Windsor Star

Court the Reagan Democrats in Michigan

- JACK LESSENBERR­Y

Afew days ago, the morning after the Republican National Convention was over, John McCain and Sarah Palin flew to greet thousands of cheering fans at Freedom Hill Amphitheat­re, an open-air park more often used for rock concerts.

They got a tremendous reception from adoring supporters, some of whom wore caps saying “Another Democrat for McCain.”

Gov. Palin, whose son once played hockey for a Michigan high school, beamed when she was presented with a Detroit Red Wings’ jersey.

“Thank you, Michigan, you took care of my boy.”

Thirty years ago, this couldn’t have happened here, in Sterling Heights, a mainly middle-class suburb of 128,000 people in the middle of Macomb County, which was, back in John F. Kennedy’s day, the most Democratic suburban county in the nation.

When the vast exodus from Detroit began in the 1950s, blue-collar white went northeast, to Macomb.

White collar workers, by and large, went to the next county on the west, Oakland.

Today, Macomb’s 840,000 residents are largely white blue-collar and lowlevel white collar workers whose future is tied to the auto industry.

These are the fabled Reagan Democrats, Italian-American and PolishAmer­ican folks who still vote overwhelmi­ngly Democratic for lower level offices.

These are the voters John McCain is going to need in November if he has any chance of capturing Michigan. They overwhelmi­ngly voted by two-toone for Ronald Reagan.

But they puzzled some of the extras by going back to the Democrats to embrace Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and while President Bush won a tiny, one percent majority here four years ago, it was not nearly enough to give him the state.

“ Macomb voters are conservati­ve on lifestyle issues but still Democrats on economics,” said Bill Ballenger, a longtime pundit who is editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics.

Today, most, indeed, still think of themselves as Democrats, but who are socially conservati­ve. They like Sarah Palin’s values and are attracted by her spunk.

But to the extent they understand the GOP ticket’s economic policies, they don’t like them.

Many are insecure about their jobs, so many of which are tied ti the permanentl­y downsizing U.S. auto industry. One 41-year-old Sterling Heights woman who supports an unmarried daughter and her son voted for George Bush in 2000. “Never again,” she vowed.

But Macomb County has a growing, but still fairly small (six percent) black population, far smaller than other Detroit-area counties.

And the kind of blue-collar white voters who live here have been some of the most difficult for Barack Obama to win over.

Democrats privately admit they are worried about efforts to tie the squeaky-clean Obama to Kwame Kilpatrick, the brawling, womanizing, felonious mayor of Detroit.

The men have nothing in common, except that both are African-American.

For some Macomb County voters, however, that may be enough. DEMOCRATS: Meanwhile, a few miles to the west, the Democratic presidenti­al nominee brought his road show to Farmington Hills in Oakland County. Back in the 1960s, Oakland County was solid Republican turf, the bedroom suburb of white collar Detroit.

In local elections, Oakland’s 1.2 million residents are almost as Republican as Macomb is Democratic. Hugely affluent despite the auto decline, Oakland is the third or fourth richest county in America.

Every countywide office holder is Republican, just as every one is Democratic in Macomb.

But many of these Republican­s don’t vote for their party’s nominees for president anymore.

John Kerry and Bill Clinton and Al Gore all won Oakland. It was a narrow margin of victory to be sure, but they won it.

“Oakland Republican­s are better educated, more cosmopolit­an, and increasing­ly uncomforta­ble with their party’s lock-step platform on social issues,” noted Ballenger. “They have a libertaria­n streak.”

As an example, a 45-year-old Oakland County woman named Alice might have been expected to identify with Sarah Palin.

They are less than six months apart in age, and Alice’s free time is largely consumed by shuttling her 10-year-old son to and from hockey games.

She and her husband both work, then work themselves to a frazzle shuttling their kids to events and play dates.

But she was angered and insulted by McCain’s choice of Palin. “She has no qualificat­ions to be president.”

“I couldn’t be president and I have only two kids and three college degrees.

“ You want a president who knows more than you, not less. This is a joke,” she said. She later reported gleefully that she’d found a bumper sticker on line: Hockey Mom for Obama.

But how will the hockey moms of Michigan swing in the end?

“Michigan will be close. And McCain could win it,” said Ballenger, a former state racing commission­er who prides himself on his odds making skills. But Republican­s are still saddled with the economy, he noted and George W. Bush.

“ I have to say, still — advantage Obama.”

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