Ground Zero in the Presidential Battleground

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The author gets a lesson from Bradley Foster, a Michigan gun-rights advocate

Westland is a pleasant city of about 90,000 middle-class folk who work close to home — mainly in the car business — and rarely find a reason to make the half hour's drive east across suburban Wayne County to Detroit. I originally went to Westland because it's the land of the Reagan Democrat and in 1996 its 55,000 registered voters mirrored the statewide presidential vote. How Westland went was how Michigan went — and this year Michigan is crucial.

Westland turned out to be a humbling experience for a reporter armed with all the national campaign issue charts and graphs. Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill was right. All politics are local.

Mayor Robert J. Thomas is in his second term and, by god, he's not going to run again. The city council has him in one helluva funk. Seems in January two of the members went and fired the city clerk. Took her keys away from her. Some Westlanders were so incensed they started a recall effort. If you were a council member who voted poor Pat Gibbons out of office, then your job was on the line. Two council members actually resigned and then nine months was spent getting a recall election date set (November 28). The twice-monthly council meetings have been screaming, nasty pieces of business with name-calling on all sides and the mayor has quit attending them.

"Everyone says they're sick of this," he says. "But do you know what the highest-rated TV show is around here? It's the replay of the Monday night council meetings Tuesday nights on local cable." The mayor is willing to bet his best rod and reel that few Westlanders tuned in to the third presidential debate last week. They were watching their city council soap opera.

When people bother to claim a party affiliation in Westland, it's about even Steven between the Republicans and Democrats. Former Democratic governor Jim Blanchard says: "You national media people still looking for those Reagan Democrats? They're either Republicans now or they're dead." He's right. Ed McNamara, who runs the Wayne County Democratic machine from Detroit, figures up to 40 percent of the union workers voted Republican in 1996. The average — yep, average — wage for the United Auto Workers member in Michigan is $60,000. The honest among them admit this is now the upper-middle-class life they're living, and they like the two cars in the garage and the hot tub on the backyard deck.

And it all just plain plumb pisses Cliff Johnson off. Cliff is the 73-year-old president of the Metro Wayne Democratic Club, and he's watched his membership go from 130 three-four years ago to about 80 today. "They don't know about hard times anymore," Cliff says. "They think they're big shots. Don't need anybody anymore. They're ripe to lose everything."

Margaret Harlow and her husband own their own tire and service garage and are very active in the Westland business community. They call themselves independent voters, but this year he's voting for Gore because of the vice president's stand on the environment. "Short-term he's bad for the auto business. Long-term he's a vote for my grandchildrens' future." Margaret's a little embarrassed. She's voting for Gore because Bush blinks too much and she doesn't trust him. No need to be embarrassed. That's the same reason the mayor is voting for Gore.

Westland has an aging population. Eleven percent are over 65 and as high as 35-40 percent are over 55. So I spent a morning this week at the Friendship Center. It's a large, new facility for seniors that has won a national award from HUD for community outreach. There wasn't one senior I spoke with who had honed in on the differences between Gore and Bush on Social Security, Medicare or prescription drugs. They did think Gore was going to help them sooner, but they were all voting for the vice president because he has more experience. Period.

There was a fair amount of Bush-Cheney lawn signs scattered around these pretty tree-lined neighborhoods. It turns out up to half of them — maybe more — belong to NRA members. Michigan ranks among the top five states for deer hunting licenses, and these guys (and gals) see anti-gun Gore as a threat to their Second Amendment rights. They are voting for Bush. OK, that's not surprising. But look at these numbers: In the state of Michigan, as of an October 25 statewide poll, those who own a gun or rifle and are members of the NRA identify themselves as 44 percent Republican, 27 percent Democrat and 24 percent independent. But those same people are voting 59 percent for Bush and 27 percent for Gore. Bush has picked up more than half of the independent gun-owner vote. Among all gun owners in Michigan — NRA members or not — 41 percent declare themselves Republican, 29 percent Democrat. They are voting Bush 50 percent and Gore 35 percent. Part of the reason has to be the Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners, a new NRA affiliate that has a statewide membership of 8,000 after just four years of existence. Two years ago their campaign volunteers made the difference in three close statehouse races. This year they are helped immensely by the presence of Proposition 2 on Michigan's November ballot. It's a fight between local and state power and it has energized gun owners who want one set of hunting and licensing laws statewide, not a confusing mosaic of local rules and regulations. The gun club where I spent some time shooting Sunday afternoon, the Western Wayne County Conservation Association, was plastered with "Vote No on Proposition 2" literature and lawn signs. The club is also going to be a center on election eve for a get-out-the-vote drive.

"When the deer hunting season opens November 15," says T. J. Palazzolo, a longtime American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees member who works for the Wayne County Department of Road Works, "Michigan will have the largest standing army in the world. They'll be 750,000 of us out there."

And most of them are aiming at Gore.