Hill Harper: “Michigan Is A Red State — Until Black People Vote.” Why Don’t Democrats Get That?

Steve Villano
12 min readFeb 23, 2024
(Twenty years ago, Phill Wilson, head of the Black AIDS Institute; Hill Harper, and I were campaigning together to stamp out the damaging stigma and educate the public about HIV/AIDS. Harper, then at the beginning of his film and TV career, recorded pro-bono Public Service Announcements to raise awareness in Black communities around the nation. Harper did this just a few years after his starring role in the 2000 film “The Visit”, where he portrayed a prisoner dying of AIDS who tries to put his life back together.)

It’s the heart of winter, but usually frosty Michigan is on fire.

No, it’s not one of the Wolverine State’s Big 10 winning sports teams on a hot streak; nor, the simultaneous series of historic wild forest fires — fanned by the same sizzling winds that whipped the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 — devastating 2.5 million acres of Michigan’s land.

It’s Michigan’s present-day politics and the State’s outsized role in determining the nation’s future that’s setting off five-alarms. Especially this year.

Everyone’s eyes are on this pivotal Mid-Western state of 10 million people, whose 16 electoral votes helped elect Joe Biden as President in 2020, and Donald Trump in 2016. While the Democrats — led by second-term Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who clobbered the GOP in 2022 — control both the Michigan State Senate and the House, the latest poll results published in the Detroit Free Press just this week, has both the Presidential and US Senate races in Michigan as toss-ups.

Any polls (particularly those nine months out from an election) involving convicted sexual assaulter and financial fraud Donald Trump as a candidate, have a history of being as inaccurate and chaotic as Trump himself. This one, conducted by ERIC-MRA Polling out of Lansing, Michigan, and relying heavily on cell phone contacts, may be suspect as well.

My own suspicions about the poll were deepened when I learned that the pollster’s name was Bernie Porn. Really? A poll conducted by a guy named “Porn” that has Trump ahead by two points, coming out one-month ahead of the Stormy Daniels “Hush Money” trial? Are we ready to bet the mortgage on that?

It would be easier to dismiss the “Porn Poll” as a joke, if, it wasn’t being reported on by one of the nation’s most respected newspapers, the Detroit Free Press. In its’ story of February 21, 2024, the Free Press reports that the poll’s present finding is that Trump leads Biden in Michigan 43–41, with another 14% undecided. The poll also found that the leading Democratic Senatorial contender, Rep. Elissa Slotkin, was locked in a “dead heat” with her two leading GOP opponents.

The story goes on to say that “the poll indicates that Biden’s refusal to heed calls — especially among younger, more progressive Democrats, and Michigan’s large Arab American and Muslim communities to demand a ceasefire in Gaza, is a factor,” in Biden’s weak showing.

It might be tempting to pooh-pooh this punditry from a pollster named Porn, if the same basic themes hadn’t been appearing for months in a number of other credible media outlets, and from present and former Michigan public officials.

U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib, for one, who represents the largest Arab American Congressional District in the nation, and is the only Palestinian-born Member of Congress, has urged Michigan Democrats to cast a vote for “uncommitted” in the February 27, Michigan Democratic Presidential Primary, as a form of protest against President Biden’s reluctance to demand a ceasefire in Gaza.

Before you dismiss this counter-campaign being called “Listen to Michigan” as a rash move by Rashida, some other Michiganders, who don’t live in Tlaib’s district and aren’t Muslim, are listening as well, and taking action.

Last week, (February 16, 2024) the Jewish Telegraph Agency reported that some “Michigan Jews aim to pressure Biden on Israel by voting ‘uncommitted’ in the Primary.” The JTA’s Andrew Lapin writes:

“About two dozen progressive Jewish activists tuned into the “MI Jews Uncommitted Phone Bank” this week, ready to ask their networks not to vote for President Joe Biden. Their virtual phone bank, held ahead of Michigan’s Feb. 27 primary, was unlike any other. Instead of a get-out-the-vote campaign, this crew would be better described as don’t-get-out-the-vote.”

Lapin goes on to quote the official statement from the group of “Michigan Jews Uncommitted,” a part of the “Listen to Michigan” campaign:

“As Michigan Jews, we are important messengers in a multiracial and multi-faith, anti-war coalition telling President Biden that we are uncommitted to his administration’s funding of genocidal war in Gaza.”

Among the leaders of Michigan’s progressive Jewish community is former Michigan Congressman Andy Levin, the son of Sander Levin, who immediately preceded him in Congress, and the nephew of former Michigan U.S. Senator Carl Levin. Andy Levin was targeted for defeat by AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) in the 2022 Democratic Primary campaign, because of his criticism of Israel’s Netanyahu government. Apparently, AIPAC’s definition of being “Pro-Israel,” means being “pro-Bibi” and showing blind loyalty to Netanyahu’s extreme right wing government.

The Levin family’s generations of support for Israel in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives wasn’t good enough for AIPAC, which, used it’s deep pockets to pick off the last Levin two years ago. AIPAC and its’ front organizations (the Democratic Majority for Israel, and, it’s PAC, the United Democracy Project) poured millions of dollars into the primary campaign of a more conservative, pro-Bibi Democrat, Haley Stevens, who handily beat Levin.

Amazingly, Andy Levin — still loyal to the Democrats, if not to AIPAC — is working to help Biden, urging the President to change course on the ceasefire, to avoid losing Michigan, and the Presidency, in November:

“I’m betting on Joe Biden to find a way to become a peacemaker in Israel and Palestine, so that people can vote for him later,” Levin said. “I feel like this is existential for Joe Biden’s political survival. I don’t see how he wins reelection without winning Michigan, and I don’t see how he wins Michigan without changing course.”

Levin went on to tell the Jewish Telegraph Agency reporter that he doesn’t think “the President’s current course on Israel will cut it: not just for Arab and Muslim Americans, but also for other constituencies like Black Churches, which have become increasingly vocal in their calls for a ceasefire.”

That warning — coming from a 63 year old, well-established, White, Jewish lawyer — was echoed in a Michigan-based article in Rolling Stone Magazine this week (Feb. 20, 2024) entitled: “Young, Black & Done With Biden: The Issues That Could Decide the Election.”

The article, by Andre Gee, a young, gifted, Black, writer from Brooklyn, NY, spent time interviewing Black artists and community leaders in Troy, Michigan — 30 miles outside of Detroit — and within the city itself, which is nearly 80% Black. Although Biden carried 92% of the Black vote throughout Michigan in 2020, he’s currently polling at around 62% — a flashing warning light on his dashboard he cannot ignore.

Gee writes: “Biden’s penchant for the status quo has left many young, Black voters disillusioned with him.” The author, who frequently writes about music for Rolling Stone, spent time with young community organizers, like Harrison Shelby, active in the non-profit group Detroit Action, who underscores the point that the Biden/Harris ticket needs to “strengthen its’ presence in the city” by addressing housing, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty” — the essential issues Detroit Action addresses.

The temptation among mainstream Democrats might be to dismiss Gee’s reporting as an outlier, because he “only” quotes young Black people (which he doesn’t) — not older, more reliable Black voters — and gives voice to hip-hop performers, artists and community activists. That would be a grave, tactical mistake for Democrats. The author underscores that warning by interviewing Quentin Fulks, Biden’s principal Deputy Campaign Manager:

“Young Black voters are key to our re-election, which is why we’re investing earlier than ever to mobilize them around an agenda that is fighting for their future.”

For now, those formulaic words from Fulks — a young, Black Georgia Democrat who was the campaign manager for Senator Rafael Warnock’s 2022 re-election campaign — are more rhetoric than reality.

No “investment” of any kind by the Biden campaign has been made to the only Black male Democratic candidate seeking national office in Michigan this year: actor/writer/entrepreneur and Detroit resident Hill Harper, running for Michigan’s open U.S. Senate seat, being vacated by incumbent Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow.

Harper is a Harvard Law School classmate of Barack Obama’s; owner of downtown Detroit’s Roasting Plant Coffee; a television and movie actor appearing in such popular TV series as CSI: NY, Homeland and The Good Doctor, and a wide range of movies; and a New York Times’ best selling author of five self-help books aimed at young, Black people. If elected, he would become the first Black U.S. Senator to represent Michigan in the State’s history.

It’s a poignant point Harper hits again and again as he campaigns across the State of Michigan, during Black History Month, and a fact that Fulks’ ought to be aware of, considering his recent work for Rafael Warnock, one of only two Black Democratic Senators. Fulks failed to make any mention of the fact that Harper would be Michigan’s first Black Senator if elected.

Ironically, the only current Black member of Michigan’s 15-member Congressional Delegation (including its’ two US Senators) is Republican Representative John James, who lost two previous campaigns for the U.S. Senate against Democrats in 2018 and 2020. It’s the first time in 57 years that Michigan has been without a Black, Democratic member of Congress.

Hill Harper did a wide-ranging podcast interview with The Lever’s David Sirota late last month, and uttered a quote that should be inscribed on the forehead of every Democrat in the country:

“Michigan is a Red State — until Black people vote.”

That failure of Michigan’s Black Democratic Congressional representation alone — considering that Detroit is the nation’s largest Black majority city which consistently delivers crucial votes for national Democratic victories — should arrest the attention of the Biden Administration and Democratic national leaders, like Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, the Vice-Chair of the Democratic National Committee. But, astoundingly, they don’t seem to get it.

Instead, the national Democratic establishment has lined up behind Rep. Slotkin crowning her as the presumed “incumbent,” in the race for the first open U.S. Senate seat in Michigan in 30 years. As Sirota wisely noted in his conversation with Hill Harper, “continuing to run the same establishment selected candidates, is a very, very dangerous game for the Democrats.”

Yet, Harper’s campaign is receiving a Michigan freeze-out from the national Democratic establishment and its corporate donors. This week’s big news for the Harper campaign was getting the public backing from Civil Rights attorney, Ben Crump, not a darling of the Democratic Party, even though he’s revered in the Black community.

ABC News reported this month that Harper’s campaign was floundering, having raised under a half-million dollars, while Slotkin, his main opponent in the August 6, Democratic Senatorial primary and AIPAC’s pick, has raised six times as much. The Lever’s Sirota, a long-time activist in progressive politics, author, journalist and co-writer of the riveting film “Don’t Look Up, defines Slotkin this way: “ a donor-friendly, establishment defending, status quo maintaining Democrat.”

Even Slotkin’s clear, conservative cast — working in the Bush Administration, opposing Medicare for All, opposing the flying of Pride flags on military bases, and voting against Nancy Pelosi for Speaker in the 116th Congress — isn’t enough to shake loose traditional Democratic support for Harper. What don’t they understand about Harper’s observation that: “Michigan is a Red State — Until Black People Vote.?”

Four years ago, following Biden’s big win in Michigan, the Detroit Free Press (Nov. 13, 2020) acknowledged the Democrats’ debt to Detroit’s Black voters, quoting the Rev. Kenneth Flowers of the Greater New Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Detroit:

“The Black Votes in Detroit, Oakland County, Wayne County, were the ones that took Joe Biden over the top…it shows that the Black Community is still very powerful in terms of determining who wins these elections.”

Despite the dependable track record of Detroit’s Black voters, national Democrats appear to take that support for granted, and aren’t giving the time of day to possibly the most highly educated, qualified, charismatic, and admired Black candidate for national office to appear since Hill Harper’s former Harvard Law School classmate, Barack Obama. In 2007 and 2008, Harper, an extraordinary motivational speaker, bucked the Clinton-backed Democratic establishment as one of Barack Obama’s most effective surrogate speakers around the country.

If you don’t have a large African American turnout in Michigan, “ Harper told David Sirota, “ there is no way that President Biden can win.” It’s hard to picture Elissa Slotkin generating that kind of turnout among Michigan’s Black voters.

Regardless of how many times national Democrats get hit over the head with this flashing neon sign of 2024’s politics, they don’t seem to read the handwriting.

A cancer survivor appointed to President Obama’s Cancer Task force, on which he and Joe Biden served together, Harper is a long-time grassroots activist on a number of public health, community-based issues.

Some two decades ago, before most Americans were aware of the devastating impact the HIV/AIDS epidemic was having on communities of color, Harper was working with the Black AIDS Institute, and doing 30-second pro-bono Public Service TV spots to raise awareness and destigmatize the disease. For many Black Americans, even being suspected of being HIV Positive, could mean life or death.

Harper, the single father of an eight-year old son, has devoted enormous amounts of time and personal resources to uplifting young Black men and women with his series of self-help books: Letters to a Young Brother; Letters to a Young Sister; Letters to An Incarcerated Brother. The inspired genius behind those books — is not only Harper’s modeling them after Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet — but establishing the non-profit Manifest Your Destiny Foundation, which gives tangible assistance to underserved youth to achieve their goals.

But, the Democratic Party’s disconnect here must be something more than its’ insecure support for incumbents, unwillingness to listen to unpleasant news, and insatiable appetite for corporate and institutional money. Well, maybe not.

Fortunately, at least one powerful institution in Democratic and Michigan politics — the United Auto Workers Union — has gotten the message. After decades of locking Blacks out of top union leadership positions, the UAW has recognized, as the Detroit Bureau of the The Voice of the Automotive World noted in a Black History series, that “Blacks played a key role in the growth of the UAW.”

Union President Shawn Fain, who led the UAW’s recent industry-wide strike which was supported by 75% of all Americans, was preceded in office by two prominent Black labor leaders, Rory Gamble, the first Black President of the UAW, and Ray Curry. According to the Economic Policy Institute in 2021, Black workers now make up 25.5% of the unionized auto sector.

Perhaps it was on the strength of those demographics that the UAW has intentionally not endorsed either Harper or Slotkin — a rare move for a major union to refrain from backing an incumbent member of Congress (Slotkin) not hostile to labor. Or, the union’s decision could have been influenced by the fact that Hill Harper is a card-carrying union member (Screen Actors Guild) himself, who walked the picket line with striking UAW workers, before Joe Biden did.

The most charitable explanation of the Democrats’ tone deafness toward Michigan’s Black voters and their top candidates this year, is that the Party establishment is terrified of rocking the boat between its’ loyal Black and Jewish constituents, who regularly give national Democrats more than 75% of their votes. As a convert to Judaism, I find that cowardice reprehensible, particularly concerning the life and death urgency of a ceasefire, the freeing of Israeli hostages, and humanitarian aid for innocent Palestinian survivors in Gaza. It’s almost, but not nearly, as shameful as AIPAC raising $90 million off the bodies of massacred and missing Israelis, in the first few months following the October 7 attacks by Hamas.

Unfortunately, Harper — one of only two Democratic Senatorial candidates across the country supporting a ceasefire in the Netanyahu/Hamas War — was forced to confront both constituencies, when he refused to accept a $20 million campaign contribution (bribe?) from an alleged supporter of Israel, if Harper agreed to withdraw from the U.S. Senate race, and instead, run a bought-and-paid-for primary against AIPAC’s Public Enemy #1, Rashida Tlaib.

In immediately rejecting the offer, Harper was fearless in stating: “I’m not going to run against the only Palestinian-American in Congress just because some special interests don’t like her.”

With AIPAC planning to pump up to $100 million into the campaign coffers of more conservative candidates to unseat seven progressive Members of Congress — all people of color — known as “The Squad,” who’ve been vocal critics of the Israeli government, Harper’s courageous declaration that he “won’t be bossed, bullied or bought,” didn’t win him any friends at AIPAC, which has consistently found Slotkin to be their favorite kind of Congressional slot-machine.

In a saner, more humane world, not hypnotized by money and hate, Hill Harper’s extraordinary action of turning down a $20 million offer for power and glory, would be hailed each night on national network television as an example of “America Strong.” But, corporate media doesn’t want to encourage that kind of courage and independence.

Hill Harper already knew that, telling The Lever’s Sirota that, “the fact that someone has the ability to make that kind of call (the $20 million bribe) is abhorrent.”

Harper went on to tell Sirota how such similarly sleazy offers were made to him during the years he was pursuing his acting career:

In the context of my acting career, there’s so many roles I turned down over the course of my career, that would have made me a lot more money. I declined. I wanted to represent the way I think as a Black person and wanted to represent myself in the community. I want young people to look at me, and the character and projects I do, with a sense of pride, not denigration.”

What don’t the Democrats get about this level of dignity, character and courage?

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