Democrats Have Ignored Cities Like Kenosha for Too Long

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Democratic presidential candidate former vice president Joe Biden en route to Kenosha, Wis. (Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo)

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Kenosha, Wis.—Former vice president Joe Biden visited Kenosha just before Labor Day, making the first visit by a Democratic presidential nominee to Wisconsin since 2012. Biden was not campaigning in any traditional sense. He came to this historic industrial city on the shores on Lake Michigan to talk with residents who were shaken by the August 23 police shooting of a 29-year-old Black man, Jacob Blake, and by the August 25 killing of two demonstrators for racial justice by a 17-year-old white vigilante.
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Biden arrived two days after President Trump, who swept into Kenosha to cheer on scandal-plagued local law enforcement officials, pose in front of rubble from destroyed buildings, and unload another fusillade of bombastic “law-and-order” rhetoric. The president did not meet with the Blake family, did not condemn vigilantism, did not challenge systemic racism. As Representative Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who was born and raised in Kenosha, said, “Donald Trump didn’t come to Kenosha for Jacob Blake or his family. He didn’t come to condemn the murders of [demonstrators] Anthony Huber or Joseph Rosenbaum. He came to spread hate.”

Biden was on a different mission from the man he hopes to replace. The former vice president met with the Blakes, said the officer who shot Blake seven times in the back should be charged, and spent more than an hour in a community meeting at Kenosha’s Grace Lutheran Church.

At the meeting, he listened. That was good. Biden should keep listening. And he should keep coming up with proposals that address the crying need for economic, social, and racial justice in Kenosha and the dozens of Great Lakes cities like it that will decide the 2020 presidential election.

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These cities—with all their challenges and weaknesses, their hopes and possibilities—have been neglected for too long.

“There’s a lot of frustration in Kenosha now,” says Terrance Warthen, who organized unity rallies after the Blake shooting. “But there has been frustration in Kenosha for a long time.”

Much of that frustration in Kenosha has to do with leadership failures at the local and state levels—especially in Wisconsin, a state where basic steps to address police violence have been thwarted by Republican legislators, and where almost a decade of onetime Governor Scott Walker’s right-wing policies undermined not only unions but also industrial development, education, and health care in cities such as Kenosha. But the frustration also has to do with the failure of Democrats at the national level to pay enough attention to Kenosha and other Great Lakes cities that have been upended economically and socially by the decline of traditional industries and high-wage union jobs.

For too long, neoliberals in both parties peddled economic policies that shuttered factories and hobbled unions in cities like Kenosha. They failed to address racial disparities; in fact, they often made things worse with “reforms” that neglected human needs and over-emphasized policing. That led to a decline in faith in government to be on the side of communities that were struggling, which was especially damaging to the Democrats. Decades of Wall Street–friendly compromises and concessions on the part of the party that was supposed to represent the working class provide a part of the explanation for why Kenosha County, for the first time in decades, backed a Republican for president in 2016.

Like many of America’s “factory towns,” Kenosha began to see job cuts and plant closures with the rise of corporate globalization in the 1970s and ’80s—which accelerated with the US government’s embrace of the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations in 1986. The job losses ramped up after Democrats and Republicans approved the North American Free Trade Agreement, permanent normalization of trade relations with China, and the other Wall Street–friendly trade deals that were supposed to be so good for American manufacturing. Those agreements, along with a rush to relocate and automate heavy industries, left hundreds of cities struggling. Instead of forging a “new economy,” they exacerbated existing disparities. Democrats Have Ignored Cities Like Kenosha for Too Long 3

Dr. Martin Luther King talks with reporters at the University of Wisconsin center in Kenosha, April 28, 1967. (Paul Shane / AP Photo)

A failure by the Democrats to champion smart and equitable industrial policies as an answer to the economic and social hurt felt by Great Lakes manufacturing centers—from Erie in Pennsylvania, to Lorain and Sandusky and Toledo in Ohio, to Port Huron and Bay City and Muskegon and Benton Harbor in Michigan, to East Chicago and Gary in Indiana, to Kenosha and Racine and Milwaukee and Sheboygan and Manitowoc in Wisconsin—upended American politics. So, too, did the bailout of Wall Street following the 2008 economic meltdown, which said in no uncertain terms that the security of bankers and investors mattered more than the security of laid-off workers and homeowners struggling to make payments. So, too, did the refusal of successive administrations, Democratic and Republican, to address structural racism in an economy and a society where the game has always been rigged—and where the old calculus of “last hired, first fired” continues to perpetuate inequality.

As Republicans grew meaner, seeking to exploit divisions with increasingly racist and xenophobic messaging, Democrats lost touch.

They should have listened more closely to A. Philip Randolph. The great campaigner for economic and racial justice insisted on labeling the 1963 mobilization for civil rights as “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The longtime leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who played a pivotal role in bringing organized labor into the civil rights movement, argued after the march for a “Freedom Budget for All Americans,” which promised “the abolition of poverty, guaranteed full employment, fair prices for farmers, fair wages for workers, housing and healthcare for all, the establishment of progressive tax, and fiscal policies that respected the needs of working families.” Randolph warned that without an intersectional understanding of the need for civil rights and economic rights, necessary change would be thwarted. President Lyndon Johnson was interested in Randolph’s ideas, but he never implemented them. Instead, Johnson steered resources into the Vietnam War, in which, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. rightly recognized, “the physical casualties of the war in Viet Nam are not alone the catastrophes.”

“The security we profess to seek in foreign adventures we will lose in our decaying cities,” said King in 1967. “The bombs in Viet Nam explode at home: they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.” When the civil rights leader appeared in Kenosha in April of that year, King spoke with a sense of urgency, saying, “As long as justice is postponed, we are caught in bitterness and despair.”

Successive Democratic presidents failed to renew those hopes and possibilities. They got better at keeping Wall Street happy, but worse at meeting the needs of historic Democratic strongholds like Kenosha.

Donald Trump saw an opening, and he grabbed it in 2016. He paid a lot of attention to Wisconsin in the fall of 2016—especially southeast Wisconsin, a region represented then by former House Speaker Paul Ryan and the home to the Republican National Committee chairman, Kenosha’s Reince Priebus—and made a lot of false promises. Hillary Clinton never came. Trump’s fake populism was sufficient to alter voting patterns just enough in Kenosha County and places like it to flip Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania into his column, win an Electoral College majority, and claim the presidency. Democrats Have Ignored Cities Like Kenosha for Too Long 4

An aerial of the former site of Chrylser in Kenosha, Wis., in an April 2013. The land includes more than 100 acres in Kenosha, where auto making began in 1902. (Bill Siel / Kenosha News, via AP Photo)

Losing Kenosha was a hard blow for local Democrats. Through much of the 20th and early 21st century, the city was reliably Democratic. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt beat Republican Herbert Hoover by a 2-1 margin in Kenosha County, and in several City of Kenosha precincts, FDR and Socialist Party nominee Norman Thomas finished ahead of Hoover. Kenosha kept backing FDR; like many working-class towns, it found hope in his promise of an “Economic Bill of Rights” that envisioned guarantees of work, education, and health care. The pattern held for generations, with Kenosha and other factory towns frequently providing the margin of victory for Democrats running statewide in Wisconsin—that was certainly the case in 2000, when Democrat Al Gore’s 3,500-vote advantage in Kenosha County accounted for most of his 5,708-vote victory statewide. Gore was one of many national Democrats who made the political pilgrimage to Kenosha’s cavernous United Auto Workers Local 72 union hall.

Kenosha’s economy was dominated through the 20th century by the auto industry, and its politics was dominated by Local 72, which dubbed itself “A Union Born Fighting.” With roots going back to a sit-down strike in 1933, the multiracial, multiethnic workforce at the American Motors plant would eventually become the largest local in the UAW representing a single workplace. Though the city’s Black population was small in the 1960s, and remains relatively small to this day (10 percent in the 201o Census), Local 72, like many other auto locals in Great Lakes cities, embraced then–UAW President Walter Reuther’s advocacy for civil rights. There were always challenges, and few unions got everything right. But Local 72, prodded by African American members and their allies, tried to realize Reuther’s vision that “the struggle for civil rights and the struggle for equal opportunity is not the struggle of Negro Americans but the struggle for every American to join in.” A muscular Fair Employment Practices Committee was established in the 1940s, and from the early 1950s onward, African African and Latino leaders (Walter Vaughn, J.T. White, and Emil Garcia, among others) were elected to executive board and chief steward positions. Local 72 supported the 1963 March on Washington, sent members to work for voting rights in the segregated South, and talked up Randolph’s Freedom Budget. It educated and advocated, hosted Representative John Lewis and other civil rights leaders in its union hall, invited the Rev. Jesse Jackson to town to help fight plant closings, held the “New Deal” coalition together with more success than in many places, and kept delivering Democratic victories.

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The work got harder as the old American Motors plant (later Chrysler), where close to 15,000 people once built Ramblers, began a long, painful process of shutting down. The line finally came to halt in 2010, the same year that anti-labor Republican Walker was elected as governor of Wisconsin. By that time, smaller factories and machine shops, which had employed thousands of Kenosha workers, were closed. With the decline in union membership came a loss of the sense of solidarity and connectedness in the historic working-class community.

These days, the largest employer in the area is the nonunion Amazon “fulfillment center” on the edge of town.

“There’s an Amazon distribution center that was advertising, last time I was there, up to $12.75 an hour. Your parents made that three decades ago,” Pocan said earlier this year when he endorsed Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination. Amazon pay has ticked up, but the point holds. People are working harder for less real money, and “without the good family-supporting benefits, as well,” says Pocan.

Kenosha has survived. But it has not thrived. “It says a lot that many of these factory spaces are still vacant. There never was a Plan B,” says Warthen. “There’s condos by the lake, but the people who live in them commute to Chicago or northern Illinois. Most people in Kenosha can’t afford them.” Even when employment numbers improved over the years, recoveries were uneven and inequality grew. Old political calculations shifted. “It’s not so much that the Republican Party gained in Kenosha and Kenosha County,” explains Warthen, who has been active with Our Wisconsin Revolution, a progressive group that grew out of the Sanders campaign in 2016. “It’s that the Democratic Party lost popularity.” Democrats Have Ignored Cities Like Kenosha for Too Long 6

Democratic presidential candidate former vice president Joe Biden speaks during a community event at Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha, Wis., on Thursday, September 3, 2020. (Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo)

Democrats maintained an advantage in the city, but the sprawling suburban stretches west of Kenosha trended conservative. Trump didn’t prevail by much in 2016—238 votes out of more than 75,000 cast in Kenosha county—but the shift fit neatly into the pattern that saw Wisconsin go Republican for the first time since 1984. The same thing happened in towns across Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio. But Kenosha was emblematic of the shift—so much so that MSNBC’s Chris Hayes hosted a special from the town after the 2016 election.

Now, in another critical election year, Joe Biden must figure out how to speak to these towns.

What should he say and how should he say it? “A lot of what he’s doing is right,” says Pocan, who is impressed that Biden is showing up, listening, and offering himself as an alternative to the chaos, the division, the racism, and the xenophobia that Trump promotes. “A lot of people just want to have a normal president again,” says the congressman.

But Biden must also define a new normal. “People want a plan,” says Warthen. “They want a vision.”

The Democratic presidential contender can’t resort to platitudes or simple sloganeering. He can’t choose caution for fear that speaking frankly and boldly will somehow inspire backlash votes against the Democrats. The fact is that a deeper, smarter, and more honest discussion is what’s needed to prevent backlash voting.

To that end, Biden must keep talking about reforming policing and addressing systemic racism—recognizing that the polls are right: People in Kenosha and across the country know a change must come. He must speak not just about creating high-wage jobs but also about ending historic disparities and forging a just economy for all people—recognizing that voters in Kenosha need to hear this message, especially in a time of Covid-19 and mass unemployment.

Biden must acknowledge that recent Democratic administrations have not delivered enough for Kenosha or for cities like it. He must accept that the United States needs an industrial policy that focuses attention on communities that have been left behind—and that addressing racial inequity must be central to that policy. He should look forward, but he should also recognize that Kenosha and cities like it are still waiting for FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights” and A. Philip Randolph’s “Freedom Budget for All Americans.”

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