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‘Shut up and do Democrat things’: Diverse field challenges ethnic and racial assumptions about political identity

Colin Jackson
Michigan Radio

From his background, one might expect Martell Bivings to be a Democrat. He comes from a Black family and lives in Detroit – a city he feels Democrats have taken for granted.

“Growing up in a Black family, it’s kind of like you grow into it. You’re born into it. You’re Democrat. Shut up and do Democrat things. And no one really knows,” Bivings said.

For him, the story changed during an intro political theory course at the historically Black Howard University. The class asked him to map his own political beliefs.

“Not many people at a high level can speak to a host of policies that they align to with the party and most African Americans, at a high level, are truly conservative Republicans. They’re voting against their interests, and they don’t even know it,” Bivings said.

Bivings’ future hinges upon whether other Black folks feel the same way. A Republican, he’s running for the 13th Congressional District, which includes most of Detroit. He said being Republican was tough until he realized he wasn’t alone in his community.

Since the Civil Rights Era, only 10 Black Republicans have ever sat in Congress. None of them have come from Michigan. But this election cycle, Bivings and a diverse set of other Republican candidates are trying to change that.

From Secretary of State to Michigan Board of Education, this year marks one of the most diverse tickets for the state Republican Party. Those running are working to challenge the notion that voting Democrat just goes along with being a person of color.

Bivings said people have re-thought their own beliefs during conversations at barber shops, at the store, and during his time working with Detroit business leaders.

“Some of the things that they would say, I said, ‘If Mitch McConnell said that, they’d be trying to kick him out of the United States Senate. But you’re saying that and you’re a Black man and you’re a Black woman.’ And I said, ‘You’re a Republican.’ And they would say, ‘Maybe I am.’”

Regardless of his positive interactions, Bivings is still a longshot by most metrics. Detroit hasn’t gone without Black Congressional representation since 1955. But numbers say voters of color tend to vote Democratic.

Michigan State University political science professor Matt Grossmann said that probably won’t change quickly. Though there have been signs of movement in recent elections.

“In the short term, there was a shift in vote share in 2020 toward the Republicans among Hispanic voters but also among Black voters. It was just a very small change among Black voters, but you can see it in the election results. [Former President Donald] Trump did better in the City of Detroit for example in vote share,” Grossman said. “But we’re talking very small changes.”

Grossman said Michigan’s Republican ticket is more diverse than the national GOP scene. The country itself is diversifying, meaning parties are too. But Grossman said there are also fewer swing voters now than in the past, leaving less room for large Republican gains in communities of color.

“They’re not going to make 15- or 20-point gains among white voters either. So, they have some potential to make gains among minority voters and they don’t have to make huge gains for that to be influential,” Grossman said.

Republicans who argue Democrats have drifted left of the values of many people of color are banking on those gains.

Lieutenant Governor nominee Shane Hernandez is running to be the first Hispanic to serve in the role in state history. During an after-party speech to Republicans following the party’s nominating convention in August, he brought up his own journey to the Republican party.

“I believed I was a Democrat because we were low income, we were Hispanic, and [my dad] was a union worker. But somewhere in my teens I realized everything my dad’s family came to this country for and everything he taught me was a conservative value,” Hernandez said.

He told the crowd he believes there are several others out there like him that the party can reach.

First-time Republican nominating convention delegate Rola Makki, a Lebanese American, said she got involved in conservative politics because she was unhappy with the state’s COVID-19 response.

“I’m a small business owner myself, it affected me. And just seeing other states opening up, thriving while our small businesses were closing here made me think, what’s going on? Like, there has to be a change. We need better representation,” she said.

Makki says conservative Republicans are doing more to provide the quality of life her parents sought when they immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. She found getting to help choose who will appear on the November ballot at the convention to be an exciting experience. But Makki said she’d also like to see more people who look like her running as Republicans.

That’s where organizers like Stephanie Butler come in. A white woman herself, she married into a Lebanese American family and now wants to help her adopted community become more politically engaged.

“The more that we are voting for people that don’t align with what we hope for, for our kids and their future, the worse things have been progressively getting from what we see as far as the schools standpoint is concerned,” Butler said.

She said anger over issues like access to controversial books in her Dearborn school district’s libraries is creating space for Republicans to step in.

Conservatives like Butler see room to chip away at a current Democratic stronghold in Wayne County. And, party lines in the United States have shifted before.

The southern U.S. once voted reliably Democrat. Republicans could be hoping for a similar siphoning off of racial and ethnic minority voters who hold conservative values but retain historical ties to Democrats or feel their community would be better off under Republican control.

Grossman, with MSU, said the south’s transition red took decades to accomplish. And that occurred at a time when the electorate, as a whole, was capable of large swings between parties from election to election.

Grossman calls the phenomenon of communities of color voting with the parties that most align with their political beliefs ideological sorting. He said the trends don’t favor that happening immediately.

“We don’t know that it would take long,” Grossman said. “We just know that … even if we bought into the analogy completely, it would not suggest any kind of instant large shift.”

Whether we’re on the edge of a significant change is unclear. Many would likely say no. But this year’s more diverse slate of Republican candidates would suggest it’s at least worth a discussion.

Colin Jackson is a reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network.