Whenever you walk into an Elks Lodge, it’s like stepping back into the 1970s, if not before.
From the vintage photos on the walls to the omnipresent wood paneling, they typically have the cozy feel of your grandparents’ basement. I’ve done my fair share of interviews in lodges in small towns across the Midwest, usually dispatched by editors looking for veterans, union members and independent voters to include in various stories.
Last Friday night, I was asked to speak at an Elks Lodge in Grand Haven, a beautiful and conservative hamlet on Lake Michigan, which thankfully, given my commute from Lansing, wasn’t buried under two feet of snow. It was the monthly meeting of the Lakeshore chapter of the Progressive Women’s Alliance. The organization blossomed after the 2016 election, starting as a few women chatting at a local pub to a fired-up group searching for bigger and bigger venues.
As I looked out from the middle-school-style stage, I was frankly stunned to see that roughly 200 people were crammed in the hall — women, children and a sizeable number of men — for a talk on the 2018 election more than seven months out.
I do a fair number of speeches, especially in election years, so I have my trusty notes scrawled on a yellow legal pad on key races in Michigan and across the country, party breakdowns in legislative chambers and big factors shaping campaigns.
But after talking to several people gathered before my speech about the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, Michigan’s terrible roads and the latest round of indictments in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, I decided to do something new. I ended up just speaking extemporaneously for 20 minutes about activism, organizing and the history of social movements, and didn’t glance at my notes once.
For an introvert who was paralyzed by extreme stage fright as a child, I’ve often thought how odd it is that a sizeable part of my career is now public speaking and TV interviews. The turning point for me was being asked to speak as a 17-year-old college freshman at a 1994 free-speech rally against an anti-LGBT policy at the University of Iowa. As the mother of an LGBT teen, I’m glad I found my voice back then on such an important issue.
So last Friday, I began my talk by noting that the GOP has controlled all three branches of Michigan government since 2011 and I’ve spent countless hours at the Capitol covering and interviewing Republicans in charge.
“They don’t know about you,” I said. “They don’t know how many progressives are right here in the heart of Republican Ottawa County. They don’t know that you’re willing to give up your Friday night, when you could be doing much more fun and interesting things than listening to me talk about politics. They don’t know how many other groups — Indivisible and Our Revolution chapters — there are in Michigan, especially in conservative areas. And this is why I think you’re building something big for the 2018 election.”
Several people at the event told me how alone they felt as liberals in Grand Haven, especially before the ‘16 election. One man recalled how overjoyed he was to see even one John Kerry for President sign in 2004 in a neighbor’s yard after he moved in from the Detroit area.
But they’re not alone. When I went to the second annual Women’s March in Lansing in January, there were 5,000 people from across Michigan jammed on the Capitol lawn. Many were kids like my daughter and her friends from their high school Feminist Club.
We live in frightening times, especially immigrants threatened with being rounded up and sent back to war-torn countries, LGBT people whose rights are being dismantled by the Trump administration, and struggling people who are being kicked off safety-net programs like Medicaid.
But this has brought out the best in people who are willing to stand up for their friends and neighbors and fight for justice and equality — which is what really makes our country great.
At the Progressive Women’s Alliance event, one of the last questions came from a woman about the Voters Not Politicians ballot initiative to end gerrymandering in Michigan. She said that an oft-quoted political pundit recently lectured her that it would never succeed and it was stupid to even try, because conservatives would file lawsuit after lawsuit.
She asked me what I thought, and I agreed that there would likely be legal and legislative challenges, as people in power tend to want to stay there. “Anything worth doing is going to be hard. And that should never stop you,” I added.
But I suppose I really didn’t need to tell a room full of progressives in Ottawa County that.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.