Dems target Wayne County seats in bid to retake House

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Correction: This story has been updated to state that term-limited state Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, has not made an endorsement in the House District 20 primary race.

Michigan Democrats are targeting a pair of Wayne County seats held by term-limited Republicans in their bid to regain a majority in the state House that they lost in 2010.

Steven Rzeppa, a 23rd District House Democratic candidate from Trenton, talks with teacher Bonnie Ginn as he campaigns July 9.

The pick-up prospects are highest in the 23rd District, where four Democrats and three Republicans are vying in Aug. 2 primaries to replace Rep. Pat Somerville, the New Boston Republican who won re-election by fewer than 5 percentage points in 2012 and 2014.

Democrats are also hoping to compete in the 20th District, where the winner of a two-candidate primary will take on one of three Republicans seeking to step in for term-limited Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth.

They are two of nine GOP seats Democrats would have to capture to win back control of the House, a high hurdle made more realistic by the party’s tradition of strong performances in presidential election years. There are 42 districts without an incumbent seeking re-election in the 110-member House.

“A lot of different factors go into it, but by the numbers, there’s certainly enough target seats that are vulnerable for Republicans and possibilities for Democrats to pick up,” said GOP consultant Tom Shields of Marketing Resource Group in Lansing.

The factors include the top of the ticket, where Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump trailed Democrat Hillary Clinton by 4.5 percentage points in a late May statewide poll released to The Detroit News and WDIV.

Nearly two out of three voters surveyed from non-Detroit Wayne County said they had an unfavorable opinion of the New York businessman, but more than half of the respondents also had unfavorable opinion of former Secretary of State Clinton.

“I think if it was somebody besides Hillary, it could be disastrous,” Shields said of the Trump ticket. “But Hillary is the second-least liked person running for office this year, which keeps Trump in the game.”

23rd District

Three Republicans and four Democrats are running in the 23rd District in what will be one of the most closely watched state House primary elections.

On the Democratic side, Trenton City Councilman Steven Rzeppa, 23, and high school teacher Darrin Camilleri, 24, are young and aggressive. Sherry Berecz is a longtime Brownstown Township clerk, and Elayne Petrucci is a Bernie Sanders volunteer inspired to run for office by the Vermont U.S. senator’s presidential campaign.

Democrats are battling over union endorsements, stressing support for public education and promoting change in the blue-collar district.

“I think the past six years of Republican control, not everything they’ve done has been absolutely horrific, but at the end of the day it’s not working for the average person anymore,” said Rzeppa, who works for SEIU Healthcare Michigan and has been endorsed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 25, the Michigan Laborers and Operating Engineers unions.

Berecz, endorsed by the United Auto Workers union, said she thinks the Legislature has reached a “stalemate” despite complete Republican control.

“I think we need to flip the state House to Democrat, ruffle the feathers as they say, then reach across the aisle and get stuff done,” she said.

The Michigan AFL-CIO did not endorse in the primary.

Rzeppa and Berecz this month pledged to work together on policies that would increase accountability on for-profit charter schools and expand state oversight, emphasizing that Camilleri had not joined the pledge.

Camilleri, a charter school teacher at Detroit Consortium High School who has been endorsed by the Teamsters union, told The News he also supports increased charter school regulations and would like to eliminate for-profit charter schools.

“I’ve seen it first-hand,” Camilleri said. “We have another for-profit charter opening another school literally two blocks away. There’s so much instability.”

The Republican field features Trenton Councilman Bob Howey, Taylor police officer Mike Taylor of Huron Township and Michael Frazier of Romulus. Frazier did not respond to requests for an interview.

“As a small business owner, I think I understand that our most important thing right now in the state is continuing to create economic development and jobs,” said Howey, 54, an architect and licensed builder. “Having a competitive tax system and getting rid of overly burdensome regulations is important.”

Howey, endorsed by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Right to Life of Michigan, said he is also focused on fixing roads despite a new state funding law set to kick in next year.

“I think we need to revise everything,” he said, including weight limits, “the design and making sure that whoever is contracted to do the work does it right.”

Taylor, who calls himself “a normal citizen that wants to step up and help our district,” is focusing on public safety and argues the state needs to provide more revenue-sharing dollars to police agencies. “That’s been stagnant for so long, and something needs to be done,” said Taylor, 47. “At least Downriver, in the city of Taylor, they’ve had to make so many cuts because of the lack of funding.”

20th District

Democrats face a tougher challenge in the 20th District, where Heise won re-election by more than 20 percentage points in 2014 and more than 12 points in 2012, the last presidential year.

Republicans Chris Roosen, Jeff Noble and Jeff Neilson are hoping to replace Heise, who is neutral in the race.

“I’m running to continue the work that’s been done by Republican leadership over the last five years,” said Roosen, 49, an auto supplier sales manager who took a leave to campaign for state House. “I think we’ve turned the state around by making the tough choices, and I want to continue that work.”

Neilson, who moved into the district about a year ago, is an attorney who has worked on judicial elections and says he helped write elections-related bills in Lansing, putting him in position to “hit the ground running” if he wins election.

“I don’t think people should have to wait two years for their representative” to learn the job, said Neilson, 62, who was endorsed by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Noble is a less traditional candidate hoping to shake up Lansing. He’s a senior pastor at Praise Baptist Church in Plymouth and is backed by state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, a tea party conservative favorite.

“I’m not part of the establishment and I’m not a politician,” said Noble, 55.

Plymouth City Commissioner Colleen Pobur and former county Commissioner John Sullivan are competing in the Democratic primary.

Pobur, who served on the Michigan Liquor Control Commission under Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, said her experience at the city and state level sets her apart. The 57-year-old said she wants to overhaul “broken” state systems for funding local schools and governments.

Pobur argues Trump’s unpopularity could help her election prospects if she wins the primary.

“It’s a district where people are well educated and well versed in the issues,” said Pobur, who is endorsed by the Michigan AFL-CIO. “They want to vote for the person, not the part.”

Sullivan, 45, is an attorney and former state Parole Board member who said he wants to increase education funding and criticized the road funding package.

“It was legislators being weak and passing the buck down the road,” Sullivan said of the road aid deal. “They said, ‘We’re going to raise your taxes, but not now.’ I think they could have found a solution through cuts.”

Targeted state House races

The Democrats have targeted two GOP-held state House districts in Wayne County for possible pick-up. The candidates in the Aug. 2 primaries:

District 20

Democrats: Colleen Pobur of Plymouth and John Sullivan of Northville

Republicans: Chris Roosen of Plymouth, Jeff Noble of Plymouth and Jeff Neilson of Northville

District 23

Democrats: Steven Rzeppa of Trenton, Darrin Camilleri of Brownstown Township, Sherry Berecz of Brownstown Township and Elayne Petrucci of Trenton

Republicans: Bob Howey of Trenton, Mike Taylor of Huron Township and Michael Frazier of Romulus

Source: Michigan Secretary of State’s Office