Alabama Democrats were victorious in their fight to keep Republican nominee Roy Moore, an accused child molester, out of the Senate.

The night of that special election in December 2017, Democratic Sen.-elect Doug Jones addressed his supporters in Birmingham, Alabama, and gave a shoutout to the black voters, especially black women, who DNC chairman Tom Perez said “led us to victory.”

“We can’t take that for granted. Period,” Perez said in his tweet following the victory.

During that special election, members of the Black Voters Matter Fund were on the ground developing their strategy to turn citizens into voters by connecting with local activist groups, knocking on doors, and reminding regular people of their political power.

They’ve since been touring the South, including Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana, and registering black voters.

This week, as national attention settles on Michigan for CNN’s 2020 Democratic debates, Black Voters Matter is testing that strategy in the Midwest. They’ll stop in several cities in Michigan, including Detroit and Flint, registering voters and listening to their concerns and questions for the candidates. The group is also connecting with local activist groups, including Detroit Action and Frontline Detroit, to host debate watch parties and discussions.

“There are parallels between Midwestern states, particularly Michigan and Ohio, and the South,” said LaTosha Brown, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter.

Health care a top issue at Detroit debate watch party https://t.co/OvrVTAVV1w via @detroitnews

July 31, 2019

Turning out black voters

Donald Trump’s Michigan victory, much like in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, was key to his 2016 election. Turnout dropped significantly in these states compared to 2012 in Milwaukee and Philadelphia, but the biggest drop of all was in Detroit.

By contrast, the 2018 midterm election gave Democrats every statewide office on the ballot in Michigan, including governor, Senate, attorney general, two flipped House seats with two women who served in the Obama administration, and another which elected Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib to replace John Conyers. 

In Wayne County, home to Detroit, voter turnout reached 50% in 2018, compared to 38% in the 2014 midterm elections. The chair of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party in Michigan credited the statewide spike in turnout to Trump’s election. 

The Chicago Tribune reported Rep. Tlaib’s warning, however, that anti-Trump sentiment won’t be enough even if voters are motivated, and Democrats must still attract voters with their nominees. In 2016, almost 90,000 Michigan voters left their choice for president blank.

“The reason we decided to spend a week on the road listening to people is to listen to people and figure out what they see as priorities, and will it be able to shape our agenda,” Brown said. “I hope for the candidates it’s not just about winning the White House, but attention to the issues people face everyday.”

Show of hands

At the debate watch party Tuesday night in Detroit at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Rob Adams of Detroit Action asked people in the crowd to raise their hands if they worked two jobs to afford rent. “Wow” was the reaction heard from the crowd, as several hands went up.

Watch a video of Tuesday night’s debate watch party.

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Detroit was a popular destination for African Americans during the Great Migration, a relocation of more than 6 million black people from the rural South to the industrial cities of the North, Midwest, and West. They were chasing opportunity and escaping harsh and segregationist Jim Crow laws.

“It wasn’t that racism wasn’t here but there was more opportunity,” Brown said. “Many were able to get good union jobs, change their circumstances in the steel plants, automotive industry.”

The Associated Press reported that Michigan largely supported Republicans for president during the strong manufacturing era, then became reliably Democratic in its presidential picks due to a strong labor influence. Today, Detroit is growing after exiting bankruptcy and manufacturing is up slightly, but still at about half what it was in the 1960s.

Rep. Tlaib, who represents Detroit, notes that although unemployment is down, it’s mostly because residents have “low wage jobs, some have multiple jobs, some have part-time jobs.”

Michigan’s 14.2% poverty rate is higher than the national 12.3% rate and though per capita income is higher, it’s still below the 1999 level—and black people are at the bottom.

“When people are in a struggle, it’s hard for them to get excited for something outside themselves,” Brown said.

Need for new energy

Brown says black voters in Michigan need to hear from visionary leaders who can propose solutions to the structural issues plaguing their communities, especially when it comes to confronting Trump’s promises of saving manufacturing and his racist rhetoric around cities with large black populations.

On Tuesday, it was an all-white lineup of Democratic candidates who were answering questions about racism and the country’s racial divide. But health care and economic opportunity were the most-discussed topics among the black voter crowd at the watch party. 

“What would probably be best for a presidential candidate is not just go toe-to-toe with a racist, because it’s illogical, but for them to craft messages filled with hope,” Brown said.

And Brown sees a political opportunity for Michigan, whose voters decided in 2016 and again in 2018 that they were frustrated with politics as usual.

“People are frustrated with D.C. politics. It wasn’t by accident that the Squad was elected. Those young women represented a new approach, a new energy. They want something different,” Brown said.

Black Voters Matter will be making stops in Saginaw, Lansing, Benton Harbor and Kalamazoo, and will be in Flint on Wednesday night for a second community forum and debate watch party. Follow the livestream on Facebook and follow LaTosha Brown, a senior fellow with Prism, on Twitter at @MsLaToshaBrown.

Alex Arriaga is a reporter and writer based in Chicago. Her work focuses on how people engage and participate in democracy and how community reporting can empower that participation in different ways....