Labor split, Durhal-Conyers feud dominate special Michigan Senate primary
A feud among two high-profile candidates and a split in union endorsements has turned a special Democratic primary into a heated battle to fill the state Senate seat left vacant by former Sen. Virgil Smith’s criminal conviction.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the powerful United Auto Workers union, Service Employees International Union and the Michigan AFL-CIO are backing 27-year-old Ian Conyers, the great nephew of longtime U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., over former state Rep. Fred Durhal Jr.
Durhal is endorsed in the Aug. 2 primary by the Michigan Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees as well as the laborers, millwrights and carpenters unions.
Seven lesser-known candidates also are seeking the 4th District seat, which stretches from Detroit’s north side to the Downriver communities of Allen Park, Lincoln Park and Southgate.
“He’s a 27-year-old kid,” said Durhal, 64, who represented a west-side Detroit district for seven years over two stints in the Michigan House of Representatives. “I just think it’s kind of a leap to come from nowhere and then become state senator.”
The other Democratic candidates are Detroiters James Cole Jr., former state Sen. Patricia Holmes, Vanessa Simpson Olive, Carron Pinkins, Ralph Rayner, Helena Scott and Howard Worthy. Holmes served a partial term in the state Senate during the mid-1990s, but has not been aggressively campaigning for the open seat.
Conyers worked in constituent relations for former Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty and was a regional field director for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. He worked on minority contracting for a waterfront redevelopment project in Washington in 2013 and 2014 before joining a public affairs consulting firm and moving back to Detroit full-time.
Conyers’ late grandfather, William, was a brother of John Conyers Jr. and died in 1968.
“Anytime someone has a last name, you absolutely should look at that,” said Conyers, who also sought to emphasize that he’s running for the Senate based on his own accomplishments.“It’s an honor to have the congressman’s endorsement as well.”
Durhal is emphasizing his 40-year career working in a variety of city, county and state government jobs.
The winner of the primary in the safe Democratic seat will likely glide to victory in a Nov. 8 special general election against Republican Keith Franklin and then be sworn into office before the Legislature begins its four-week lame duck session in late November.
“Are you going to send in a rookie just brought up from the farm system, or are you going to bring in your most experienced reliever?” Durhal said.
The former state representative acknowledged he has been irked by the upstart campaign Conyers is running for the seat, after initially planning to run for state House.
“Fred has really been taking it very personal,” said Jonathan Kinloch, chairman of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Organization, who has endorsed Conyers. “When you’ve served in many different roles as Fred has done, the best of the many ideas you’ve had, in my opinion, are behind you.”
The Conyers-Durhal feud has become heated in recent weeks after a Fraser-based group called Concerned Citizens of Michigan sent voters in the district a mail advertisement featuring a photo of Conyers appearing to pose with friends holding guns.
“Ian Conyers thinks gun violence is a game,” the mailer said. “Now this young man wants to be our state senator. Is he ready to represent you?”
Conyers said the picture is of him and his nephews after playing paintball four years ago.
“They took that picture from our social media and distorted it and sent it to seniors who may not know what paint ball is,” Conyers said. “Who’s behind this? That’s what (senior citizens) want to know.”
Durhal denied any involvement in the mail advertisement.
Conyers said the anonymous opponents have caught “the Trump mania” — referring to the Republican presidential nominee — and he disputed suggestions that he doesn’t take Detroit’s gun violence seriously. “It couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said.
Like Durhal, other candidates in the race are piling on Conyers.
“He’s the new kid on the block. He was just put in there because of his great uncle,” said Cole, a self-described “community repairman” from the southwest Detroit.
Pinkins, vice chair of the Wayne County Board of Ethics, also argues that Conyers’ resume is thin.
“I don’t see where the actions have shown that the person is the best person to be in that position,” Pinkins said. “It’s the big name.”
Pinkins is touting his work as an attorney as providing skills that are needed in Lansing.
“We don’t have any lawyers in the Detroit delegation,” Pinkins said. “I think that puts us at a disadvantage.”
Simpson Olive, a home health care nurse and substitute teacher, said she has more “wisdom and experience” in life, working multiple jobs to make ends meet as a single mother of two.
“He’s a kid right out of college,” Simpson Olive said. “I understand he’s got the Conyers name. But I don’t think he’s ready to be senator.”
Simpson Olive also took aim at Durhal because his son, state Rep. Fred Durhal III, is running for re-election in the House seat the elder Durhal previously held for six years.
“I believe they’re trying to make a monopoly for their family,” she said of the Durhals. “I know my community better than both of them.”