Black voters in Detroit key for Biden, but are they engaged?

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Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens to Michigan Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist II at Headliners Barbershop in Detroit, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

DETROIT – Wendy Caldwell-Liddell is tired of waiting for change in Detroit.

The nation’s largest Black-majority city has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic and its ensuing economic fallout. More than 14,200 COVID-19 cases and 1,500 deaths have been confirmed in the city.

So when the 29-year-old Black mother of two thinks about what's at stake in the November presidential election, her answer is simple: Everything. She's determined to help defeat President Donald Trump.

“Trump won Michigan by less than 11,000 votes,” noted Caldwell-Liddell, the co-founder of Mobilize Detroit, a newly formed grassroots organization. “And so, our thought process is, if we can just get an additional 15,000 or 20,000 to show up, that could change Michigan’s trajectory for the presidential election."

Black voters across Michigan will be pivotal in deciding who will win the battleground state in November. But engaging them at a time of immense uncertainty across the nation because of the pandemic and unrest over the effects of systemic racism has been especially challenging.

“A lot of Black folks are having that experience of getting punched in the gut several times in 2020,” said Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, the first African American in that post. “But I also know that Black folks, Black women in particular, are going to take care of business … Donald Trump is such an existential threat to Black life and Black futures and I think we’re going to show up and make sure that he’s no longer president.”

Both Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are battling for support among Black voters across the state. Biden visited Detroit earlier this month, and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, was spending time in Flint and Detroit on Tuesday.

Trump's campaign has opened an office on Detroit's west side in the heart of a neighborhood where local residents say they've never seen a Republican presence before. Trump campaign officials said volunteers have been knocking on doors and doing other field activities across the state.

“Throughout this campaign, Joe Biden has attempted to paint President Trump as someone he's not in a veiled attempt to hide his own abysmal racist record on Black America," Trump deputy national press secretary Ken Farnaso said in a statement. “With President Trump in the Oval Office, Black Americans can rest assure that they have a true fighter and advocate working on their behalf.”

But in a city that has always been a Democratic stronghold, Trump's presence is troubling to local officials who say they want to see Biden's campaign have a stronger visibility.

“We don't have any type of engagement in Detroit, and it's just mind-boggling,” said Nicole Small, a Detroit Charter Commission member. “And now you have, especially young Black voters and people living in poverty, saying, well, what difference is it going to make if we vote for Biden or if we vote for Trump? They’re being dismissed and overlooked by the Democratic Party."

Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib said she's getting volunteers and staffers ready to knock on doors in the 13th Congressional District, which is largely African American.

“I tell them this is not just about names on the ballot," Tlaib said. "This is about the issues that matter to us. It’s about getting closer to ending the broken systems that have been so oppressive and painful for so many of our communities of color.”

Biden’s campaign and state Democratic Party officials have said they’re reaching voters through virtual events and making “millions of calls and texts” to voters across Michigan. They've also invested heavily in television, radio and digital ads across the state and are fulfilling orders for several thousands of campaign signs.

The campaign said it has a field team with a strong African American outreach program and a voter protection team focused on engaging communities of color.

In an interview this month with longtime Detroit radio host Mildred Gaddis, Biden noted that Michigan, and its Black voters in Detroit, are “critically important."

“When I was the vice president, I was the guy put in charge of reviving Detroit, remember?” Biden said. “ I’m going to be coming back, God willing, in order to be able to make the case why what the president has done to the African American community has been devastating, and what I’ve done my whole career has been uplifting.”

In Wayne County, which is 39% Black and includes Detroit, Hillary Clinton won 66% of the vote in 2016, a noticeable drop from the 80% President Barack Obama won in 2012. About 37,000 fewer people turned out to vote in 2016 than in 2012.

Democratic state leaders said they learned hard lessons and that the party has worked to connect with Black voters.

“The excitement is there if you look at the number of folks who participate in our virtual events, the number of folks who want to participate in the in-person events that Dr. Jill Biden and Joe Biden himself did here in Michigan," said Michigan Democratic Party chair Lavora Barnes. "People are very enthusiastic about voting for Biden and Harris and turning this president out in November.”

But deep within Detroit neighborhoods, grassroots activist Ramone Jackson said people are struggling and disengaged from the political process.

“We are in a dire situation as a Black community so we’ve got to understand our power,” said Jackson, who has spent months teaching people about the power of voting with a sharp focus on local elections. “That power, it’s our Congress members, not the president. We’ve got to hold them accountable."

But challenges remain in connecting with apathetic voters and with younger Black voters who might have more progressive leanings — key demographics that Branden Snyder, the executive director of Detroit Action, said his organization is trying to reach.

“We’ve got about 48,000 new young people who’ve been registered since March that we’re trying to mobilize,” said Snyder, the previous deputy organizing director in charge of Youth Voting for the Hillary For Michigan 2016 presidential campaign. “We’re building an army of people that we can engage not just this year in the presidency, but also for 2021 with local elections.”

But Black voters who live in suburban counties, like Oakland County resident Lucell Trammer, a 40-year-old father of two, say it's important for the party to connect with them, too.

“We are in every single demographic, we’re in every single voting bloc, we’re in every single county,” Trammer said, noting that Black voters are not a monolith and represent a swath of classes and backgrounds. “We tend to be the bellwether, especially African American women. I tell people all the time: If you don’t listen to any other voting bloc, listen to African American women.”


Kat Stafford is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow Stafford on Twitter at or email her at