Valerie Vande Panne

Beto O’Rourke Swings and Misses with Working-Class Michigan Voters

Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke visited Michigan last week. Shirtsleeves carefully rolled up, he stood on tabletops across metro Detroit and delivered his stump speech.

“He’s really good at his stump speech,” says local union activist Diana Hussein, who seemed unimpressed. “If Trump is the Twitter president, Beto is the Pinterest candidate.”

Indeed, the rumblings from his Michigan visit seem to focus on his vapidity and how he reminds people of someone they can’t quite put their finger on. Of course, that someone is Bobby Kennedy. It seems the Democratic party groomers saw how moldable the blank slate from Texas is, and decided to make him in Kennedy’s image. Except, Kennedy had depth. Kennedy could quote Aeschylus. And there was a sense Kennedy cared—No table standing required.

Yet, here we are, the new golden boy with a Vanity Fair cover, who couldn’t even beat Ted Cruz in his home state, trying desperately to appeal to the white working class of Michigan. Except these folks don’t read Vanity Fair. Neither do the craft beer brew masters of the Grand Rapids area. And if working class white folks aren’t reading Vanity Fair, you know the African Americans in Detroit aren’t, either. Here in Michigan, no matter where you live, all can agree there are only so many Camelot-inspiredVanity Fair covers a shopper wants to read while waiting in line to check out at the local Meijer store.

It’s no surprise that when O’Rourke showed up at the Detroit Carpenters Apprenticeship School (a trade school in nearby Ferndale), many union workers didn’t know who he was, despite being told about his visit in advance. When he walked in, entourage in tow, the general response was, “Who’s that?”

“They didn’t recognize him,” says Steve McCool, a floor layer instructor at the trade school and member of the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights Local 1045.

McCool, however, did say that union members want to see a presidential candidate who will support them, and who will boost trade schools. “I was told to go to college or go to the military,” says McCool. “And I’m not that person. It just wasn’t for me. I’m glad there’s another option. I found this at 24. I wish I would’ve found it earlier.”

Lisa Canada, Political and Legislative Director at Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, agrees that standing unequivocally on the side of workers’ rights is a critical task of securing union members’ support. “We support candidates who support our values and our issues, including strong apprenticeship programs, safe job sites, prevailing wage, and repealing so-called Right-to-Work laws,” Canada says in a statement to In These Times. “Working families deserve an economy and a government that support their ability to earn a good wage for a hard days’ work, return home safely to their families and retire with dignity. We welcome any candidate to our training centers who wants to learn about what is important to our members and their families.”

Hussein questions whether O’Rourke has shown the substance of someone who will be that working-class champion. “Union members, like most Americans, want a candidate that is genuine, someone who is serious about committing to advancing the interests of all working people,” Hussein says. “How has [O’Rourke] proven to be a reliable ally we can trust to carry the torch of the labor movement? What’s his plan to strengthen collective bargaining rights?”

For O’Rourke’s part, he did make a passionate plea to allow workers in Mexico to organize—certainly reasonable, but perhaps a bit out of touch with a Michigan working class still bristling from NAFTA and not exactly known for their concern for laborers on the other side of the proverbial wall.

While O’Rourke has not released a comprehensive plan around labor issues, his record shows some red flags. In 2015, he co-sponsored a bill that would have limited the authority of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Put in place in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, the CFPB is meant to protect consumers and workers from predatory financial institutions. O’Rourke also voted for bills that would have lifted regulations on Wall Street and undercut the Affordable Care Act. In the past he also backed rolling back entitlements such as Social Security. And as many outlets, both Detroit-based and national, have reported, O’Rourke’s voting record on the whole is far more conservative than the average Democrat, including on issues impacting workers’ rights.

These aren’t the only causes for concern about O’Rourke’s record. As a city council member in El Paso, he called for “better checks on collective bargaining in the public sector.” And in 2018, while the Texas AFL-CIO ultimately endorsed O’Rourke in his Senate race against Cruz, they initially refused, claiming members “had significant concerns about the congressman’s commitment to fighting for working people, and unfortunately, he wasn’t at the convention to address any of those concerns.” During his time in the House, O’Rourke did not introduce or co-sponsor any sweeping labor legislation.

Perhaps the most telling part of O’Rourke’s tour de table is the media coverage he garnered: The conservative Detroit News gave O’Rourke glowing coverage, claiming he “wooed” workers–almost as if they know Trump will easily win again if he’s the Democrat’s 2020 candidate. Meanwhile, the local alt-weekly Metro Times published a brief summary of O’Rourke’s problematic voting record, questioning his commitment to progressive causes. Metro Times editor in chief Lee Devito tells In These Times, simply, O’Rourke “looks like a jackass standing on those tables.”

“I understand the fever and enthusiasm around the Democratic primary, and that every candidate has to make a way to stand out,” says Aaron Foley, chief storyteller for the city of Detroit and ardent union supporter. “But time and time again, candidates have shown that they don’t understand Detroit is different. You have to understand us before you try to campaign to us.”

Like Devito, Foley was also troubled by O’Rourke’s tabletop act. “I actually thought it was disrespectful… Detroit isn’t a place where you stand on tables to make a point, because our businesses are like our homes and our community spaces—especially in the case of Narrow Way [a Detroit café O’Rourke stopped at], which is family-owned and has its roots in the church. You wouldn’t come in my house or my church and stand on the tables there. Businesses here in Detroit are no different. We might be the Midwest in terms of geography, but we’re not that easygoing and comfortable with someone’s feet all on the furniture like some other places. Don’t disrespect the businesses like this.”

As any working-class person—or parent—will realize, “Someone has to clean up after those footprints now,” Foley adds.

Afterall, Midwesterners might not be famous for it, but they do have manners.

It’s rather surprising the Democratic presidential candidate from Texas does not.

A less opinion-oriented version of this article was posted at In These TimesThank you for reading it. Please consider sharing it and making a gift in support of my work.

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