The Economic Issues Detroit Voters Will Be Thinking About On Primary Day

CREDIT: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton speaks with Deanne Austin, left, and Victoria Montgomery at the Detroit Manufacturing Systems plant, Friday, March 4, 2016, in Detroit.

DETROIT, MICHIGAN — When the economic recession hit Michigan and its manufacturing cities almost a decade ago, Detroit resident Norma Kersting was living in Muskegon, a city on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. She said the city felt the effects almost immediately.

“We used to have Brunswick and all these plants and everybody was middle class over there,” she said, referring to an iconic bowling equipment plant that shuttered in 2006. “By the time I left Muskegon? There wasn’t much.”

She and her family struggled to stay afloat. Many of her family members had full-time jobs but were still not paid enough to support their families.

“I’m helping to support my nieces during Christmas because they’re struggling to survive,” Kersting, said, describing what the situation was like for many years. “Pay your bills or buy presents? Pay your bills or go get your tooth pulled? Or go visit the doctor because your back hurts?”

But the economy is “coming back,” said Kersting, an SEUI Healthcare Michigan employee and mother of two. And she said she is supporting Hillary Clinton because “she’s for working families.”

Kersting and many other union members told ThinkProgress at Clinton’s get-out-the-vote rally in Detroit on the eve of Michigan’s primary that the economy is on the forefront of their minds as they head to the polls.

Norma Kersting and her 14-year-old daughter.

Norma Kersting and her 14-year-old daughter.

CREDIT: Kira Lerner

During the rally, Clinton called Detroit a “city on the way back up” — a characterization that many voters said they agree with, noting how much Democrats in the White House helped the city recover.

“The Republicans take a lot of credit for the state coming back, but let’s face it — if the automobile companies weren’t bailed out, Michigan would still be in a depression,” said union pipefitter and Troy, Michigan-resident Mark Deagle. “That’s what saved Michigan, to tell you the truth.”

Deagle attended Clinton’s rally because his union has endorsed the former secretary of state. But he said he likes both candidates, and many voters said the differences between the Democratic candidates on the auto industry bailout, trade, and jobs — issues they have battled over in recent days — aren’t as great as they seem.

Clinton hit Sanders in the debate Sunday night for voting against the auto bailout in 2009. But the reality is more complicated. Sanders actually supported the bailout, but voted against a package that would have bailed out Wall Street as well. The candidates spent Monday trying to clarify their differences on the issue.

During a rally in Dearborn, Sanders defended his stance on the bailout and called Clinton’s characterization “categorically untrue.” But the audience made up of mostly students and young voters did not seem like they were holding it against the Vermont senator. And union members at Clinton’s rally said they weren’t faulting Sanders for it either.

“Hillary did do it, but in fairness to Bernie, you also had the bank bailout and most people were against the bank bailout,” Deagle said. “I don’t think Bernie was against the automobile companies in general.”

The issue of trade has also divided the candidates this week, ahead of the primaries in Michigan and Ohio. Sanders has hit Clinton for once supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement, which her husband passed, and other trade agreements which Sanders and Detroit voters call “disastrous.”

Audience members watch as Hillary Clinton speaks during a rally in Detroit.

Audience members watch as Hillary Clinton speaks during a rally in Detroit.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

“Her trade policies were a disaster,” Deagle said. “One of the things that I’m surprised at — she is getting tremendous support from the African American community, but they really got hurt when all these factories left, because we had a tremendous amount of factories in Flint and in Detroit and a lot of African Americans worked in these factories. NAFTA and CAFTA has done tremendous damage. We lost hundreds of thousands of good manufacturing jobs.”

Jerry Young, an employee with UFCW, told ThinkProgress that Clinton will fight for the middle class. And he doesn’t fault her trade proposals because he says she has shifted, and has come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Voters also pointed to other areas in which the economy in the Detroit area is still struggling. The water crisis in Flint has raised awareness about the potentially drastic effects of infrastructure issues, and voters said that issue is just the beginning.

Clinton has proposed a five-year, $250 billion infrastructure plan which would create 3.25 million jobs, according to government projections. Sanders’ proposed five-year, $1 trillion infrastructure plan includes a $125 billion National Infrastructure Bank to leverage private capital to finance new projects, $75 billion for passenger rail and freight rail improvements, $12.5 billion for airport upgrades, and $6 billion for drinking water system improvements, among other investments.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the U.S. a D+ grade on our roads, bridges, waterways, electrical grids, and other infrastructure, and says the country needs to spend an additional $1.6 trillion by 2020 to get it all up to par.

“We have a tremendous infrastructure problem in this country, and both parties haven’t been able to get their act together to start doing it,” Deagle said. “I mean look at Flint, but it’s not just Flint. Our grid system, our piping, our roads. Michigan is ranked 50th in roads and the Republicans in Michigan haven’t done anything.”