Americans packed downtown Detroit on Tuesday and Wednesday nights to engage in activities regarding the Democratic presidential debates being held at the Fox Theater. Beyond the 3,500 present in the audience, a predicted 10 million more people followed along through the TV broadcast. In Washtenaw County, residents gathered at watch parties to eat, view and debate amongst themselves.
Washtenaw for Warren hosted a watch party for the first debate in June, yet 15 minutes before the debate aired on Tuesday, the attendance at their watch party at the Cirq Bar had already surpassed that of the first party’s. Danny Steinmetz, Ann Arbor resident and Washtenaw for Warren co-chair, shared he believes watch parties encourage political engagement because they let activists know they aren’t alone. Steinmetz said people watch the debate “the way they watch a sporting event” — as a means of entertainment.
“You have people desperate for a breakout, so some of the drama will be them attempting to do god knows what stunts,” Steinmetz said. “I’m waiting for someone to stand on their head to get attention.”
Attendees expressed frustration toward these “stunts,” with Ann Arbor resident Leslie Sobel even joking about “throwing things at the TV when it’s not Warren talking” during the last debates. Rackham student Jason Grant reverberated this common sentiment by explaining his choice for the Democratic nomination would “completely contrast what we’re dealing with right now, (actions) that look like governing instead of tweeting.”
Sobel also commented on the large field of Democratic presidential candidates, which she finds “ridiculous.” She believes some of the candidates should drop out of the race and run for Senate instead, because a Democratic president “isn’t going to get enough done unless we take back the Senate.”
When asked what draws her to Warren, Sobel said she looks for a candidate who is data- and policy-driven.
“That kind of intellectual honesty is refreshing,” Sobel said. “She has plans for all of the things that really need to be done. It’s policy-based, it’s not personality-based, it’s not faux populism.”
Recent University alum and admissions representative Chloe Hypes also attended the Warren watch party, explaining she likes Warren’s progressive policies on climate change and women’s rights. Being from a rural area of Michigan, Hypes said she’s looking for a candidate who can unify voters across the political spectrum.
“Both being from Ann Arbor and from a rural area, I’ve seen a pretty big political divide,” Hypes said. “So I think candidates need to acknowledge that and figure out a way to bridge that gap.”
Grant came to the Washtenaw for Warren watch party with a friend because neither of them have TV’s to watch the debates. Other graduate students were offered the same opportunity at another watch party, hosted by Rackham Student Government at Bar Louie on Tuesday evening.
Marshall Case, Rackham student and student government external affairs officer, said the event was “back by popular demand” after the success of a party they held to watch the first set of Democratic debates in June. They hosted more than 60 attendees on Tuesday, leaving standing room only on Bar Louie’s patio deck.
“Rackham student government is looking to sponsor events to build a graduate community outside of the academic environment,” Case said. “Watching the debates in a group fosters discussion. Some people want to sit back and watch with people, others want to debate with their friends. It’s all about a sense of community.”
Rackham student Karthik Ganapathy said he attended the Rackham party because he enjoys having his peers’ expertise at his disposal during the debates. Ganapathy said he does not believe the candidates are espousing the same views during this race as they have held and acted on in the past, and he likes to be made aware of these inconsistencies when they happen in real time.
“As a group, we all know more of the candidates than individually,” Ganapathy said.
When asked about his number one issue, Case highlighted climate change as a problem with global impact. Another partygoer, Rackham student Logan Walker, said he would like to see the candidates talk more about climate change.
“I’d like to see climate discussed, because I think it’s the one issue they aren’t talking about enough that is of equal importance of everything else they are talking about,” Walker said.
Meanwhile in Ypsilanti, more than 50 local residents packed a party room at Aubree’s Pizzeria and Grill to capacity for the Washtenaw County Democratic Party watch party on Tuesday night.
Ann Arbor resident Karen Kostamo, Washtenaw County Democratic Party visibility chair, said she was pleased by the turnout, noting “we should’ve had a bigger venue.”
Ypsilanti Township resident Wanda Wysor said she attended the Washtenaw County Democratic Party watch party because she isn’t set on one candidate yet and wanted to be around a variety of perspectives.
“We came to this one because it’s not focused on one candidate,” Wysor said. “It’s focused on all of the candidates.”
Others, like Kostamo, know exactly who they will vote for in the primary elections. Kostamo said she became a Warren supporter after hearing her speak about economic disparity at an event in Detroit.
“She was speaking to my heart and soul,” Kostamo said. “She’s speaking to me and my family — this is exactly what we’ve been wanting to hear.”
Among attendees was Lauretta Codrington, precinct delegate for Ann Arbor’s Ward 5, who said said she enjoyed the party, but was “not satisfied at all” with the debate itself. She and other attendees such as Wysor said the candidates’ obvious animosity toward one another made the debate difficult to watch.
“It’s kind of a mess tonight, because everybody keeps interrupting everybody else,” Wysor said. “So you don’t get a true understanding of where they stand, and it’s hard to keep track.”
Attendees of the Ypsilanti party carried over dissatisfaction with the content of the debate questions as well. Domestic violence, criminal justice and climate change were among the causes attendees said they wish the candidates had talked about more.
“Medicare is not the only thing that people are worried about,” Wysor said.
Not only did residents watch the debates, but they were mobilized as well. Tuesday afternoon, a group of more than 40 local residents boarded a bus from Ann Arbor Pioneer High School to downtown Detroit to participate in the Green New Deal protests. Nearly 1,000 people from across the country gathered in Cass Park to rally and march in support of turning Detroit into the “engine of the Green New Deal.”
The bus was organized by the Sunrise Movement of Ann Arbor, a group dedicated to lobbying in support of the Green New Deal. In the first set of debates last month, climate change received what Sunrise deemed an inadequate amount of screentime, so another goal of the protest was to convince the Democratic National Convention to host a separate primary debate solely to discuss issues related to climate change.
Ann Arbor resident Jamie Jee said he hopes the DNC is convinced to “continue the surge” of progressive momentum seen in the 2018 elections.
“Are we going to go forward or not?” Jee said. “We’re quite literally running out of time. We can’t, there’s no time to just get vulcanized or regress or be reactionists. We’ve got to keep going with this progressive resurgence; no looking back.”
When asked if she supports any candidate in particular, Sunrise Ann Arbor member Linda Wan said she is a fan of Sanders, explaining she “just trusts him.”
“Bernie has been talking about all the right issues on racial justice, environmental justice for the past forty years,” Wan said. “His record proves that when he takes office, he’s going to be more serious than the other candidates.”
This was Engineering fifth-year Anant Akash’s first rally. He said he believes young people need to work toward conveying their own sense of urgency to older generations who currently hold most of the political power.
“I think climate change is such a big issue that our generation has grown up with,” Akash said. “There’s no denying it anymore, and I think the people who make decisions, who are in power, they don’t understand the urgency of it because they didn’t grow up with it.”
Community High School student Sylva Taybeth agreed with Akash, noting climate change is a key issue among young voters.
“In order to have a large turnout in 2020, I think it’s important that presidential candidates are courting youth voters,” Taybeth said. “And I think climate change is a signature issue that youth are interested in.”
The Bus to Change the Debates event was organized by Sunrise Ann Arbor hub coordinator Allie Lindstrom. To Lindstrom, the Green New Deal is the first climate policy she’s seen addressing both inequality and climate change, making it important to support.
“If we don’t do the hard work of bringing people together, we could lose Michigan,” Lindstrom said. “I’m excited about how policies like Green New Deal can bring people together.”
When asked why Sunrise feels it is necessary to bus Ann Arbor residents to Detroit for the rally, Wan emphasized the political importance of Michigan as a swing state, especially in light of this week’s debates.
“We need to show up because the eyes of the nation will be on Detroit,” Wan said. “We need Michiganders to be present.”