The Magazine

Combustion Engine Voters

In a state where they love cars, Al Gore is an acquired taste

Sep 18, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 01 • By HENRY PAYNE
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Monroe, Michigan

THIS QUAINT southeast Michigan town, its clock tower dated 1880, served as the back-drop for Bill Clinton's passing of the torch to Al Gore during the Democratic National Convention in August. Shots of the two men shoulder to shoulder amid a rain of tricolor confetti made for splendid visuals on the network news and the newspapers' front pages.

But Monroe County isn't Gore country. It's a key swing district in a major swing state. This is the Michigan county where the outcome in the last three presidential elections most closely mirrored the statewide vote. Party identification here is 30 percent Democrat, 30 percent Republican, and 40 percent independent. These are the independent-minded and undecided voters that both presidential candidates are vying to attract.

And here, despite the Democratic party's traditional support in the blue-collar heartland, much of Gore's platform is in tension with the daily reality and time-tested values of the "working families" for whom he pledges to fight. Spend enough time with the people of Monroe, and you come to see Al Gore as a candidate largely disconnected from the voters.

The audience of 15,000 that crowded Monroe's central square for the Clinton-Gore handoff heard the president and vice president claim credit for bringing Monroe's once moribund economy to its current robust state. "You know, Bill Clinton worked hard to get this economy right," shouted Gore to the throng. "And I'm pledging to you here today, I am not going to let the other side wreck it!"

That times have improved is indisputable. But Monroe's revival took hold during the Reagan-Bush years: Unemployment here was cut in half between 1983 and 1992. Moreover, the town's fortunes are tied to the heavy industry and sprawling suburban construction that Gore warns will be our undoing. Monroe may represent the American dream for the people who live here, but it is Al Gore's American nightmare.

The differences between Gore and Monroe begin with the county seat's "big polluters," as the vice president would call them. Rising 400 feet above Lake Erie's bank, east of Monroe, are the twin towers of Detroit Edison's Fermi II nuclear power plant. Down the road is the utility's coal-burning colossus, among the nation's biggest, with a generating capacity of 3,000 megawatts. The two plants combined employ more than 1,500 workers, who would be hard-pressed to earn comparable paychecks should Gore succeed in his efforts to phase out nuclear power, drastically limit power plant emissions, and mandate cuts in U.S. energy consumption.

Monroe also is home to Visteon and Tenneco, auto parts giants that supply components for the internal combustion engines that Gore wishes to eliminate. Just north along Interstate-75, in Flat Rock, a Mazda auto assembly plant employs 3,500.

Loads of overtime and fat profit-sharing checks from record sales of SUVs -- the antithesis of Gore's transportation vision -- have enabled factory workers to buy new homes on lots where soybeans, alfalfa, and sugar beets lately grew.

Developments like Carrington Farms, on Monroe's outskirts just minutes from I-75, also are attracting executives willing to commute 45 minutes or more to jobs in Detroit or Toledo -- the urban cores where critics of sprawl believe housing should remain concentrated. Real estate broker Doris Lebeau, who has sold homes in Monroe since 1973, says the area is fast becoming a bedroom community. "People come here because they can buy a little less expensive house and get a little more elbow room," she explains.

The building boom, in fact, has increased construction wages in the county by more than $ 10 million in a single year. In turn, Monroe's population has grown by 15,000 in the past decade. This is precisely the urban sprawl that the vice president has said "sucks the life out of urban areas, increases congestion in the suburbs, and raises taxes on farms."

Gore won't find many supporters for this argument in Monroe County. On August 30, residents celebrated the grand opening of a 225,000-square-foot Cabela's, an outdoor equipment retailer that displaced a soybean field. Along with a new WalMart and Meijers nearby, the arrival of Cabela's further shifts the region's commercial center of gravity outward from Detroit and integrates this county, once lopsidedly dependent on the auto industry, into a broader more diversified economy. Adjacent farmland, sold at a premium, is being cleared for motels and retail outlets that the county anticipates will become a tourist draw.

Indeed, Cabela's attracted 20,000 shoppers on opening day, with cashiers ringing up brisk sales of firearms and hunting gear, and the upper level cafe filled with folks sampling bison, ostrich, and smoked caribou. Guys like Bill Timler, who works for a fabricating firm, couldn't be happier. "This is good for the community," he said. "It will attract people, money, and business."

Chris Pletz is another direct beneficiary. His new job at Cabela's pays considerably more than he earned as a laborer for a mold injection company, and he now has top-tier insurance coverage and holiday bonuses. It is no accident that Cabela's has located here. Monroe County's residents love to hunt and fish. And they don't like liberal Democrats who want to restrict their access to guns and public lands.

It's a tough sell, then, to convince Monroe residents that they are victims of capitalist greed, somehow in need of Big Government protection. "Government doesn't need to be involved in everything," said Leesha Glenn, a working mother of three. To be sure, Gore's attacks on "the wealthy" and his promise to cow HMO bureaucrats drew applause here. (One woman told us, "We should get our health care for free, like Germany.") But question voters about Gore's specific policy prescriptions -- his support for gun control and unrestricted abortion, and his radical environmental agenda -- and their enthusiasm gives way to suspicion.

"Gore would be at odds with people here on most things," says Randy Richardville, himself a sign of the times as Monroe's first Republican state legislator in 35 years. Where voting Democratic once was virtually hereditary, party loyalty now is weak. "When I was growing up," says Brad Gerber, newly employed by Cabela's, "Democrats were for the working guy. Not any more. Now guys like Gore seem to be easily influenced by interest groups and political correctness."

Asked how he would campaign here if he were running against Al Gore, Richardville had no hesitation: "I'd go door to door and read folks his views about the automobile."