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An Evening with Hillsdale County Democrats

Hillsdale County is, in many ways, a flashback to the America that used to be, a place of rolling hills and pleasant little towns and farms and orchards along the Ohio border.

It was settled by New Englanders, and to this day, most of its forty-six thousand people are of either English or German descent. People born there tend to spend their lives there.

Hillsdale is famous mostly for Hillsdale College, a small liberal arts school which became internationally famous for rejecting any federal funding, and as a beacon for conservative ideology. Figures from Ronald Reagan to Margaret Thatcher to William F. Buckley Jr. have come to what may have seemed to them like the middle of nowhere to speak at the school.

The county is a place without many minorities or any big cities, and it's overwhelmingly Republican. So when the Hillsdale Democrats asked me to come speak at their annual Harry S. Truman Day dinner Saturday, I was intrigued.

What kind of folks are Democrats in Hillsdale? So I went, and found myself somewhat moved. They were not, by and large, very conservative or very liberal. Most of them seemed just like the warm and friendly folks you meet in towns all across Michigan.

They hold their monthly meetings in the county senior center, and start with the Pledge of Allegiance and a moment of silence for those in our armed forces. They awarded scholarships to some local students, and ended their meeting with a raffle.

They came from all walks of life. One man was a physics teacher at the college, another owned an orchard and a greenhouse. There were some librarians and retired teachers.

Some were, indeed, dyed-in-the-wool Democrats. One retiree proudly told me he’d given fourteen thousand dollars to candidates in the last few years, but then said sadly, “Of course, that’s just a drop in the ocean,” referring to the cost of modern campaigns.

Most of the people there were not rabid ideologues. They were deeply worried about the way things seem to be going in this state. They are bewildered and a little frightened by the fact that the legislature seems to be totally uninterested in what really matters to real people.

“How can they cut our schools by a million dollars, take away benefits and expect better education and more accountability from teachers?” one asked.

Pat Pastula, the party’s chair, is a retired high school English teacher and track coach who told me he hadn’t really paid much attention to politics untill five years ago, when he started feeling things were getting badly off track. He didn’t say he resented the way some on the far right depicted Democrats these days; he was simply baffled by the craziness.

“We’re not against free enterprise,” he told me. “That’s what made America great. We aren’t out to redistribute incomes, but create opportunities. We just think we need a little more balance, and we don’t understand how they think they can build a future economy while crippling education.”

As I prepared to leave, a woman asked me if I thought Governor Snyder had any idea what the effects of his policies were, or if he didn’t care? I said that was a very interesting question.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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