-strewn lots and vacant homes and facing persistent crime and struggling schools.
White said Clinton didn’t present a message to address those issues and paid the price in 2016.
“She should have been here every chance she had, but instead she totally kicked us to the curb. I think her ego got the best of her,” said White, who works at the Fiat Chrysler Warren Stamping Plant. “No, she wasn’t here for the black vote. No, she wasn’t here for Michigan. No, she wasn’t here for the poor people.”
Even with a clean slate of candidates, she doesn’t plan to watch the Detroit debates.
“There’s too many of them,” said White, who twice voted for Obama and begrudgingly voted for Clinton. “I’m not ready for all that yet.”
The struggles of African American voters don’t stop at the city limits. In Inkster, one-third of the population lives in poverty, its number of residents has declined dramatically over the past several decades and state lawmakers dissolved its failing school district in 2013.
Sims, the small-business owner who’s looking to restore the house where Malcolm X lived when he began his ascension in the Nation of Islam, viewed Trump as a disrupter to the typical politics that had done very little for his community. He also said Clinton didn’t do enough to repudiate the tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders that became law during her husband Bill Clinton’s tenure in the White House.
“Being where I’m from, we’ve seen a lot of people get locked up off that,” said Sims, who is running for City Council in Inkster. “They might catch with you with something small, something small and then that third strike, it’s adios, see you in 20 or 30 years.”
Though he considers it unlikely, Sims wouldn’t rule out voting for Trump again, despite what he called racist rhetoric from the president, pointing to some positives like an improved economy.
“The Democrats need to come with a stronger candidate this time,” he said. “To me, it always feels like we’re grabbing scraps off the table. Our schools are closing, we don’t have good jobs. So for me, it will come down to how are you going to get economic growth for the African American community in places like Inkster, Flint or Saginaw? We’ve been left behind.”
For party leaders in Michigan, who are helping Democrats try to sort out the largest and most diverse field of candidates ever to run for president, the hope is that two nights of debates in Detroit will attract more black voters to become interested earlier in the 2020 campaign season.
“I love this field, because what it is doing is engaging voters at all levels among the Democratic base,” said Kinloch, the western Detroit party leader. “We saw in 2016 that a lot of Democrats and black folk stayed home, but the fact that the Democratic Party is having conversations about issues that are so important to so many people, I think is going to be helpful in getting people more energized this time.”
Another motivating factor: Trump.
“What’s happening in America feels personal to black folks. Our sensitivity to oppression is extremely high, because we know that our history is of a country that oppressed us,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, whose district encompasses Detroit’s downtown and east side. “We are the descendants of those who did not have rights and freedoms. So, when we see that bubbling up, that is something that motivates the black community.”
It’s motivating Troy Sutton. As he tended to a water basin along the Detroit River, Sutton said he is concerned about Trump singling out Latinos and Muslims, the president’s foreign policy and heightening tensions with Iran, along with his cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans and companies while doing little for low-income and middle-class people.
Sutton likes Biden and Bernie Sanders but worries that both are too old. So he’s keeping an open mind and plans to watch the debates to size up the others and how they plan to combat what he described as Trump’s racist policies.
“It’s almost like they’ve moved off the blacks and started targeting the Mexicans and the foreigners and all that, and I have an issue with that,” said Sutton, 48. “The struggle with them is real as well, so I feel for them as much as us still struggling for equal wages and to be treated fairly. We definitely need someone new.”
U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, whose district includes the western half of Detroit and some western suburbs, has been at the center of the Trump firestorm of late. She is one of the four freshman Democratic congresswomen who make up the “the squad,” a group that was on the receiving end of Trump’s recent “go back where they came from” comment.
Tlaib said she was encouraged by the 2018 midterm turnout that helped elect her, a vote she called a referendum on Trump. In Wayne County, voter turnout hit 50% compared with 38% in the previous midterm election in 2014, records show.
But Tlaib also cautioned that in the 2016 presidential election, nearly 90,000 Michigan voters cast ballots but did not vote for a presidential candidate, which she called a “dangerous thing.” That’s almost nine times the margin by which Clinton lost to Trump in the state.
So while voters might be motivated, Democrats still need to be careful to nominate a candidate who will attract them to the polls, Tlaib warned.
“It has to be the right person who speaks to folks in the Midwest” about issues such as improving access to better wages, health insurance, homeownership and trade to ensure high voter turnout, she said.
“Those who are running for the presidency have to have a stark difference between them and Trump, and it can’t be just on character and personalities,” Tlaib said. “It has to be around a bold policy agenda.”
A bold agenda is exactly what Jacob Walker was searching for when he listened to nine Democratic presidential candidates at the NAACP convention last week. He’s interested in plans to boost African American homeownership, provide reparations, reduce the number of people jailed and reform the tax code to put more money in the pockets of the poor and middle class.
He left disappointed.
“Donald Trump has been president since 2016, and Democrats have had two years to get this together, but I haven’t really heard anything comprehensive,” said Walker, 44, who lives in Detroit and works in finance for an energy company. “I heard a lot of sound bites, talking points, but nothing definitive that I can sink my teeth into and say, ‘That’s my guy or woman.'”
Walker is the type of voter Tlaib referenced.
He didn’t vote for Trump or Clinton, and he hopes to hear more specifics at this week’s debates as he shops for a 2020 candidate.
“This is ground zero for urban America. If you have an agenda, a plan, something you want to accomplish, this is the place to sell it because we have a history of that here,” he said. “The city is going through a renewal, and that’s good, but we’ve still got so many communities that are struggling. What are we going to do different for those folks? What are we going to hear different for them?
“Detroit’s here. We’re listening.”
(Chicago Tribune’s Tony Briscoe and Jonathon Berlin contributed.)
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com