July 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

Laura Berman

14th District race packed with action, but there's little attention

Lawrence (Jose Juarez)

Michigan’s 14th Congressional District is a test-tube baby, conceived by gerrymandering to favor Democrats. Misshapen and geographically bizarre, it wends its way from Pontiac to Farmington Hills to Grosse Pointe. Its midsection — in Southfield and a chunk of Detroit — swells like a boa constrictor after a hearty meal.

This is open turf, and the setting for barely restrained political warfare among three serious Democratic candidates vying to represent the 14th. It’s the district Gary Peters will abandon, whether or not he wins the U.S. Senate race against Terri Lynn Land in November. For many, the 14th is best known as the district Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick, Kwame Kilpatrick’s mother, lost to Hansen Clarke in 2010.

In this district, the Aug. 5 primary is the election, even if voter turnout is unlikely to reflect the election’s importance.

In the polls, Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence, who won an Emily’s List PAC endorsement and contributions with it, is nonetheless trailing Hansen Clarke: Although women voters outnumber men here, Clarke — a former one-term congressman and former state legislator — is ahead. Maxine Berman, a former Southfield state rep and longtime feminist, says she’s supporting Rudy Hobbs, the 38-year-old current state representative from Southfield.

While Lawrence has headed Southfield for 13 years, Hobbs has attracted the most organized support, including heavy (some say heavy-handed) support from Congressman Sander Levin. The buoyant Hobbs has won endorsements from labor unions — AFL-CIO, Teamsters, UAW — and at least five Southfield City Council members. “I think he’s more driven,” says Myron Frazier, a council member. “He sees what we need and seems ready to roll up his sleeves.”

The strong Hobbs support on Southfield home turf may hobble Lawrence and divide Southfield’s vote — but it hasn’t boosted Hobbs in the polls. Despite impressive fundraising (more than $500,000) and a serious door-to-door campaign, he is still trailing Lawrence, who has raised more money and support.

Meanwhile, Clarke leads both of them in the latest poll.

Clarke is positioning himself as the incumbent — despite having lost the last election — and the strategy is working.

“He’s got the power of name recognition, and a natural constituency in Detroit, where he’s known,” says pollster Ed Sarpolus. Without raising as much money as Lawrence and Hobbs, and despite his much later entrance into the race, Clarke is maintaining a lead over his rivals. “He’s got a core of trust in the urban core,” says Sarpolus.

A fourth candidate, Burgess Foster, promises to bring thousands of jobs to Michigan and, according to his website, “help President Barack H. Obama bring about creative palpable policies.”

Lawrence lost her mother as a toddler, and worked as a postal service manager before her public service career. She’s proud that, she says, 80 percent of her donations are from individuals, not organizations. She and Hobbs have known each other for years, and their families are close. “I walked door to door with him,” when he was running for the state Legislature, she says. “But I’m nowhere in his literature.”

With only 11 days to the primary, emotions are raw, and the challenge is getting voters to pay attention.


Hobbs (Jose Juarez)