Washington — Democrats are again targeting GOP Rep. Mike Bishop of Rochester, and party strategists have high hopes for Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan native and former senior official at the Defense Department who plans Monday to formally launch her campaign.
Slotkin this spring moved back to her family’s farm in Holly, after spending roughly 15 years in various posts in the U.S. intelligence and defense communities in Washington and abroad during the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Slotkin spent the last five years at the Pentagon, most recently as a top adviser to two Secretaries of Defense on security and defense issues related to the Middle East, Europe, Russia, Africa and Latin America, she said. She oversaw security cooperation programs to the regions, including foreign military sales.
Slotkin, who turns 41 Monday, helped to coordinate the international coalition to fight ISIS and to design the strategy to counter the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, she says. She also started a communications channel with Russia to ensure flight safety over Syrian airspace.
“Part of the reason I’m running is I’ve had this experience for 15-plus years — working abroad, working back home — where nobody ever asks, ‘What party are you from? What are your partisan views? What’s your angle on this issue?’ It’s just a very clear mission to help preserve the security and safety of the United States,” Slotkin told The Detroit News.
“And then I look around at Congress and the Hill, and you see this dearth of people who focus first on public and national service. ... It just struck me as really disappointing and frustrating that so many politicians forgot their core job, which is to make the lives of their constituents better. Between special interests and partisan vitriol, it’s like people have forgotten they were elected to do that.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has formally listed Bishop’s seat among those it hopes to flip in the midterm elections. Democrats also targeted the district in 2014 and 2016.
Bishop won election to his second term in November, beating political newcomer Suzanna Shkreli, a Macomb County assistant prosecutor, by nearly 17 percentage points. He beat Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing by almost 13 points in 2014.
“Democrats seem to think he’s more vulnerable this time around, especially with lots of activity with Indivisible activists in his district and lots of people upset about the Republican health care bill,” said Susan Demas, publisher of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter.
“I do think that Elissa Slotkin would be a tougher opponent than he had in either ’14 or ’16, but the Democratic field is not set. This could be a crowded primary, and there’s no guarantee that Slotkin is the one who wins.”
The other declared Democratic candidate in the 8th District is Darlene Domanik, an environmental attorney from Brighton.
Democrats Chris Smith, who teaches in Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice, and Linda Keefe, a former Eaton County commissioner, are also considering runs.
“As a result of the last election and what’s going on the country, you have individuals coming out of the woodwork to get involved in the political process,” said Griffin Rivers, Democratic chairman of the 8th District, which includes Livingston County and parts of Ingham and Oakland counties.
“A few years ago, you practically had to pay someone to run in the district. Now, we’ve got a few viable candidates.”
Bishop spokesman Stu Sandler said a run by Slotkin would follow the Jon Ossoff “plan,” referring to the Democratic candidate who lost the recent special election in Georgia. Ossoff was criticized by his Republican opponent as an outsider and carpetbagger, even though he grew up in the district.
“Take a Hillary staffer, transfer them into a district, and see what happens,” Sandler said. “It didn’t work in Georgia. I think the voters are skeptical. That was a huge issue for Ossoff. They didn’t feel he had ties to the district and felt it was a political stunt.”
Slotkin says she has never worked on any political campaign or donated to one.
Her great-grandfather, Sam Slotkin, started the meat company Hygrade Foods, and her grandfather, Hugo Slotkin, later became president. The company moved its headquarters to Detroit in 1949. It created foods familiar to Michiganians such as the Ballpark Franks first sold at Tiger Stadium.
Elissa Slotkin spent the early part of her life on the beef cattle farm in Holly that’s been in her family since the 1950s. It’s where she and her husband, Dave Moore, live now, with Moore splitting his time between Michigan and Washington.
“Every time I’ve come back from a deployment, every time I’ve had a vacation, every time I’ve had a moment to breathe from whatever I was doing abroad or here in Washington, I would always come and center myself back at the farm,” she said.
Slotkin attended school in Michigan before heading to Cornell University. She said her life changed on the second day of graduate school at Columbia University in Manhattan, when two planes crashed into the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I had known that I wanted to do public service, but when the dust settled on that first day, I really decided that national service was going to be the thing that I dedicated my life to,” she said.
Within a year and a half, she had joined the Central Intelligence Agency as a Middle East analyst, and a year later had trained and deployed to her first of three tours in Iraq.
Among other roles, Slotkin later served as senior assistant to John Negroponte when he was director of National Intelligence under Bush.
She helped develop and implement U.S. strategy on Iraq for both Bush and Obama as a staffer for the National Security Council. Slotkin then moved to the U.S. State Department, where she served as a strategist for the transition from a military mission in Iraq to one that’s civilian led. She prepared aid budgets averaging more than $1 billion a year.
Slotkin said she finds politicians in Washington disconnected from the lives of folks in Michigan. She will focus her campaign in part on health care reform and the economy, she said.
“I think people signaled in this last election that they’re not OK with the status quo — with the career politician who isn’t fighting for them. Unfortunately, Mike Bishop isn’t working hard and considering that core mission — am I making the lives of my constituents better or not?” Slotkin said.
“Wherever I’ve gone in the district, people are just looking for someone who is pushing back, and they don’t see him pushing back. They see the opposite. They see him going along with the partisan line.”