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An election divided them. A year later, they meet face to face

By Ron French and Pat Shellenbarger/Bridge Magazine • Nov 22, 2017 at 5:00 PM

LANSING — First to walk into the meeting room was John Hulett, a conservative Christian and retired salesperson who now spends his energy promoting a children’s book written by his wife. Hulett had driven to Lansing from his rural Ionia County home the previous afternoon, checking into the hotel attached to the conference center so he could soak up all he could of the event.

For almost a year, Hulett had participated in “Michigan Divided,” a Bridge Magazine experiment following 11 individuals and families with different political views. He’d read about the other participants and seen their photos, and he was eager to talk.

“When you take people off the computer and look them in the eyes and shake their hand, it’s real,” Hulett said. “That is what changes people.”

The 2016 presidential election may not have created the divide between Michigan residents, but it exposed deepening fault lines. Michigan Divided is an effort to explore the political, social, media and economic issues that separate us, and the common ground that might serve to bring us together. 

Of the 11 individuals and families Bridge has been following, eight came to Lansing on Oct. 28 for a three-hour discussion, with another taking part through pre-recorded messages. They were joined that day by two other residents who are part of a documentary being produced by Bridge and its parent organization, The Center for Michigan, addressing the politics that separate us.

The group of 11 participating in the gathering included four people who voted for Donald Trump for president, four who voted for Hillary Clinton, and three who didn’t vote. They ranged from a 22-year-old food truck vendor to a 73-year-old retiree, from an undocumented immigrant to a University of Michigan English Department lecturer.

They were funny, candid, curious, and eager to talk.

You never know what may happen’

After coffee and mini muffins that Saturday morning, the group settled in around a U-shaped table.

“I thought (the meeting) would be a good opportunity to let people know I’m not a wacko, psycho racist,” said Tom Herbon of Troy, prompting a cheer from fellow conservative Cynthia Shafer. “I’m just a normal guy with five kids enjoying two toppings on my pizza every once in awhile.”

The six-foot-six Herbon is a retired IBM engineer who built a 32-square-foot Trump campaign sign to prop in front of his home last year. He gets most of his news from conservative talk radio and from the president’s Tweets, and complains long and loud about how much more he spends on health care now because of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

“I wanted to see how people will be in real life compared to how they’re depicted in Bridge,” Herbon said “We’re depicted as polar opposites, but we have a lot in common.”

Lisa King wanted to meet Herbon and others who voted for Trump. The 35-year-old self-employed communications specialist is an East Lansing mother of two children under the age of 5 and with another on the way. She writes letters and makes phone calls to politicians, advocating for progressive issues. “In my work, I don’t know a lot of people who voted different from me,” King said, “so I really wanted to hear from the others side, and walk away with some more compassion.”

Jim Leija and Aric Knuth drove in from their home in Ann Arbor. Both work at the University of Michigan, are liberal and gay. They have five degrees between them. In January, Leija said he couldn’t recall the last time he’d had a conversation with someone who didn’t have a college degree. “The experiment of this morning is interesting to me,” Knuth said. “You never know what might happen.”

The meeting was scheduled to begin at 9, and at 9:05, while microphone levels and video cameras were getting a last check, Ben Shomo rushed in. Shomo didn’t vote in the presidential election. He’s worked as a barista and on a food truck in Traverse City at different times. He’s taken college classes, but has not yet completed a degree.

He’d agreed to participate in the year-long project, for which the meeting was the climax. He’d decided not to come, but the previous night, changed his mind.

“I’ve never finished anything in my life,” Shomo told fellow participant Knuth Saturday. “If I didn’t come to this, it would be another thing I never finished.”

Wilfredo Diaz’s reason for attending was personal. Brought to the United States from Guatemala illegally at age 9 (a trip that took three months and during which he was almost kidnaped), Diaz “wanted to know what people would think of me … to see that I’m not a criminal.”

‘Don’t hit anybody’

The group joked easily among themselves as they took part in an exercise splitting into different “Michigan divides” – whether they prefer winter or summer, and Michigan roads or Michigan construction.

The laughter stopped when the group was asked to separate by their vote in the 2016 presidential election. Those who voted for Trump moved to the left, those who didn’t vote for the current president to the right.

Would anyone switch sides today?

No one budged.

Shoulders straightened. Each side was quiet. It was as wide as the divide felt all morning.

“It is kind of a stressful question,” Herbon said. “We’re out of the warm-up phase; we’re into the ‘Don’t hit anybody’ phase.”

‘Do I want to lose friends over this?’

Don Finelli, a 61-year-old commercial real estate developer from East Grand Rapids who was not a part of the year-long project, downplayed the partisan gap.

“We aren’t as divided as the media portrays,” said the Trump supporter, adding by way of example that America was more divided during the Civil War. “I think we’re going to get through our differences.”

But among the polite discussion and friendly banter, clear divisions emerged. None of the four Trump voters felt America was more polarized now than in the past, but all four Clinton supporters thought the opposite.

“We do disagree,” said a frustrated Leija, the Clinton voter from Ann Arbor. “We know that from reading about each other.”

Leija was one of several liberals who wanted to address hard issues head-on, while some conservatives focused on wanting everyone to learn to get along.

Cynthia Shafer drove to Lansing from Harbor Springs the night before the event to have dinner with a friend. Shafer told the group that her friend had lost contact with a mutual acquaintance because of a disagreement over politics.

“At some point, it’s not that important,” said the 59-year-old Trump voter. “Do I want to lose a friend over this? You can be right, or you can be happy.”

Three conservatives said that politics over the past year had strained or ended friendships. Hulett lost contact with a brother who is as liberal as Hulett is conservative. Hulett thinks the media are too critical of the president, and wants immigrants to assimilate to America and not institute Sharia Law here.

“We never talk anymore,” Hulett said of his brother, beginning to cry. “It really breaks my heart, because we’ve been separated so long.”

The political divide affected others in the room, too, but in different ways.

“I’m wondering if others felt as scared as me on election night,” Mariam Charara, a 28-year-old Muslim mother of two from Dearborn, said in a video recording played to the group Saturday.

She and husband Hussein Charara have been a part of the Michigan Divided project but couldn’t make it to Lansing because of scheduling conflicts.

East Lansing Clinton voter King referenced the fear of the Muslim Charara family and undocumented immigrant Diaz as evidence that the divide today goes beyond traditional policy differences. “It feels dramatically different than anything else in the past,” King said.

“The stakes feel higher,” Leija said. “It feels more (real) in a way that was more conceptual before. I have friends who say ‘I’m not going home for Thanksgiving.’ Even a year later, a lot of those feelings are still there.”

"I was amazed that some of the participants are still scared,” said Troy conservative Herbon. “That alarms me. Hopefully there are some things that the new (Trump) administration has done that are good.”

“If the election was different,” said Shafer, “it’s because the pendulum had swung so far both ways, we couldn’t find a middle.”

‘What would people think of me?’

During a break in the session, conservative voter Shafer leaned toward undocumented immigrant Diaz.

“I was so alarmed by what you said,” Shafer began. “You said, ‘What will people think of me?’ What did you mean by that?”

“When Trump started running for president, he was talking about Mexicans being criminals,” Diaz said. “I’m not Mexican, but it was like all Hispanics are rapists. I don’t know what you guys will think of me when you get to know me.”

“You’re thinking you might be deported?” asked Shafer. Diaz nodded.

The 23-year-old has Dream Act status, but Trump signed an executive order phasing out Dream Act protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Unless Congress restores those protections, Diaz and about 800,000 other Dreamers could be eligible for deportation in March.

Shafer leaned in closer. “You’re right, he (Trump) did say that, but politicians say a lot of shit and they never do any of it. He (Trump) is a bit of a buffoon. But with his background, I don’t believe that is his intent. I would be shocked if that ever happened.

“I can’t speak for all conservatives,” Shafer continued, ‘but, I don’t think anybody thinks, if this is home, that (you) should be deported. I think the struggle we have is that when someone’s a criminal, we don’t follow up” and deport them.

“I’ve been here my whole life,” Diaz said.

“You’re right,” Shafer said. “This is your home.”

Disagreements become divides

During the three-hour session, participants broke into groups to hash out issues they could work together on, and issues where there isn’t common ground.

Generally, there was agreement that liberals and conservatives could work together to improve the environment, but even on an issue important to Michigan residents (almost all the participants listed some version of “water” as the best thing about the state), there was some disagreement. Herbon said the environment is already better than it used to be. “It’s all perception,” he said.

They agreed to disagree about issues touching on religion, such as abortion.

“As long as it’s my beliefs and doesn’t infringe on anyone else, then why should I be crucified for those beliefs?” asked Marlando Wade, a 42-year-old Clinton voter from Flint. “That’s where the clashes come in: One person may think you’re killing a baby because that’s what the Bible says and it’s murder; another person may say, ‘This is my body.’”

“Whenever people talk about religion or politics, it’s a touchy subject,” Mariam Charara said in her recorded message. “I doubt we’ll find common ground. Everyone is a product of their environment.”

The group kept circling back to disagreements, and how they’ve metastasized across the political spectrum.

“I’m interested in how disagreements become divides,” said Hulett, the conservative from Ionia County. “When my wife and I have a disagreement, we say, which is more important, this disagreement or this relationship? I think that’s analogous to some issues in Michigan.”

“Disagreements become divides when communication ends,” answered Knuth of Ann Arbor.

“Maybe we’re not more divided,” said liberal communications specialist King. “But maybe we notice it more.”

‘I’m not what the media tries to say’

Each participant was asked to write down what they were taking away from the meeting and from the year-long project.

“I’m not what the media tries to say,” Diaz said. He looked around the room and added, “and others aren’t what they say, either.”

“We need more ears and fewer mouths,” said Shomo, the 22-year-old nonvoter from Traverse City.

“There’s value in drilling down on issues,” said Knuth. “There’s a gap between liking and respecting each other and drilling down to our differences.”

“I’ve learned that everybody here is super-personable,” said conservative Herbon. “The problem is unfiltered social media. Someone said I wonder if there is going to be fisticuffs (at the meeting). People here are nice. But if this were on social media..,” he said, pantomiming typing.

Everyone laughed and nodded.

Ann Arbor Clinton voter Leija said he was left wanting more. “I would like this project to have lasted long enough,” he said, “for someone to change their mind in some way.”

“If we could live that long,” Herbon replied.

Softened rhetoric, exchanged emails

Afterward, the participants headed outside for a group photo, then walked across the conference center for lunch.

Herbon wished Diaz luck with his immigration status, and conservative Christian Hulett arranged to meet the young undocumented immigrant soon in Grand Rapids. “I feel there is some way, unknown at this point, I can be of benefit to him,” Hulett said.

Shafer talked about creating an email group to continue the conversation they’d started that morning. Earlier in the week, Shafer had toyed with the idea of not coming because she didn’t think conservatives would be given equal time.

“I’m so glad I came,” she said. “(But) I wonder how today would have gone if Mariam (Charara, the Muslim voter from Dearborn) was here. Would we have talked about how (to) differentiate between radical Muslims and others? I don’t know if I would have been as honest.”

“I’m taking away that respect is important,” said Wade, the Clinton voter from Flint. “We all have different views. How do we respect those without demonizing? Whoever the person is, nobody is all right.”

“I’m going to give Trump a couple years,” Finelli said. “He’s not a very likeable person, but Hillary was worse. He’s got to do something about healthcare and tax reform and keep us out of these ridiculous wars.”

Hulett was the last to leave. “It opened my mind to hear their stories, their fears and hopes,” said the Ionia County conservative, polishing off a piece of carrot cake. “It’s been such a meaningful growth experience for me, confronting some of my historical beliefs and what I was taught as a child. This was a life-changing experience.”

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