July 10, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tactics, style divide Democrats in 4th District state Senate race

Tlaib (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)

State Sen. Virgil Smith of Detroit is trying to fend off a Democratic primary challenge from Rep. Rashida Tlaib to represent a district including parts of the city and Downriver by criticizing her sometimes confrontational approach toward legislating.

He blames Tlaib’s demands for a so-called “community benefits” package for Detroit’s Delray neighborhood during a 2011 legislative debate over construction of a new bridge to Canada for giving the Republican-controlled Legislature ammunition to kill the bill.

“When you’re maneuvering legislation, you need to learn how to take small steps,” said Smith, who is seeking a second four-year term. “If that bill would have gotten out of the Senate and to the House, she could have had her community benefits agreement. And now she got nothing.”

Tlaib of Detroit is unapologetic in her approach to the bridge battle and other legislative skirmishes, arguing that Smith “seems to be anti-community benefits.”

“Sometimes I will take unorthodox approaches to elevate the voices of my residents, but that’s what they deserve,” said Tlaib, who is term-limited after six years in the House representing southwest Detroit.

“I see my residents as my clients and I’m their attorney.”

Smith and Tlaib are squaring off in one of the most hotly contested Aug. 5 legislative primaries in Wayne County. A lesser-known perennial candidate, Howard Worthy of Detroit, also is on the ballot in the 4th Senate District Democratic primary.

The winner will face Republican Keith Franklin of Detroit in the general election.

The district they’re vying to represent in Lansing was redrawn in 2011 into an odd-shaped curvy I that starts in northwest Detroit at Eight Mile and snakes through the city into the Downriver communities of Allen Park, Lincoln Park and Southgate.

Worthy said he’s mostly campaigning on federal issues in the state Senate race.

“The biggest problem confronting the state of Michigan is excessive spending by the Congress and the president,” said Worthy, a self-described evangelist and former Detroit police officer.

“Excessive spending obviously devalues the dollar. When you devalue or deface the dollar, obviously, the poor people become poorer.”

As the incumbent, Smith has racked up most of the major labor endorsements: United Auto Workers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Detroit Federation of Teachers and the building trades, carpenters and electrical workers unions.

Tlaib says Smith’s incumbency doesn’t entitle him to another four-year term.

“One person said to me, ‘Well, you’ve got to wait.’ Well, I’m sorry, I didn’t know there was a line,” Tlaib said.

Though many of their votes are similar, both candidates are trying to make hay over their differences.

Tlaib criticizes Smith for voting in December 2012 to divert about $18 million in downtown development authority tax funds to a $650 million mixed-use development and new arena for the billionaire Mike Illitch’s Detroit Red Wings. She voted no on the bill.

She said the property taxes should have been sent back to the state’s School Aid fund rather than used to subsidize construction of a new hockey arena seven months before Detroit filed for bankruptcy.

“I’m not against hockey, I like hockey,” Tlaib said.

“(But) we’re not a city that can afford to subsidize those kind of things. In our education system, $18 million would have been life changing to our kids.”

Smith said a contribution of state tax dollars was necessary to spur job creation in the city.

“We’re going to get a stadium and entertainment complex with those same dollars that will completely revitalize downtown Detroit,” he said.

On the bridge issue, Tlaib accuses Smith of aligning himself with billionaire Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty Moroun,” a fierce opponent of a new publicly owned Detroit River bridge.

“My opponent does cater to and has in the past catered to Matty Moroun,” Tlaib said.

In 2010 and 2011, Smith accepted $4,000 in campaign donations from Moroun and his family, state records show.

“Matty Moroun donated to my candidate committee, but I didn’t stand with him,” Smith said.

“I stood with her on this issue, and it failed because I went along with what she wanted. ... The Republicans were looking for any excuse to vote against it.”

Smith accused Tlaib of engaging in “character assassination” for suggesting his donations from Moroun contributed to the legislative meltdown over the bridge project.

“I could really care less about a community benefits agreement. It was not my issue,” Smith said.

“I’m from northwest Detroit.”

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Smith (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)