Hurricane Ian makes landfall again, this time on South Carolina’s coast, after causing catastrophic damage in Florida

Michigan Senate winner still shrouded in mystery following primary shocker

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Betty Jean Alexander on Facebook

Detroit — Betty Jean Alexander of Detroit remains shrouded in mystery three days after scoring a shocking win over state Sen. David Knezek in a Democratic primary race few thought would be competitive.

Alexander, whom several local party leaders say they’d never heard of, did not report spending any money on her campaign and has not granted any media interviews since her surprise win in the heavily Democratic district.

Lamar Lemmons III, a former state lawmaker and current Detroit school board member, recruited Alexander to run for the 5th District seat and is speaking on her behalf. But he said Friday she will not simply be his “puppet” in the state Senate.

“That’s ridiculous,” he told The Detroit News. “Most politicians have their spokesman. Most state senators have campaign managers, and many legislators are recruited.”

Lemmons is under scrutiny for his role in electing Alexander, whom he describes as a 53-year-old single mother with two children who works in an administrative job. Alexander grew up with the former lawmaker's wife, Georgia Lemmons, who considers her a sister.

Little else is known about Alexander, aside from a 2003 check fraud guilty plea in New Mexico and reports tying her to bankruptcy filings and lawsuits over unpaid debts when she was a Detroit school board candidate in 2016.

State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, said Thursday she is “pissed at Lamar Lemmons and his games in this election,” including his own failed run for a 2nd District state Senate seat.

Writing on Facebook, Dagnogo said people have asked why she didn't run against Knezek. It's because “he does an amazing job serving our constituents," she said. The Dearborn Heights Democrat “served our district well! Yes, white, AND a champion for justice and what is right!”

Role of race

Dagnogo said Friday she’d never heard of Alexander and is in “total shock” over Knezek’s loss.

“I think … people voted not necessarily for this unknown candidate, they voted against a name that I guess they perceived not to be African-American,” said Dagnogo, who is black but said her name has confused voters.

Lemmons said he suspects race did play a role in Knezek’s defeat, along with urban-suburban dynamics in a race that includes heavily African-American areas like Detroit and Inkster along with Dearborn Heights, Garden City and Redford Township.

Alexander is set to do her first radio interview Sunday morning with Elena Herrada on the 910-AM Superstation, according to Lemmons. Herrada said this week on social media that she “would sure prefer” Alexander to Knezek in the state Senate. Lemmons did not make Alexander available to speak with The News.

“I’m moving her slowly because she’s nervous and anxious,” Lemmons said, noting Alexander did not think she would win. “We knew it was a long shot. We thought maybe we’d get to 40 to 45 percent and expose how many people in the district were discontent.”

Public records show Alexander lives at an address on Detroit’s northwest side. On Friday night, an SUV was parked in the driveway beside the well-kept two-story brown brick home, but no one came to the door.

Neighbors on the tree-lined street described Alexander as quiet and polite and were surprised to learn she'd won such a significant race with little effort.

“I had no idea,” said John Davis, a retiree who has lived on the street for more than 35 years and has seen Alexander with her family. “She stays to herself. ... That is absolutely amazing.”

Willie McCants, another longtime resident, recalls waving to Alexander from across the street and spotting youngsters in her yard. He also was shocked to learn she defeated a longtime politician.

“That’s wonderful. It’s good to have a neighbor like that,” he said while standing Friday in his front yard. “I’m happy for her. She was truly blessed there.”

Knezek was one of three incumbent state lawmakers who lost in Tuesday's primary, but his defeat was by far the most shocking because it came at the hands of a virtual unknown. A Marine Corps veteran, Knezek is known for fiery floor speeches and serves as chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Jonathan Kinloch, chairman of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party, called Knezek a “strong supporter of the community” and said voters have contacted him confused about his “startling” primary loss.

“He was a future rising star and leader within our party,” Kinloch said. “This is a tremendous loss to someone who no one had ever heard of and we have no idea what to expect from.”

Kinloch said he'd personally not heard of Alexander prior to her win. He reached out to Lemmons but has not been able to talk to Alexander directly, he said.

“It’s concerning she’s starting that way by having a go-between between her and the community,” Kinloch said. “That’s not a good sign to start, but all things being equal, we’ll see how she operates as a sworn-in legislator because she won’t take office until January.”

One local theory behind Knezek’s loss is that residents had circulated an online video attacking him over auto insurance costs, Kinloch said.

Election not conceded

Knezek has not yet conceded the race as he waits for the Wayne County Board of Canvassers to certify the election results, which they must do within 14 days of the election. Canvassers are set to meet Monday to grill a software firm over election results reporting glitches on Tuesday night.

Alexander would face Republican nominee DeShawn Wilkins of Detroit in the Nov. 6 general election.

It’s possible Knezek could challenge Alexander over residency or campaign finance issues, but he has not given any indication he plans to do so.

“Serving in the Michigan Legislature has been the honor of my life,” Knezek said Wednesday in a statement. “No matter the final outcome I won’t stop fighting for you and your family and I’m going to remain active and engaged to ensure Democrats win in November.”

Lemmons said Alexander ran a “grassroots” campaign that largely relied on phone calls between African-American women. He called it a “fluke” when Knezek won the seat in 2014 with 32 percent of the vote in a six-way primary that featured former Detroit state Reps. Shanelle Jackson, David Nathan and Thomas Stallworth III.

Nathan said Friday that Lemmons never contacted him about running for the seat again, disputing a claim Lemmons made earlier this week. They did have a conversation “after he had enlisted BJA — that’s what people are calling her — to run,” Nathan said.

Seat taken for granted?

The former state lawmaker said he thinks Knezek took the seat for granted and did not run an active re-election campaign after Alexander signed a form telling the state she did not intend to raise more than $1,000.

“Just because you’re an incumbent doesn’t mean that seat is yours,” Nathan said. “That is the people’s seat, and the people decide who they want to represent them.”

State campaign reports show Knezek spent a relatively small sum on the race himself. While his campaign committee reported spending more than $79,000 in 2018, more than half of that was a $40,000 contribution to the Michigan Senate Democratic Fund in April.

He spent about $356 on Facebook and Google ads this year through July 22, along with $4,000 for the printing of unspecified materials. Most of his expenses were payments to consultants, according to the reports.

Knezek raised $94,144 in 2018 and $253,374 since winning election to the Senate four years ago. As of July 22, he had $41,176 in unspent campaign funds.

Nathan said he had never heard of Alexander and, if he wasn’t still connected politically, would not have even known there was a Senate race going on in the district.

“And that’s what leads me to believe that Knezek took the voters for granted," he said.

Lemmons offered a similar assessment, suggesting “the incumbent lost this race more than Betty Jean won it.”

Dagnogo said she has not yet talked to Alexander but hopes to do so soon.

“I have my concerns with my constituents potentially having a senator that has not demonstrated or communicated what their platform is,” she said. “I have to have an opportunity to get to know her and, if the vote is certified, find a way to work together.”

Upset prompts fee plan

Kinloch praised Knezek and said he thinks current lawmakers should act on legislation that would raise fees for candidates who pay to get on the ballot instead of collecting signatures. A House bill introduced last year would have bumped the fee from $100 to $400 but was modified in committee.

“This is a very serious process and the Legislature needs to address this in some sort of way to prevent these shadow candidates from filing to manipulate and influence the outcome of elections,” Kinloch said.

Lemmons, who previously served in the Michigan House, has long sought his own seat in the state Senate. He first ran for the upper chamber in 2002 and on Tuesday finished fifth in the 2nd District primary.

As a former legislator, policy analyst and school board president poised to be a top aide to Alexander if she's seated in the state Senate, “of course I’m going to have some influence,” Lemmons said.

“But she will be far less of a puppet than Rick Snyder was when he came in without experience and had to depend on (senior advisor Dick) Posthumus and others with more experience.”

(517) 371-3662

staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed