Name recognition is often touted as the most important factor in winning an election, because people for the most part vote for names that are familiar to them. Candidates with a strong name ID can cruise to an easy win, with little or no experience. And when they get into office, some play catch up with experienced counterparts or simply don’t know what to do.
Detroit, like other communities, has repeatedly chosen candidates for public office squarely on the strength of their names, and not on the basis of any clearly articulated public policy vision.
Such a scenario looms large over the race to succeed retired U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. in the 13th Congressional District, where momentum is building as some prominent officeholders and other candidates are seeking the coveted seat.
Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, state Sens. Coleman Young II and Ian Conyers, state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Detroit attorney Michael Gilmore and former Conyers’ aide Kimberly Hill-Knot have all declared their candidacies.
State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo has said she is exploring a run for the seat. Donnell White, executive director of the Detroit NAACP, as well as Westland Mayor Bill Wild are said to be considering entering the congressional race too.
Given how crowded the field is becoming — months ahead of the August primary — voters should demand more than just the inference of a name. The race should be based on what a candidate is offering in terms of life experience, background and commitment to public service.
The race should focus on how the candidates intend to improve the living conditions of people in the district, which stretches beyond Detroit to several bedroom communities.
Articulating a new vision for the district and laying out a concise set of policies that would help make life better should take precedent over any sort of popularity contest.
It is true that Conyers was able to register some significant legislative accomplishments partly because of his seniority status over a five-decade career in Congress.
Seniority is key to getting things done in Congress, and that is what has made Conyers an important political player in the halls of power in Washington.
Though his replacement won’t have seniority right away, he or she should have the gravitas and finesse of lawmaking to understand what it takes to bring home the bacon.
That includes having an educated understanding of how Congress works, along with the roles of various agencies within the federal government and how those entities can impact the lives of their constituents. That will help the new lawmaker know when and how to demand accountability on behalf of district members.
Voters must ensure Conyers’ successor is someone with substance and a strong and commendable record of public service.
It won’t be enough to send someone to Congress because he or she is politically connected, has high name recognition, looks a certain way, or is inherently deserving of a political birthright.
That would be a mistake and a disservice to both the legacy of Conyers and the district. Public office shouldn’t be treated like one’s personal property.
“If name recognition has no track record, what good is it? The 13th District at the very minimum deserves a candidate who has a proven track record, and is able to measure what they are going to bring back to the district,” said the Rev. Gregory Guice of Detroit Unity Temple.
“Given all the challenges we are facing in this district, we need someone who is community-centered and is an independent thinker who cannot easily be swayed but is willing to stand on their values.”
Also, at a time when public opinion of Congress is low, it is important for the 13th District to elect someone who embodies public integrity.
Because politics is also about representation and trust, the likely candidate to succeed Conyers shouldn’t be one whose political biography reads like a sea of ethical lapses.
This race has to be more than just a bevy of ambitious men and women lining up to inherit the tremendous legacy of Conyers as a civil rights icon.
It should be about demanding substantive representation in a district where the often ignored needs of the people leave some jaded about elected office.
This time around dwellers of the district have an opportunity to force attentiveness to their issues by pushing for real substantive conversations and real solutions, not how big a candidate’s name is.
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