Losing Lansing

Count me among the many whose lives were touched by Ronald Reagan. For me, it began in 1980 in Lansing, Michigan. I was living on the city's east side, an older neighborhood tucked between Michigan State University and the big Oldsmobile plant.

That year I was the Democratic nominee for the Ingham County Board of Commissioners. Though at 23 I wasn't the ideal candidate for a district made up of auto workers and state employees, I was convinced that my tough-minded rhetoric about stray dogs -- and the district's Democratic bent -- would help me overcome the Republican incumbent.

But something didn't seem right. Few of us who were active Democrats really liked Jimmy Carter to begin with. Even those who backed him over Ted Kennedy did so with all the enthusiasm of someone paying off a parking ticket. When my new down coat was stolen at a neighbor's party, the thief left only the wad of green Carter-Mondale bumper stickers I was carrying with me. My friends' reactions were about the same as if I'd had a stash of pornography.

Of course, it wasn't only those of us on the left who had our problems with Jimmy Carter. Something was happening out there.

Going door to door that fall I'd see makeshift Reagan posters taped on front doors and inside living-room windows. Though I'd dropped Carter's name off my campaign's get-out-the-vote flyer, it didn't seem to matter.

"You've got to be kidding!" a young woman yelled out to me as she pulled the brochure from her storm door. It wasn't just Jimmy Carter they didn't like. It was our Democratic Congressman, Bob Carr. It was me. It was all of us.

That evening the faithful gathered downtown at what was then the Olds Plaza Hotel. We all knew early on that Carter was tanking, but it just kept getting worse. When I saw the president of one UAW local, I asked what he'd heard about the U.S. Senate races. He silently shook his head and put his thumb down.

"Tip O'Neill was on the phone," one of Bob Carr's aides told me. "He was yelling, 'What the hell is going on? This is happening all over the country.' "

"Where's Bob?" I asked her.

"Oh, he's up in the room, throwing up."

Later that night I went across the street to the city clerk's office to look at the last returns from the east-side precincts. The state representative survived, but Carr had lost. I had lost.

Down the hall behind me I heard an older man, a black man in his 60s, calling past a policeman to one of the election workers.

"Can I still vote? I've got to vote!"

"Sorry, the polls have closed," she answered.

"Lord, we can't let this man get elected!" he cried back.

"I'm sorry, sir, the polls have closed," she repeated.

His eyes welling up with tears he walked away. Maybe he sensed what lay ahead.

Within the next two years we would see Michigan's unemployment rate soar to 17 percent. The UAW, the engine behind the growth of Michigan's middle class, would lose more than 100,000 members. Many of the workers who'd held jobs at the big Oldsmobile plant lost them forever. Lansing, a bit scruffy even in the best of times, became reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen's "My Hometown": a city of whitewashed windows and vacant stores.

As Republicans enlarge the inventory of public property that they want renamed for Ronald Reagan, perhaps Democrats ought to come up with a memorial of our own: a monument to our failure to anticipate the whirlwind of anger that sent Reagan to the White House -- and to those like that old man in Lansing, who paid the price.

Jim Grossfeld is the Director of Speechwriting and Editorial Services for the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. He was previously communications director for U.S. Rep David Bonior.

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