By Jan Worth-Nelson
The first Republican Henry Hatter knew was his uncle from Davison — a “prosperous-looking” man with a gold tooth and a pocket full of quarters for the kids. “He was generous and he was easy to love,” Hatter, now a youthful 80, recalls with a smile. When his uncle came around to the family home in Flint, Hatter remembers, his mother would say, “There’s a Republican.”
Later, as a high school student, he went downtown with mostly white kids for a parade honoring Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the president stopped and shook his hand — the black kid. It was a moment he never forgot, Hatter said. “That was profound, for me.”
“I knew what racism was but I didn’t equate it with myself,” Hatter said of those early years. “I wasn’t struggling. I was as successful as any white child.”
In the decades since, Hatter has forged his way through countless accomplishments. He was a top student at Clark, Whittier, and Central High Schools. He was named a distinguished alumnus from both Central and Saginaw Valley State, retiring in 2000 after a 38-year top-level engineering career at General Motors. He earned a master’s degree in physical science from Eastern Michigan, took classes in engineering at Purdue University and Kettering University (then GMI), raised three children who have gone on to equally impressive careers, and has devoted himself tirelessly to community causes for education and health care. He has served on numerous boards, including 26 years so far on the Clio Area School District Board of Education.
And on Dec. 19, Hatter experienced another milestone and ‘awe inspiring” moment, when he cast his vote for Donald Trump at the State Capital as one of Michigan’s 16 electors — the elector representing Flint’s 5th Congressional District.
A Clio resident for 55 years, Hatter was joined in Lansing by his three children and his great friend Joe Rundell, a noted Flint sculptor, gun engraver, historian and fellow Trump supporter.
It was a big day for the whole family. Hatter’s daughter, Kelly Mitchell, now of Grand Rapids and a member of the Trump transition team, also cast an electoral vote for Trump — a father-daughter historical first that drew national attention.
Through the years, starting with support for fellow Central alum Don Riegle during his first congressional campaign, Hatter worked his way up through Republican circles, serving as secretary, vice-chairman and president of the Genesee County party. His service also included a stint as financial chair — a significant post which he says helped him learn to raise money.
Hatter had cast an elector’s vote once before — for Gerald Ford in 1976 — a decidedly more sedate affair, when people hardly noticed. He was accompanied that time by his wife and mother, now both deceased. He said he felt “accomplished” and is so grateful that his wife, who died in 2013, got to share the moment with him.
This year, obviously, was different. This time, Hatter received so many letters to his home urging him not to vote for Donald Trump the mail carrier started dropping them off in bins — five mail bins full by the end. He figures there are thousands, which he is storing in a trunk for posterity. They arrived handwritten, typed, or as printed-off emails. There were postcards and even Christmas cards.
Most of them he read — mainly looking for threats, and he said only a handful came close. GOP leaders advised not responding to any of them, but Hatter said he did reply to one, a writer he complimented for his respectful approach and logic. After the vote, the Hatter family delivered gifts to their mail carriers: chocolates, thank-you cards, a banner for the wall.
The protestors this year at the State Capitol didn’t bother him, he said. Like most of the letter writers, they were respectful and he never felt physically threatened. “They were only using words — they just tried to browbeat us mentally.” he said.
But he and his daughter were unpersuaded, and if any of the others were, their vote didn’t change. The electors met inside before voting with Ronna Romney McDaniel, chair of the Michigan Republican Party, Mitt Romney’s niece and Trump’s pick to be the National RNC Chair. Hatter said the conversation was not about the protests, but all positive, all celebrating the outcome of the election and the opportunities presented.
Hatter said neither he nor his daughter ever had a doubt that Trump was their man. As a self-described non-partisan who had supported Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court and Jesse Jackson for president years ago, Hatter said he believes not just the Republican Party but Washington D.C. itself needs a shake up, and in his view Trump fit the bill.
“Donald Trump opened my eyes,” Hatter said. And he said he actually liked Trump’s “bullying voice.”
“You know what I saw him kicking at? He didn’t say anything to blacks. Nobody saw that. He was after the white man — the rich white man. He was eating them up left and right. Who talks that way to rich people? He’s somebody who could stand up to the greatest powers that there are.”
When Hatter was selected this time, at the state GOP convention last August, he was already solidly in the Trump camp. One of a field of eight Fifth District candidates for the job, Hatter said he told his GOP colleagues he was “going to support the Republicans in black communities, and to seek out the segments of people left behind — young black men and old white men” especially.
He particularly thought about “the old white men,” describing them as “people who had been excoriated by blacks, by women, by Democrats.” He said he wanted to seek their help in re-establishing dominance in the Republican Party.
“These were the ones who wanted something different,” he said, people who didn’t want to see any more of a world that is “given to you with the left hand and taken back with the right hand and you end up with nothing — for years and years.”
[In a followup email, Hatter said that he wanted to clarify the phrase “old white man” or “ole white man” as a non-discriminatory depiction of a segment of the voting population. In fact, he noted, former President Bill Clinton had used the phrase recently claiming that the “angry old white man” was who had tipped the election to Donald Trump.]
Hatter’s story, from childhood to the Fifth Congressional District responsibility he carried out last month, suggests once again that nothing about the 2016 election, or about Trump supporters, is easy to categorize.
Born in 1935 in Livingston, Alabama, Hatter was seven when his sharecropper family became part of the great wartime migration and moved to Flint. At first, they nestled in with his maternal grandmother, who lived at 208 E. 13th St., in the old neighborhood on Harrison near the already well-known Golden Leaf Club.
‘There were jobs and we got out of poverty,” he said. His father got work in the foundry at Buick, and his mother worked as a domestic for the A.M. Davison family, scions of a now-long-gone downtown department store.
His mother’s connection with the Davison family, along with the Skaff and C.S. Mott families who sometimes hired her for special occasions, brought many plusses to the family, which had grown to 11 children. Her wealthy employers passed along outgrown clothes — beautiful shirts, he recalls, with maybe just a little fraying at the collar.
And the Hatters often enjoyed leftovers from society events. “We always ate well,” he said.
Hatter’s six uncles, Army veterans just back from the war, got together and started the first black cab company in Flint — called “Your Cab Company,” with headquarters at Harrison and Clifford. Everybody worked together well, he said, and they became a prominent and well-off Flint family.
Propelled by a loan from the uncles, the Hatters bought a house on Maybury Street off Lippincott — the neighborhood was “pristine back in the day,” he said. He picked up everything and anything he could read, sometimes well into the night until his mother called him out, sometimes sitting on the bank of Thread Lake, dipping his feet into the water while plowing through Tom Sawyer, all the Shakespeare plays, anything he could get his hands on.
In the interview, Hatter clarified he does not want to be called an African-American.
“I was born here. I wasn’t born in Africa,” he said. “All my blood was mixed here — the Irish, all the rest,” he said, and when the interviewer noted that Hatter has blue eyes, he said, “I am a new man. I am not part of any old culture. All my family going back for generations were born here and if we were asked to leave, where would we go?”
Hatter’s decision to be a Republican, he said in a follow-up email, is rooted not just in his life experiences from childhood on but in reading and thinking about black history and his belief that African-Americans “should have achieved parity as the United States peaked as a world superpower,” but have not. In particular, he said he studied events between the Depression and the year 2000, including the rise of the black middle class. He contended several major institutions, including the academic community, the press and the Department of Labor have created impediments to black Americans professionals, in particular, investing in the country’s institutions and controlling crime within their communities.
To those who asked — including journalists and others — if Donald Trump is a racist, Hatter firmly replied, “no more so than anybody else standing around me in this room.”
And, chuckling as he commented that he sometimes finds himself “a lobbyist for white people,” he said “The white man may have been the problem, but still, politically, you have to keep him a player, because you can never have stability without The Man. He will do you in.”
Asked to affirm that that was his belief, he said, “That’s traditionally what people believe — people of color.”
“You can’t move forward without the white man?” he was asked.
“They [people of color] know that’s true. But also.. he controls.”
In a follow-up email, Hatter wrote that he hopes Trump will “expand, inspire and enable Black Americans through equal opportunity, without latent barriers or fluff, to pursue.” He said he is not sure how that will happen, but he thinks the shakeup is good for blacks, and good for America, introducing what he hopes will be “a whole new era of self-reliance.”
In any event, Hatter said, “I always tell black people, it’s the Constitution that protects you.” He added, “I hope we become a country that’s capable of preserving itself.” For him, that means a lengthy tradition of checks and balances and hewing to Constitutional rights, and he notes that even if Donald Trump has “character flaws” he will bring something to the country that it needs.
“Black people should never be intimidated by people who use big voices and stuff like that because we’ve heard that all our lives,” he said. “So you just go with the man who says he’s got a big stick and he will change things for you. That’s what Donald Trump says: what do you have to lose?”
Asked, and you liked that? Hatter said, “Yeah, I did. He didn’t offend me. He never offended me. But now he can be nicer.”
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.