At a wine bar in suburban Detroit, about a dozen women strategized how to preserve abortion rights in their state.
This was not a typical political event. There were no microphones, no literature to share and few who would consider themselves activists. Among them were a mother of four whose only previous political experience was pushing for later school start times, a busy medical student and a retired professor who, at 75, never felt comfortable knocking on doors or calling in cold candidate
“But I feel strongly about abortion,” said Mary Ann Messano-Gadula. “Women should be able to take care of their bodies.”
Messano-Gadula, who attended the “Vino the Vote” event in late September with two friends, described herself as the shyest of the bunch. But she said she planned to do what organizers asked attendees to do — post a few messages on Facebook and text some friends to try to get them to support an amendment to the state constitution guaranteeing abortion rights.
“I’ll give it a shot,” he said.
Across Michigan this year, similar, more intimate events are playing out alongside larger, more traditional get-out-the-vote efforts, with high stakes for both abortion rights and the candidates — mostly Democrats — who support them.
Michigan is one of the few places where abortion rights will be on the ballot in November after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June and left the issue up to the states. A ban passed in 1931 was suspended and later struck down by state court rulings, but that’s no guarantee the process won’t one day be outlawed.
That has galvanized people in Michigan, as it has in previous elections this cycle, including Kansas and New York. And it could have significant implications beyond the state.
Michigan is one of the most competitive presidential battlegrounds in the country. It was also among the states where former President Donald Trump and his allies tried to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 loss by falsely claiming the election was stolen. Voters this fall will also decide which statewide offices, including governor and secretary of state, will be in place for the 2024 election.
The race for governor has already centered around abortion. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer filed a lawsuit ahead of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling seeking to overturn the 1931 ban and said she will “continue to use every tool in my toolbox to fight like hell for women and health care providers.” . Republican Tudor Dixon, who opposes abortion except to save the life of the mother, criticized Whitmer for supporting abortion without limits and suggested that voters who support the constitutional amendment should vote for her and support her campaign for governor.
The issue has already sparked strong interest among voters and pushback from Republicans and abortion opponents. Reproductive Freedom for All, the coalition supporting the abortion rights amendment, collected more than 750,000 signatures on petitions to put the question on the ballot — more than any other ballot initiative in Michigan history.
Opponents turned out in force for a meeting of the Board of State Canvassers, the once-in-a-lifetime vote that decides which questions and candidates qualify for the ballot. With anti-abortion protesters outside the building echoing inside the hearing room, the board split along party lines, with two Republicans voting no and two Democrats voting yes. That meant the measure didn’t qualify for the ballot, but Reproductive Freedom for All appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, where the justices—a majority of whom were appointed by Democrats—ordered it to stand.
Red, Wine & Blue, the organization that held the wine bar rally, is among the RFFA coalition members in Michigan. Their strategy is to ask suburban women – a key demographic shift in recent elections – to reach out and talk to friends, family members and other acquaintances and ask them to vote.
The model, known as relational organizing, has been used successfully by candidates such as Sen. Jon Ossoff of Georgia, who won a runoff election to help Democrats win control of the U.S. Senate, and Pete Buttigieg, who was by a little-known southern mayor. Bend, Indiana, to a leading contender for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination.
Greta Carnes, who led Buttigieg’s campaign effort, said she is particularly effective at appealing to suburban women and the often sensitive and personal issue of abortion. The approach is also more effective and efficient because people can communicate with dozens of people within minutes via text, and a voter who receives a message from someone they know is more likely to read it and think about it, rather than deleting it. .
“Especially on an issue like abortion, we can’t just have activists” knocking on doors, Carnes said.
Lakshmi Vadlamudi, a medical student from Franklin, Michigan, saw firsthand the power of using her personal network when she helped gather signatures to put the abortion issue on the ballot this summer. He told some friends that one day he would be in a parking lot collecting signatures, and word spread like wildfire, he said.
Vadlamudi started getting text messages from people who wanted her to come to their house to sign. Her Indian “aunties” — women to whom she is close but not related — wanted to circulate their own applications. Some had family members in the medical profession and feared legal repercussions from having an abortion if the 1931 ban went into effect, while others worried about their daughters or granddaughters. They ended up with 20 completed reports.
“We took as much as we could,” Vadlamudi recalls. “People kept asking,” he said, and interest in the subject hasn’t stopped.
Red, Wine & Blue’s Michigan group aims to reach 157,000 voters in the state through these “relational” contacts, according to Katie Paris, the organization’s national director. The team’s head in Michigan, Kelly Dillaha, said they are recruiting 5,000 women to contact their networks and report back to the team on their progress through an app.
Rochester Hills mother of four Kathy Nitz began working with Red, Wine & Blue after volunteering at her children’s schools, leading the PTA and spearheading an effort to start schools later in the morning. These topics were always seen as “safe” topics, he said. Talking about abortion, on the other hand, was a bit like saying the word ‘Voldemort’ – the name the characters in the ‘Harry Potter’ books fear would bring great danger if uttered.
But Nitz has become more comfortable with the subject, even discussing the nuances with her very Catholic and anti-abortion mother. And she thinks those small talk between women like herself could add up.
“What I realized as a suburban woman and a mother myself is that we are undervalued. We are underrated and underestimated, but we are also strong,” Nitz said. “We build communities, we build networks. That’s what we’ve always done.”
Associated Press reporters Aaron Kessler in Washington and Joey Cappelletti in Lansing, Michigan contributed to this report.
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