In the Arena

Election Road Trip, Day 7: Union Maid

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Detroit, Mich.

Traveling Companion: Rodney Crowell

Events: Breakfast with Polidori family; meeting with United Auto Workers activists; Dinner with Doug Ross and friends, Macomb County; Breakfast with Kevin Gentry and friends, Brighton, Michigan; Rocky Rajkowski Town Hall, Birmingham, Mi.

Well, this has been a very busy 48 hours, devoted to some of the most important work of this trip–listening to voters, hearing them out. At the top, I’d like to thank Swampland readers Terri Polidori and Kevin Gentry, as well as my old friend Doug Ross, for arranging meetings with their family and friends. I’d also thank Rodney Crowell for being an extra set of eyes and ears–and a great new friend. I’ve always loved his music; turns out he’s a terrific guy, too. (And while I’m at it, Craig Duff who’s been producing the dynamite videos on this trip and still photographer Peter Van Agtmael. The four of us invaded Detroit correspondent Steve Gray’s home and office this weekend, and so he deserves a tip of the hat, too.)

The hottest of all the hot topics at each of these meetings was government bailouts and the way people are reacting–some responsibly, some not–to these hard times. The meeting with Kevin Gentry’s friends–most of them public employees of one sort or another; all but one of them with houses that are “under water” (that is, with mortgages larger than their houses are worth)–was especially stunning. I’m intending to devote my print column to this topic this week, so I’ll leave the details till then. But I did want to introduce you to Tammy Jackson, a United Auto Workers activist, whom I met on Saturday…and who immediately reminded both Rodney and me of the Woody Guthrie lyrics, “There once was a union maid/who never was afraid…” and also, a bit, of Sarah Palin. Another UAW activist, Brian Bonds, was there at Time’s Detroit house–but Brian soon was as blown away by Tammy’s exuberant vehemence as the rest of us.

Local Detroit UAW official Tammy Jackson. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael- Magnum for TIME

Tammy is a 3rd generation member of the UAW. She’s 33 and is married to an auto-worker (her husband was laid for more than half a year; she’s been laid off, too–layoffs are a part of life in the auto industry.) They have two children. Tammy is also blond and not unattractive, and not shy. “Thank God for the UAW,” she said when she talking about the layoffs: the unions provides “sub” pay to laid off workers. She seemed to put Barack Obama in the same category as the UAW: “Obama has definitely been for the working people. If it hadn’t been the auto bailout, the whole industry would have gone under. The whole midwest would have gone under. It would have been catastrophic.”

Despite that, these were scary times. Last year, the Jacksons were set to buy and sell a house on the same day, but the buyers had to pull out because one of their mortgage lenders changed its mind at the last minute. “We really wanted the house we were buying, so we raided our 401Ks. We had to take a lower price for our old house eventually. But there are foreclosures all around us in our neighborhood. And squatters are moving into the empty houses.”

I told Tammy that we’d been hearing a lot of complaints about the government helping to subsidize people who were threatened with foreclosure–people who’d been irresponsible in buying houses they really couldn’t afford. “I don’t feel anger toward people who fall on troubled times,” she said. “I do get angry at the people who are trying to beat the system”–she said, referring to the growing number of people who were just walking away from their mortgages–“the people who are trying to get over.”

Tammy serves on a committee that screens political candidates for her union. “Some of these politicians just make me sick. They’re so ignorant; they don’t have a clue about the issues. I’m very forward, I don’t hold back–I tell them to get lost,” she said. I told her that I’d noticed that quality. “Oh yeah,” she continued, “I’m not shy about tossing members of my family out of my house in a political argument.” How close were these family members? I asked. “Very close,” she replied and added, “And if you show up in my driveway in foreign car, I’ll toss you out before you get in the door.”

Rodney Crowell. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael- Magnum for TIME

The talk returned to politics and Tammy admitted the Republicans were very clever, using wedge issues to get between working families and their economic interests. Some of the wedges were very effective, she said, “No UAW members want to give up their guns.” At which point, Brian jumped in with an emphatic “NO WAY!” Brian owned two pistols; Tammy had a rifle and a hunting bow. “I know how to target,” she said, “I could take Sarah Palin any day in a shooting contest.” She said that she went deer-hunting with her dad, who made her carry off what she killed. I asked if he she ever field-dressed a deer. She said she had, but didn’t like it very much.

Later, Rodney said he figured Palin would have the edge in a debate against Tammy because she’d had more practice, but we agreed if there were a new sport, a boxing-debate cage match–both women armed with boxing gloves and microphones–might be a different story. “I wouldn’t bet against Tammy if that were the case,” Rodney said.

This post is part of my Election Road Trip 2010 project. To track my location across the country, and read all my road trip posts, click here.