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Mask-less Pence in Macomb: 'Transition to greatness' has begun as states reopen

Sterling HeightsVice President Mike Pence said Thursday the "transition to greatness" has begun for America, as every state in the nation reopens its economy.

“Every single day, we’re one day closer to putting the coronavirus in the past,” Pence said during a speech to a crowd of 250 workers and others outside Casadei Steel Inc. 

The vice president noted that May saw the largest increase in jobs in American history. “The American people are driving the comeback,” Pence said.

The Republican vice president did not wear a face covering Thursday during his stops in Macomb County, where he lunched at a restaurant in Mount Clemens and toured Chardam Gear Co. in Sterling Heights.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer restored in-person restaurant service and the opening with limited capacity of stores in Michigan this month, but still required customers and workers to wear face coverings in enclosed spaces and empowered building owners and businesses to deny entry to those not wearing masks.

In keeping with social distancing guidelines, the crowd outside Casadei Steel sat in chairs spaced out across a lot serving neighboring businesses. 

Pence's stops were part of a Thursday visit to Macomb County as Trump's re-election campaign looks to solidify support in a Michigan stronghold from the 2016 election. Pence's visit is his latest in a string of trips around the country highlighting aspects of reopening the nation after the pandemic, which has killed over 6,000 in Michigan. 

The vice president said “law and order" would be a centerpiece of the nation’s comeback. He called the May 25 death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis, a tragedy.

“There’s no excuse for what happened to George Floyd,” Pence said, adding there’s also no excuse for rioting that followed during protests over police brutality and racism.

“We are not going to defund the police,” he said, referring to calls by activists on the left to shift law enforcement funding to social services.  

The Trump administration planned to bring “free market solutions” to improve health care options for African Americans and would improve the “right to choose” where children can go to school, the vice president said.

Those who attended the speech included U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland; U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden Township; and state Reps. Annette Glenn of Midland and Shane Hernandez of Port Huron. Also in the crowd were Robert Casadei, owner of Casadei Steel Inc.; Arkadiy Epshteyn, owner of Casadei Steel Inc.; Tommy Nicholas, executive vice president of Prestige Group, according to the vice president's office.

Brian Gray, 57, of Warren, an employee of Chardam Gear Co. next door, called the event “awesome,” saying he couldn’t believe Pence was there.

Asked if the country was ready to reopen, Gray responded, “We waited long enough.”

“I still feel for the people who lost loved ones,” Gray added.

Pence did not mention Whitmer, a Democrat, in his remarks. She was not part of the vice president's visit but highlighted a Michigan business herself Thursday by helping to prepare food at Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit, where she wore a mask.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer serves coney dogs at Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit, Thursday, June 18, 2020.

The governor said on Twitter she was "thrilled to see how Michigan businesses are ensuring the safety of their employees and customers," but didn't mention the vice president. 

Pence, joined by Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia, earlier in the day toured the business next door, Chardam Gear, which makes parts for commercial and military aircraft,with executives from the company. No one on the tour wore face coverings. 

The vice president said his son, Mike, who is in the Marines, flies a plane that uses one of the parts that was displayed on the Chardam tour. 

A crowd of about 40 supporters of Trump greeted Pence's motorcade with flags and signs en route to Sterling Heights from Mount Clemens.

The vice president also ate lunch at the Engine House in Mount Clemens with Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James of Farmington Hills.  

Dozens of people were crowded inside the eatery chanting "USA! USA!" when Pence and James arrived shortly before noon. Many of those gathered were not wearing face coverings, including the vice president. 

The owners of the restaurant, whose brick facade resembles an old firehouse, are retired Detroit firefighter John Gusumano and Greg Sisoy, a Detroit Fire Department captain. They gave Pence an Engine House-themed sweatshirt when he arrived.

“What a great place and open for business,” Pence said.

A customer yelled, “Pence 2024!” as the vice president walked to sit down. The crowd cheered.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James and Vice President Mike Pence pray before eating burgers for lunch at the Engine House restaurant in Mt. Clemens, Mich. on Thursday, June 18, 2020.

Pence and James sat at a table that was separated by about 6 feet from other tables in the restaurant. The vice president ordered a cheeseburger with fries and a Pepsi. James ordered the salmon.

James said a prayer for the meal before the pair began eating. At the end, the crowd cheered and said, “Amen!”

Among those who greeted the vice president at the restaurant Thursday was Donald Odell, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and a regular at the Engine House. Odell’s aircraft was shot down in the Vietnam War in 1967. He was a prisoner of war until 1973. 

Vice President Mike Pence waves as arrives aboard Air Force Two at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, flanked by Republican Senate candidate John James in Harrison Township, Michigan Thursday morning, June 18, 2020.

Also eating in the restaurant was Dan Boyce, 54, of Macomb Township. Boyce sat at the bar and said he was able to bump elbows with Pence when the vice president walked through.

The Macomb resident called Trump and Pence “rock solid Americans.”

“I like the fact, as far as Trump goes, he’s not a politician,” Boyce said. “He’s a businessman. I think that’s what we need for things to get fixed.”

Like many inside the restaurant, Boyce was not wearing a mask. Asked if he had any concerns about being in a crowd at the restaurant without a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic, Boyce replied, “I don’t.”

The Engine House restaurant’s capacity is 225, and 110 people were in attendance Thursday, according to Pence's office. That puts the restaurant under the 50% capacity limits in place in Michigan.

Trump has been trailing Democratic presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden in Michigan polls throughout this year. Trump also never led Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in most Michigan 2016 polls before ekeing out a 10,704-vote victory — the first time a Republican had won the state since 1988.

Biden's campaign said Pence's visit to Michigan is part of his "great American damage control tour" to deflect from the Trump administration's poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic. 

"In no small part due to Donald Trump’s weak leadership, Michigan lost more than one million jobs and experienced more than 6,000 deaths," said Kate Bedingfield, deputy campaign manager for Biden.

"Despite today’s show, the Trump administration still doesn’t have a coherent plan for the nation or for states like Michigan to reopen safely and protect workers."

Pence arrived Thursday morning in Michigan aboard Air Force Two, which landed at Selfridge National Guard Base, where he was greeted by James, as well as Brigadier General Rolf Mammen, commander, 127th Air Wing Base Operations; and Richard Gordon, command chief master sergeant of Selfridge's 127th Air Wing Base Operations.

Brigadier General Rolf Mammen, commander, 127th Air Wing Base Operations, greets Vice President Mike Pence upon Pence's arrival at Selfridge Air National Guard Base Thursday morning.

James, who runs an auto parts logistics business in Detroit and is an Army veteran, is trying to unseat U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, after losing a challenge U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, in 2018.

Trump won Macomb County 54%-42% over Clinton in 2016, but Democratic U.S. Rep. Andy Levin said the county is growing in "diversity and inclusion."

Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, represents a district  with 60% of its population in Macomb County, including Sterling Heights.

"There's a different spirit here today than there was in 2016," Levin said in a statement. "This is a place that sees through the broken promises of this failed administration and is ready for real, unifying leadership in 2020. A shift is underway." 

Pence's visit comes four weeks after Trump came to Michigan to tour a Ford Motor Co. plant in Ypsilanti. Pence made stops in Lansing and Troy on Feb. 25.

Trump has criticized Whitmer's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, at one point saying she should “give a little” to protesters who opposed her executive orders to slow the rate of infection in Michigan.

Whitmer has slammed the president for playing politics and failing to take the virus more seriously with a national response strategy.

cmauger@detroitnews.com