Why Won’t Brenda Lawrence Back a Green New Deal?

On a recent Sunday afternoon, close to a hundred people filled a union hall near a massive Chrysler plant just outside Detroit.

They were a mix of black and white and young and old, from Detroit and the surrounding Oakland and Macomb County suburbs. But they were united in their support for the Green New Deal, which they enthusiastically applauded.

Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, however, wasn’t having it.

Standing in front of the crowd, she read a list of environmental protection funds she’d supported in her role on the House Appropriations Committee.

When asked whether she supported the Green New Deal, she hedged.

“I do support the concept of it,” she said, “but it’s a theory, it’s a philosophy.”

She didn’t explain why that had stopped her from joining dozens of her House colleagues who’ve signed on to sponsor the official Green New Deal resolution.

A Deal That Delivers for Detroit

In so many ways, the Green New Deal seems tailor-made for Michigan, and especially Detroit, which makes up a large part of Lawrence’s district.

The call for a national public-sector mobilization against climate change, creating millions of good-paying union jobs, resonates with Detroit’s role as the “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War Two, when federal dollars helped redirect the Motor City’s industrial might towards defeating fascist Germany and Japan.

Today, Detroit suffers endemic unemployment, and many neighborhoods are burdened with fossil fuel pollution, making the promise of job-creating investments in clean energy technology more important than ever.

So it’s not surprising that two metro Detroit members of Congress, Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) and Andy Levin (D-Royal Oak), signed on to the resolution for a Green New Deal as original co-sponsors.

But why hasn’t Lawrence joined them?

Other Congressional Excuses

Lawrence’s district, after all, is a “safe” Democratic district, drawn by Republican gerrymandering experts to cram in as many Democratic voters as possible. 79% of 14th District voters chose Clinton over Trump in 2016.

The district also encompasses many of the most distressed areas of Detroit, including much of the city’s East Side. In addition to some wealthier enclaves, like the Grosse Pointes and West Bloomfield, it includes the city of Hamtramck, where General Motors recently announced it would be shutting down its Chevy Volt plant on the Detroit-Hamtramck border, and the industrial satellite of Pontiac, already devastated by decades of previous GM plant closings.

It’s easier to see why some of Lawrence’s colleagues, like Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) and Hayley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) haven’t backed the Green New Deal. Both represent outer suburban districts previously represented by Republican incumbents, and are hesitant to stake out bold progressive policy positions in their conservative districts.

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, like Lawrence, represents a safe Democratic district, but after all, she is a former lobbyist for General Motors. Her late husband was a vociferous opponent of new fuel economy regulations and anything else that scared the Big Three.

So what gives for Lawrence?

I managed to catch the Congresswoman as she exited the union hall, and asked why she hadn’t signed on to the Green New Deal resolution.

The resolution, she said, which calls for shifting to 100% renewable energy over 10 years, was simply “so vague.”

“It opens a Pandora’s Box,” she said, citing the enormity of the task of eliminating vehicle pollution. What if the Big Three couldn’t manage to do it, she asked.

A Clear Moral Imperative

The Congresswoman is correct that the Green New Deal resolution, as written, doesn’t set out specific strategies for getting to a zero-emission transportation system, other than “zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing,” “clean, affordable and accessible public transit,” and “high-speed rail.”

What it does do is set out a clear goal: eliminating carbon pollution in order to save the planet, in a way that also puts Detroit back to work and stops poisoning the most vulnerable.

A historical precedent is instructive.

When Congress voted to enter World War Two, U.S. representatives did not try to be generals. Indeed, seeing as Japanese aircraft had just destroyed much of the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and Nazi armies stood within 15 miles of Moscow, there was no assurance that the war could be won within five years, or even won at all.

The path to victory was not defined. But what Congress and President Roosevelt did know was that entering the war against fascism was in the self-interest of the United States and a moral imperative for humanity.

Today’s danger is different. But the logic is not.

Congresswoman Lawrence needs to understand that, and take a stand for the Green New Deal.

You can call her office at (202) 225-5802.

Graphic by Danielle Aubert.

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Head to Head in Michigan: Bernie Matches Biden’s Margin Against Trump in New Poll

A common refrain in the Democratic Party establishment is that a socialist like Bernie Sanders wouldn’t stand a chance against Donald Trump in the general election, especially in supposedly less progressive states like those of the industrial Midwest.

The reality is exactly the opposite, as a new poll of Michigan voters indicates.

The survey of 600 likely voters showed that if the 2020 presidential election was held today, most Democratic candidates would have an edge over Trump. But two stood out from the rest: Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders. Both had a 12-point margin of victory over Trump in the poll.

Sanders did especially well among male voters without a college degree, a demographic that went for Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“Sanders,” pollster Richard Czuba told the Detroit News, “kind of disrupts the Trump pattern of less educated male voters [voting for Trump],” whereas “Biden exacerbates it.”

Class Matters in Michigan

Bernie’s strong showing shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who understands Michigan and its people, and particularly the tradition of class-based organizing in the state, which goes back to the 1930s labor struggles in the factories of Detroit and Flint.

Far from being repelled by Bernie’s broken-record message against the “billionaire class,” many Michigan voters embrace it.

They know that Michigan workers got a bad deal with trade deals like NAFTA, shepherded by Republicans and corporate-friendly “New Democrats” like Bill Clinton. (Unlike Bernie, Biden voted for NAFTA and supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, although it’s likely that most Michigan voters don’t know that.)

Indeed, this is a big part of the reason why Bernie upset Hillary Clinton to win Michigan’s 2016 Democratic primary.

Sanders had spent hardly any time campaigning in the state, aside from brief stops in Ypsilanti and United Auto Workers Local 600 in Dearborn, a longtime home of the labor movement’s left wing. His victory shocked pundits who’d expected an easy Clinton victory.

Economic Justice Wins

For Beltway pundits, who like to caricature Midwestern voters as middle-of-the-road folks who would never embrace a bold progressive agenda like the Green New Deal, this poll should be a stern rebuke.

Michigan voters know what Bernie stands for. And most of them like it.

What doesn’t work in Michigan is telling voters they should support you just because you’re a Democrat, when you don’t have a strong agenda for economic justice, in the spirit of the New Deal tradition.

That’s why Clinton narrowly lost Michigan to Trump in 2016: not so much because of a Trump surge, as pollster Czuba notes, but because so many traditional Democratic voters stayed home, both in majority-white suburbs and majority-black cities like Detroit.

Michigan Republicans, dutifully following instructions from party commissars, have been invoking the specter of “socialism” at every opportunity, as they did with a recent Oakland County proposal to increase wages for County employees.

That may play well with the Bloomfield Hills set, but not the great majority of Michiganders.

Democrats face their own choice: will they nominate an outspoken advocate for economic justice, or repeat the 2016 debacle?

Biden may call himself “middle-class Joe,” and make much of his Scranton birthplace. (In fact, while unemployment in Scranton did cause some hardship for the Bidens while Joe was a child, his father ultimately became a successful used-car salesman after the family moved to Delaware.)

But there’s little doubt that if he wins the Democratic nomination, the Trump campaign will gleefully spotlight the fact that in his decades in Congress, Biden has reliably sided with corporations and credit-card companies over workers.

As the new poll suggests, Michigan voters embrace candidates who promise economic justice. Democrats would do best to give them the real deal.

Can We Agree Billionaires Shouldn’t Make Our Laws?

The remains of a car in Detroit. Photo by Quentin R. Jackson.

Five days.

After decades of debate over car insurance in Michigan, that’s how long it took for one very wealthy man to seal the fate of Michigan’s no-fault insurance policy, which granted unlimited insurance coverage to the victims of car crashes, regardless of whether they were responsible for the crash.

After Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert’s announcement that he was fronting the money for a petition drive to change the law, Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer fell in line and supported the Republican Legislature’s bills to kill Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance law, passed in 1973.

In the Detroit News of Sunday, May 19, columnist Nolan Finley announced that a “source close to the situation” had told him Gilbert had hired National Petition Management, “the nation’s leading signature gathering outfit,” and was preparing to front the millions of dollars necessary to get a proposal on the ballot to kill no-fault.

The disclosure was an obvious power play on the Governor, who’d threatened to veto the Republican insurance proposal, citing its inadequate protections for consumers.

“I’m not going to be bullied into doing something,” Whitmer told media after Gilbert issued his petition threat.

But by Friday, she’d agreed to sign the bill.

What do concessions mean? Not much

The Governor did appear to extract some concessions, including bans on rate discrimination by gender and ZIP code. But those concessions may not count for much.

Although the law bans insurers from setting rates by ZIP code, for example, it allows them to be set by “territory,” a word which apparently means any other geographic area.

It’s simply incorrect, then, to assert, as did Democratic State Senator Adam Hollier, that the bill will end the practice of insurance “redlining.”

Hollier suggested to a reporter that the proposals would reduce the $3000 disparity between the auto insurance he pays in Detroit and what a friend of his pays across the city limit in Redford.

Hollier was elected last year with support from the “dark money” group Detroiters for Change, a which endorsed candidates who sided with Mayor Duggan’s bid to eliminate no-fault insurance.

In a creative interpretation of Michigan campaign finance law, the state determined that Detroiters for Change’s campaign ads were legal because they did not expressly call for the election of Hollier and other candidates.

Instead, they made subtle statements like “We Need Adam Hollier in Lansing.”

The bill’s impact

Given the unanimous Republican support for the bill, and the Republican support for the bill in the heavily gerrymandered Legislature, its passage was assured once the Governor announced her support.

Some Democrats who had raised concerns about the proposal cited Gilbert’s referendum threat in deciding to vote for the proposal. “If we didn’t move ahead with this bill,” State Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) wrote in a Facebook post, “the other option would be the Gilbert-backed auto insurance citizen initiative,” which she called “not an acceptable option.”

Other Democrats still voted against the proposal on principle.

State Representative Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit) cited the failure to ban redlining in opposing the bill, which she said “stinks as bad as the manure that is lining the streets of Mackinac [Island],” where today, Whitmer signed the bill into law.

It was an incongruous setting, since the island is one of the few places in Michigan that doesn’t have any cars.

Other Democrats in the legislature also argued that creating a tiered system of insurance “choices” for drivers, the lowest of which provides only $50,000 in coverage, was inherently unfair in itself, since it would institutionalize a system of unequal coverage.

House Democratic Floor Leader Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor), who has been the Legislature’s most outspoken advocate of a Medicare for All universal healthcare proposal, posted on Facebook that the announcement of the deal marked “a shameful day in Michigan.”

“Rates will not go down,” he posted today, after the Governor signed the bill. “Redlining will continue. Accident victims will have crippling out of pocket costs and some will likely die due to lack of coverage.”

The non-partisan Senate Fiscal Agency had estimated that the proposal will ultimately cost Michigan taxpayers at least $70 million in additional Medicaid costs. The human costs will only become clear with time.

Democracy doesn’t work when billionaires are involved

The man whose money had ensured the death of no-fault wasn’t on Mackinac to witness the signing.

Dan Gilbert was driven to the hospital last Sunday, where he suffered a stroke. He is now said to be recovering.

With a net worth of $7.3 billion, Gilbert doesn’t need to worry much about being able to buy insurance coverage.

As the previous week’s events showed, his fortune also enables him to buy political action, regardless of the costs for ordinary Michigan residents.

If the tortuous story of the end of auto no-fault shows anything, it’s that Michigan’s political system remains profoundly compromised by the dominance of a wealthy few, even after Democrats took back the governorship and other statewide posts in last year’s elections.

Many commentators, on both sides of the aisle, would prefer that we overlook that reality, or simply accept it.

The Detroit Free Press editorial page, for example, has so far been silent on the insurance deal, although Free Press columnist Nancy Kaffer previously described the GOP bills as “lip service that doesn’t even try to fix the problem.”

In a column for Michigan Advance, which claims to offer “top-notch progressive commentary,” publicist Susan Demas heralded the no-fault deal, passed at the political equivalent of gunpoint, as a “bipartisan plan. She lauded the Governor for going along with the “opaque process,” since “those of us who have been around for more than a minute know that this is, of course, how big deals are always made.”

There’s a kernel of truth there: this is how deals get made when money rules politics. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

There are plenty of blogs and various news sources out there. But we need more that refuse to acknowledge the inevitability of oligarchy.

In future articles, Michigan Left will do its best to keep that up. We’ll say it here: Billionaires are incompatible with real freedom. Government of the people, by the people, for the people, is the only legitimate kind. And while our state is still on a crash course with corporate rule, it’s worth fighting to turn us towards political and economic democracy.

Want to call the Governor to express your disappointment? You can reach her office at 517-335-7858.