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Ferndale — The United States should make labor standards — and the ability to organize — part of any trade agreements with other countries, Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke told union workers Monday after touring a carpenters training facility. 

“Let’s trade with the rest of the world,” O’Rourke said at the facility, a joint operation between the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and contractors. 

“Let’s just make sure we’re trading on a level playing field and that those workers in those other countries also have the right to organize so they’re paid a higher wage, with better working conditions and doesn’t make us compete on an unfair playing field.”

O’Rourke toured the training center during his first visit to Michigan since announcing his candidacy last week. The former Texas congressman started his morning with a public meet-and-greet in Center Line and was on his way to a third event at the Narrow Way Café in Detroit.

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Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke talks about jobs, unions, careers and trade at the Detroit Carpenters Training Center in Ferndale. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News

Fellow Democratic presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand, a U.S. senator from New York, was also expected in Oakland County on Monday, roughly one year before Michigan’s 2020 primary that will help decide who takes on Republican President Donald Trump. 

Trump targeted blue-collar workers in Michigan and blasted unfair trade deals three years ago, when he became the first Republican to win the state since 1988. He is already prioritizing the state in his re-election bid and is set to hold a rally next week in Grand Rapids. 

O’Rourke said requiring countries like Mexico allow workers to unionize as part of trade deals with the United States would not only be good for laborers there, “it’s great for the workers in America.”

“In Mexico, workers cannot organize,” O’Rourke said. “They produce tremendous value, in some cases in jobs that used to be here in the United States of America, and they’re paid $40 or $50 bucks a week.”

O’Rourke spent more than an hour at the union facility, wrapping up the stop with a round-table discussion with apprentices who are already working but are training to learn new skills. He asked questions and took notes before urging them to ask questions as well. 

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Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke describes tour of carpenters training center in Ferndale. Jonathan Oosting, Detroit News Lansing Bureau

The former U.S. Senate candidate discussed his interest in expanding skilled trades collaborations with high schools and — after driving on Michigan roads — the “billions or trillions” in new spending needed to upgrade aging infrastructure across the nation.

“This was amazing, what we just saw,  and I had the ability to learn from the people who are literally building and — made very clear to me — rebuilding this country,” he told reporters after the event. “Employment is not enough. It’s got to be employment with dignity and employment with function and purpose, employment that pays a living wage, and I just saw how that is done.”

Gillibrand was scheduled to tape an MSNBC town hall in Auburn Hills, set to air Monday night at 8 p.m., and meet with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a Fems for Dems event in Clawson. 

Michigan Republican Party chair Laura Cox criticized their visits, calling O’Rourke and Gillibrand two of the “biggest clowns” in the “Democratic presidential circus.”

Cox pointed to Democratic support for the Green New Deal, an expensive plan to fight climate change that O’Rourke did not discuss during his stop in Ferndale. 

He stayed away from direct criticism of the president but did criticize Trump’s push to build a Southern border wall with Mexico.

“This country, in our lifetimes, has never been so divided and so polarized and so partisan,” he said. “The answer to those problems is not offering more of the same. It is bringing out the best in people. It is uniting despite the differences of race, of geography, of opportunity, of immigration status to make sure we are all on the same page, pursuing the same common cause for this great country."

The O’Rourke and Gillibrand stops in the vote-rich region show the continued importance of Oakland County, once a conservative stronghold that has turned blue over the past decade. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won the county in 2016, but by smaller margins than former President Barack Obama  enjoyed in 2008 and 2012. 

Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes in 2016, but a strong performance in Oakland County helped Whitmer and other Democrats sweep the top of the ticket in 2018 while flipping seats in Congress and the state Legislature. 

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, defeated incumbent Republican Mike Bishop in the 8th Congressional District and U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, picked up an open 11th District seat that had been held by a Republican.

Experts attributed the Oakland County gains to a strong surge by female voters who mobilized — and marched — in the wake of Trump’s 2016 election despite a 2005 recording in which he made lewd comments about women and sexual assault.

Oakland County is “emblematic” of a shift in voting preferences by suburban voters, said state Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfeild, who was among several local officials who joined O’Rourke in Ferndale. 

“We’re going to be a hot spot for all candidates who have to figure out a way to win Michigan.” 

Trump is accelerating Oakland County’s movement toward Democratic candidates, Moss said. 

“The Mitt Romney Republicans of Oakland County — where the Romneys lived — is not the Trump Republicans. It’s going to be a race to who can appeal to that identity here, and Oakland County is the place to be.” 

“If you look at the shifts, the biggest changes from Republican to Democrat across the country is in suburban communities. So I think that’s where Democrats are performing very well across the country, and so Oakland County is emblematic of that. ... We’re 
O’Rourke called Michigan an 'important' state and said he wanted to visit as soon as he could after announcing his candidacy last week. 

“Whether it’s a rural or urban county, we’ve got to show up,” he said. “We have no hope of being able to serve those in this country unless we first show up to listen to them, to learn from them — as I just did here today in Ferdnale — to be able to see things from their perspective.”

Trump continues to emphasize growing and protecting American manufacturing. The president tweeted Sunday that General Motors Co. had “let our Country down” by ceasing production at its Lordstown plant in Ohio.

Reopening the factory is expected to part of this year's labor talks with the United Auto Workers union, and Trump tweeted Sunday evening that he asked GM CEO Mary Barra "to sell it or do something quickly."

Michigan Republican Party spokesman Tony Zammit said he expects Michigan to be a key battle ground state in 2020. 

“I think that the road to the presidency, as always, is going to run through the Midwest,” he said. “And I think that Michigan is going to be a key, especially for the Democrats, so it’s going to be one of those states we’re going to fight tooth and nail to hold.”

Republicans are already laying the groundwork for that effort, Zammit said, suggesting that Trump’s sluggish approval ratings are starting to climb and will continue to do so as voters get to know the Democratic candidates. 

“While Republicans can win the White House without Michigan, I don’t think a Democrat can. And so I think if we take Michigan from the Democrats, I think that pretty much shuts them out of the White House.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

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