DETROIT (AP) — During their eight years in control of Michigan’s government, Republicans have had one achievement that stands out: successfully taking the city of Detroit through federal bankruptcy to make way for its economic revival.
Now that feat may bring a bittersweet reward.
As the midterm election approaches, GOP leaders are bracing for the worst as Democrats appear poised to win the governor’s office and other statewide posts and to make gains in the Legislature.
And one factor in the GOP’s predicament could be a resurgent Detroit.
For more than a half-century, the state’s largest city and manufacturing hub was a Democratic stronghold, with working-class black and white voters reliably offsetting Republicans’ domination of rural areas.
But as Detroit lost jobs and 25 percent of its population in one decade alone, its political clout weakened. The GOP has controlled all major statewide offices and both houses of the Legislature since 2011.
Now the city’s downtown and some urban neighborhoods are attracting thousands of young, likely left-leaning professionals to an expanding job market.
Detroit’s political scene has perked up. In August’s primary election, about 100,000 people voted, up 14,000 from 2010, and turnout increased from 15.2 percent to 21.6 percent.
Eager to capitalize, Gretchen Whitmer, the Democrat running to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, has opened four offices across Detroit and has campaigned heavily there. Last week former President Barack Obama appeared in Midtown , one of the neighborhoods on the rise, to rally support for Whitmer, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow and other party candidates.
For Republicans, the irony is hard to overlook.
Snyder “deserves all the credit, or at least a good chunk of the credit” for Detroit’s rebound, said GOP consultant Tom Shields.
The immediate political impact of Detroit’s improvement is uncertain because other factors are shaping the midterm election. But the possibilities are being watched closely because of Michigan’s importance to both parties. It was Donald Trump’s hair-breadth victory here in 2016 that helped secure his presidential win, and a handful of closely fought congressional races in the state this year will help determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the U.S. House.
Detroit’s turnaround got a boost when, with the debt-saddled city struggling to provide basic services, a Snyder-appointed emergency financial manager filed for bankruptcy in 2013 even though many argued a municipality couldn’t do so. Snyder pushed the Legislature for a $195 million bailout to help make the final debt settlement work.
The intervention was “extraordinary,” said Joshua Sapotichne, a Michigan State University urban policy expert who said it was one of several factors in Detroit’s upturn.
Since then, the improvements have been noticeable though limited to certain pockets of the city. Many neighborhoods remain dotted with vacant houses, and Detroit still has a high crime rate and unemployment double the state rate.
But a surge of private investment is generating jobs, highlighted by a $740 million project by the Ford Motor Co. for the Corktown neighborhood — projected for 5,000 jobs eventually — and artists are settling on once-abandoned blocks.
Demographers expect the city of 673,000 to begin growing again soon. The white population is up more than 15,000, or 28 percent, since 2010 while the majority black population is stabilizing after a long decline.
The city’s rebirth has been a “collective effort” by both parties, said resident W.E. Da’Cruz, 28, who moved here two years ago from New Jersey to run her home-based technology firm.
However, she said, “my vote is going to go to the person (whose) intentions (are) pure and is committed to the common good of everybody.” She said she will likely vote for Democrats in November.
Republicans say they have not given up politically on the city.
U.S. Senate candidate John James, a 37-year-old black combat veteran who runs a family automotive logistics company in Detroit, has billboards up around town and is going to black churches that his campaign says GOP candidates rarely visit. He will face the third-term Stabenow on the ballot and launched a statewide ad Friday urging black voters “to wake up” and not “outsource our vote” to Democrats.
“We harbor no illusions that we might win the city, but we are strategically reaching out in areas that we think are receptive to our messaging,” said state GOP deputy chief of staff Sarah Anderson.
The broader political impact of the city’s resurgence depends on how many of those in the new influx vote. Young people and minorities tend to have lower turnout.
Elizabeth Friend, 24, a dental student who moved here three years ago, said she is voting because of human rights issues.
“Gay, lesbian, transgender rights are a huge thing — (and) especially now with the current climate that we’re in, it’s just very important to me,” said Friend, who favors Democrats.
Demographer Kurt Metzger said the political impact of the inflow may grow larger if gradually fewer workers commute from the suburbs.
“The more that Detroit can build and attract more young people, the more our central cities can redevelop,” he said. If that occurs, “I can only the see the state becoming bluer.”
Associated Press writer Corey Williams contributed to this report.
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