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Dems to nominate state high court, education candidates

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Former Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, who gained national acclaim for filibustering anti-abortion legislation, will deliver a keynote address Saturday at the Michigan Democratic Party’s state convention.

Davis will speak to the party faithful gathered in Lansing to formally nominate candidates for the Michigan Supreme Court, State Board of Education and university boards, rounding out a Democratic ticket that will be topped by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Davis is “a true champion for women’s rights as well as Democratic rights,” said state party chairman Brandon Dillon. “She represents a strong progressive female voice, which is I think is indicative of the kind of people the Democratic Party embraces and are increasingly becoming our leaders.”

Saturday’s nominations, largely orchestrated ahead of the convention, are expected to include Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Deborah Thomas, who is running for the Michigan Supreme Court for the second straight cycle.

Thomas, a party nominee in 2014 and 2004, is expected to face Justice Joan Larsen for a partial two-year term. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Larsen in 2015 after the resignation of Justice Mary Beth Kelly.

Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Frank Szymanski is also expected to win party nomination for the Supreme Court. He is likely to compete for a full eight-year term against Justice David Viviano, who was appointed by Snyder in 2013 and won election in 2014.

State Board of Education President John Austin is a virtual lock to return to the ballot, and he announced this week he’s backing former state Department of Human Services Director Ismael Ahmed as his “running mate” for a seat opening up with the retirement of Kathleen Straus.

“He, like me, shares a commitment to really make education work for those who have to travel the furthest,” Austin said of Ahmed, a senior adviser to the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s chancellor who helped found the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Dearborn.

“It’ll be a great message for Michigan to send that we support a Muslim and Arab American who has real skills and ability to lead on improving education.”

Former state Rep. John Stewart of Plymouth also wants the Board of Education job but was essentially pushed to the sidelines before the convention. Stewart, a Republican legislator who has been a Democrat since 2007, spent more than a year visiting local school boards, something he claims Ahmed never did.

“Clearly they want ethnic diversity, that’s the bottom line,” Stewart said, suggesting Austin and education union leaders discounted the work he put into the race. “... I never had a chance. I never got in the batter’s box. I was never allowed to pick up the bat.”

Education races could be more competitive than usual this fall if Republicans win their fight to abolish straight-ticket voting, which typically gives an advantage to down-ballot Democrats. Republicans will nominate their own candidates Saturday in Grand Rapids.

For Democrats, University of Michigan Regents Denise Illitch and Laurence Deitch are expected to be nominated for re-election, as are Michigan State University Trustees Dianne Byrum and Diann Woodard.

On Thursday afternoon, candidates for the Wayne State Board of Governors included former Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney and Wayne County Community College campus vice president Yvette Anderson.

Other candidates could still declare and collect signatures at the convention, according to Michigan Democratic Party spokesman Paul Kanan.

joosting@detroitnews.com