Upping the ante

Oct 23, 2002 at 12:00 am

Darwin Vander Ark does not see it. Not at all.

A supervisor and assessor for western Michigan’s Leighton Township, he’s standing outside a Grand Rapids television station on this evening in early October to cheer on Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus, who is poised to debate Democratic gubernatorial rival Jennifer Granholm.

Supporters of Granholm have shown up as well, and several of them wave placards featuring a recent Detroit News headline that declares, “Posthumus plays the race card.”

Vander Ark, 56, and a GOP stalwart, considers the allegation ridiculous.

Like just about everybody else in the state, he’s seen the Posthumus commercial focusing attention on a now-infamous memo generated by the administration of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. It proposed a detailed campaign to generate as many as 280,000 votes for Granholm in return for guarantees that African-Americans will play a significant role in her administration and that Detroit minority-owned businesses will reap substantial benefits from state contracts.

The memo, which is dated Aug. 28, first came to light in “an eyebrow-raising exclusive” aired in mid-September on television station WKBD-TV 50. And then … nothing. Disclosure of the document initially exploded with all the power of a cap pistol. It wasn’t until nearly two weeks later, after the state Republican Party began blitzing the airwaves with an ad highlighting the memo, that campaign watchers were talking about little else.

Since then the ante has been raised, with Republicans airing two new ads — including one lambasting Granholm for her position on reparations — that have intensified the cry that Posthumus is employing racially divisive tactics in a desperate attempt to claw his way back into contention. Polls released last week showed Granholm holding a lead of about 12 percentage points, but large numbers of voters remained undecided and at least one pollster was predicting the race would narrow considerably in the campaign’s closing days.

If nothing else, the attack has put front-runner Granholm on the defensive, forcing her to respond with a commercial defending her position on reparations.

So here we are, on the verge of an election that will determine the political direction of Michigan for the next four years. The state faces a deficit of a billion dollars or more. Classrooms are overcrowded. Fish in many of the state’s lakes are too contaminated for children and pregnant women to eat. Roads must be repaired. Jail cells are jammed full of the mentally ill.

And we’re watching campaign commercials about a memo that was apparently never sent and the highly polarizing issue of reparations.

What the hell’s going on?

Ad nauseam

From where Vander Ark sits, allegations that Posthumus is playing the race card hold no water.

“On our side of the sate, that is simply not an issue,” he says. “All of the discussion over here is about the memo, and who’s going to be running the show if Granholm is elected.”

The way he sees it, if Granholm is elected, the Wayne County political machine and Kwame Kilpatrick will call the shots.

An editorial in the Grand Rapids Press reflects many of the points Vander Ark makes, including the contention that the only ones making race an issue are the Democrats.

“The Republican candidate has made mistakes in this campaign, but ‘playing the race card’ isn’t one of them,” observe the Press’ editorial writers. “Race indeed has been introduced into the campaign, however it started not with Mr. Posthumus but with Mayor Kilpatrick’s memo and its race-keyed references to issues and jobs.”

And, it can be argued, it’s not just in his requests for jobs and contracts that Kilpatrick makes race an issue. In a realm where much is made of so-called “code words,” the memo employs what can easily be interpreted as containing some encryption of its own when pointing out that Detroiters have substantially different problems than those experienced by “soccer moms” in suburban Oakland County.

Does anyone doubt that to be a reference to affluent whites?

Kilpatrick’s office did not respond to requests seeking his comments for this article. But no one the Metro Times did talk to in reporting this story would refute that contention.

“That was a very poor choice of words,” says Detroit political consultant and TV pundit Mario Morrow. “Out of that entire memo, that is probably the thing that Jennifer Granholm regrets most. Her core constituents are soccer moms. They are a major voting bloc right now.”

The point apparently lost on the Grand Rapids Press and everyone else subscribing to its viewpoint is that any race cards dealt by the Kilpatrick administration were intended to be played in private. The memo, if anything, offered a peek into an attempt at back-room deal-cutting, not talking points Granholm intended to highlight in her campaign.

It is the GOP and Posthumus that have made the memo a focal point, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the commercial attacking it in heavy rotation. He may claim during debates to be running a campaign based on issues, but until his new commercials hit the air this past weekend the only issue regularly being highlighted in 30-second segments features the petite and pretty Nordic blonde Granholm rubbing shoulders with the imposing black mass of Kilpatrick.

Look at that commercial carefully. You can find it posted on the state Republican Party’s Web site at www.migop.org.

Parse the piece frame by frame and you notice that Granholm’s picture, though not vibrant, is nonetheless in color. Kilpatrick, on the other hand, although wearing a suit that appears to have a blue tint, is shown devoid of all natural color, adding a decidedly menacing touch.

That doesn’t happen by accident.

Subtle bigotry

In her book The Race Card, Princeton University political science professor Tali Mendelberg posits the notion that political campaigns attempting to capitalize on undercurrents of white racism are most successful when their messages are implied rather than explicit.

Take, for example, one of the best-known commercials of this ilk: the “Willie Horton” ad run by George Bush in his 1988 presidential campaign.

“Americans remember the presidential election of 1988 as the Willie Horton election,” writes Mendelberg. “A young black man convicted of murder and sentenced to life in a Massachusetts prison, Horton escaped while on furlough and assaulted a white couple in their home, raping the woman. George Bush made Horton a household name by repeatedly mentioning Horton’s story and pinning the blame on his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.”

“In the aftermath of the campaign,” continues Mendelberg, “scholars and commentators concluded that Bush won through negative attacks that distorted the truth and mangled the issue of crime, attacks that Dukakis was too inept to counter. But for all that the Horton story has been vilified as the epitome of dirty campaigning, we still have not grasped the most significant aspect of the campaign: it communicated about race implicitly. In fact, the racial message was communicated most effectively when no one noticed its racial meaning.” (Note: These are Mendelberg’s italics.)

It is when race goes from “subtext to text” that such tactics suffer, concludes Mendelberg.

“My book documents this fact extensively, using experiments (some run in Michigan) and the National Election Study, an academic survey of a national sample of voters,” she tells Metro Times. “The reason is that many white voters truly wish to avoid behaving in a racist fashion. So when they are alerted to the possible racist content of a message, they react against it. Only when the negative racial reference is ambiguous do they respond to it because it works largely outside of their awareness.”

The reason experiments show people responding to implicitly racist messages while rejecting more overt appeals can be explained by an American political system Mendelberg contends embraces two contradictory sentiments: “Powerful egalitarian norms about race, and a party system based on the cleavage of race.” So, for Republicans to be successful, they need to avoid tarnishing the ideal of racial equality while at the same time mobilizing white voters who “resent blacks’ claims for public resources and hold negative racial stereotypes regarding work, violence and sexuality.”

Asked specifically about Posthumus’ memo commercial, Mendelberg says it appears to follow patterns established in other campaigns that insinuate African-American leaders as inherently corrupt.

“That was true during the election of Harold Washington to mayor of Chicago in 1983, the first time an African-American became the mayor of that city,” she explains. “Washington was accused of financial improprieties and some of his opponents tried to play on white fears of a black takeover.”

“The current gubernatorial campaign in Michigan fits this pattern,” Mendelberg says. “An African-American leader is shown in a threatening image with ominous music playing in the background and corruption as the main theme. By corruption I mean the ad’s suggestion that the mayor is essentially buying concessions in an underhanded way. Corruption seems to be the primary issue and that allows the messenger to evoke negative racial associations and racial threats in a seemingly incidental and deniable way.”

Motivating Detroit

“This is all very fascinating from an academic point of view,” observes Nicholas Valentino, a political science professor at the University of Michigan.

Also writing a book on the subject, he agrees with Mendelberg that ads seeking to trigger racist sentiments are most effective “when they come in under the radar.”

“To the extent that a message is ambiguous, acting almost subconsciously to remind us of its racial meaning — that is what makes it effective. If it is not ambiguous, not deniable, it will be ineffective. Even in the western part of the state, people would not be likely to vote for a candidate who is outwardly racist.”

The problem Posthumus may face is that the memo commercial, when coupled with the reparations and welfare ads unleashed last week, may be waging a campaign that is so overtly racist that moderate voters will reject his message. Conversely, Granholm was particularly astute in her response to the implications of the memo ad. When the issue has been raised during debates, she didn’t label it as racist. Instead, she simply called the attack “divisive,” driving a wedge between city and suburb, eastern Michigan from western.

More code, says Valentino. “She doesn’t want to be accused of openly playing the race card either,” he observes. As with attacks, parries are more effective when subtly cued.

For its part, the Posthumus team flatly denies they’re the ones injecting race into the campaign. Take the issue of reparations. Posthumus spokesman Sage Eastman says it was Granholm who made it a factor in the campaign by airing her views on the subject to the NAACP during the primary.

“She’s the one who played the race card by talking about reparations,” contends Eastman. “Public officials need to be held accountable for their public statements.”

No doubt. But it is the Posthumus camp that decided to make those little-noticed statements made during the summer a focal point for voters as Election Day nears.

Morrow calls it a “desperado” tactic, because bringing such a polarizing issue to the fore carries an inherent risk.

“It’s not a simple strategic choice to make,” agrees Valentino.

For one thing, candidates who choose to make race an issue run the risk of energizing minority voters to turn out against them. It is part of a basic political calculation, votes gained vs. votes generated for the opposition.

“What they’re hoping is that they don’t increase the number of Granholm supporters going to the polls,” says Morrow. “But I think they are in for a rude awakening. I think the effect has been to motivate people in Detroit.” The flip side of that coin is that the state’s changing demographics makes attacking Detroit a more attractive option for politicians attempting to gain out-state support. With the city’s population below 960,000 at the last census count and continuing to decline, the city is losing clout at the polls.

“Republicans know they aren’t going to get any votes from African-Americans,” says Steve Mitchell, a Lansing consultant and pollster who has worked for both Kilpatrick and Posthumus in the past. “Ninety percent of African-Americans are going to vote for the Democratic Party. With that in mind, the Republicans see no loss in pointing out something like the Kilpatrick memo to suburban and outstate voters who will be offended by that request.”

Which is why some longtime observers of Michigan politics contend that attack ads such as the one targeting the Kilpatrick memo would have been made regardless of color.

“Detroit-bashing is a grand old tradition in Michigan politics,” says pundit Bill Ballenger, publisher of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. As far back as the end of the 19th century, and through the 1950s when Detroit remained predominantly white, candidates outstate used attacks on the city to gain office, says Ballenger. And it’s not just a Michigan phenomenon, he contends. Whether you’re looking at Chicago in relation to downstate interests or Omaha and the rest of Nebraska, there is inevitably an inherent conflict between the interests of a state’s major urban centers and those of suburban and rural areas. Which is why Ballenger — a former GOP state legislator who was interviewed prior to the release of the latest Posthumus commercials — considers allegations that the Republicans are playing race cards to be “horse manure.”

Republican Oakland County executive L. Brooks Patterson shares that view.

The way Patterson sees it, crying “racism” is a form of refuge for those who have no other way to counter legitimate criticisms. Call it playing the race card in reverse.

“It’s a weak scare tactic,” claims Patterson.

It also puts Republicans in the position of being labeled racists whenever they criticize Detroit.

“If I want to mention Detroit in some of my comments, I should be able to do so,” asserts Patterson. “And saying it’s supposed to be a code word for race is bullshit.”

South of Eight Mile Road the perspective is decidedly different.

Speaking specifically to the memo commercial, the Rev. Wendell Anthony, leader of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, is convinced that the ad was a calculated decision by a campaign trailing in the polls attempting to “ignite the passions of people who don’t know Detroit well, who don’t know African-Americans well. Beating up on Detroit sells in certain parts of Michigan and Dick Posthumus is banking on that.”

But it’s not just African-American Detroiters who have watched in dismay as this campaign has played out.

“I’m appalled and disappointed, and I think some moderate Republicans are as well,” says Democrat John Austin, a senior program manager for Public Policy Associates, a Lansing-based firm that provides research and policy analysis to government agencies and private sector organizations.

“In his desperation, what Dick Posthumus is doing is very counterproductive. We live in one of the most racially polarized and segregated states in the country. We need leadership that helps us change that, not just from the aspect of human decency and justice, but for us to thrive economically. We need to convince white voters that they have a stake in Detroit and need to work with it.

“We need leadership that will help us deal with our racial problems, which are huge in Michigan. We need leadership that will help bring us together and identify the needs of Detroit and white citizens outside of Detroit as a common set of interests. We need to convince white voters that they have a stake in Detroit and need to work with it. This type of talk that pits the city against the rest of Michigan shoots us in the foot.”

Read the now-infamous memo generated by the administration of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]