State audit stirs challengers in Detroit’s clerk race
Detroit — Janice Winfrey might be facing a tough re-election campaign for Detroit clerk as well-known challengers emerge in the wake of a state audit that found “an abundance of human errors” by city precinct workers in November’s election.
Heaster Wheeler, a former high-ranking official in Wayne County government and ex-director of Detroit’s NAACP chapter, is expected to give Winfrey a battle. He joins contender D. Etta Wilcoxon, who is looking for a rematch after Winfrey defeated her in 2013.
The two were the first approved challengers to take on Winfrey for the August primary. Five other residents submitted petitions by Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline, and a couple of high-profile elected officials who pulled petitions withdrew from consideration, including state Rep. LaTanya Garrett and Wayne County Commissioner Jewel Ware.
Winfrey’s bid for a fourth term comes on the heels of national attention over voting irregularities uncovered in Detroit after a statewide recount was requested for the Nov. 8 presidential election. But voter memory is short, said East Lansing-based pollster Steve Mitchell, who adds a crowded field might work in Winfrey’s favor.
“Janice Winfrey probably benefits by the ‘more the merrier’ in the race,” said Mitchell, CEO of Mitchell Research & Communications, who polled in Detroit during 2013 for a super political action committee supporting now-Mayor Mike Duggan. “She is the incumbent. People know her name.
“The public’s memory is very short. If your opponent doesn’t have the money to point out you’ve had all these problems, then you didn’t have the problems because you don’t remember them.”
Winfrey won easily in 2009 and 2013, besting her leading challenger by 72 and 44 percentage points, respectively.
Still, Winfrey has some formidable contenders and shouldn’t take anything for granted, political consultant Greg Bowens said.
“You’ve got some notable names in that race now with some deep community roots, like a Heaster Wheeler,” Bowens said. “For somebody like that, it’s not going to take as much money as you think to win a citywide race. People know him. That should be something to watch for.”
Detroit had two clerks in 30 years before Winfrey, a little-known elementary school math teacher, upset Clerk Jackie Currie in 2005. Currie became vulnerable after a Wayne County Circuit judge appointed the state elections director and Wayne County clerk to take charge of the general election after allegations of voter fraud in the primary election.
Interest in this year’s race intensified after the state of Michigan audited 136 Detroit precincts — “the worst of the worst,” according to the Michigan Bureau of Elections. The audit followed a The Detroit News report that almost 60 percent of the city’s precincts were ineligible for a recount because their numbers of ballots in precinct poll books did not match those of voting machine printout reports.
Winfrey’s office blamed the problem on outdated machines. The audit concluded there was “no evidence of pervasive voter fraud” or voting machine error — attributing the problems to a series of mistakes by precinct workers and receiving boards.
Winfrey declared before the audit was finished that it would be “vindicating,” but Duggan undercut her claim by saying after the audit’s release, “everybody in the city knows it was terrible.”
“At the end of the day, the democratic process is what it is. Everyone has a right to run if they think they could do a better job,” said Winfrey.
“I’m the right person for the job for all of the right reasons. I’m trustworthy. I’m able to do the job. I’ve kept my record clean, as I should, and consider myself a professional.”
Winfrey said she has implemented satellite voting precincts, cleaned up the city’s voter rolls and revamped the office’s training protocols for poll workers. She also touted the recent arrival of about 700 new voting machines — which the state is requiring of all jurisdictions in the next two years.
“I’m excited to have the opportunity to show the electorate that the Department of Elections is one that is run with integrity and one that is open to correction. Because oftentimes, when one is not open to corrections they cannot make improvements, they cannot learn,” she said. “I’m just eager to move forward and I’m eager to make our residents proud of the city in which they reside.”
For his part, Wheeler said he is starting at a “significant disadvantage” in trying to get his message out to the 139-square-mile city. But the former assistant to ex-Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano said change is needed and his campaign is about “reclaiming our voice.”
“We’ve got to do some things radically different,” said Wheeler, a former Detroit firefighter who said recruiting, training and proper staffing are among his chief concerns. “People have to believe that their vote is going to be counted and that’s my commitment, to ensure that every vote counts.”
Wheeler said the state review was “unfortunate” and it “speaks for itself.”
“There was poor training,” he said. “... We do not have the luxury of anybody’s vote being denied.”
In the wake of the audit, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson ordered state election staff to work closely with the clerk’s office to improve election worker training and recruitment programs.
Renaissance Observer newspaper publisher Wilcoxon echoed Wheeler’s argument, saying she’s running to “restore integrity.” Winfrey, she contends, has failed to properly run the office and won’t take responsibility for her missteps.
“The community is hopping mad,” she said, boasting of a grassroots campaign as “the people’s candidate” focused on transparency and community engagement.
“(The community) is embarrassed and it feels that the current clerk must go,” said Wilcoxon, who also made prior bids for the City Council, mayor and state Senate. “The city is a political giant. I understand the power and importance of the vote in the process.”
Among the other potential contenders are Adam Hollier, a liaison to Detroit’s City Council under the Bing administration who also has made prior bids for a seat on council, and Garlin Gilchrist II, who has worked as a technology director for the city. Candidates have until Friday to withdraw.
Those pending review to appear on the ballot:
Debra J. Eddington, Garlin Gilchrist II, Cynthia A. Johnson, Faustine Amara Onwuneme, Michael Stephen Richard