MUSKEGON, MICH. – Rillastine Wilkins has worked for decades to help women become a powerful political force in this community on Lake Michigan’s eastern shore.

Those efforts paid off in 2018, when Muskegon County voters helped elect a female governor, secretary of state, attorney general and U.S. senator. The results put Wilkins and other women here on the leading edge of a shift that is reshaping politics across the Midwest and nationally: Female voters were pivotal last year and are top targets of both parties in the 2020 presidential race.

Michigan Muskegon co.

The Midwest remakes American politics

Minnesota is part of that trend. Women helped elect two newcomers, Democratic U.S. Reps. Angie Craig and Ilhan Omar, in 2018, and several female challengers beat men in state House races.

Women will again be a critical factor in Michigan and in other Midwest battlegrounds in 2020. Donald Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes — the smallest winning margin in the state’s presidential election history. The state — along with Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota — will be ground zero in his re-election campaign.

Michigan women are souring on Trump. A recent statewide poll found that 65% of them will vote for someone else or would consider it.

Recent interviews with more than a dozen Muskegon County women exposed surprising levels of reticence on both sides of the partisan divide. Many of those who dislike Trump aren’t rooting for a particular Democrat or paying much attention to the big field. They just want a nominee who can beat him.

Some Trump supporters here were reluctant to say what they like about him, and some said that they have qualms.

At the Arts & Drafts Festival’s car show in Norton Shores on a Saturday morning, Cindy Cox listed what she likes about the president: “My big thing is keeping the illegals out. Numerous jobs have come about, in my town anyway, because of Trump. He’s cleaning up Washington.”

Then she added a caveat. “I’m a little worried that we might end up in a war, because he can be arrogant,” she said.

Women at both ends of the spectrum lamented the fact that they don’t share their views — even with family and friends — in the current toxic political climate because they don’t want to start arguments.

Top: Sue Prosch, center, peeled onions for an annual fish boil fundraiser and talked politics. She said she’s not hopeful about what’s happening in Washington. Above left: People gathered at Muskegon's downtown waterfront. There are signs Michigan voters, particularly women, are souring on Trump. Above right: Friends Cindy Cox, left, and Lori Eaton don’t talk about politics because they align themselves with different parties.

Cox’s best friend of 34 years, Lori Eaton, walked away when Cox began to share her thoughts. “I’m a Trump supporter; she’s not,” explained Cox, 58, a retiree from Muskegon. “We don’t talk politics.”

Other women worry that their hard-won gains are in jeopardy. “I’m really afraid,” Wilkins said. “I think Trump’s going to win again.”

The Muskegon County commissioner, 87, was on the City Council in next-door Muskegon Heights for almost 30 years, eight of them as mayor. Long active in the Black Women’s Political Caucus, which formed in 1977, she also belongs to the Progressive Democratic Women’s Caucus.

She has fought racism since moving here in 1952. After she and her late husband, Clarence, bought a home long ago in an all-white neighborhood, someone threw a brick through the living room window.

“When you make progress, things change … and the things you thought you were done fighting come back,” she said. Three-fourths of Muskegon County’s residents are white.

Muskegon County was among eight of Michigan’s 83 that backed Hillary Clinton — by 1,177 votes — in 2016. In an Aug. 17-21 poll by the nonpartisan firm EPIC-MRA, women preferred Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., over Trump.

Most Michigan women had negative opinions of Trump: 59% viewed him unfavorably, compared with 46% of men. His policies and rhetoric “are turning off suburban women and causing problems among women who are independents or even Republicans,” said pollster Bernie Porn.

“The opinions of women are pretty baked in, and I don’t know what on earth Trump can do to change that,” he said.

Historical presidential
elections in Michigan

Click a year to see how the state voted in the last five presidential elections, county by county.


Mich. Muskegon Co.
Bush 46.1% 43.3%
Gore 51.3% 54.7%
Mich. Muskegon Co.
Bush 47.8% 43.9%
Kerry 51.2% 55.1%
Mich. Muskegon Co.
McCain 40.9% 34.6%
Obama 57.3% 63.9%
Mich. Muskegon Co.
Romney 44.7% 40.5%
Obama 54.2% 58.3%
Mich. Muskegon Co.
Trump 47.5% 46.3%
Clinton 47.3% 47.8%

The demographic and economic view from Muskegon County

2018 population 173,588
White, non-Hispanic/Latino 76%
Foreign-born population 1.7%
Median age 38.9
Number of companies 11,566
High school or higher 89.9%
Median household income $46,077
Below poverty level 15.2%
Unemployment (July 2019) 5.4%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Labor Department

The gender gap extends beyond Michigan’s borders. A national Quinnipiac University Poll released Aug. 28 found that 62% of women disapproved of the way Trump is handling his job, compared with 49% of men.

Trump got 41% of women’s votes to Clinton’s 54% in 2016, according to exit polls. But white women supported him by a margin of 2 percentage points.

While a reggae band had toes tapping in Muskegon’s Hackley Park on a Friday night, politics was quietly in the air. Hundreds of people gathered to eat, drink and socialize. Volunteers handed out brochures about Sanders’ campaign.

Retired teacher Sue Schecter was organizing kids’ activities. She was hesitant at first to share her political views, but she said that Trump “has stood his ground” on limiting abortion, an issue that’s important to her, and she agrees with him that rules must be enforced at the Mexican border, she said.

The area’s Republican congressman, Bill Huizenga, “has the core beliefs I have,” said Schecter, 70. His votes are in line with Trump’s positions 97% of the time, according to the website FiveThirtyEight.

“But I may have beliefs in both parties,” she added. She mentioned accepting transgender individuals and said, “Everybody wants to be accepted for who they are.” Asked if she’s optimistic, she said, “This is a big country. It’s pretty hard to come together.”

Do those sorts of issues come up often in conversations with friends? “This is the first time I’ve ever said these things to anyone,” she said.

Laura Cooper said she doesn’t really pay attention to politics but knows she doesn’t want Trump to be re-elected. “He’s very arrogant and self-centered,” she said.

College roommates Sharon Meyer, 66, and Maggie Jensen, 67, were chatting on the other side of Hackley Park. They’re frustrated with politics.

“My first reaction is this whole situation is asinine and I want no part of it,” said Meyer, a dietitian who lives in Oakland County, just north of Detroit. “Then you stop and say, ‘Now that you’ve had your moment of disgust, what are you going to do about it?’ ”

The friends are intentionally avoiding the ongoing Democratic presidential debates and would consider voting for Trump or his eventual challenger. “I’m not on a team,” Meyer said. “I’m open to both,” Jensen said.

What’s needed, they agree, is healthy debate, open minds and compromise. “It can’t be one party or the other,” retiree Jensen said. “It has to be both.”

Until that happens, they’re opting out of political discussions. Jensen closed her Facebook account because she couldn’t stand the “poisonous” partisan exchanges. Meyer winces when someone brings up politics at her book club.

“I want people who have opposite political values to talk to each other,” Meyer said. “Talk about why I believe this and why do you believe that, and if we don’t agree, it’s OK.”

Downtown Muskegon is in the midst of a face-lift. New restaurants, shops and apartments give it an upscale vibe.

Along Western Avenue, a collection of tiny house-style shops called chalets are open. Maggie Vincent sells treats and Michigan souvenirs at one of them. It’s a branch of her larger store, Maggie’s Gourmet Foods and Gifts, and is so successful that she recently added an employee.

Her satisfaction with the economy shapes her thinking about politics. “I don’t think we should make any political leader changes right now,” said Vincent, 64. After some hard years, “I really feel it is going in the right direction.”

Sue Prosch and Debbie Windbacher were helping peel 450 pounds of onions at the blue band shell in Montague. They sat in a circle with other White Lake Area Sportfishing Association members who were preparing ingredients for the next day’s fish boil, their annual fundraiser.

They took breaks to talk politics — one at a time, away from the rest of the group.

Windbacher, 61, retired in March after 40 years at the Arconic plant in Whitehall, which makes aerospace parts and is Muskegon County’s largest industrial employer with a payroll of about 2,200.

A lifelong Democrat, she senses that more people are joining her party. “It’s kind of got me hopeful,” she said.
“I want the complete opposite of what we’ve got now,” she said. “I want to just see people being comfortable again and feeling that they can live their lives without any fear.”

Top: While a reggae band had toes tapping in Muskegon’s Hackley Park, politics was quietly in the air. Hundreds of people gathered to eat, drink and socialize. Above left: Sue Schecter said she has beliefs in both parties. Above right: Sharon Meyer, left, and Maggie Jensen, friends since college, both said they are frustrated with the state of politics.

Prosch, 70, has a different take. She wants a change in the White House, but “I don’t even care if it’s another Republican,” she said. And she doesn’t share Windbacher’s optimism.

“I’m not hopeful,” Prosch said, “because the Republicans are not doing anything and the Democrats have their hands tied. They should be more forceful; I’m not real happy with them either.”

She’s not surprised that polls show Trump’s core allies sticking with him. “Nothing will turn them away,” she said.

Kris Johnson, 50, and her daughter Franny Kromminga, 25, were among people drawn to a pristine Lake Michigan beach as the weekend began.

Neither woman is paying close attention yet to the Democratic nomination fight, but both know what they want.

Kromminga, an actor who lives in Denver, likes Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts and Harris: “What’s more important to me is voting for someone who doesn’t represent what Trump represents.”

Her mom, an account manager for a pharmaceutical company, wants a leader who will support abortion rights and combat climate change.

“I don’t like extremes,” she said. Johnson is ready for a female president. “I voted for Hillary, but not because I like her,” she said. “I voted for Hillary because I hated Trump.”

Laura Cooper, 67, who was at the beach with two grandsons, doesn’t like or pay attention to politics, but she knows what she wants. “I’m hoping our president doesn’t get re-elected. … He’s very arrogant and self-centered,” she said.

Back at the car show, Linda Vander Laan, 70, and her husband, Glenn, kept an eye on his prized Oldsmobile 442 muscle car as she explained what’s on her mind. They live in nearby Wyoming in Kent County.

“I’m really scared that Trump is not going to turn over power” if he loses, she said. “I wish the Democrats would quit fighting with each other and concentrate on him.”

She won’t talk politics with fellow car aficionados. “We’re too old to be fighting with people,” Vander Laan said. “We have very, very close friends that we don’t talk to about politics. It makes me sad.”

Delores Cole, 83, who like Wilkins has for many years been a pioneer in the fight to elect women and protect their rights, is sad, too. She’s also alarmed. Trump “has been a ticket for the kind of prejudice that was here back in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s,” she said.

Some of his recent comments, including criticism of Omar and other women of color in Congress, suggest that racial bias “is creeping back.”

Cole, administrator at Mount Zion Church of God in Christ in Muskegon, has witnessed so much change that she believes the political environment must improve. She spoke in the church sanctuary, where a Bible verse on the wall reads: “He that ploweth should plow in hope.”

Delores Cole, administrator at Mount Zion Church of God in Christ, is alarmed at what has been happening politically. Some of Trump’s recent comments suggest that racial bias “is creeping back,” she said.