Detroit — An unfamiliar face has emerged as the challenger to Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey in the November general election — a well-financed computer engineer who political experts say could give the incumbent a tough fight.
Garlin Gilchrist II, the 34-year-old former city technology director, finished second in Tuesday’s primary with 19 percent of the vote, ahead of five other challengers. He raised nearly $102,000, the most of any clerk candidate and eight times more than Winfrey’s $12,000.
But Winfrey earned 51 percent of the vote — an achievement that surprised some political observers who believed ballot mishaps in the November 2016 election would hurt her chances for re-election.
Now the two candidates have three months to woo Detroit voters who are expected to participate in larger numbers for the Nov. 7 election.
Winfrey must convince voters the “abundance of human errors” regarding mismatched vote totals from last November that were highlighted by a state audit have been resolved. She also must tout her achievements and appeal to the residents who voted against her in the primary, experts say.
Gilchrist should continue to raise large sums of money to get his message out, target Winfrey’s weaknesses and seek support from Heaster Wheeler’s supporters who gave the former NAACP Detroit branch executive director 13 percent of the primary votes.
“It’s a new day,” said Mario Morrow, president of a Detroit-based political and media relations firm. “It’s all about who gets their people to the polls and how upset they are about the current state of the clerk’s office.”
Winfrey, who has been clerk since 2006, will need to attack Gilchrist as being young and inexperienced with clerk’s office operations, he said.
Gilchrist, who grew up in Detroit, ran a smart campaign in which he successfully earned the endorsements of both Detroit newspapers, went on television and radio early in the campaign and targeted absentee voters, who make up a substantial portion of Detroit’s voters, Morrow said.
Gilchrist, who was trailing Winfrey and Wheeler with 2 percent support in a May Target-Insyght poll, generated momentum and led a social media campaign that outpaced Wheeler’s “old school” approach, said Target Insyght pollster Ed Sarpolus.
“Detroit is longing for young, bright, new leaders in the city,” Sarpolus said. “And Garlin is that new face.”
If Winfrey underestimates Gilchrist’s ability to galvanize voters, she could “wake up with a loss,” he said.
The University of Michigan graduate can portray Winfrey as a failure and point out mistakes at the polls that happened under her watch, Morrow said.
The Michigan Bureau of Elections audited 136 of the city’s most irregular precincts from the November 2016 election — “the worst of the worst,” it said — after a Wayne County canvass revealed “significant discrepancies” in the number of voters and ballots in 392 Detroit precincts.
The bureau “found no evidence of pervasive voter fraud,” according to the 24-page audit, but discovered more than half of 136 Detroit precincts had nearly 600 questionable votes, a total that was reduced to 216 questionable votes after extensive review.
While Winfrey blamed the errors on aging vote tabulators, the state bureau “found no widespread failure of voting equipment that accounted for the breadth and depth of problems experienced in Detroit.”
Secretary of State Ruth Johnson has ordered her state staff to work closely with Detroit election workers on training them once every three months instead of the old practice of getting one training session just before an election.
Following the money
Despite the state audit, many Detroit voters said Tuesday they remain loyal to Winfrey, who is seeking a fourth term.
Sanders Thomas said he was pleased with the clerk’s office under Winfrey’s direction.
“I think she’s doing a pretty good job as city clerk,” said Thomas, 70. “She’s been doing it for years. I was impressed with her.”
Others were more skeptical. Kevin Rashid, 57, said he voted for Gilchrist partially because of his technical experience.
“He seemed very clear in his message,” Rashid said. “And he targeted the problems with the voting that we know to be true. When we were here for the presidential election, we knew there was trouble.”
Frank Gates, 66, couldn’t immediately remember for whom he voted, but said it wasn’t Winfrey. “You don’t need to be anywhere near the voting,” Gates said about the incumbent clerk, citing problems that were revealed during the November recount and state audit.
Winfrey didn’t respond to calls for comment.
But she told The Detroit News earlier this year that transparency and the “high level of integrity” in her office is helping her with voters. The former teacher, who is married to former Detroit school board president Tyrone Winfrey, has touted cleaning up the city’s voter registration files, allowing voters to cast absentee ballots at satellite locations 30 days prior to elections and partnerships with local schools.
Most contributions to Winfrey came from Detroit and were for $50, including one from Motown singer and former Detroit City Council member Martha Reeves.
But she did get three four-figure checks, with the highest being $2,550 from Joyce Floyd in Southfield. Donations of $1,500 and $1,000 came from, respectively, Konnech Inc. CEO Eugene Yu and Laura Potter of Lansing, identified by ZoomInfo and Herron Training as a manager at the Okemos-based elections technology company.
Gilchrist said he focused his primary campaign on collecting a lot of small donations, which was a strategy he learned from volunteering with President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
There were donations as small as $1.50 to $10. But Gilchrist also received money from across the country.
Gilchrist’s largest donors included the political action committees for the Michigan Laborers union ($1,000), former Democratic National Committee leader Howard Dean’s Burlington, Vermont-based Democracy for America ($2,000) and Brooklyn, New York-based Launch Progress ($4,000), which says it is seeking to build “a bench of future progressive leaders.”
Other notable contributions were $2,000 from former Detroit Country Day star and National Basketball Association player Shane Battier; $1,000 from businessman developer and philanthropist Peter Cummings and $700 from Birmingham attorney and former Ford Motor Co. vice president Elliott Hall, according to the candidate’s campaign finance report.
Gilchrist is promising more transparency in clerk’s office operations and with city government. He said he wants voters to understand how their absentee ballots are processed when they submit them.
The city clerk is also responsible for public records, Gilchrist said, and he plans to ensure Detroit has easy access to them.
“I have a bigger vision for the clerk’s office than just managing the elections process,” said Gilchrist, who is 6-feet-8, married and has 3-year-old twins. “I was the only candidate who was talking about the city clerk’s role in its entirety.”
Gilchrist said he expects to gain support from those who supported other challengers in the primary. But that prospect may not be as easy as he thinks, said Joe DiSano, a Lansing-based Democratic political consultant. Voters decide for themselves whom to back in the general election despite what their original candidates advocate, he said.
“They usually spread out their votes among the two candidates,” DiSano said.
DiSano said Winfrey pulled off an impressive victory, meaning Gilchrist will have to work harder to win the general election. Winfey needs to prove she deserves re-election to non-Gilchrist voters who opposed her in the primary, he said.
Winfrey is also more familiar to voters, so Gilchrist needs to discredit her, DiSano said.
“All the pressure is on Gilchrist now,” he said. “Now it’s time to take (Winfrey) to the wood shed, and I don’t know if he can do it.”