Tuesday was quite the day in Howell as Livingston County got its first-ever visit from a sitting U.S. president.
And that visit was more than just a pit stop on the way from Lansing to Detroit. President Joe Biden spent the afternoon at the Operating Engineers Local 324 training facility on M-59 in Howell, his first stop as he travels the country to sell his Build Back Better legislation, currently being wrangled in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin introduced the president at the event, which drew a lot of Michigan’s power elite to Howell, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist. In addition to Slotkin, on hand for the event were U.S. Reps. Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township, Dan Kildee of Flint Township, Debbie Dingell of Dearborn; and Mayor Nick Proctor of Howell.
The day also delivered a significant “first” for the Livingston County Republican Party, which hosted its first-ever protest of a sitting U.S. president (who was actually present), and the turnout was good.
Meghan Reckling, chair of the county Republican Party, can pat herself on the back for a job well done because the president took notice of the protesters and their signs and flags.
I’m guessing that one flag in particular made enough of an impression on Biden that he worked a comment related to it into his speech.
As the president neared the Operating Engineers facility along a route lined with protestors, there on the north side of M-59, sandwiched between the Livingston County Republicans’ pop-up tent, a big F–k Joe Biden flag, and a big flag of an automatic weapon was someone with a huge Confederate flag, a symbol of racism.
And racism is a touchy subject in Howell given the reputation the area has endured for years, a reputation many of us blame on Bob Miles, a Grand Dragon of the Michigan Klan who held cross burnings on his farm miles north of Howell.
Toward the end of his remarks, Biden said this:
“We know how deep-rooted racism is in this country. We saw the Klan marching here in Howell generations ago and again in recent years. It’s a never-ending battle.”
And it appears that Howell has a never-ending reputation: during the very first visit of a sitting U.S. president to Livingston County, the most-powerful man in the world felt the need to address it.
As a Howell resident, that makes me feel so sad.
The president took notice, too, of the “F—k Biden” signs that lined M-59.
In a story on MLive.com, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who rode in the same car as the president from Lansing to Howell, said the president pointed out the “F—k Biden” signs along M-59 and asked whether they were near a school.
Yes, they were. Three schools to be exact, all within walking distance of the Operating Engineers training facility. The president’s vehicle drove along M-59, past the Howell High School campus; Voyager Elementary School, which is situated on Byron Road, just off M-59; and Northwest Elementary School, located a block off M-59.
“I guess I’m still surprised when people, even if they don’t like me, are willing to be that profane around children,” the president is quoted as saying in the MLive story.
You’ve got to give the president his due: He didn’t take personal offense at the signs; he knows that stuff comes with being the leader of the free world, and you can find similar sentiments expressed in similar ways to the former president. All those “F—k Biden” signs waving so near so many young eyes are ironic given that Howell spent the end of the summer embroiled in a Reckling-created controversy over the appropriateness of an adults-only Drag Queen Bingo event. Reckling found Drag Queen Bingo — a ticketed, age-restricted event set for the beer tent on the Saturday evening of the Howell Melon Fest — a family-friendly bridge too far, and she used her social media presence to whip up her followers.
That Drag Queen Bingo controversy all but consumed the town. (You can read all our coverage of the controversy by clicking here.) In the end, the sold-out event at the Melon Fest was canceled, along with the beer tent; another drag queen event was set for the Howell Theater, which quickly sold out; Reckling called for an investigation into the person who booked the event about misuse of public funds or some such, to no avail; the sold-out Howell Theater event was canceled because amid all the heat of the controversy, the performers began to fear for their safety; and, an event finally took place at a pizzeria three miles out of downtown Howell. The person who booked the original Melon Fest event resigned her position, and the city council member who was the liaison between the council and the Howell Area Parks and Recreation Authority, which organized the Melon Fest, has withdrawn her re-election bid.
It was, frankly, a mess of epic proportion.
But I digress from Tuesday’s historic presidential visit to Howell.
That said, here are my picks for the biggest winners on Tuesday, when the eyes of the national news turned its gaze on Howell:
• President Joe Biden — a Democrat who got just 38% of the vote in Livingston County in the 2020 general election — is a brave, brave man, and, hands down, the day’s biggest winner. He ventured into red, red Livingston County to kick off his Build Back Better tour because workers like those trained at the Operating Engineers facility will benefit greatly from the jobs that will be created if Biden’s agenda becomes reality.
• U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a moderate Democrat and a rising political star, was a big winner on Tuesday, too; her district got to host POTUS, and the second-term legislator had the rare — and coveted — opportunity to ride alone with the president from Lansing to Howell, time that she used to share her positions on the current legislative wrangling in D.C.
“In the ride from the Lansing airport, I was frank with the president that my highest priority is for the bipartisan infrastructure bill to become law,” Slotkin said in a statement.
Slotkin went on to stress the life-changing effect the bill will have on Congressional districts like the 8th, which currently includes all of Livingston and Ingham counties, and northern Oakland County.
“(The infrastructure bill) will create millions of good-paying union jobs — prevailing wage jobs — all over the country,” she said. “This is a huge economic opportunity and we have to get it done.”
Slotkin told Biden that the ‘human infrastructure’ bill needs to be “both transformative and targeted.”
“Transformative by expanding access to affordable child care for working families and letting Medicare negotiate for lower drug prices,” she said, “and targeted by ensuring that the package is fully paid for, doesn’t pass on more debt to our kids, and doesn’t saddle working families with the bill.
“These have been my criteria for this bill from the start and that’s what I told the president,” Slotkin said. “I’m grateful for his leadership in getting us through what I hope is a few short weeks more of negotiations.”
Slotkin has represented us well in Washington, D.C.
• Operating Engineers Local 324 got some well-deserved attention and love on Tuesday. This local, and its amazing training facility, basked in the spotlight of Livingston County’s first-ever presidential visit. The local is also a great community member, so it’s nice to see it get national attention.
• Howell Mayor Nick Proctor, interviewed at the event by Yamiche Alcindor of PBS, expressed his support for Biden’s infrastructure plan.
“The City of Howell and the surrounding communities were excited to have a visit by the president,” Proctor said in the interview. “He’s our president. He’s all of our president. And we were very happy that he came here to pitch his Build Back Better program.”
Proctor went on to tell Alcindor that infrastructure isn’t a partisan issue.
“We all use roads,” Proctor said. “We all turn on the water and expect our water to be treated. So, this is not a Republican, Democrat or independent issue. This is truly an American issue. So, yes, I do support the Build Back Better program. I think most people would.”
• Meghan Reckling, chair of the Livingston County GOP, got a decent turnout for the anti-Biden protest. She’s politically ambitious, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear she’s making another run for public office in 2022.
Below is a slideshow of some other photos from President Biden’s visit to the Operating Engineers training center:
— Will Stuart contributed to this report.