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Towards the presidential 

These Michigan women

PHOTO JOHN FLESHER, ASSOCIATED PRESS ⏤ Michigan Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer (right) campaigning in Traverse City on October 9

Last spring, President Donald Trump spoke with contempt of “this woman in Michigan”, never saying the name of Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who had criticized her handling of the pandemic. Far from undermining the credibility of the governor, the expression has become a mark of pride in a state where the vote of the suburbs, and particularly that of women, will be decisive.

The political awakening of a woman from the suburbs

PHOTO JUDITH LACHAPELLE ⏤ Paula Martinos-Mantay (Royal Oak, MI) never believed in being actively involved in politics, but Donald Trump’s election in 2016 changed everything.

Detroit – On the evening of November 8, 2016, Paula Martinos-Mantay watched the election results, petrified in front of her TV. The next day, this resident of a Detroit suburb who had never campaigned in her life vowed that she would do anything to prevent the re-election of Donald Trump.

What Paula Martinos-Mantay has not forgotten about the last presidential elections is the day after.

Still stunned by the result of the day before, she was at the counter of the UPS store that she then ran with her husband, in the suburbs of Detroit. A customer, a regular, entered. He was carrying a pro-Trump poster that he wanted to show her, victorious. “He boasted that he was from that ‘silent white suburban majority’, and that he was sick of black presidents.… I was enraged. He was proud to tell me that, in the face!”

That day, she said, she vowed to herself that she would do everything in her power to prevent the re-election of Donald Trump. “And God knows it’s been four long years…. I still had black hair back then!” 

She laughs and sighs at the same time. At the time of our meeting, in a café in Royal Oak, a suburb of Detroit, there were still 45 days until the election. Paula Martinos-Mantay is tired. The last few years have been intense, especially since the sale of her businesses, which allowed her to devote herself entirely to political activism.

PHOTO JUDITH LACHAPELLE, THE PRESS ⏤ A call to vote in Royal Oak, a suburb of Detroit

Originally from Ontario, Paula Martinos-Mantay has lived in the United States for 35 years. Her two children, now young adults, were born here. She decided to take her American citizenship when George W. Bush was elected in 2000. “I didn’t care until Bush was elected. The election of Barack Obama was a moment of grace. I jumped for joy when he was elected,” she recalls. I was happy that W. Bush was gone. I was excited about the change that was coming in this country. I was exulted!”

But that happy memory has faded over time. “When I think about it, I was a bit like this man with his sign in my shop, in 2016….” Would her exuberant joy have been perceived as arrogance by the Republicans around her? Yes. “It was not my intention. What I was saying was simply: ‘My candidate won! It’s great!’ But when I think back, I can still see the hostile look on their faces.”

After two terms of Barack Obama, the election of Hillary Clinton in 2016 was no doubt in her mind. That year, she participated from afar in the Democratic campaign. “Every week I sent a little money. I gave as much money as I could. I had no doubts about his election. I never thought about knocking on doors, making phone calls. I didn’t know anything about it.”

PHOTO JUDITH LACHAPELLE, THE PRESS ⏤ Paula Martinos-Mantay

And Hillary lost. When Paula Martinos-Mantay recovered from the shock, she took an interest in politics. She was involved in founding StateWide Indivisible Michigan, an organization that seeks to elect Democrats to the state House of Representatives to overthrow the Republican majority. “Before, I didn’t even know who my representative on the Michigan Capitol was. Today I know him personally. I also know my congressional representative in Washington. I helped get him elected. I can phone him if I want.”

“In fact,” she said, “no one could have said in November 2016 that I would be sitting today with you.”

A women’s movement

If there’s one thing she can thank Donald Trump for, says the activist, it’s for pushing her to join a network of engaged citizens where she has forged valuable bonds. “These are organizations where we find a majority of women, and most of whom got involved like me after 2016. They realized like me that if we didn’t do anything, we were the ones to blame if it is still in office after these elections.”

PHOTO JUDITH LACHAPELLE, THE PRESS ⏤ Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer

In Michigan, as in many states, women constitute a key electorate. Donald Trump has sometimes addressed “suburban housewives” in his numerous calls to avoid the “destruction” of their cities with the demonstrations of the Black Lives Matter movement. But American women voters do not seem to share his opinion. In an NPR/PBS poll released at the end of June, 65% of these suburban women said they were dissatisfied with the president’s job. In Michigan, according to a Detroit Free Press poll in September, only 37% of women had a favorable opinion of Trump, while 51% of Michigan women voted for him in 2016.

Why won’t some of those women who voted for Trump do so this year? Perhaps because many of the privileged simply cannot close their eyes anymore, believes Paula Martinos-Mantay. “If you’re a white woman from the suburbs, you don’t live on racial profiling, you live comfortably, there is food on the table, you have a roof over your heads, you and your husband probably have a telecommuting job. You probably bought a laptop for your children to attend school remotely during the pandemic,” she lists.

And in Michigan, in particular, women have been directly questioned in recent months. In addition to the now famous “this woman from Michigan” contemptuously launched by Donald Trump in the spring to designate her, Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s opponents usually use offensive language against her. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has also received a bunch of insults from President Trump on Twitter.

“This man is so afraid of strong women,” says Paula Martinos-Mantay. She and her companions do not plan to rest on the morning of November 4. “If Republicans win, anyone who doesn’t want Trump is going to take to the streets. If the Democrats win, armed lunatics, the ones we fear the most, will come out.”

PHOTO JEFF KOWALSKY, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE ARCHIVES⏤Protesters gathered at the Michigan Capitol (Lansing) last May to denounce Gov. Whitmer’s confinement decreed

As if to confirm its fears, the FBI just arrested a few days later 13 militiamen linked to a far-right group who planned to kidnap Governor Whitmer and government officials before the presidential election.

“We don’t take anything for granted. But I feel that things are moving in our direction, says Paula Martinos-Mantay. In Michigan, we lost by 10,704 votes in 2016. That number is tattooed in my head. At each political meeting in which I have participated since 2016, I write the number: 10,704. That is two votes per polling station. If I could have done something, I would have changed that.”

Other women at the front

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution that guarantees and protects women’s right to vote. The League of Women Voters (LWV), a non-partisan organization founded by suffragists in 1920, remains active in promoting the right to vote for all. We met with their representatives in Michigan.

Rhonda Craig (Detroit)
PHOTO JUDITH LACHAPELLE, THE PRESS ⏤ Rhonda Craig, Detroit League of Women Voters

“According to what we hear, there are three times as many people who have registered this year on the electoral lists. I believe there will also be a higher turnout, at least here in Detroit. I see the older generations putting pressure on the young about the importance of going to vote. And that’s what I tell grandparents, to tell their grandchildren about it. They experienced the restrictions on the right to vote, especially African Americans. They know that voting is one way to reduce racial discrimination. They remember a time when they had a battle just for the right to vote. So what they say is: vote, because there are people who don’t want you to vote.”

Courtney Winell (Grand Rapids), Fran Eckenrode and MerriKay Oleen-Burkey (Kalamazoo)
PHOTO JUDITH LACHAPELLE ⏤ Courtney Winell, Fran Eckenrode & MerriKay Oleen-Burkey

“I think people are always finding new ways to restrict the right to vote, as the old ones no longer work,” says Fran Eckenrode. She cites the example of Georgia, where authorities have been criticized for purging thousands of names from electoral rolls before the governor’s election in 2018. “An estimated 80% of the names withdrawn were people of color. We don’t know why it fell on them. But the race was close, and that could have affected the result. The three women choose their words carefully, insisting that their fight is non-partisan, but acknowledging that one “certain party” is more likely than the other to put obstacles in the way of the polling station. Youngest member of the group, Courtney Winell decided to join the LWV four years ago.”Yes, it’s around the time of the 2016 election…, she laughs. I felt at this point that I had to do more.”

Elders courted

In Michigan, senior voters are in the crosshairs of Democrats, says political scientist Corwin Smidt. In 2016, voters over 65 in Michigan were slightly more likely to choose Republicans than Democrats. “But this year, in this segment, Joe Biden is doing as well as Trump, if not better. This age group makes up a good portion of Michigan’s electorate, about 30% – Michigan is one of the oldest states in the country. “- Judith Lachapelle, La Presse

Two counties that matter

PHOTO JUDITH LACHAPELLE ⏤ Pro-Trump posters in Cass County, southwest Michigan

In Michigan, as elsewhere in the country, a gulf separates Democratic towns from the Republican countryside. A glance at two counties to watch.

Kent: the coveted

Sparta, Michigan – On the list of counties to watch nationwide, Kent is on most radar. The NBC network even wondered, last November, if it was not the only county to watch in the whole country, the one that would set the tone for the election.

Kent County has a large city, Grand Rapids (200,000 people), and its growing suburbs, as well as a rural portion. Republicans have won here since 1968 – with one small exception for Barack Obama in 2008. The county has always been seen as dark red, like the apples that are the pride of the village of Sparta, where Russell Yonkers lives.

PHOTO JUDITH LACHAPELLE ⏤ Pro-Biden flags Russell Yonkers hung outside his house

His house does not go unnoticed: large blue flags flutter in the wind, the rare democratic colors that we meet in the area. “You can’t imagine how many people stop to ask me where they can get it!” he said, sitting down on the porch.

PHOTO JUDITH LACHAPELLE ⏤ Russell Yonkers

In 2016, Donald Trump won Kent County with a comfortable 10,000 vote lead. Two years later, in the midterm elections, Kent’s enthusiasm for Republican elected officials had melted. Kent not only preferred a Democratic Senate candidate (Republican John James was ultimately elected), but he also chose a Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, for the first time in decades.

On closer inspection, then, Kent isn’t as red as it once was. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won 62% of the vote in Grand Rapids. And like many American cities, suburbs like Wyoming and Kentwood are slowly turning blue as city dwellers move there.

The Democrats are not hiding it: Kent is within their reach and they are doing it all.

In the middle of the apple country, Sparta is still very republican. Russell Yonkers would be surprised if his village changed its allegiance this fall as he himself did in 2016. A Republican since always, he could not bear to see Donald Trump become the leader of the party. “But with Hillary Clinton, the Democrats had chosen the candidate least likely to be elected,” said the one who voted for her. Joe Biden, he says, doesn’t arouse as much opposition, and despite the din of Trumpist caravans passing through his village on weekends, he believes many of Kent’s silent voters do not share the enthusiasm displayed by their neighbors. “I see the Democrats around me are nervous. But I don’t believe there are more Trump supporters. They are just louder.”

Cass: the barometer

Vandalia, Michigan – While Kent County is getting a lot of attention from observers, Cass’s has gone largely unnoticed. And yet, says Corwin Smidt, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, this southwestern county is Michigan’s county barometer par excellence.

“The problem with Kent is that the city of Grand Rapids is moving in the opposite direction to the rest of the state,” says Corwin Smidt. The economic prosperity there is not representative of what is happening elsewhere in the state.”

PHOTO JUDITH LACHAPELLE, THE PRESS ⏤ Election posters in Cass County

The proportion of the population with a graduate degree is also higher than elsewhere. Largely rural Cass County, dotted with small working-class towns whose Main Streets have often seen better days, is more representative of Michigan as a whole. To find out what the “Michiganders” think about the election, suggests Professor Smidt, you have to ask Cass voters.

“Is that so?”, wondered Earl Dean, met in front of his house in the municipality of Vandalia, three hours drive west of Detroit. On his lawn, he planted Biden posters. There were no Democratic posters in 2016. In fact, in the last election, Earl Dean didn’t vote at all. “Because I never thought Trump would be elected!” He laughs. I regret it since that day.”

PHOTO JUDITH LACHAPELLE, THE PRESS ⏤ Earl Dean

He is not the only one who did not exercise his right to vote in 2016. That year, 74% of Michiganders registered to vote, but only 64% exercised their right. In 2016, 61% of voters in Cass County voted for Donald Trump.

What has insulted Earl Dean the most in the past four years? The way Donald Trump publicly disowned his own intelligence services in the investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election campaign.

Joe Biden was not his favorite candidate in the primaries; he preferred Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, just across the border. “But that’s mostly because he’s an army veteran, too. He only has good words for Mr. Biden’s running mate. “Kamala Harris will be the best vice-president we have had in years. She’s not afraid to stand up and say it the way it is. “

A little further north, near Marcellus, Bruce and Jennifer Dean (not related to Earl Dean) will vote for Donald Trump, like in 2016. “I’m making more money than before,” says Bruce Dean, who works as packer in a warehouse, before listing everything he likes about Republicans. Gasoline costs less, they are against abortion, they have reduced taxes, they are attacking China….”

PHOTO JUDITH LACHAPELLE, THE PRESS ⏤ Bruce and Jennifer Dean

“I think Joe Biden doesn’t have the mental capacity to be president,” adds Bruce Dean. And I don’t believe what the polls say either. Polls which, since the start of the campaign, pretty much all show Joe Biden’s lead in Michigan. And in the county barometer of Cass? Hard to predict, says Earl Dean. To the eye, the Trump signs are more prominent than the Biden signs. “But I don’t think he’s as popular as he was.”

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Judith Lachapelle, Reporter, La Presse ・750 Boulevard Saint-Laurent Montreal H2Y 2Z4 ・ Office: 514 285-7000 poste 4821 | Cell: 514 707-2756 www.lapresse.ca jlachapelle@lapresse.ca ・Twitter: @j_lachapelle

For the original version of this article in French: https://www.lapresse.ca/international/etats-unis/2020-10-18/vers-la-presidentielle/ces-femmes-du-michigan.php