Swing State Stories: Michigan

Oct 15, 2012

Felix Rosado saws wood at Detroit's WARM Training Center
Credit Chris Killian

We hear a lot about issues in the run up to next month’s presidential election. But the issues that the candidates are talking about aren’t necessarily the ones of most concern to everyday people. Independent journalist Chris Killian of Kalamazoo is in the midst of his Swing State Stories cross-country tour to find out what is on the minds of voters. He stopped recently in the Saugatuck-Douglas area on his way through Michigan.

Stephen Inskeep and James Barth sit at a table with a few friends at the Respite Cappuccino and Coffee House, sharing laughs and stories. The two men are partners and have lived together here for the past six years.

Stephen Inskeep and James Barth
Credit Chris Killian

For decades the Douglas-Saugatuck area has been a haven for gays and lesbians from all over the Midwest looking for a place to be themselves. At 64, Inskeep has been out for 19 years. A father of three, he remembers the talk he had with his family when he was 45, telling them that he is gay and how the anxiety in the room hung like a thick fog. But his family accepted it and loved him for who he is. Inskeep thinks Douglas can teach the country a few things about tolerance – and also how far it still needs to go:

“I’m so used to being accepted here in the community that it’s just become part of everyday life. So I have to remind myself, for instance, if I got to other cities or other states or somewhere that people might not be as accepting so I have to be a lot more careful about how I act or what I say or what I talk about…people should realize that we’re all basically the same.”

Rising public tolerance of gays and lesbians is important to Inskeep but that isn’t the only thing on his mind this election season. Rhetoric from Governor Mitt Romney’s campaign about slimming down government and cutting programs bothers Inskeep. He says the role of government is to protect and empower people. It’s easy to rail about the government, he says, until all it provides is taken away:

“And these are all of the things that if you get rid of it all - people on the other side like the Tea Party that don’t want the government – and I’ve always said let’s let them have their way just once. We should let them have their way and get rid of all government. Get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency, get rid of Social Security and Medicare and then see how the people would react when they didn’t have all this stuff, because most people don’t realize how much benefits they are getting from the government.”

Traditionally a Democratic-leaning state, Michigan is “battleground” territory in 2012. An EPIC-MRA survey released October 8th showed President Obama leading Romney by just three points: 48 to 45 percent with just three weeks left until the election.

Although the state’s unemployment rate has fallen from its high of over 14 percent in mid-2009, it remains over nine percent, higher than the national rate of 7.8 percent. Loss of manufacturing jobs, the bedrock of the state’s economy for decades, has left many wondering how to revitalize the state’s economy.

Robert Chapman at the WARM Training Center in Detroit
Credit Chris Killian

Robert Chapman thinks he knows how. He’s Executive Director of the WARM Training Center, a Detroit non-profit that consults with businesses and local governments about ways to “green” their operations. It also trains people for work retro-fitting homes to make them more energy efficient.

Chapman, a native Detroiter, hops in his Toyota Prius and peels out of the center’s office on Michigan Avenue on the city’s southwest side. We drive through Corktown, an old Irish neighborhood, and into Mexican Town. Blight is easy to spot, whether it’s the charred shells of former homes or the long sweep of weeds growing on vacant land. It’s become almost a cliché to connect Detroit with scenes like this, but the past is in the past, Chapman says. He looks forward”

“There is no silver bullet. Generally, we have to take a ‘both/and’ approach, not an ‘either-or’ approach but a ‘both/and’ approach in a lot of things. There’s no one thing that will bring everything back. The reason I believe in things like weatherization and energy efficiency is because it does create jobs. As somebody once said, you can’t outsource the houses."

New and remodeled homes, just-opened businesses, a taqueria here, a landscaping operation there, spring out of the earth like shoots of new growth. Still, thousands of homes sit vacant in this sprawling city. They have to be torn down, but instead of sending the lumber to a landfill, Chapman’s agency reclaims the wood, refurbishes it, and sells it as top-quality lumber. Chapman says that promotes sustainability and conservation and shows the craftiness that’s bringing Detroit back.  

The sound of electric sanders and the sweet scent of sawdust fill the air at the refurbishing facility. Workers peel away the years from reclaimed boards or craft wooden toys for Christmas. The wood gets a second chance, and so do a lot of people.

Felix Rosado had a hard life, running in gangs in Chicago and Detroit. He wound up in federal prison for conspiracy. When he got out he needed a job but no one wanted to hire him. But WARM did and now Rosado says he’s got a new lease on life, just like the city he calls home.

Killian: “What would life be like if you didn’t have this job?”

Rosado: “Probably back on the street or incarcerated. Yeah if you don’t keep yourself busy and find something to do you’re gonna get bored and go back to the same game you were in. This is a good place to be though, because it keeps you busy. They keep you busy here.”

The program does more than just reclaim and refurbish wood, Chapman says. It refurbishes people too and, as a result, the City of Detroit, a town facing immense challenges but on its way back.

A man working next to Rosado carefully eases a fast-spinning saw through a board. He wears a t-shirt with a saying on it that’s become a sort of rallying cry for the city: “Detroit hustles harder,” it reads.