On Election Day, Politics Further Divide a Broken Town

Flint, Michigan, with its abandoned houses and battered economy, has taken the brunt of the U.S. economic downturn. But election politics are getting its downtrodden residents fired up.

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Natasha Mozgovaya
Natasha Mozgovaya

Carved pumpkins, left over from Halloween last week, still decorate some thresholds, but the houses nearby are rotting and run down. Shrubs force their way through cracked wooden stairs and the holes where windows once stood. This city feels like a natural hub for ghosts.

Just a few minutes away from this Flint, Michigan neighborhood stands a large brown field, surrounded by a fence wrapped in three rows of barbed wire. A sign warns: No Trespassing.

For urban decay lovers, this empty space covered in cracked concrete is the ultimate attraction. Flint, Michigan saw its population halved after the closure and eventual demolition of the General Motors factories here, and many curious tourists flocked to see the blight themselves, their interest piqued after filmmaker Michael Moore documented the slow agony of his home town.

People still live here, of course, raising families, but in certain neighborhoods every second person I meet complains says he can't leave because of a drug addiction or severe health problems.

Brenda Alish walks along a street full of abandoned, pockmarked houses. She says she used to live in Saginaw, but had a drug problem and moved to Flint a few years ago. She hopes to eventually be able to get back home.

Last year, Flint was ranked first in the state for violent crimes.

"My house was broken into twice," Alish says. "One Sunday when I was at church, two people in front of my house were fighting over drugs and they shot each other and I had bullets in my front yard. It's crazy. Kids here are carrying knives and guns and are ready to kill for a dollar."

Alish has one bright spot on the horizon: A few weeks ago she was promised a job in the shipping department of a local engine-parts factory. But it's going to take time for the job to materialize, and she's impatient. Last month's unemployment rate of 7.9% was good news for President Barack Obama, allowing him to claim that the economy is on the path toward recovery, but in Flint the number was 15%. That's much lower than it used to be, but still a far cry from normal.

"Some stuff is changing here in Flint, not a lot. At least they started tearing down old bandit houses," Alish says. She plans to vote today for Obama.

"Romney? There is something about him I don't like – he keeps pounding on our president, and he doesn't know what it's like until he gets there," she says.

According to the Public Policy Polling, Obama holds 6-point lead over Romney in Michigan, at 52 percent to 46 percent, numbers that are supposedly thanks to the auto industry bailout. But Romney has a deep personal connection to the state. His father, George Romney, was once governor here. While the candidates themselves stormed other swing states – Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and even New Hampshire with its four electoral votes – in Michigan, their staff and volunteers continued the work at both candidates' local headquarters.

Volunteers made phone calls, knocked on doors and held small-scale rallies. On the Republican side, Governor Rick Snyder made a bus stop at the Genesee County victory center, while at the Democrats' headquarters, volunteers were energized by Bob King, president of United Auto Workers, one of the country's largest unions.

Debi Kirchner, 53, is a veteran GM truck plant worker and union member. These days, she is spending her free time volunteering for the president.

General Motors Co. (GM) employees applaud during an event at the GM assembly plant in Flint, Michigan, U.S., on Monday, Jan. 24, 2011.
General Motors Co. (GM) employees work on engines as they move down the production line at the GM assembly plant in Flint, Michigan, U.S., on Monday, Jan. 24, 2011.
An employee assembles 3.6L, V6 engines at the General Motors Corp. Flint Engine South plant in Flint, Michigan, U.S., on Friday, May 8, 2009.
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General Motors Co. (GM) employees applaud during an event at the GM assembly plant in Flint, Michigan, U.S., on Monday, Jan. 24, 2011.Credit: Bloomberg
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General Motors Co. (GM) employees work on engines as they move down the production line at the GM assembly plant in Flint, Michigan, U.S., on Monday, Jan. 24, 2011. Credit: Bloomberg
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An employee assembles 3.6L, V6 engines at the General Motors Corp. Flint Engine South plant in Flint, Michigan, U.S., on Friday, May 8, 2009. Credit: Bloomberg

"It's a simple thing: He had our back, we have his," she says of Obama. "He saved my job as an auto worker. If it wasn't for him offering loans, the GM plant where I work would be gone. It's not a bailout, it's a loan. The plants are repaying it."

I ask her about the criticism levied at Obama for adding to the national debt with his bailout.

"It's nice of the Republicans to suddenly care about the national debt when they run for elections," she replies. "Me and other workers in our factory – we pay the taxes, we should be able to count on our government in a time of need, and it was definitely a time of need."

Romney, she says, would let Detroit "go bankrupt," just as he recommended in a 2007 Op-Ed in The New York Times. "It would lower our wages, destroy the unions and totally change the way of life for workers – not only in Michigan," she says. "He would replace expensive workers with cheap ones who can't fight for their rights. That's how he made his profits."

So what, she says, if Romney's father was once governor of Michigan. She has "no sentiments whatsoever" for him over his Michigan legacy.

Annie Cross, a 25-year-old volunteer, says her mom retired from GM after being forced to take an early buyout.

"Factories are like graveyards: just empty closed-down lots," she says. "About 50 percent of people in their 20s are unemployed, and it affects our crime rate. My middle school and high school are shut down. These are beautiful huge brick buildings, and they're just sitting there empty."

Cross lived in several other states, but she says she came back to Flint because she loves the city and her friends, and she hopes for a better future for her community.

At the Republican victory center, located in the upscale Flint suburb of Grand Blanc, preparations for election day are no less energetic, but the arguments are very different.

Theresa Yochim has come to the headquarters to ask for a Romney bumper sticker. Obama, she says, is a "bully" who won't ever admit that he is wrong. The country, Yochim says, is paying for his expensive mistakes.

And Obama's wife Michelle? To Yochim, she seems even more arrogant and prejudged. But Yochim insists that she is not voting against Obama but rather for Mitt Romney, because he is a businessman who would create jobs that America desperately needs. His father was a beloved governor, she says, and he raised a good son who cares about the country.

At one point, an energetic man in a baseball cap emblazoned with the Romney/Ryan logo walks in. He is Eric Jacobson, a Flint native who now lives in Texas and has flown in to the help the Republican candidate win Michigan. Jacobson recently sold his healthcare information company for $10 million in order to free up his time to, as he says, help his country – meaning, get Mitt Romney elected for president.

Straight from the airport, Jacobson was stopping at churches, wearing his Romney sweatshirt and baseball cap and urging pastors to tell people to vote.

"I came from Texas because this is the most critical election in the history of this country, neck and neck," he says. "Michigan might be the state that wins this election. I was in Texas, and heard on the radio that my home state was a dead heat, so I jumped on a plane, and I am going to work dusk till dawn, knocking on doors."

He says his goal is to get 500 voters who might not otherwise have been willing to trek to the polls to cast their ballots for Romney.

"This election won't be won by changing by peoples' minds," Jacobson says. "It will be won by who can motivate their side to get into those lines and cast their votes."

I ask Jacobson if he thinks the auto industry bailout was a good thing.

"GM paid for my education," he says. "Both my grandfathers and my father worked for GM. I worked there for seven years, and now I am the first man in my family to not work there. I am glad GM is doing okay and I am not one of those people willing to get into a big dispute over whether we should have bailed them out or not. But the bailout has a lot of downsides. And ultimately, there are far bigger things at stake in this country right now."

Texas, he says, is a Republican state, so the job of Texans is to raise money for their candidates in the swing states.

Jacobson wears a pin with Romney's name on it. Only a precious few donors have such a pin – you have to donate $500,000 or more to get it. Jacobson himself raised $600,000.

"I sat with Mitt Romney seven times this year," he says. "I heard him speak and I know where his heart is, what his convictions are."

Does it bother him that people say Romney is part of a millionaires' club?

"It's true he has a lot of money, we can't change that," Jacobson says. "He's been a ridiculously successful businessman. He had a Midas touch – everything he's ever done has been successful. Running companies, the Olympics, the state of Massachusetts. Obama's never run anything, never had any employees. He is a community organizer. He's a very good community organizer, but it's not the same as running the most powerful country in the world."

What really concerns Jacobson these days, however, is one of Obama's biggest supporters – President Bill Clinton, who has been fiercely campaigning on behalf of the president.

"People really like President Clinton," he says. "Even Republicans like myself, we have some respect for Clinton, for what he's done to bring prosperity to our country."

But Jacobson draws on some history to further support his candidate.

"A long time ago in the vice presidential debate, Senator Lloyd Bentsen looked at Dan Quayle and said, 'You are no Jack Kennedy.' Well, President Obama is no Bill Clinton."

Donald Kemp, a General Motors Corp. employee in Flint, Michigan, carries a flag at a demonstration in front of GM headquarters during the National Summit in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., on Tuesday, June 1Credit: Bloomberg
Brenda Alish. Credit: Natasha Mozgovaya
The economy in Flint, Michigan has been pretty much demolished.Credit: Bloomberg