Ted Nugent warmed up the crowd, leading with a sentimental anecdote about deer hunting in northern Michigan before flowing into a guitar-backed riff imploring the audience to vote for freedom. "I think we found us a shit-kicker running for president!" the rocker declared. The shit-kicker, Donald Trump, had come to an amphitheater in suburban Macomb County, Michigan, on a chilly night in November 2016, among his last stops on a frenetic final campaign push, where he stood beneath an enormous American flag and promised to revive the state's depleted auto industry.
Five weeks later, after heavily populated, blue-collar Macomb helped turn Michigan narrowly red—a swing that, along with those in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, effectively delivered the election to Trump—area residents woke up to a very Trumpian local scandal playing out on the local TV news. The stories contained leaked audio purportedly of Jim Fouts, the 77-year-old mayor of Warren, population 130,000, the largest city in Macomb County, and the third largest in the state.
"While on Fridays in the past I would be going to meet some women," Fouts—or the slightly high-pitched, old fashioned–sounding voice that sounded distinctly like Fouts—said in one recording, "tonight I am going to meet a bunch of retards. Tonight is retard night." The voice was referring to a pending Special Olympics event. "I think they have to keep them in diapers," he went on. "Why would anybody want that as part of their life?" He added that he was "for Dr. Kevorkian," the controversial assisted suicide advocate, and that his disabled constituents were "not even human beings" who belonged in a cage.
If Trump is America's most scandal-resilient national politician, Fouts may be its most scandal-resilient mayor. In addition to the special needs comments, more audio has surfaced in which Fouts—or a voice that sounds exactly like him—denigrates older women, compares Black people to chimpanzees, and glamorizes sex with underage girls in Amsterdam. He has also faced scandals over verbal and physical outbursts, pay raises to a young female city employee with whom he was reportedly romantically involved, and retaliation against a city whistleblower. (Fouts has repeatedly denied it's his voice on the leaked tapes, and accuses political enemies of framing him.) Yet on November 5, Fouts, after winning a nonpartisan primary, is favored to win a fourth term.
"I think he's probably the most popular person that lives in Warren," said Richard Diener, a 77-year-old Fouts supporter who serves as Second Vice Commander at a local Polish League of American Veterans post. "I like that he doesn't talk with a crooked tongue. He tells it like it is."
Fouts' opponent, City Council member Kelly Colegio, has vowed to clean up political corruption, kickstart economic development, and restore community harmony. She faces a difficult task, as Fouts has easily won three mayoral elections and is now running again after voters approved a measure changing the rules on term limits. But the contest could have implications far beyond Warren's borders.
Macomb County has been a national bellwether in the last three presidential contests, voting for Barack Obama twice before defecting to Donald Trump. The suburbs of Michigan and other Midwestern swing states may be the most hotly contested ground in all of 2020. As Democrats attempt to persuade voters to abandon a scandal-plagued leader who responds to crises by lashing out at his perceived enemies, they might consider that many voters in Macomb are seemingly willing to stand behind such a leader in Fouts. And if they back him, why would they ever abandon Trump?
In July 1967 Detroit was burning. Forty-three people were killed, hundreds were injured, and some 1,400 buildings went up in smoke during a five-day series of riots that were sparked by a police raid on an unlicensed bar and quelled with the intervention of the National Guard. The incident was the bloodiest in the wave of racial protests, born of simmering discrimination and Black disenfranchisement, that were sweeping American cities at the time. It also accelerated the racial segregation that was already beginning to define metro Detroit, leading white residents to flee the city in droves. Many went north across Eight Mile Road to Macomb County. While Detroit's population hemorrhaged for decades—the Motor City fell from 1.9 million residents in 1950 to just over 700,000 in 2010—Macomb ballooned, growing from 185,000 to 841,000 during the same period. Warren, a near perfect rectangle of small manicured lawns, strip malls, and big box stores, incorporated as a city in 1957. Within a decade it had transformed into the most populous Detroit suburb, and among the state's largest cities.
The area remains decidedly industrial—Warren's two largest economic drivers are a 700-acre General Motors tech campus and an Army tank manufacturing plant. And though in recent years the county has had an influx of Iraqi, Indian, and other immigrants, it also remains predominantly white, in a metro region that's still defined by a legacy of sharp racial division and hostility. Even today, many residents of the Detroit suburbs all but refuse to enter the predominantly Black city proper.
"Well, you have to look at who's living in Warren," Kenya T. Coviak, a Black woman who moved to Warren from Detroit nearly a decade ago, told me after I asked about many residents' apparent tolerance of Fouts' alleged racist comments. "He speaks their language." Coviak's white friends, she added, warn her about area businesses that charge Black customers more. "You have places you can't go."
The county's preeminence in American politics began in the 1980s, after analysts noticed a startling transformation: In the 1960s Macomb and its white auto workers had voted by huge margins for Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in presidential elections. But by 1984 the county had flipped, overwhelmingly supporting Republican Ronald Reagan. Stanley Greenberg, a Yale researcher and Democratic consultant, famously dubbed the bloc "Reagan Democrats"—working-class men and women "who believed in America and its dream" but no longer felt the Democratic Party, which was increasingly emerging as the party of progressive social values, represented their interests. "Macomb is an exaggeration, a caricature of America, because it so wholeheartedly identified itself with the currents that swept the nation in the years following the Second World War," Greenberg wrote in his 1995 book Middle Class Dreams: The Politics and Power of the New American Majority.
Detroit and its suburbs became "ground zero," as the Los Angeles Times put it, for the 1992 election, and Macomb has remained at the forefront of national electoral politics since. Obama won the county twice. Trump, astutely recognizing Macomb's independent streak, visited five times to Hillary Clinton's one, and connected emotionally with a suburban voting bloc that felt alienated by both national parties. He won the county by 12 points en route to carrying Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes out of 4.5 million. "They go hunting, they've got guns," Ed Sarpolus, the founder of Michigan polling firm Target-Insyght, told me. "They're very conservative on right to life but they still like social welfare because it benefits them. This is the group that Trump hopes is never going to leave him."
In a town where change comes slowly, Fouts has long been a one-man political institution. He was a 39-year-old teacher when he won his first City Council race in 1981; over the next two and a half decades he burnished his image both as a cagey political street fighter and "Warren's neighborhood councilman," an exceptionally accessible public figure who cared about trash pickups and lousy landlords. Since becoming mayor in 2007, he's won praise for tightening city spending, introducing LED streetlights, and reinstating city EMS transport. Last year he was recognized by the U.S. Conference of Mayors for the city's blight-reduction program. Residents, especially seniors and veterans, admire his longevity and hands-on approach. Diener, the Polish League of American Veterans commander, fondly recalled how he was recently performing an errand at City Hall when the mayor, remembering an interaction six months earlier, approached him and said hello. "He meets hundreds of people all the time," Diener told me. "For him to recognize me made me feel pretty good."
This, analysts point out, is a critical distinction between Fouts and the president, whose narcissism appears all-consuming. "Fouts has some principles that Donald Trump does not have," Sarpolus told me. "It isn't all about Fouts; it's about the city and the people of Warren." And after nearly four decades in public office, many residents, Sarpolus argued, weren't ready to throw him out, even if they were appalled by the comments. "'I trust the devil that I know,'" he said. "That's the phrase here."
Fouts' history of controversy stretches back to 2011, when he was filing paperwork to run for a second mayoral term and refused to fill out his birthdate, leading to an eligibility lawsuit and a reported chair-throwing incident at the city clerk's office. For years he's also been dogged by accusations of granting pay raises and job protection to an assistant with whom he may have had a romantic relationship.
In 2014, the former city treasurer said she feared a physical attack when Fouts, enraged by comments she'd made about him to the media, lunged at her in a budget meeting. The incident was sparked by leaked audio recordings: Tapes emerged in 2013 in which Fouts, upset about changes to his Wikipedia page, was secretly recorded ranting about wanting to beat an ex-employee with a baseball bat or get a "fucking gun and blow his fucking head out." Fouts was investigated over the comments but not criminally charged. James Hartley, the municipal worker who recorded the audio, also alleged that after he brought the tapes to police Fouts retaliated by revoking his office key card and sending him to the city's Department of Public Works garage, where he was forced to manually count auto parts. At one point, addressing an audience for the National Day of Prayer, Fouts apologized for the violent rants, though he also told reporters the leaks and lawsuit were part of an "orchestrated effort" by political opponents and "media-driven." Hartley was awarded $175,000 in a civil suit.
The December 2016 tapes, in which Fouts allegedly insults disabled people, were quickly followed up by a release, on the following Martin Luther King Jr. Day, of more tapes, published by the Motor City Muckraker, a metro Detroit investigative journalism blog. That audio revealed a Fouts-like explaining why he didn't want to date older women. "I think after a certain age they are dried up, washed up, burned out." The voice continued, "They are pussies when they are young, and when they get older, they're just mean, hateful, dried-up cunts." He also relayed a childhood story that included the N-word, and compared African Americans to monkeys. "You know, Blacks do look like chimpanzees. I was watching this Black woman with her daughter and they looked like two chimps. Their mouths were elongated up, duck-ish like." More audio came out last winter, in which that same Fouts-like voice, speaking in 2015, mocked Rick Santorum's disabled child as a "mongoloid," referred to gay people as "fags," and joked about having sex with abused women.
After this batch of audio leaked, a local forensic audio expert told media outlets that he believed the recordings were authentic after matching the tapes against other known recordings of Fouts; if Fouts would agree to read the same words, however, he could determine the authenticity with 100 percent certainty. Fouts declined. As the scandals ballooned, past acquaintances, including the city's former deputy police chief and a former commissioner, came forward to say they believed the tapes were real, based on similar comments they'd heard Fouts make in the past. Others, including the mayor of Detroit, pointed out that fabricated tapes would amount to a felony, and challenged Fouts, if he were telling the truth, to pursue charges.
Fouts and his supporters maintain that all of the recent recordings are falsified. "I don't want to get into the tapes," the mayor told me recently, in an annoyed tone. "I consider that a dead subject." With rapid-fire speed he then repeated his stance that the audio was a "manipulated, manufactured, [and] out of context" attack by his enemies. He rattled off numerous appointments of minorities and women he has made, including a Black fire commander and city attorney (one appointment to his Downtown Development Authority, he noted, is a cousin of Jesse Jackson), a female city engineer, and an elderly secretary and water superintendent. He also pointed out that he'd received a letter from Bernice King, in 2017, after implementing the city's first Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. "There's no mayor in the history of Warren that's ever done more than I have," he said of his diversity efforts.
Fouts also emphasized, without prompting, that he jogs every morning, hasn't taken a vacation in 12 years, and returns calls until 10 p.m. His primary victory was evidence that his commitment and hands-on approach remained popular. "If I were this terrible person that they'd like to present me to be," he told me, "I don't think that I would have gotten that type of vote."
Still, the fallout from the recordings has been severe. After the audio of Fouts allegedly discussing disabled people surfaced, he was fired from his local AM radio talk show and assailed by state political leaders, including Michigan's then-lieutenant governor, who called a news conference over the issue, and the chair of the state's Democratic Party. Outraged parents and disability advocates flooded a City Council meeting. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing," Mary Redd, a Warren resident who at the time was the foster parent of an autistic boy, told me. "I was bawling my eyes out."
The audio about Black people turned up the pressure. "You need to resign now!" the Reverend W.J. Rideout III yelled as Fouts, trailed by reporters, hastily walked out of City Hall. "You are not a mayor, you are a racist! You are a Ku Klux Klansman!" Soon a group of prominent elected officials, including U.S. Representative Sander Levin, called for Fouts' resignation, a local activist filed a recall petition, and protesters were threatening a boycott of the city.
Fouts repeatedly accused his enemies, in particular Mark Hackel, the Macomb county executive, whom Fouts had accused of covering up an environmental disaster related to illegal waste dumping in a county park, of staging a political hit job. (Hackel did not return my calls requesting an interview, but in a 2016 press conference accused Fouts of creating "hysteria" over the park incident. State officials determined there was no public health risk.)
The audio scandals also dovetailed with racism accusations against the police department. In April 2017, DeSheila Howlett, a Black woman who was hired as the city's first African American police officer in 2006, had filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging a pattern of racist and sexist behavior. Last August, when Fouts was deposed as part of the suit, he was asked whether the voice degrading African Americans was his, and declined to answer, on the advice of a city attorney. As part of the same suit Joe DiSano, a former adviser to Fouts, testified that the mayor once referred to Kwame Kilpatrick, a former Detroit mayor, using the N-word; DiSano has also said that he was once in a meeting with Fouts when the mayor, speaking about Detroit residents, broke into a monkey dance. "At first I thought it was some kind of joke," DiSano told me, "almost like a satirical comment. And it became clear that it wasn't." (The civil rights suit remains ongoing. Last week, the city’s former diversity coordinator filed an additional suit, alleging a “racially hostile and toxic work environment” and that he was wrongfully terminated for trying to address violations, including matters related to Howlett.)
Yet in early 2017, as the new scandals engulfed Warren, many residents stood by Fouts. In packed council meetings, while parades of advocates angrily denounced the mayor, others took the microphone to defend him, parroting his claims that the tapes were political tricks intended to distract from the illegal dumping story. Some city pastors claimed the audio didn't reflect Fouts' real character, at least one business owner threatened to leave the city if Fouts was forced out, and at one point the City Council president blamed the divisive scandal on "rigged" media. "Now everyone understands what our President Elect has been going through," one Warren resident wrote on Fouts' busy Facebook page. "Let us all judge the man by what is true and not media propaganda."
"Listen, there's a difference between it being his voice and him saying those things, and right now I'm confused just like everyone else."
Ten candidates ran in this year's mayoral primary, held in early August, including an Iraq War veteran, the founder of a group called the Libertarian Socialist Caucus, and a Republican who recently lost a county commissioner race. Fouts took 58 percent of the vote. Colegio, who took 24 percent, pointed out that it was among Fouts' worst showings. "This could be interesting," she told me, referring to the upcoming general election, which will be a runoff between Colegio and Fouts.
In many ways Colegio, who would become the city's first-ever female mayor, is a prototypical Macomb resident: the proud daughter of a UAW worker who moved to Warren decades ago after her husband was hired as a policeman in the city. Like Fouts, she describes herself as politically independent, though she's more conservative than the mayor, who supported Obama and Bernie Sanders. She's pro-union but nervous about national Democrats' talk of socialism. She said she believes the two-party system is destroying America and voted for Trump "to give him a chance," though she isn't sure how she'll vote in 2020.
More than a decade ago Colegio was a stay-at-home mom when a new banquet facility opened behind her house. She called the city clerk to complain about the facility's excessive noise, and soon was talking to Fouts, at the time the City Council president. The two hit it off. Soon after, when Fouts first ran for mayor, Colegio joined his campaign. When he won, she joined his staff. "We worked really well," she told me. "We were close."
Colegio, with Fouts' endorsement, joined the council in 2011, where she often acted as a contrarian. She also gradually grew dismayed by what she describes as a mayor-down culture of hypocrisy and political corruption, like when Fouts hosted a state of the city address that doubled as a political action committee fundraiser or when the council, with Fouts' support, created an unusual closed-door subcommittee on medical marijuana licenses, a practice that recently led to a court order halting city licenses. She also hinted at potentially darker wrongdoing related to a sweeping ongoing Macomb County FBI corruption investigation. "I myself have gone and spoken to the FBI in terms of things that I felt were going on in the city of Warren," she told me. "I'm not really at liberty to say exactly what those are right now." (Fouts has not been accused in the FBI probe.)
She presents her campaign as a kind of new beginning for a city that often feels stuck in the past, with aims that include improving fraught relations with other elected leaders, enticing new businesses, and kickstarting urban redevelopment to attract young people. She's also not the voice on the tapes. "The mayor, he's from a different time period, where perhaps in the 'good old boys' days that was accepted," she told me, referencing the audio. "But thank God it's not accepted nowadays, right?"
Judging by an abundance of yard signs, for both candidates, in front yards and car dealerships, turnout next month will likely be much higher than for the city's primary, a development that Colegio believes favors her. But even as some potential Warren voters condemn the incumbent, one problem facing Colegio is that a lot of others, Fouts supporters or not, don't necessarily endorse what the mayor allegedly said on the tapes but question that he said anything at all. For two and a half years, while Fouts has maintained a very Trumpian narrative of denial—portraying himself as a serial victim of nefarious rivals and the media, lashing out on social networks, blasting the accusations as "manipulated" and "phony"—many residents have apparently withheld judgement.
"Listen, there's a difference between it being his voice and him saying those things, and right now I'm confused just like everyone else," Jerry Bell, a Warren City Council candidate, told me recently. Bell is African American and a friend of Fouts'. As the scandal was erupting he met with the mayor to discuss the tapes, and soon concluded they had possibly been manipulated by Adobe software, a narrative that Bell subsequently pushed. Now Bell says he leans toward believing the tapes are authentic, but remains skeptical in part because no original source ever materialized. "I need something concrete, which I don't think is out there," he said. "I'm really willing to believe that this is a part of that Adobe [software]."
Several Warren residents I spoke to reiterated Bell's skepticism: If the tapes were somehow "proven" to be authentic, they told me, it would change their mind about Fouts. But, as far as they were concerned, they hadn't been. In this day and age, when it's near impossible to trust anything, it was just so hard to know.
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Trevor Bach is a journalist based in Detroit.