Voters' response to shocking tapes of a Trump-style mayor offers 2020 hint

Tom Perkins in Warren, Michigan
Photograph: Brittany Greeson/Getty Images

In late December, an alleged recording of Jim Fouts, the mayor of the Detroit suburb of Warren, surfaced in which he can be heard apparently claiming black people commit more crimes and call 911 more frequently than white people.

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“The bullshit calls are blacks,” Fouts declares to an appointee.

In most cities, this alone might be enough to sink a mayor’s career. But this isn’t the first time Fouts has been busted making controversial remarks about black residents. Other alleged secret recordings released in recent years provide audio of him comparing black people to chimpanzees and using the N-word. In other tapes, he disparages older women and insults disabled people.

The recordings have earned him the local nickname the “Donald Trump of Warren” and, like the US president, the controversies seem irrelevant to his supporters: Warren residents last November put Fouts back in office for a fourth term with 57% of the vote.

That result should catch the attention of national Democrats. Warren is the third largest city in the key swing state of Michigan, and a blue-collar suburb that’s the heart of Macomb county north of the city of Detroit. Macomb is one of a handful of Obama-to-Trump swing counties nationwide in which Democrats are eager to win back white working-class voters in the 2020 presidential election.

Residents here will play a key role in deciding the next president, and the re-election of a Trump-like outsider figure in this battleground city signals that relying on voters to tire of an elected official’s racism, sexism or vulgarities can – sometimes – be a losing strategy.

Fouts calls himself an independent and his political record is mixed across party lines in Warren, where the mayor’s office is a non-partisan position. He has often aligned with Republican issues but also taken Democrat positions with some policies and has expressed support for the progressive Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.

William Deskins Sr, a Warren resident and Fouts supporter, said he was attracted by a mixed bag of sentiment and Fouts’s Trumpian self-image of an outsider who gets things done. The 76-year-old Republican praised the mayor for his policies and improving Warren while adding that he and his neighbors don’t care about Fouts’ comments.

“He does a great job in the city, so what he does on his own is up to him,” Deskins said. “I couldn’t care less what he says. Just like Trump – he does a good job with the country and I’m satisfied with him.”

Certainly the tapes of Fouts are shocking.

In one recording, he described the availability of teenage prostitutes in Amsterdam. In 2016, he labeled kids in the Special Olympics “retards” who should be locked in cages. A 2018 tape allegedly reveals the mayor using a slur to describe gay people, while he is heard saying he would enjoy shooting his former chief of staff “through the fucking head” in a 2019 tape.

Fouts denies wrongdoing and claims the tapes are fake or manipulated and part of a plot to disparage him, but audio experts have said they are real.

Fouts, 77, also caused a controversy by giving huge raises to a city hall staffer he was dating who was less than half his age, and in a separate case he violated campaign finance laws.

The tapes and controversies are “damning”, said the Michigan political analyst Bill Ballenger, and were seen as raising serious questions about Fouts’s 2019 re-election chances.

“I guess we got our answer,” Ballenger added. “The people in Warren feel comfortable with him as mayor … because he’s really doing the job – he’s walking the walk, and he’s satisfying his constituents.”

In many ways that echoes the way Trump is portrayed by his re-election campaign in places like Macomb. In one high-profile ad Trump’s team declare: “He’s no Mr Nice Guy, but sometimes it takes a Donald Trump to change Washington.”

Ron Papandrea, a Fouts ally and Warren city council member, also pointed to Fouts’s policies as the basis to the mayor’s success, but said he was not sure that the city’s residents are as satisfied with Trump’s performance on the national stage.

While some argue that Macomb is a shade redder than it was in 2016, Warren skews more blue than the rest of the county. Regardless, it’s policies, not persona, that are on voters’ minds: “I don’t think Trump wins Macomb or Warren because enough people have been agitated by his policies,” Papandrea said.

But others disagree. Trump’s and Fouts’s brash style is something of an asset in a place like Warren, Deskins said.

“I think it’s about time we had somebody who says what’s on their mind instead of what’s politically correct, which is a bunch of bullshit,” he added. “Tell it like it is.”