GOP fight for 11th District U.S. House seat goes negative

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Candidates, from left, Rocky Raczkowski of Troy, state Rep. Klint Kesto, former U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, Kristine Bonds of West Bloomfield, Plymouth Township supervisor Kurt Heise and Lena Epstein of Bloomfield Hills discuss the issues Monday at the 11th District debate in Novi.

A bitter Republican primary for the U.S. House is entering its final two weeks in Michigan's 11th District, where GOP Rep. Dave Trott is retiring after two terms. 

Five candidates are vying for the Republican nomination in a contest rife with mudslinging, allegations of resume "fluffing" and a defamation lawsuit.  

The candidates include businesswoman Lena Epstein of Bloomfield Township, former state Rep. Rocky Raczkowski of Troy, state Sen. Mike Kowall of White Lake, state Rep. Klint Kesto of Commerce Township and former U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio of Milford, who represented the 11th District from 2013-15 and lost the seat to Trott. 

Political analysts have ranked the fight over the open seat a tossup, with the possibility it flips to the Democrats this fall after having been in Republican hands for decades. The oddly shaped boundary includes Livonia, Plymouth, Canton Township, Birmingham, Troy and Novi. 

"In general, primary elections are more like a beauty contest because you’re choosing among people whose issue positions are similar," said Jeffrey Grynaviski, an associate professor of political science at Wayne State University. 

"In this case, you have similar credentials, so it’s based on who stands out the most."

Both Raczkowski, the former state House majority floor leader, and the term-limited Kowall, the state Senate majority leader, are well-known names, but Epstein has dominated the money race since donating more than $990,000 to her campaign. 

The GOP candidates together raised about $2.7 million and spent $2.1 million as of July 18 — with more than half spent by Epstein alone, including over $390,000 in the first two and a half of July. 

“The people who really have a legitimate shot as of today are Lena Epstein and Rocky Razckowski. Bentivolio is the one who — if it’s close to a tie — he could be the spoiler,” said pollster Ed Sarpolus, who has done surveys in the district.

All the candidates are from Oakland County. But the race could be won in Wayne County, which will represent just under 40 percent of the GOP vote and where the candidates are least known, Sarpolus said.

Kesto had the best fundraising last quarter, followed by Epstein and Kowall, who notched several "establishment" endorsements, including Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, the Detroit Regional Chamber and the Michigan Farm Bureau. 

The businesswoman

Epstein, 37, of Bloomfield Township co-chaired President Donald Trump's successful Michigan campaign in 2016 and has sought to position herself in his mold as an "outsider" candidate with business experience. 

Lena Epstein

If elected, Epstein says she would legislate in an "America First" fashion, focusing on economic growth, strengthening the workforce and serving as a "powerful advocate" for Israel. 

"My courage, grit and tenacity set me apart in the race," Epstein said.

She studied economics at Harvard University and returned home in 2003 to help manage the family business at Vesco Oil Corp. in Southfield, an automotive and industrial lubricant distributor that she co-owns. 

Asked about local businesses' concerns over Trump's controversial tariffs, Epstein said she would listen to constituents' concerns.

"I believe that President Trump understands business and understands international business transactions potentially better than any other living president in American history, and I have faith in our president to continue to support policies that grow our country’s gross domestic product," she said.  

Kesto has criticized Epstein for missing 87 percent of quarterly board meetings of the Michigan Children's Trust Fund, to which she was appointed in 2012.

Her campaign has said she had to miss and call into board meetings because they are held during the week when she had work or family obligations. 

The combat veteran

Razckowski, 49, is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who is president of an automotive and defense logistics firm, Imperium Logistics in Troy.

He has unsuccessfully run for the U.S. House and Senate before, including as the 2002 Republican nominee against Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, and in 2010 against then-U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Hills.

Rocky Raczkowski

Razckowski said if there were a better, more committed candidate, he wouldn't be running because, "who needs this?"

"It may be a large primary field, but I see too many people getting into office just because they want to fluff their resume. I’ve had enough of that, both on the Democratic and Republican side," Razckowski said. 

Razckowski says his rivals "have all gone negative against me."

"For me, I'm the only one. Let's not just lump in the Republicans but also the Democrats, the Libertarian, the independents, the co-dependents and the vegetarian in this race because it's a smorgasbord of candidates. Not a single one has the breadth of experience or the commitment that has been proven in work and charity to the community."

If elected, his priorities would include cutting waste in the federal government, including at the Pentagon, reining in the national debt and fixing the "broken" immigration system. 

Raczkowski has held nearly 60 town halls during the campaign, hitting every township and community in the district, he said. He wants to create a 24-hour office, where constituents could get assistance at all hours.

"When elected, I will be the most reachable member of Congress," he said. "In the military we had operations 24-7." 

The son of Polish immigrants, Raczkowski grew up in Detroit and Farmington and joined the Army at 17. He served two combat tours on the Horn of Africa, based out of Djibouti,  retiring from the Army in 2014.

Raczkowski said a third of his business is affected by Trump's steel tariffs, as his company handles stainless-steel tubes for fuel lines and air bags. 

"As much as I’m being hit and hurt, it’s time where we at least try to renegotiate and make fair trade deals that are free trade across the board," Raczkowski said. "We’ve been basically taken advantage of for too many years."

The former congressman

A simmering dispute between Raczkowski and Bentivolio over Bentivolio's Vietnam-era military medals boiled over in May when Bentivolio took the extraordinary step of suing Raczkowski for defamation, seeking $10 million in damages.

Raczkowski has called the suit frivolous. The case is pending in Oakland County Circuit Court.

Bentivolio, 66, is a former high school teacher and reindeer rancher who served in Vietnam and Iraq. He decided to run for Congress again because he was "very effective" in his first term, he said. 

Kerry Bentivolio

"I do not believe any of my opponents are running for selfless reasons. It is about ego, and they are career politicians or want to be career politicians," Bentivolio said. 

"As you might know, every bill I sponsored came from an idea or suggestion from my constituents, not a D.C. lobbyist. Average, middle-class Americans like me should be represented in D.C. We are the backbone of America, and it is about time we showed our muscle." 

After leaving Congress, Bentivolio filed for bankruptcy after settling a lawsuit to his former campaign manager over payments he claimed Bentivolio owed him for work on his 2012 campaign.

As a result of his bankruptcy, Bentivolio said he was forced to sell his reindeer and their equipment to cover expenses. For years, Bentivolio has served as a volunteer Santa for kids at Christmas. 

The same ex-campaign manager, Robert Dindoffer of Grosse Pointe Park, recently garnished Bentivolio's 2018 campaign account by over $3,800, according to federal records. A furious Bentivolio said he's in the process of suing to recover the money. 

Bentivolio said in 2016 he endorsed and volunteered for Ben Carson's presidential campaign until he dropped out, later supporting Trump as the nominee. 

"I was asked and I candidly entertained a run for president against Gary Johnson for the Libertarian ticket," Bentivolio said. "I am a Republican and told them, 'Thanks, but no thanks!' That is a fact." 

The cabinet maker

Kowall, 66, a former White Lake Township supervisor, has been in politics for more than 20 years and says he likes to consider himself “the adult in the room” in the primary contest.

If elected, Kowall said he’ll focus on improving trade agreements, strengthening the border with Mexico and improving infrastructure, specifically the aging Soo Locks.

Mike Kowall

At this “weird” and polarizing time in politics, Kowall acknowledged the need to listen to all sides.

“I’m smart enough to know I’m not all that and a bag of chips,” he said. “And there are things I might be missing on. Everyone has a point of a view and an opinion. It warrants listening to.”

A relationship he wants to maintain is that between the United States and Canada, where his family hails from. .

Trump has tangled with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling him “weak” after leaving the G-7 summit in June, but Kowall says he “doesn’t like that business” and “wouldn’t necessarily stir the pot” as Trump has. Still, he says trade agreements need to be “toughened up” to ensure "equal and fair trade."

Kowall said he’s proud of the work he’s done on the state level, playing a role in Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings and creating a business improvement zone.

He stressed that he's lived in the district for 39 years — a jab at Epstein's living outside it and at Raczkowski, who has lived there five years.

Members of Congress are not required to reside in the district they represent.

Epstein spokesman John Yob said her home in Bloomfield Township is up for sale but hasn't sold, and that she intends to move into the district. 

The Chaldean leader

Kesto, a former Wayne County prosecutor, became Michigan’s first Chaldean elected to the state Legislature in 2012 and now hopes to be the first Chaldean elected to Congress.

Klint Kesto

“We need good representation everywhere, but the Chaldean people who are here, they have no representation in Washington,” Kesto said.

“They’re being killed and persecuted overseas, and yet our system is not allowing them in but allowing others in. It doesn’t make any sense.”

If elected, Kesto says he’d vote to eliminate the Affordable Care Act and fix uneven trade deals.

Kesto, 36, said he believes a lawmaker’s job is about people, not politics. He remembers a woman whose son had a rare disorder, but whose insurance wouldn’t cover a certain medication.

“I called the CEO and pressed him and prodded him and said ‘You got to get this done. This isn’t about money, it’s about lives,” Kesto recalled.

He saw her at the Walled Lake parade a year later with her then 16-month-old son. "She said ‘You saved his life.’ I was just doing my job.”

Kesto grew up in Southfield, the son of Iraqi Christian immigrants who came to Metro Detroit in the late 1970s.

Despite those ties, Kesto says Congress needs to stop the influx of illegal immigrants, “then you can address the other issues such as due process, asylum and refugees.”

“My family came looking for opportunity, religious freedom, liberty, but they did it the right way,” he said.