FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
Detroit is gearing up for a spectacular car show that starts this weekend. But even this event won't do much to mask an auto industry on the skids. Plants are closing, auto workers have been laid off by the thousands. Michigan's unemployment rate has soared to the highest in the nation. The state is struggling. It's a major issue, especially for black voters.
And joining me now to talk about what's on the mind of Michigan's black folk this political season, we've got Jimmy Green, president of the Michigan Black Republican Party. Also, Jerome Vaughn, news program director from member station WDET in Detroit.
Jerome and Jimmy, welcome.
JEROME VAUGHN: Hello.
Mr. JIMMY GREEN (President, Michigan Black Republican Party): Glad to be with you.
CHIDEYA: So, Jerome, let me start with you. Michigan's economy it's just a huge issue, an important topic for voters as they head to the polls. Can you give me a quick overview of how African-Americans are being affected?
VAUGHN: Well, they are among the people being hurt the worst definitely here in metro Detroit and throughout the state with this poor economy there. You know, unemployment is through the roof, twice the national average. For those who do have jobs, many African-Americans are underemployed. They may be holding down two or three jobs to make ends meet. And often, people who have retired are having a hard time making ends meet as well. The economy is really - the main issue for African-American voters, one of the main issues here in Michigan.
CHIDEYA: Now, Jimmy, there is a concentration of African-Americans in Detroit. It has the largest African-American population of the top 10 major U.S. cities percentage-wise, 83 percent African-Americans. Now, with that kind of what some sociologist call hypersegregation, how does it affect the power of the black vote or the ability of the people to be heard that people are so concentrated?
Mr. GREEN: Interestingly enough and I certainly concur with everything Jerome said about the issues that are facing African-Americans here in Michigan. I think that Detroit brings a core issue to mind, the fact that you have such a heavy concentration of African-Americans in Detroit who are, for whatever reasons, primarily Democratic voters. I think it has taken Detroit off the radar screen in terms of political clout as it hits Lansing, which is our capital city, needless to say, where a legislature is predisposed to ward those constituencies or those markets that are more Republican base.
So, you see areas like Grand Rapids, for example, the western side of the state or the northern side of the state, that reap the benefits where the vote, rather Democrat or Republican, are more dispersed than they are in Detroit, Michigan, where if it's not a completely controlled Democratic Congress, Senate and governorship, it makes it very difficult for them to stay on the radar screen on a consistent basis. And I think that's eroded Detroit's effectiveness in Lansing.
CHIDEYA: You are a Republican and yet it sounds like you think that Detroit is being underserved by the state government?
Mr. GREEN: I wouldn't put it that way. I would certainly say that Detroit is probably not fairly represented in Lansing because, again, of its leanings for the Democratic Party. There is no balance there, so when things go to committee or when things go to the House and there isn't a voice on the other side of the aisle, I think those kinds of issues get pushed to the side. But I think that would be true in any city rather it's urban city or suburban cities. If you don't have a voice in a room where decisions are made, your voice loses its power.
I think Detroit is certainly affected by that. Detroit's been on the radar screen for a long time, or at least over the last eight years in particular. And because it's had sort of monolithic political affiliation, I just don't think it's been able to sustain its clout. And as we shift back into more moderate or, even in some circles, Republican politics, you'll start to find Detroit get pushed further and further or what.
CHIDEYA: Jerome, when you think about your city and covering it as a newsman, what are you really looking to accomplish, you know, around election '08 and how your state and your city play into that election?
VAUGHN: Well, really, I look for, you know, an opportunity to get to know the voters, to really talk to them and see what sort of issues are important to them. As I said, the economy's something very important to them. Another thing that's really come out of the situation with the Democrats' national committee sanctioning Michigan is - the voters here are really pretty mad.
African-Americans are - feel disenfranchised. They feel like they don't have the opportunity to vote for Barack Obama or John Edwards or whoever else they want to vote for, in many case, Barack Obama. But they don't have that opportunity, and so they feel cheated, they feel disenfranchised because of that. And that's something that's really been coming out lately as well.
And they're looking for solutions. They want Michigan to do better. They want the auto industry to do better. They want Detroit to do better. In many cases, up until a few months ago, you know, they really felt like this was the only place in the country that was not doing well before the subprime crisis really arose so greatly. They really felt like, hey, what's wrong with us? Why isn't anyone helping us? And so there's a lot of frustration with that as well that is still simmering here in Detroit.
Mr. GREEN: Very true.
CHIDEYA: Jimmy, do you think that the move of the primary sort of against the rules of the political parties may have backfired?
Mr. GREEN: Absolutely. I mean, without question, the Republicans in this state will get a voice. I mean, that - and I keep that going. I'm being redundant about the word voice, but I think it's critical. The Republicans will and do have a voice today on January 15th in their primaries. The Democrats don't. Their voice is muted, needless to say. It's one of the things that at being a party or being a part of the National Black Republican party is - it's not fad or a trend, needless to say, but it's to provide alternative voices.
You know, I think Jerome and I would agree about what's wrong with Detroit or what's wrong with inner cities, period. I think there may be some - well, there may be a lot of contention about the methodologies on how to get things like that done. But I think we all have the same root analysis, and I believe - and it's one of the reasons why I spearhead Republican values is that if it's another alternative to create a positive change in communities where long Democratic rule have not.
CHIDEYA: Jerome, when you go out and you interview people, talk to people, have your members for your station call in, do people have hope? Do people suggest solutions? How are people looking forward?
VAUGHN: Well, I think people in Detroit have long had hope. They, you know, they have this feeling of renewal, this renaissance spirit that has been around for a long time. And even when things get very hard, like they did in the 1980s, when the auto industry wasn't doing so well in the cyclical problem with the auto industry, Detroiters hold on, they find a way to find a foothold and move forward.
And they're really looking for that now. I mean, I think a lot of African-Americans have some hope that be it Barack Obama or be it Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side and, you know, to a lesser degree, some of the Republican candidates can make a difference, can pull the state out of its doldrums and get it back on track, much like many other states have done, you know, done well. Chicago has done fairly well over the long period of time. Detroiters want to get to that sort of place. And so they have a lot of hope. They just want to see how quickly it gets to them.
CHIDEYA: Jimmy, same question very, very brief. You were raised in Flint and the projects, what about folks across the state? Do you think people have hope?
Mr. GREEN: I would think that in the face of Barack, yes, they do have hope. But I would also suggest too that I'm starting - or actually comment, and I'm starting to hear a lot of voices say that the same old, same old isn't getting things done in the black communities. And I think they are more predisposed to hear, at least, alternative voices. And that's all we hope to do anyway.
CHIDEYA: All right. Well, Jerome and Jimmy, thanks so much.
Mr. GREEN: Thank you.
VAUGHN: My pleasure.
CHIDEYA: Jerome Vaughn is news program director for member station WDET in Detroit. He joined me from their studios. And Jimmy Green is president of the Michigan Black Republican Party.