UTICA, Mich. — At a wine bar in suburban Detroit, about a dozen women strategized on how to preserve abortion rights in their state.
This was not a typical political event; There were no microphones, no literature to hand out, and few who considered themselves activists. They included a mother of four whose only prior political experience was pushing for later school starts, a busy medical student, and a retired teacher who, at 75, has never felt comfortable knocking on doors or calling in. cold to a candidate.
“But I have strong opinions about abortion,” said Mary Ann Messano-Gadula. “Women should be able to take care of their own bodies.”
Messano-Gadula, who attended the “Vino the Vote” event in late September with two friends, described herself as the shyest of the group. But she said she planned to do what organizers asked attendees to do: post some Facebook messages and text some friends to try to get them to support an amendment to the state constitution guaranteeing abortion rights.
“I’m going to give it a try,” he said.
Similar, more intimate events are taking place across Michigan this year alongside larger traditional efforts to promote the vote, with much at stake for both abortion rights and the largely Democratic candidates who they support them.
Michigan is one of the few places where abortion rights will be on the ballot in November, after the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June and let the states decide the issue. A ban passed in 1931 was suspended and later overturned by state court rulings, but that’s no guarantee the procedure won’t one day be outlawed.
That has mobilized people in Michigan, as it has in previous elections this cycle, including in Kansas and New York. And it could have important 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 his 2020 loss to Joe Biden, falsely claiming the election was stolen. Voters in this case will also decide which state offices, including governor and secretary of state, will be in office for the 2024 election.
The gubernatorial race has already focused on abortion. Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer sued ahead of the US Supreme Court ruling seeking to overturn the 1931 ban, saying 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 could vote for it and still support her campaign for governor.
The issue has already generated intense 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 flocked to a meeting of the State Canvassing Board, the once-serious panel that decides which questions and candidates qualify for the ballot. With anti-abortion protesters outside the building audible inside the courtroom, the board split along party lines, with two Republicans voting no and two Democrats voting yes. That meant the measure did not qualify for the ballot, but Reproductive Freedom for All appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, where the justices, most of whom were appointed by Democrats, ordered it to be implemented.
Red wine & Blue, the organization that held the wine bar meeting, is among the members of the RFFA coalition in Michigan. Her strategy is to ask suburban women, a key demographic in recent elections, to reach out and talk to friends, family and other acquaintances and ask them to vote.
The model, known as relational organizing, was used successfully by candidates like Senator Jon Ossoff of Georgia, who won a runoff election to help Democrats gain control of the US Senate. Bend, Indiana, to one of the leading candidates for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination.
Greta Carnes, who led the Buttigieg campaign effort, said it is particularly effective in getting women out of the suburbs and on the often sensitive and personal issue of abortion. The approach is also more efficient and effective, because people can reach dozens of people in a matter of minutes via text, and a voter who receives a message from someone they know is more likely to read and consider it, instead of removing 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 abortion on the ballot this summer. She told some friends that she would one day be in a parking lot collecting signatures, and word spread like wildfire, she said.
Vadlamudi started receiving text messages from people who wanted him to come to their house so they could sign. Hers, her Indian “aunts,” women to whom she is close but not related, wanted to circulate her own petitions. Some had relatives in the medical profession and feared the legal repercussions of having an abortion if the 1931 ban goes into effect, while others worried about their daughters or granddaughters. They ended up with 20 petitions filled.
“We got as many as we could,” Vadlamudi recalled. “People kept asking,” she said, and interest in the topic hasn’t died down.
Red wine & Blue’s Michigan group aims to reach 157,000 voters in the state through these “relationship” contacts, according to Katie Paris, the organization’s national director. The group’s leader in Michigan, Kelly Dillaha, said they are recruiting 5,000 women to reach out to their networks and update the group on their progress through an app.
Kathy Nitz, a mother of four from Rochester Hills, started working with Red, Wine & Blue after volunteering at her children’s schools, leading the PTA, and spearheading an effort to start classes later in the morning. Those topics always felt like “safe” topics, she said. Talking about abortion, on the other hand, was a bit like saying the word “Voldemort,” the name that characters in the “Harry Potter” books fear would bring great danger if spoken.
But Nitz has become more comfortable with the subject, even discussing the nuances with her very Catholic and anti-abortion mother. And she thinks these little conversations between women like her could add up.
“What I have realized as a suburban woman and a mother is that we are undervalued. We are underappreciated and underappreciated, but we are also strong,” Nitz said. “We build communities, we network. 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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