DETROIT — After watching both nights of this week’s Democratic debate, Kermit Williams, president of the city council in Pontiac, Mich., came to a rueful conclusion: The candidates who did the best job of addressing the problems of struggling communities like his were the quirky, improbable ones.
“Marianne Williamson said all the right things, but she’s a space cadet,” he said, referring to the self-help author’s full-throated support of reparations for African Americans on the debate’s first night. “Her message coming out of someone else’s mouth would have been powerful.”
On the second night, it was tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, with his proposal to give every American a basic income of $1,000 a month, who impressed Williams and others attending a watch party geared toward engaging black voters in next year’s election.
Over the two nights, about 150 mostly black residents of Detroit, as well as Flint, Mich., and areas in between, turned out for the parties organized by Black Voters Matter, an Atlanta-based group focused on organizing voters often overlooked by campaigns and traditional political organizations.
During the debates, attendees cheered or groaned as the candidates laid out their plans and critiqued others’ records and proposals. But after listening to the candidates spar, many said they hadn’t heard much to excite them, even as they said it was vitally important to defeat President Trump next year.
Some who watched said they were disappointed that in a debate held in Detroit, which is 79 percent black, there was only a passing discussion of the social and economic disparities between blacks and whites that have increased as the region recovers from the automotive industry crisis.
And in Flint, which grabbed headlines five years ago when it was discovered that local officials had made decisions that resulted in lead and other toxins contaminating the water supply, those attending watch parties were disappointed that some candidates said nothing about their ongoing challenge to get safe drinking water.
In 2016, Democrats were stunned when Trump narrowly won Michigan, the first Republican presidential nominee to capture the state in nearly three decades. Some analysts said Hillary Clinton’s campaign failed to motivate and mobilize voters, especially African Americans and Latinos, whose participation fell dramatically from 2012. Others argue the campaign should have done more to court the centrist voters who ended up defecting to Trump.
Williams said the candidates, and the Democratic Party overall, showed similar signs of neglect in the debate performances this week.
“Everybody’s scared to embrace us, but they can’t win without us,” Williams said of people of color. He also was unhappy that all the candidates of color appeared onstage the second night and none the first night. The field is the most diverse in history, with five women and five people of color.
“Tonight is black night! Last night was white night!” Williams said Wednesday evening, when the debate featured two black candidates, Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.). “How does that happen?”
Booker got his biggest applause when he talked about voter suppression and his family’s Detroit roots. But Liberty Bell, a Flint resident who is still using bottled water for drinking and bathing her 2-year-old daughter, was disappointed that he didn’t mention Flint — especially since he had visited the city a few days earlier.
She also said she was disappointed with Harris’s performance. “I was expecting so much from her — I so want to vote for Kamala Harris, but she’s just not saying anything,” Bell said, adding that she was hoping to hear the senator talk about policies to help working mothers and to reduce mass incarceration.
The watch parties sought to get participants thinking more about issues than candidates in this still-early phase of the campaign. Organizers conducted instant polls to measure participants’ most pressing concerns and used commercial breaks for quick gut checks on whether the candidates had addressed those issues.
Education, health care, climate change and the minimum wage all ranked high on the list. And although the candidates touched on those issues, they often missed the nuances of how those issues play out in low-income areas and communities of color, attendees said.
For instance, the candidates devoted ample time to picking apart each other’s health-care plans, but one participant in the discussion — Alexis Bragg, an activist with Mothering Justice Michigan — said having coverage isn’t enough. What about those who don’t have cars or access to good public transportation, she asked, so they can get to the doctor? What of people who don’t have paid sick leave and can’t afford to take time off from work?
Joanna Velazquez, 24, an activist with Detroit Action, said voters in Latino communities are afraid — both of the Trump administration’s hard-line policies on immigration and that he could win again.
“There’s just this general fear of his presence and the fact that he could potentially be reelected because there’s no Republican candidate” mounting a credible challenge, she said. People want to believe that a Democrat will emerge who can beat him, “but right now they are nervous about the fact that it could be another 2016,” Velazquez said.
Black Voters Matter spent 2018 traveling around the South rallying black voters to turn out for the midterm elections. For 2020, it is expanding its reach to Michigan and Pennsylvania, two states that Democrats probably need to win in order to recapture the White House.
LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright, co-founders of the group, said visiting Michigan and Pennsylvania is a logical extension of their work in the South, as they were among the states where African Americans went looking for opportunity during last century’s Great Migration.
“There’s a strong line directly from the Deep South to places like Michigan,” Brown said. She also said that some predominantly black communities in Midwestern states are wrestling with issues that also affect African Americans in the South — what she calls “huge disparities in terms of the haves and the have-nots,” including economies built by black workers “who were not able to share in the wealth in the same way that white communities did.”
The group arrived in Michigan last week, traveling on a bus emblazoned with its logo and other images evoking black empowerment. On Friday, it will wrap up a nine-day tour of the state, focusing on overlooked pockets of majority-black populations outside Detroit.
Shanta Smith, who attended the watch party in Flint on Wednesday, said afterward he was most impressed with Yang, who he said is rightly focused on giving people direct economic benefits to help them address their needs.
The director of a substance abuse counseling program, Smith, 43, noted that several candidates had come to Flint to address its water crisis but did not talk about residents’ other needs.
“You can fix the water, but I still can’t eat. I still don’t have a job,” he said, as other residents nodded and murmured agreement.