By JONATHAN TILOVE
July 16, 2004
c.2004 Newhouse News Service
OWOSSO, Mich. _ Dan McMaster, Republican county chair, mows the lawn outside his 120-year-old home on a pleasant corner of this city’s historic district, and when he’s done, replants the yard signs for his candidates in the hot races for state representative, register of deeds and drain commissioner. Jutting out from the porch is a GOP flag, replacing one recently swiped _ the nefarious handiwork, his 3-year-old son Aidan suspects, of “Democracks.”
Meanwhile, McMaster’s brother-in-law, Don McKay, a lifelong Republican who has dropped by, has a long list of reasons _ from the invasion of Iraq to what he counts as the administration’s capitulation on farm subsidies _ why he won’t be voting for President Bush again.
And two doors down, Brandon Cline, whose mother works with McMaster for Republicans in the Michigan Senate, is just back from a tour of duty with the 173rd Airborne in Iraq. He is both unabashedly proud of his service and wholly undecided between Bush and John Kerry. “Right now,” he says, “I’m pretty much 50-50.”
Welcome to Shiawassee County, keenly contested terrain in the coming presidential election, where _ in a manner of speaking _ America’s past is about to decide America’s future.
This is not Red America or Blue America, but a place in that vast expanse of the heartland that is just America, plain and simple. In demographic terms, it is older, whiter and less diverse; slower-growing because it is less touched by immigration or newcomers from the rest of the country. In political terms, it is a teetering seesaw, all the more important for being so evenly balanced.
Of the 16 battleground states that were closest in 2000 and look to be closest again, nine _ with 105 electoral votes combined _ fit this retro demographic profile: Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New Hampshire.
It is a curiosity that states losing political heft _ Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio each lost one electoral vote since 2000, while Pennsylvania lost two _ still hog the political spotlight. But it is also consequential, to the extent that candidates skew their attention toward the concerns of a population that does not look like the nation as a whole.
Put another way, it is the political misfortune of Hispanics that two-thirds of their far younger, faster-growing population resides in five states not seriously in play _ California, Texas, New York, New Jersey and Illinois. In essence, on the stage of national politics, the Social Security worries of a retired auto worker in Owosso will continue to trump the public education concerns of a Hispanic parent earning minimum wage in Los Angeles.
Shiawassee is a swing county in a swing state. In 2000, it was one of the most closely fought counties in Michigan, with Bush defeating Gore by 286 votes on his way to losing the state by 5 percent.
Four years later, on the eve of the summer conventions, Democrat Kerry remains a question mark to many here, unknown and unloved. But it is easier to find people who say they voted for Bush last time and won’t do so again than vice versa.
At first glance, this looks like it ought to be Bush country _ a pastorally pretty patch of old-fashioned rural and small town America, timeless and changeless. The 2000 Census counted only 547 more people here in 2000 than in 1980. Ninety-nine percent were born in the U.S.A., 88 percent right here in Michigan. You can go days without seeing someone who isn’t white or hearing a language other than English.
The county is marginally Republican in its voting habits. Socially, it is quite conservative, overwhelmingly pro-gun and pro-life. But Shiawassee also stretches between Flint and Lansing and is home to many who work or once worked for the auto industry at the high-water mark of a receding blue-collar American dream. The United Auto Workers remains the bulwark for Shiawassee Democrats.
All things being equal, Republicans win here. But all things are not always equal.
Francis “Bus” Spaniola is the revered figure _ “a class act,” says one admiring Republican _ who in 1974 broke the GOP’s lock on the state representative seat despite three strikes against him _ Democrat, Catholic and, as he puts it, “ethnic.”
“I would call this a bellwether county,” says Spaniola, who retired from the Legislature in 1991. His wife, Carol, is now the Democratic county chair.
The concerns about Bush begin with Iraq.
Diane Carey, a prolific novelist (her oeuvre ranges from the Civil War to Star Trek) and columnist and the most conservative of three Republicans seeking Spaniola’s old seat, notes that she is a rare figure here who proclaims her support not just for the troops, but also for the rightness of going to war to begin with.
Even Brandon Cline, 22, the returned soldier _ his unit, he says, was greeted with the flowers and thanks that many Americans were led to expect in Iraq _ may cashier his commander in chief. “I like Bush and I have no idea about Kerry,” he says. But he has noticed that Texans tend to take America to war, and “I’m open for new ideas. Change is always good.”
At the VFW hall in Corunna, the county seat, most of the handful of veterans and their wives gathered to talk politics have little use for Bush or his taking America into Iraq.
“God help us if Bush is re-elected,” says Peg Ostipow, whose husband, Alex, was an infantryman in World War II. “By the first of the year, he will be trying to get my four grandsons.”
Many at this post, like Robert Evans, are UAW Democrats, who also lay at the president’s doorstep the economic despair in a county that is not getting any younger or more prosperous. Evans describes a member of his church in her 80s who went the winter, he later learned, without a hot water heater. “I see her every morning clearing tables at the Burger King. That’s sad in this day and age.”
The next night during a break at a Republican meet-the-candidates night at the elegant Victorian county courthouse in Corunna, Dr. Richard Ball, an optometrist seeking the Republican nomination for state representative, says he believes the president’s fate in Shiawassee hinges on Iraq and jobs. And while things are improving on both fronts, he adds, “time is running out.”
The gentlemen who gather twice daily, at 10 and again at 3, at Oliver’s restaurant in downtown Owosso are more sanguine about Bush’s prospects. They are mostly local businessman, some retired or semi-retired. The only declared Democrat among them is Bernie Rubenstein, who used to have a clothing store in town.
“We come up with more solutions than there are problems,” says Jim Capitan, a former mayor of Owosso, now seeking another term on the county commission. Capitan’s gut tells him Bush is going to win big.
Burton Fox, a retired military man who does both a public affairs and a Bible study show on local cable, agrees. “This ain’t going to be no nail biter,” he says.
Folks here know nail biting. Just last month the Owosso school board race ended in a tie. A coin toss determined who would draw a slip of paper from a jar to determine the winner, a result overturned after a recount established that the other candidate had won by two votes.
McMaster, the GOP county chair, lives only a few blocks from the boyhood home of Thomas Dewey _ the political patron saint of not-counting-your-chickens. The first campaign McMaster managed was Larry Julian’s 1998 state representative race, reclaiming the seat for Republicans after Spaniola’s successor was term-limited. Julian won by 361 votes.
Partisan lines also can get murky. A lot of folks thought that Mike Powers, a former deputy sheriff, was a Republican before he announced he was seeking the Democratic nomination for Julian’s job. (Because of term limits, the seat is again open.) A few years back, Charlie Keenan, who is running Ball’s campaign for the Republican nomination, sought the Democratic nod.
Joe DeCaire, the Caledonia Township supervisor who is a Democratic candidate for the mostly Republican county commission, lost his first race for public office by 13 votes. He said that on his end of Shiawassee he was told he needed to run as a Republican to win.
But DeCaire, the 14th of 15 children, says if he had done that, “my ma would have come out of the grave to slap me.” Besides, DeCaire, burly, folksy and friendly, is a devoted union man, who worked decades at “the Buick” in Flint and may be the only person in Shiawassee County with a lawn sign that says, “Peace.”
In fact, when McMaster had the right-wing rocker Ted Nugent headline a very successful county Republican dinner early last year, DeCaire was outside protesting the impending invasion of Iraq. “I was harassed, but it felt good,” he says.
If DeCaire is something like Michael Moore’s dream candidate, across the county at the Owosso Speedway in Ovid, Steve and Andrew Wilkinson, brothers and truckers, are disciples of Rush Limbaugh. And unlike DeCaire, they have cut their political apron strings.
Their mother may have been a Democrat because her mother was a Democrat because Democrats were friends to the farmer, but to the Wilkinsons, the Democrats are now enemies of the working people filling the grandstand on a beautiful and breezy Saturday night.
“This is the meat and potatoes of the country,” says Steve, nodding toward the crowd. “Blue collar America at its finest.”
Their cousin, Robert Wilkinson, doesn’t chime in. Will he, too, be voting for Bush?
This Wilkinson isn’t ready to commit. “I’ll wait till it gets down to the nitty-gritty,” he says.