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Commentary: 'Me And Mitt - Sons Of A Different Detroit'

Mitt Romney called our house the other day to talk about his campaign for president. President Obama’s supporters also have called, although I’m not sure if the president himself has actually left a message. Romney’s call was a recording but if the candidate himself had been on the line we could have had a family reunion. Mitt and I, after all, are both sons of Detroit, although we had very different fathers, one a corporate boss and the other a factory worker. Our fathers and countless others managed to reconcile their differences to produce a 20th century, share-the-wealth capitalism benefitting millions of families in Detroit, Akron, Toledo Dayton, Youngstown and industrial cities across the country. That might sound like heretical Obama speak to 21st century Republicans. It’s a history lesson worth reviewing for Mitt, however, if he wants to score with voters in battleground states like Michigan and Ohio where memories of those glory days are as fresh as the recent bailout of the auto industry. Neither Mitt nor I actually grew up in Detroit. He’s from Bloomfield Hills, an upscale suburb, and attended the prestigious Cranbrook School. I’m from Flint, about 60 miles to the north, the birthplace of General Motors. I graduated from Flint Central, a school now closed in the wake of my hometown’s dramatic loss of jobs and population. By Detroit I mean the once mighty American auto industry that ignited middle class prosperity in post World War II America. Mitt’s dad, George Romney, was chairman and CEO of the American Motors Corporation. He also was a three-term Michigan governor and unsuccessful 1968 presidential candidate. My dad, Clark Hershey, was a welder, assembly line worker and time checker for Fisher Body, a now forgotten division of General Motors. In the early days of the auto industry, bosses and union workers clashed, sometimes violently. A sit-down strike in the 1930s made my hometown famous. Mitt’s dad once called the pioneering leader of the United Auto Workers union Walter Reuther, the “most dangerous man in Detroit.â€? The workers called the bosses greedy, mean and lots worse. By the 1950s, however, bosses and workers made their peace, although sometimes an uneasy one. Similar peace treaties – union contracts – were negotiated in other industries. The bosses quit calling union leaders communists. The workers became capitalists. They bought homes, sent their kids to college and padded their pensions with stock market investments. Savvy Republicans like George Romney got the message. They attracted voters with promises of good government, better jobs and fairer taxes. “Moderateâ€? Republicans flourished in Ohio. Jim Rhodes served four terms as governor, as comfortable in a union hall as a corporate board room. George Voinovich hit the trifecta – mayor of Cleveland, governor and U.S. senator. Times change, but Mitt might want to talk less about the millions he’s made as a corporate raider at Bain Capital and more about how he would restore the middle class prosperity that our dads negotiated. If he calls again, maybe I’ll tell him.   Bill Hershey is a WOSU Commentator and former statehouse and Washington correspondent.