JACKSON, Mich. — Over the past decade, Michigan voters have heard a lot of hopeful plans from politicians about how better times are just around the corner.
Now, even though the state has its liveliest gubernatorial election in decades, with no fewer than seven candidates, the race conspicuously lacks a key ingredient: optimism.
Unlike many candidates elsewhere, the contenders for Michigan governor can make few promises. And most voters don't expect any.
"People talk a good talk, but when they get into office, things change," said Dawn West, who lives in Jackson, an industrial city west about 80 miles west of Detroit. "Things just don't get done."
West works at the Swan Creek Candle Co., where quiet music provides a soothing contrast to the uneasiness hovering over Jackson's main street. The community has known its share of economic disappointment.
In 2007, Gov. Jennifer Granholm announced aerospace electronics manufacturer Sparton Corp. would be investing $2.7 million to expand its Jackson-area plant and double the work force to 200. But as the Michigan economy worsened, Sparton pulled up stakes in 2009, striking a blow to the city of 36,000 that has tied its fortunes to small manufacturers.
The recession has hung a dark cloud over the nation this election year, but nowhere is it darker than in Michigan, where jobs have been disappearing for a decade.
The state's annual unemployment rate climbed last year to 13.6 percent, more than 4 percentage points over the national average. Jackson's rate spiked to 19 percent.
The five Republicans and two Democrats will square off in the Aug. 3 primary. Granholm, who cannot run again because of term limits, is leaving office after eight years with low approval ratings, blamed in part on overpromising better times to come.
"We've tried happy talk. ... And we're 50th out of 50th. Dead last," says a campaign ad for former Gateway CEO Rick Snyder, one of the Republican candidates, referring to the unemployment rate. He's promoting himself as "one tough nerd."
Another Republican, Attorney General Mike Cox, has released an ad touting himself as "tough enough to lead Michigan."
The Democratic candidates are also emphasizing their ability to handle adversity rather than lead a turnaround. Their pitch: Things are so bad, you need me.
The grim message is a far cry from what voters heard from the charismatic Granholm, who has been haunted by her upbeat 2006 State of the State promise that "in five years, you're going to be blown away" by the strength of Michigan's economy.
"We did get 'blown away,' in every sense," said Steven Hepker, 55, a temporary census worker from nearby Hudson. He says he has seen "a lot of gloom" as he visits homes to collect census data. "I bet a quarter of all the places we checked out in Hillsdale County were vacant houses."
Jackson's economy relies on CMS Energy Corp., with its gleaming glass-fronted downtown headquarters, and on factories.
But the utility company offered buyouts to hundreds of its 1,200 headquarters staff in November. Meanwhile, Michigan Automotive Compressor offered buyouts to all 740 of its employees in early 2009, and Gerdeau MacSteel laid off more than 300.
"We need more jobs," said Kevin Hardman as he sat on a bench in downtown Jackson, which trailed only devastated Detroit, Flint and Pontiac in unemployment last year. Still dressed in his McDonald's uniform, the 55-year-old Jackson native said he would like full-time work but remains stuck in the 20-hour-a-week job.
Shawn Crowley, 28, recently regained his job at MacSteel after 15 months out of work, during which he feared his car and home would be repossessed. Crowley wants to hear candidates talk about new jobs that wouldn't rely on the shrinking auto sector. "I want them to be more economically focused," he said, and realistic.
All seven candidates say they want to cut business taxes to encourage companies to hire new workers. Republican Mike Bouchard, the Oakland County sheriff, would temporarily freeze all pending regulations. Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, a Democrat, would create a state-owned bank to offer business and college loans.
Several candidates also want to increase subsidized job training and restore a canceled scholarship program. A statewide poll in late May had Republican Rep. Pete Hoekstra and Democratic House Speaker Andy Dillon leading the race, although many voters remain undecided.
Though candidates are talking about the economy, any hint of a rosy scenario draws a quick rebuke. In a recent debate at a northern Michigan resort, Republican Tom George cuffed rivals who would spend more on favorite programs while cutting taxes. "This is Mackinac Island," he said, "not Fantasy Island."