Lansing— Democratic Sen. Bert Johnson is locked in a bitter re-election battle with former ally John Olumba, a state representative who perplexed Democrats by declaring himself a political independent in 2013 to work with the Republican House speaker.
Olumba, who lives in Detroit, further angered Johnson by filing as a Democrat in a bid to unseat the incumbent in the Aug. 5 primary election in the 2nd Senate District. The winding district takes in Highland Park, Hamtramck, Harper Woods, the Pointes and a swath of Detroit.
Over the past year, Olumba has joined Detroit Democratic state Rep. Harvey Santana in forging a working relationship with House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall.
The two Detroiters got money for some city projects, but also voted for GOP initiatives Democrats strongly oppose, such as expanding a state takeover of troubled public schools.
And Bolger gave Olumba a legislative subcommittee chairmanship, which likely wouldn’t have happened when he was part of the Democratic caucus. The top committee and subcommittee positions usually are reserved for majority party members.
Johnson, who says he helped Olumba get a start toward his current House seat, makes no secret about how he feels about this.
“John has started voting with Republicans and he has sold out to the Republican ranks,” he said. “He’s now claiming to (voters in the district) that he’s chair of a committee that doesn’t even meet. Republicans are using John.”
“He who casts the first stone is probably getting desperate,” Olumba responded. “The guy who spends the whole summer attacking typically loses. The guy who spends the summer talking about what he’s done and plans to do typically wins.”
Johnson, 40, of Highland Park, is a former state House member seeking his second Senate term and said he believes he has served “with dignity.”
He is being mentioned as a possible successor to Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing as the leader of Senate Democrats, who are outnumbered 26-12 by Republicans.
Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, recently named him to a Senate committee seeking ways to generate at least $1.2 billion more per year for road repairs. Proposals calling for modest to major fuel tax increases failed in the Senate before lawmakers broke for the summer.
“I believe we can cobble together a couple of billion dollars without the magnitude of new (fuel) tax dollars discussed in the past,” Johnson said.
While details still aren’t set, Democrats like the idea of a modest fuel tax hike, a corporate tax, hotel and car rental taxes, tighter limits on truck weights and/or higher taxes on overweight trucks.
“We’ll work in a bipartisan way — the way all great legislation is made,” Johnson said.
Olumba said he has proven during the past 17 months he is best able to work with Republicans, who seem likely to retain control of the Senate.
The two-term House member takes credit for the House GOP’s willingness to consider a residential plan for foster children and continued state funding of a lead paint removal program that protects urban youths. He chairs an appropriations fiscal oversight subcommittee.
“Why not put somebody in (the Senate seat) who has proven they can work in am overwhelmingly Republican environment and be respected?” he said. “We can get a heck a lot done. We can keep (Detroit) going in the right direction.”
Their feud stems partly from Johnson’s initial announcement that he would seek an open congressional seat. He withdrew when his campaign didn’t reach a fund-raising goal.
Olumba, 33, had moved to a house in the 2nd District and said he already had decided to run when Johnson dropped his congressional bid.
“Two days before the filing deadline, he calls me and says, ‘I’m out and I’m going back to the Senate,’” Olumba said. “I had put literature out there and everything.”
Johnson countered that Olumba filed for the Senate race “knowing full well” of his own plans to go after a second term.
The Johnson-Olumba sparring overshadows the efforts of two other candidates in the race: 26-year-old Ukrainian priest Taras Nykoriak of Hamtramck and Georgia Lemmons of Detroit.
Neither has held political office. Lemmons didn’t respond to an interview request.
Nykoriak said he also works part-time as a Ukrainian, Polish and Russian translator for the U.S. government.
He wants to reform Detroit’s exorbitant auto insurance rates; change the public education system to save money with longer school days and shorter school years; and increase the penalties for crimes against seniors.
“You shouldn’t be 88 and be afraid to walk out your door,” Nykoriak said. “There should be heavy fines and penalties for causing harm to a senior.”
He likes the idea of toll roads as a way to fund additional road repairs.