Michigan went Republican in 2016. Local activists want to make sure that doesn’t happen in 2020.

Progressive groups in the Motor City find a new way to draw traditionally marginalized voters into the political process.

Ken Whittaker, a community organizer with Michigan United, shares plans with fellow activists to encourage low propensity voters to turn out across Michigan for the  2020 presidential election. (Photo credit: Sam Fulwood III/Think Progress)
Ken Whittaker, a community organizer with Michigan United, shares plans with fellow activists to encourage low propensity voters to turn out across Michigan for the 2020 presidential election. (Photo credit: Sam Fulwood III/Think Progress)

DETROIT, MICHIGAN — Community activists here are converting their grassroots efforts into political engagement at the state and national level, giving new meaning to the old adage that all politics is local.

A case in point is the faith-based advocacy group MOSES, which for nearly two dozen years has toiled to improve the quality of life in poor communities.

Over the decades, MOSES — short for Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength — has led campaigns on a wide range of local projects. It has waged an ongoing battle to improve Detroit’s beleaguered water system. It successfully sued the city’s transit department some years back, to protest a lack of wheelchair access on municipal buses.

More recently, while still fighting similar battles on behalf of its coalition of more than 100 religious congregations, MOSES has not only embraced issues of local policy, it has flexed its political muscles, too.


The group recently created MOSES Action, a political action organization, which knocked on some 12,000 doors across Michigan, talking to some 17,000 people to discern what issues would motivate people to get involved in state elections.

“Last year was our first with MOSES Action through which we carried out extensive voter engagement and education work leading up to the 2018 midterm and gubernatorial elections,” Ponsella Hardaway, the group’s executive director, told ThinkProgress in a recent interview.

Hardaway said the group’s political activities are very much in keeping with its mandate “to protect and expand social safety net programs for Michigan’s residents.”

Her group is not alone: Progressive groups are seeking a greater political impact across the state, especially because Democrats view Michigan as critical to their 2020 White House aspirations.

Stung by Trump’s narrow victory in the 2016 election and fearing the state could become ruby-red jewel for the GOP, community groups across Detroit see the current moment as a prime opportunity to expand their political influence.


They’re so energized by their success after helping sweep progressive Democrats into statewide offices last year that many of them are turning their full attention to insuring Michigan is solidly blue in 2020 presidential race.

Groups such as MOSES and Mothering Justice used to work at the edges of electoral politics to deliver services to its constituents. Now, Danielle Atkinson, founding director of Mothering Justice, said her group wants to do more than helping mothers in a one-at-a-time fashion.

Since its founding in 2012, Mothering Justice has trained more than 300 women to become politically active and has reached out to more than 50,000 women across Michigan in voter engagement drives. “We want to change policies to change lives,” Atkinson said in a recent interview.

Michigan United, a coalition of labor, business, social service and civil rights organizations, has an ambitious goal of inspiring voters who had not previously been politically active to assemble issues of greatest concern to them and press the presidential candidates to respond.

Ryan Bates, executive director of Michigan United, said in a recent presentation to a group of funding supporters that his coalition used a similar approach in the run-up to the 2018 midterms.

As highlighted in the group’s most recent annual report, Michigan United and its constituent groups began in 2017 to outline a set of campaign issues and hold meetings with the Michigan’s gubernatorial hopefuls.


“We then held a series of candidate forums, including the largest in the state with 1,500 people in Detroit,” the report stated. “We then shifted into get-out-the-vote and talked to thousands of voters.”

Their efforts bore fruit as Democrats flipped the governorship and held onto a seat in the U.S. Senate. Specifically, former State Senator Gretchen Whitmer beat the state’s former Attorney General Bill Schuette, a popular Republican who had been backed by President Donald Trump, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the Democratic incumbent, cruised to a fourth term over John James, a GOP political newcomer.

Additionally, two Democratic representatives were elected to office in districts that had been Republican strongholds. And Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) defeated Independent and Green Party candidates to retain Democratic control in the 13th Congressional District, after incumbent John Conyers resigned in 2017.

Bates said they’re girding for battle in next year’s presidential elections and the game plan remains the same. Already, he said, organizers have fanned out across the state, conducting listening sessions in every county and hearing what concerns voters.

“Our goal is to have a platform of issues cut from that listening process,” Bates said.

Key to the grassroots organizational efforts is a 2020 presidential forum planned for October 20 in Detroit, where community members will speak directly to the candidates. Organizers expect to fill Cobo Hall with more than 4,000 people from across the state.

These initiatives not only underline the growing importance of Michigan’s voters in presidential politics, but suggest Republican weaknesses that Democrats are working to exploit. In addition to electing Democrats to the state’s top political leadership, Michigan voters approved same-day registration for voting, a move that increases turnout on Election Day and favors Democratic candidates.

Unlike Ohio, long considered an all-important swinging gate for presidential politics, Michigan has been more of a reliably Democratic stronghold. But Trump won the state in 2016 by a slim, statewide margin of nearly 11,000 votes, and became the first GOP presidential nominee since 1988 to earn the state’s 16 electoral votes. Trump’s victory in Michigan all but locked up his win over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

By many accounts, Trump appears headed to victory over Ohio, presenting an opportunity for Michigan to become the Midwest’s most purple state.

Still more bad news for Trump and the GOP can be found in recent polls by The Detroit News and WDIV-TV that found that 54% of Michiganders polled have an unfavorable view of the president. And 51% of respondents said if the election were held now, they would vote for a candidate other than the president, while just 36% said they would vote to re-elect Trump.

In fact, no less a personage than GOP National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel is sounding an alarm to Republicans in the state. She warned at a meeting of the Detroit Economic Club that there’s no guarantee of a repeat victory for Trump.

“Michigan is going to be competitive, it’s going to be harder,” McDaniel said in remarks quoted by “You did same-day [voter] registration and you have a Democrat governor. It’s going to be a more difficult state.”

That’s music to the ears of Bates and other progressive activists across Michigan. But they’re quick to add that hard work still lies ahead. Discouraged and disaffected voters need to feel that their concerns are heard and addressed if they are to turn out at the polls.

“You need a strong, multiracial coalition in Michigan to win statewide because our state is so horribly gerrymandered,” Bates said. “If we’re going to take power, we need to win statewide.”