To win in 2020, Gilchrist says Dems must ‘meet people where they are’

Says another Trump term would be ‘dangerous and destructive’

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist at the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist definitely got people’s attention by endorsing former Vice President Joe Biden just four days before Michigan’s presidential primary.

Gilchrist, who voted in 2016 for Biden’s main opponent, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), on Friday joined Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) and other top officials in backing Biden.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist at the Joe Biden Detroit office, March 6, 2020 | Ken Coleman

“This is not a decision that I take or make lightly because the stakes are so high for our communities. Joe Biden is listening to a broad range of progressive, moderate and other voices across the political spectrum,” Gilchrist said. “He will defeat Donald Trump’s dangerous, backwards-moving agenda by assembling a diverse, dynamic and driven coalition that creates the conditions for people to thrive across Michigan and across the nation.”

Gilchrist talked to the Advance last week in his ceremonial office about what he believes a second Trump term would look like for Michigan, calling it “dangerous and destructive.”

“You have communities who are not only feeling threatened, but have been threatened in the state of Michigan,” he continued. “We have such a large and vibrant and important Middle Eastern and Muslim community that has been directly targeted by this administration, time and time again.”

Gilchrist is a former President Barack Obama organizer, starting out as a volunteer in 2008 and becoming social media manager for Washington state, helping to create the national tech program to recruit volunteers. In 2012, he ran the volunteer mobilization program for in partnership with AFL-CIO. He said it was 34,000 volunteers in eight states, including 6,000 in Michigan.

So what’s his advice for how Democrats can energize the electorate this year? 

“We need to be meeting people physically where they are. We need to be meeting people virtually as far as intelligent uses of things like text messaging and social media platforms,” Gilchrist said. “But all of this really is about how are we using these platforms to better understand and respond to people — not just talk at them.”

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The Advance also talked to Gilchrist about switching up the primary calendar, voter turnout, family leave, equal pay and how voters of color are dealing with the lack of diversity in the presidential field.

The following are excerpts from the interview: 

Michigan Advance: Democratic turnout seems to have been pretty good in the early states so far. Do you think that will hold for Michigan, especially with voting rights changes with Proposal 3 [of 2018]?

Gilchrist: Well, certainly we had a stellar turnout 2018, and I think there are a lot of reasons for that — and not the least of which was, I think, Gretchen Whitmer was a really good candidate for governor and I think I was a pretty decent partner to her, but also I think people were excited about a number of races on the ticket. 

They were also excited about the ballot initiatives we had: adult-use cannabis [Proposal 1], Props 2 [redistricting reform] and 3. And I think we have a foundation now because Proposal 3 passed, making it easier to vote and I think opening up access to voting or the process of voting to more people. So I certainly think that will help us. We can make sure there are infrastructures in place to support that. I know the secretary of state [Jocelyn Benson] worked really hard on that with the local municipal clerks. 

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But … turnout doesn’t just doesn’t happen. It has to be engineered. And we as campaigners and as leaders, it’s our responsibility to make it happen. There’s a particular population that I’m very interested in ensuring that they know their voting rights and those are the returning citizens, people who have had contact with the criminal justice system. Because you know I’ve been working on criminal justice reform issues for my first year in office and then we’re going to continue to do so this year.

But when I meet people across the stage, certainly when I’m knocking on doors, I encounter people who don’t know that they can vote. People, they may have spent time in jail or prison, but [have] now come home where they may be on probation or parole. A lot of them question their voting rights. 

So one of the things that I am particularly interested in, and will be doing specific work on, is making sure that people know that in Michigan you have the right to vote if you’re home. You have the right to vote if you’re on probation; you have the right to vote if you’re on parole; you have the right to vote if you’re in jail but haven’t been sentenced, if you haven’t had your trial. So that is a voting bloc I think is particularly important and potentially very powerful for our electorate and for Democrats in particular. And I think candidates who campaign if they pay more attention to their demographic will be more successful for it.

Michigan Advance: You have an organizing background, so what have you found are good ways to energize voters?

Gilchrist: So yes, I got classically trained as community organizer, but I was able to then combine that with my technical background because people use different platforms that are best to connect with one another. The truth is we need to be all hands on deck, and we cannot leave any mechanisms to connect with people untouched or unutilized. 

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist at a Capitol rally for public schools, June 18, 2019 | Derek Robertson

So our campaigns need to be multifaceted. We need to be meeting people physically where they are. We need to be meeting people virtually as far as intelligent uses of things like text messaging and social media platforms. But all of this really is about how are we using these platforms to better understand and respond to people — not just talk at them. Thinking of media as broadcast is antiquated and that is the best way to further disillusion people with politicians who think that they only want something from people instead of wanting to serve them and do things for themselves.

We need to use these platforms as two-way mechanisms for understanding. And the feedback that we get from people just to inform the platforms and the policies that candidates and campaigns espouse. Because, if we do that will energize people. Because, they will know this political system can be responsive to them. Too many people don’t believe that — don’t believe that the political system serves them; they believe that it serves somebody else. And certainly, I think some people are better off with the current political system. But this is about making sure people know that they can be more responsible.

Michigan Advance: Why do you think Barack Obama was able to win Michigan so big in 2008 and 2012, and what lessons are there for Democrats this year?

Gilchrist: Well, I worked in the campaign ’08 and ’12, so I’m biased. … Campaigns reflect their candidates. And President Obama began his career after law school as a community organizer. And the art of community organizing is of leading people where they are, of listening to them. And then not only responding to them with what your ideas are, but making it clear to them you understand that they are the people who are closest to the challenge that they faced. And therefore, they actually have the idea to solve this problem. They need partners to support them to bring those ideas forward. 

President Barack Obama boards Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, July 1, 2011. | Official White House Photo, Pete Souza via Flickr Public Domain

And so that ultimately is a message of empowerment. ‘Yes we can’ [Obama’s slogan] is a hopeful and empowering message about what can happen, what can be. And so I think that resonates with people in Michigan because we are a beautiful, resilient and strong set of people with beliefs — and a confidence in ourselves that if faced with a challenge, we can overcome it. We figured out things; we’ve done the impossible time and time again here in Michigan. 

I think that campaign spoke to that, particularly in 2008, and that coupled with everything from the [Iraq] war, the historic nature of President Obama’s presidency and our strong Black population here, wanting to push that across the finish line — I think all of these things were the elixir for success in 2008. 

Then I think in 2012, it was about making sure that we could continue and build on the progress, understanding that while everything wasn’t perfect, it was where the rest of the country needed to go. And you know, interestingly for a lot of Black folks — certainly my family members who I’ve spoken to — a lot of them also saw President Obama’s reelection as an important validation of his first election. To show that wasn’t a fluke, that we made that choice affirmatively, that this country was going in this direction in an active way. 

And that it was important to protect and to remind people about. So I think a lot of people stepped up. 

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Michigan Advance: Are you hearing from African Americans and voters of color who are concerned about the lack of diversity in the presidential field?

Gilchrist: I think that it’s not just Black voters and voters of color, but I think everyone Democratic side was pretty excited to see the diversity of the slate of people who were serious candidates for … the Democratic nomination for the presidency. We saw that mirrored in 2018 in Michigan when we had the most diverse set of candidates vie for the Democratic nomination for governor in Michigan. 

And so people were just excited about that and I think it is disappointing to see that, for whatever reason — and the reasons are many, and every campaign is different — that none of those people felt that they were able to be viable enough to continue. I do think it is worth the party doing some soul-searching to understand what are the potential structural reasons for that. And that could include anything from the primary calendar to the way that just the system or the selection process is structured. Those things are not ordained by God; they’re not set in stone.

And so it may be worth doing some analysis of that, regardless of the outcome of the presidential election. … Black voters are very, not only consistent — especially Black women — but they’re very practical. We understand that not participating in the process means that things will happen to us instead of through us. And those things that happen to us will most likely be negative, as they have been historically, and that’s why we need to participate. 

And so I expect that Black voters will step up for the candidates and campaigns who come and speak to them and meet them where they are — which is something that I think, frankly, every presidential campaign needs to do a lot more of in the state of Michigan. And when they do, I think voters will respond.

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Michigan Advance: Would you like to see Michigan go first [in the nominating process]?

Gilchrist: I think Michigan is a very representative state of the country, not just the Democratic electorate, but the country in general. We have large urban centers; we have vibrant rural communities. We have growing suburbs and I think we have a very rich, diverse set of racial ethnic communities. And I think that we’re very representative. 

So I think if you were to want to choose a state that would be reflective of what the country is today and where the country’s going as far as how it’s growing and evolving, I think Michigan is probably the best choice for that. And we happen to be a state that has been decisive in the presidential election — we’ve been decisive in 2016 — and so I think that the party would be wise to move Michigan up in the calendar. … 

Michigan Advance: What would another Trump term look like for Michigan?

Gilchrist: I think it would be dangerous and destructive. You have communities who are not only feeling threatened, but have been threatened in the state of Michigan. We have such a large and vibrant and important Middle Eastern and Muslim community that has been directly targeted by this administration, time and time again. And we’ve seen where when the Muslim ban was first introduced, ground zero for that was Detroit Metro Airport and the city of Dearborn. 

… We’re trying to deal with the census right now. A number of communities where there are both fear and distrust of this administration has the potential to have a chilling effect on people completing the census.

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And so one of the things that I’m working on alongside the attorney general [Dana Nessel] and the secretary of state [Jocelyn Benson] is to make sure that the people of Michigan know that building opposites isn’t safe. And that we need them to participate so that Michigan can claim what is ours and show our strength in numbers. But we have to do a campaign like that because this administration has unapologetically been racist and xenophobic and Islamophobic, and that’s something that uniquely impacts our population here in Michigan.

I think it’s very dangerous for people. I also think that people in Michigan are right to be concerned about this administration’s actions when it comes to health care and putting people’s health care at risk — putting the health care of people who have preexisting conditions, the health care of children at risk by not investing. 

I think that we have reasons to fear a broader and more aggressive expansion of the [U.S. Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos agenda when it comes to education, which would lead to further underinvestment at the federal level in … traditional public education, which we know is designed in this country to be a right — a human right to have equitable education that will prepare children for full civic life. And right now that is at risk with this administration. 

And a Trump that is unencumbered by the prospect of reelection would be more emboldened to wreak havoc on that system that people need, especially when they are trying to wrestle against persistent poverty and find opportunities to grow and to thrive and to an education and increasing their household incomes. An important part of that is the administration’s actions continually undermine that possibility. 

So I think it’s really dangerous in Michigan. I think the last piece I’d say is related to the economy. The international trade wars have been devastating to Michigan, both manufacturing as well as to our farmers. And the litany of broken promises from this administration, I think would only continue and only deepen. So we need someone we can trust in the White House.

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Michigan Advance: The Whitmer-Gilchrist administration has focused a lot on issues like family leave, childcare and equal pay. And you’ve also talked about your own experience quite a bit, as well. Do you feel like those issues have gotten enough attention in the primary?

Gilchrist: I think they could always use more. Parental leave is something that I believe a minority of Americans, certainly a minority of Michiganders, have full access to paid parental leave. It’s one of the reasons why in the [Fiscal Year 2021] budget recommendation that we put forward the provision for state employees to have 12 weeks of paid leave.

That’s really important. I tried to model that in my own experience. I have my baby girl, Ruby, who was born last June. I took four weeks off, which was unprecedented for someone in my position. And that was because it’s important for parents — in particular, it’s important for fathers — to spend time with their spouses or partners, with their family, as the family has now changed in this really dramatic and important way. 

And there needs to be a provision for that. There also needs to be more conversation around access to childcare and early childhood educational experiences for kids. It’s really been one of the pillars of our budget and we need to hear more about that on a national level — how certainly our candidates are working to make that more accessible and affordable and available to people. 

Because having a place where your child can go, you know they’re going to be safe, they’re going to be engaged, that they’re going to be well-taken care of, that someone’s going to listen to respond to them and interact with them — that’s really important. And if you don’t have to think about that, you can then focus your energy on being productive in whatever it is you choose to do. 

And so it’s really enabling infrastructure, having access to high-quality childcare and high-quality early childhood experiences. And so we can’t talk about that stuff enough.  … Like when your childcare situation falls apart, like your whole day falls apart. And so making sure that people have at a minimum of floor through what no child can fall as far as childcare goes and childhood experience goes, is going to be really critical infrastructure for Michigan and for the country.

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Michigan Advance: What are some other important issues for Democratic candidates to focus on to win Michigan in the fall?

Gilchrist: We need to focus on making sure that access to health care will not only be protected, but that it will be expanded, because we have investments that we have made in the state that need to be protected and codified, but also built upon. One example … is our ‘Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies’ initiative, which is expanding access to childcare for mothers who are Medicaid-eligible and just to make sure that they have coverage for a whole year and not just three months [after giving birth]. … Having an uninsured person is having a person who has a floor through which they can’t fall through — we need to prevent that. 

… I also think that in Michigan, we need to talk about enabling every person to feel like they have a path forward, and that whatever their dreams or ideas are, they are viable here in the state of Michigan. And that means supporting the infrastructure that we have, expanding it. Not everyone in Michigan has access to the internet. We should be making an infrastructure investment to make that possible so that people can not only have access to the world, but also think about how they want to impact it. 

Imagine the businesses that are started by people who have access to the internet that did not previously have it. That is truly enabling infrastructure. So investing in infrastructure that will make sure that people with ideas can thrive, that’s something that’s important as we support the diversification of our economy as we think about the future of work, of the role that the state of Michigan will play in continuing to define the middle class and what that means and what’s possible. 

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I just think our communities are so disconnected, whether we’re disconnected rhetorically or we’re disconnected physically through transportation and infrastructure. So people who will invest in better connecting our communities and have a plan for that, I think, will find the possibility of being successful in Michigan.

People want to feel like they are connected to one another; they’re connected to their community; they’re connected to their leadership that they elected into office. The more distance people feel from one another, the less engaged they ultimately will be and the worse off our system will be.

Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.