Purple Michigan

Red or blue, Sanford’s voters on emotional empty

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This is the fourth part in a six-part series reporting on the presidential campaign in Michigan in different locations across the state. This series is paid for by contributions from you to the City Pulse Fund for Community Journalism. To contribute, please go to lansingcitypulse.com/donation.

SANFORD, Midland County — Lightning-tinted clouds loomed above M-20, dead racoons cluttering the center lane. Up and down Midland County’s main artery, residents along this rural highway are posting up their “Make America Great Again” flags in the inevitability of Monday’s downpour. 

It’s a lot of omens — dreary prophecies on what’s to come — to be collected from a storm lurking toward Midland County. 

Election Day is fast approaching, but it feels no different than driving into a monsoon for some members of this community. They’ll vote — likely more Republican than not — with low enthusiasm and seemingly permanent feelings of abandonment. 

Much like a gloomy day in October, Bruce Thibodue, who’s lived in Sanford since 1992 and will be voting straight-ticket Republican, said it’s political scenery is a “shady, grey area.” 

“I will vote for Republicans — am I doing it because I feel they’re the best choice? Hell no. I’m doing it because I feel it’s the least of two evils and both of them, as far as I’m concerned, should be drugged out, zip-tied, thrown on a barge and sent to China,” he said. 

When asked if he was fine with that statement being on-the-record, he said he’s been saying it “so many times lately,” especially after this past spring. 

The Edenville and Sanford dam failures in May emptied out the Sanford and Wixom lakes and had either damaged or wholly annihilated an estimated 2,500 properties. In June, Midland County Commissioner Mark Bone estimated the total expense for relieving and repairing the county at more than $200 million. 

“We have been let down completely and utterly by every level of every form of our government in this community this year,” Thibodeu said. “There’s not a thing being done by any of them to make it right — it’s pointing fingers and blaming somebody else.” 

After helping rescue more than 150 boats from the bottom of the dry lake beds, he said he still doesn’t believe that the historic flooding will change the area’s political culture, specifically because negligence remains present everywhere. 

As less than 10% of damaged properties had flood insurance for the May phenomenon, Thibodeu said covered homes were denied aid because it was a “manmade disaster.” 

Additionally, he said his neighbors continue to live in tents and campers and are making house payments on homes that were bulldozed by the flooding. 

“Honestly, I think overall the entire political scene in this whole state, county, country — all, is a flip of the coin. I really do. Nobody is happy, nobody is excited (over) any of the candidates. Let’s be honest, it’s like, ‘Oh right, which one is going to screw us the least?’” Thibodeu said. 

The 98th House District in Michigan, which features the areas tarnished by the Sanford and Edenville dam failures, is essentially undergoing a replay of their 2018 race — Democrat Sarah Schulz and Rep. Anette Glenn, R-Midland. 

The district’s base is 57% Republican, but incumbent Glenn achieved a tight victory over Schulz with 52% of the vote. 

Glenn’s successful bill from September sank $6 million of emergency state aid into flood recovery.  She said in the days and weeks following the flooding, she’s worked in Sanford and Midland by cleaning out houses and tearing out drywall, insulation and carpet. 

At the same time, House Democrats have claimed that Glenn passed off their efforts to invest more into those communities and their infrastructure before the dam failures. 

With an estimated price tag of $175 million in losses, these gestures are swallowable but not enough to make all constituents feel taken care of. 

According to Republican Cameron Crowder, a summertime gas station worker and lifelong Sanford resident, the neighborhood consists of small business owners, employees at the Dow Chemical Co. and the typical blue-collar workers commuting in-and-out of town. 

He explained that even before the dam failures, Sanford always had a tight-knit community. Nowadays, residents depend on one another and prioritize rebuilding their humble society, from handing out hot meals, filling houses with insulation to offering renovation supplies and heavy-duty labor. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to investigate the dam failures and President Donald Trump approved her disaster declaration on July 9. On Sept. 25, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued more than $25.3 million to mid-Michigan for road and bridge repairs. 

Crowder tossed a bone out to Democrat Schulz, claiming that she “is the only one to be in Sanford helping businesses and residents clean up the mess.” 

He actively believes Whitmer has used the town for publicity. 

“Whitmer did a fly-over the week (the flooding) happened, held a press conference in the gym and shamed people who just lost everything for not wearing a mask. Then she got back into her helicopter and flew off and hasn’t been heard of since,” Crowder said. “She didn’t help clean up — it was almost like it was a photoshoot that she showed up.” 

Ultimately for Crowder, his hometown has been subjected to an immense dread of feeling abandoned by the political world. While working at the only gas station open during when the dams broke, he said he experienced the type of emotional train wreck that is rooted in absolute helplessness. 

Homes floated away off of their foundation and the site of sobbing families became a photo opportunity for the powerful — compensation for so much tragedy was Crowder going “oh, looks like we’re on our own now.” 

Schulz, who’s made her campaign signs purple instead of blue, said that while helping people recover from the flooding, it didn’t matter if they had a Trump flag hanging in their garage or conservative conspiracist books in their basement — if a person needed help, she would help them. 

With her own cottage devastated by the floods, Schulz said running in the area is less about being able to speak on the hardships it’s faced, but to demonstrate a commitment to community service. 

“The flood was absolutely tragic and still is — but the beauty of it has been the way the community has come together to support each other. We have found some strength in each other that we didn’t know (even) existed,” Schulz said. 

For 21-year-old Logan Daniels of Midland, he attempts to be optimistic that there are still swayable voters out there. But with Sanford’s rural voters pursuing the more gritty means for survival and Midland’s city-hopefuls seeking a life of affluence, the fates might have been decided. 

For each Schulz and Joe Biden poster standing proudly in the district’s hub, Republican loyalties circle around like sharks. When the bodies of water are as abandoned by hydration as its casualties feel neglected by their elected officials, even aspiring political scientists like Daniels see limited room for an ideological revolution. 

“You kind of have to find that line where you can pick up voters because both sides really can’t afford to lose voters,” he said.

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