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, many of the rumblings from O’Rourke’s Michigan visit show voters skeptical of a presidential candidate who is on the cover of Vanity Fair, yet couldn’t beat Ted Cruz in his home state. These voters, largely working-class, aren’t the type to pick up Vanity Fair at their local Meijer store, and appear more interested in finding out whether a candidate will be a strong champion for policies that actually benefit working people.
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.”
For her part, 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?”
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 aspect of O’Rourke’s tabletop tour in Michigan is the media coverage he garnered. The conservative Detroit News gave O’Rourke glowing coverage, claiming he “wooed” workers. 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.
Tabletop speeches notwithstanding, it appears clear that O’Rourke has a long way to go to win over the working-class voters who will be key if the Democrats want to win Michigan in 2020.
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