‘Our safety, our health, our freedom’ is on the ballot, African American leaders say

How Michigan Democrats and Republicans are courting Black voters this year

By: - October 22, 2022 3:58 am

Dozens of SEIU members voted early Sept. 29 at Detroit Election Commission headquarters. | Ken Coleman

With the Nov. 8 election approaching, top issues emerging for African-American voters are voting rights; rising crime rates; access to health care; gas, food and rent costs; and jobs. 

These issues were lifted up during a get-out-the-vote rally in Highland Park in metro Detroit on Oct. 11. 

“While voting is always an exercise in using our power, we know this year that our safety, our health, our freedom is also on the ballot,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder of Atlanta, Ga.-based Black Voters Matter (BVM).

“Racist practices and policies that attempt to subvert our democracy directly stem from the far right’s fear of Black voters’ power. And right-wing leaders have a long track record of devaluing Black lives and placing power and their own agenda over the health and well-being of our people. Our campaign is meant to shine a light on issues that matter to Black voters, but also to expose the far-right’s intentional strategy to undermine freedom and progress.”

Last week, BVM made stops in several Michigan cities such as Benton Harbor, Ypsilanti and Detroit as part of its “We Won’t Black Down” fall bus tour. The effort was designed to mobilize Black voters and engage with policymakers, faith-based leaders, Black influencers and college students leading up to the general election. 

The tour has also visited Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Florida, all considered battleground states with significant Black populations.

Michigan voters have been able to cast their ballots since Sept. 29. 

Defend Black Voters Coalition protest at a Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) meeting held at Wayne County Community College District in downtown Detroit. | Ken Coleman

Taking African American voters for granted?

When it comes to earning their vote, some Black voters told the Michigan Advance that both the Michigan Democratic Party and Michigan Republican Party have work to do. African-Americans compose about 14% of Michigan’s 10 million residents and have been a solid Democratic voting bloc since the Civil Rights era. 

Norman Clement, founder of Detroit Change Initiative, a nonprofit, said that both parties should pay more attention to organizations like his that work in urban communities.

“Both parties really need to focus on the local, small nonprofits who service the grass seeds and the grassroots in Black communities. They are the people who turn out the vote right now,” said Clement.

Shamayim Shu, also known as “Mama Shu,” an African-American Highland Park community activist and student after-school program organizer, agreed with Clement. Both attended the BVM rally and encouraged African Americans to vote in the upcoming general election.

“Our vote does count. Our vote must count,” said Shu.

Michigan Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes speaks at the Michigan Democratic Party’s nominating convention in Lansing on Aug. 21, 2022. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

Lavora Barnes, the Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) chair who is African American, said that her party seeks to increase voter turnout each political cycle.

“We hope every cycle to see an increase in Black turnout all over the state. Michigan is an incredibly diverse state and we have Black voters and potential Black voters in all 83 counties,” she said. “The MDP and all Democratic candidates meet voters where they are, whether on their porch, in their mailbox, on the phone or at a community meeting or a forum. 

“The best engagement is to have the opportunity to be able to hear the voter’s concerns and issues and have a dialogue based on those specific concerns. The MDP has invested in an infrastructure that allows our organizers and our candidates to have those discussions in communities across the state.”

The Michigan Republican Party did not respond to Advance requests for comment, but other Republican leaders did. 

Martell Bivings is an African American GOP nominee running against state Rep. Shri Thanedar (D-Detroit), who is Indian American, in the new 13th Congressional District representing Detroit, Highland Park, Hamtramck, Harper Woods, the Grosse Pointes, Allen Park, River Rouge, Melvindale and Taylor.

Bivings believes that Black voters are attracted to the Republican Party’s issues and ideas, but they need to hear more of the GOP’s message.

“What the Democratic Party has been synonymous is Black and Democrats — and that’s not factual,” said Bivings during a mid-August post primary election interview with the Advance.

Bivings, who works for the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., has previously worked as a legislative assistant to former state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit) and Detroit City Council member Scott Benson. 

Thanedar defeated several Black candidates for the Democratic nomination. There are no African-American Democratic congressional nominees in Michigan this year — a loss particularly felt in Detroit, Michigan’s largest city that also is majority Black. 

“We gave up power on Tuesday,” the Rev. Wendell Anthony, pastor of Fellowship Chapel in Detroit and president of the nonpartisan NAACP, told the Advance after the primary.

The Black caucus in the Legislature is expected shrink, as well, in part due to the maps adopted by Michigan’s first independent redistricting committee this year.

Bivings is one of three Black Republican U.S. House nominees in the state. Analysts expect John James, a veteran and businessman who unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate twice, to have the best chance to win of the three candidates. He defeated opponent Tony Marcinkewciz in the Republican primary in the new GOP-leaning 10th Congressional District anchored in Macomb County and faces Democratic former Judge Carl Marlinga in the upcoming general election.

Republican nominee for Michigan’s Thirteenth Congressional District Martell Bivings campaigns in Lansing on Aug. 27, 2022. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

In Michigan’s 3rd District, Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer of Grand Rapids, who is white, was defeated by John Gibbs, who is Black and previously worked in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Trump administration. Gibbs is up against Democrat Hillary Scholten, an immigration, in a West Michigan district that has been redrawn and leans slightly Democratic now.

Bivings said if elected, he can persuade GOP members on Capitol Hill to craft policies and resources to better attract African Americans. But he is also critical of the GOP. Bivings said both major parties need to step up their game when it comes to attracting African-American voters.

The GOP, he said, needs to strengthen its message to African Americans. Bivings said that gun rights and anti-abortion positions do resonate with Black audiences. He would also like to see the party provide more financial and organizational support.

As for the Democratic Party, Bivings said, “[Democrats] take us for granted.”

Wayne Bradley, an African American Republican, has worked in Detroit to help promote the GOP’s brand and even operated a recruitment office on the city’s west side. In addition, Bradley has served as a director of African-American Engagement for the Michigan Republican Party and believes that the GOP should invest more resources into Black community. 

He also believes that Black Republicans like Bivings, a Detroit Cody High School and Howard University graduate, represent a way forward for the party. Bradley told the Advance he believes that Bivings is “more than capable” of representing the district.

African American Democrats have been consistently elected to Michigan offices for decades, including Congress, secretary of state, lieutenant governor and the Legislature. However, only a few Black Republicans in Michigan have been elected to Congress and the Legislature.

Charles Roxborough | Detroit Public Library photo

The first Black state House member was a Republican named William Ferguson, a Detroit lawyer. He was elected in 1892. Michigan’s first Black state senator was Charles Roxborough. He, too, was a lawyer from Detroit. Roxborough served one term, 1931 to 1932. 

Since then, there have been fewer than a handful of Black Republicans who were elected to office. Bill Hardiman, a Kentwood Black Republican, served in the state Senate from 2003 to 2010. 

William Lucas, a former Wayne County executive, was the GOP’s nominee for governor in 1986. The African American from Detroit, however, was defeated by Democratic Gov. James Blanchard. 

Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who is African American, ran for governor as a Republican this year.  However, he was one of five candidates who failed to make the GOP primary ballot amid a signature-gathering fraud scandal. 

Craig launched a write-in candidacy that was not successful. He has refused to endorse GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon and said he is backing Donna Brandenburg, another failed GOP candidate who is now the U.S. Taxpayers Party nominee.

GOP Secretary of State nominee Kristina Karamo is African American and is a former college lecturer from Oak Park. She faces Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who lives in Detroit and is white.

State Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland) serves as Senate Appropriations Committee chair and can’t run for reelection this year because of term limits. He said he believes term limits have had a negative effect on parties being able to form relationships with candidates and officeholders. 

State Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland), April 20, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

This year, voters could change that law passed in 1992. Proposal 1, known as Voters for Transparency and Term Limits, would change the existing term limit laws for state legislators to put a 12-year total limit of serving in either the state House or the Senate.

Current law allows lawmakers to serve up to six years in the state House and up to eight years in the state Senate. 

Stamas, who is white, said that if Proposal 1 passes, that could help the GOP better engage the Black community in Michigan.

“We need to go out across the state and have more communication,” said Stamas.

‘Brothers are not voting’

Keith Williams, Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus chair, said that Democrats have to “close the enthusiasm gap” this year with Black voters, especially African-American men. 

“Brothers are not voting,” said Williams. “They don’t see anything in it for them.” 

Issues such as reproductive freedom, he said, don’t resonate with Black men as much as an “economic freedom” message. Williams suggested that they could be an important element to Democratic wins in the midterms, which have been expected to favor Republicans.  

Black women are a bedrock Democratic voting bloc and traditionally have been more energized to vote than Black men, as the Advance has reported. With Proposal 3, the Reproductive Freedom for All constitutional amendment enshrining abortion rights in the Constitution, voting registration rates for women overall have increased in Michigan. 

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, a Democrat from Detroit, is the first African American to serve in the post. As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s running mate, he has crisscrossed the state for weeks making the case for a second four-year term. He also is a former community organizer.

Whitmer and Gilchrist face Dixon and her running mate, former state Rep. Shane Hernandez (R-Port Huron), who is Latino.

“Governor Whitmer and I have made historic progress to widen the pathways to opportunity and reduce poverty for Michigan’s Black and African-American communities,” said Gilchrist in a statement to the Advance. “Our unprecedented increases in public funding for education have closed the decades-long school funding gap, investing in students in every ZIP code. We have made low- and no-cost child care available to 150,000 more kids.” 

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist speaks at a “MI First Vote” rally with Vice President Kamala Harris in Southfield, Mich. on Oct. 15, 2022. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Gilchrist was the subject of racist tweet in January from Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock, who wrote that the LG was a “scary masked man” and his video would make “babies … cry.”

Whitmer condemned the statement as racist and said Republicans should condemn it. Few did.

Gilchrist added that he and Whitmer have been “the last line of defense” for Black state residents. 

“We are providing new, affordable, high-speed internet connections and skills to thousands more Michiganders,” Gilchrist continued. “While we work to move our state forward, the stakes are too high for anyone to sit on the sidelines in this election. Our opponent supports dangerous plans to slash funding for public safety, infrastructure, and public schools, and she is hellbent on making voting harder in Black and Brown communities. … We need everyone’s voice to be a part of the conversation to continue to build a Michigan where people can be successful.”

Voting rights battle

Since former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election to President Joe Biden, Republicans across the country have introduced legislation to clamp down on voting. That’s become a big issue in the 2022 election for African Americans, who voting rights advocates said would be disproportionately harmed by the bills.

In Michigan, Republicans who run the Senate introduced a 39-bill package last year that restricts voting. Many bills were vetoed by Whitmer. Because of that, Republicans turned to a ballot measure, Secure MI Vote, which include many parts of the legislative package.

Secure MI Vote would: 

  • Require the secretary of state and local clerks to send absentee ballot applications only to voters who request them. 
  • Ban third-party and private organizations from funding public elections and mandates that voters present photo ID to cast their ballots in person. 
  • Require those who choose to use absentee ballots to submit a driver’s license number, state personal ID number or the last four digits of their Social Security number. Under current law, voters can sign an affidavit of identity.
  • Create a $3 million fund to assist eligible state voters secure a government-issued photo ID.

While Secure MI Vote failed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot on Nov. 8, the group did turn in petitions over the summer. The Legislature, which is currently GOP-controlled, could adopt the petition and Whitmer has no power to veto it.

Several groups have mobilized in response to these voting restrictions, including the Defend Black Voters coalition, which has launched a campaign to convince companies, such as DTE and Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan, to stop donating to candidates who back voter restriction bills.

“Our message is simple,” Executive Director Ken Whittaker told the Advance in June. “You can’t give these empty statements about Black Lives Matter like you did after the death of George Floyd, change [your] profile pictures to black [and] issue empty policies at the corporations for their staff to feel good, but then on the backside, bankroll legislators that are literally trying to take away the ballot access for Black families, working families, communities of color.”

In response to Republicans’ legislation making it harder to vote, there’s a constitutional amendment, Proposal 2, on the Nov. 8 ballot from the Promote the Vote coalition, which includes the ACLU of Michigan, League of Women Voters and Voters Not Politicians.

Proposal 2 would: 

  • Amend the state Constitution to allow nine days of early voting
  • Continue to allow voters to sign an affidavit attesting to their identity rather than being required to present a voter ID
  • Require ballot drop-off boxes for every 15,000 voters
  • Require that post-election audits only be conducted by the state and local officials
  • Allow voters to register for absentee ballots for all future elections

Kamilia Landrum, Detroit National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) executive director, told the Advance that her nonpartisan organization launched a voter education, mobilization and protection initiative 25 years designed to increase turnout, primarily for the Black community. The NAACP was founded by African Americans and whites in upstate New York in 1909. Its Detroit branch was founded in 1912.

“We fight against voter suppression and fight for vote access,” said Landrum. “We have to make sure that we are prepared. We have lawyers and staff who are ready to deal with ballot issues, with challengers who seek to deter people from voting.”

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.