Businessman, vet John James files for U.S. Senate

Jonathan Oosting, Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Detroit businessman and Iraq war veteran John James is filing to run for U.S. Senate, launching what he is calling an “exploratory committee” to gear up for the 2018 Republican primary.

James is set to submit paperwork with the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday and announce plans in a meeting with friends, family and employees at James Group International in Detroit, a supply chain and logistics company he runs with his father and brother.

“You can’t ever do these type of things for any one reason,” James told The Detroit News in an exclusive interview, “but the biggest I would say is my passion for service. My faith and my family have always been my highest priorities.”

The 36-year-old Farmington Hills resident and self-described “conservative Republican” is the latest entrant in an increasingly diverse GOP field seeking to take on third-term Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing.

Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bob Young of Laingsburg and businesswoman Lena Epstein of Bloomfield Hills are also running, and other high-profile figures continue to consider their own campaigns.

“I believe that we all want what’s best for Michigan, but given my experience creating jobs and my experience defending the country, I am the best candidate in the Republican Party and the best shot we have to defeat Debbie Stabenow,” James said.

James graduated from West Point in 2004 and went to Iraq in 2007. He served as an Army captain in Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he was a Ranger-qualified officer who flew Apache helicopters and led two platoons. He is now president of the James Group International, founded by his father, and CEO of subsidiary Renaissance Global Logistics.

While he decided to enter the political fray “very, very recently,” James told The News he first started thinking about ways he could “fight for Michigan” while he was still in Iraq but hearing about the Great Recession back home.

“It sounds super cheesy,” he said, “but I was born and raised in Michigan. It was a tough time for the community, a tough time for Michiganders, so I wanted to come back to see what I could do to help.”

James joined the family business in 2012 and became president of the James International Group in 2014. The company has added 100 jobs since 2012 and grown annual revenues from $35 million to $137 million, he said.

Stabenow won re-election by wide margins in 2006 and 2012, but she is an early target for Republicans this cycle as one of 10 Senate Democrats up for re-election next year in a state that GOP President Donald Trump won in 2016.

She’s a “career politician” who has presided over a growing federal deficit that could “bankrupt our children’s futures,” James said.

Stabenow raised $2.1 million in the second quarter and has $5.8 million on hand for her re-election bid, her campaign announced last week. Epstein raised more than $460,000 in the five weeks since launching her campaign, and Young just joined the race last month. Filing with the FEC will allow James to begin serious fundraising as well.

“Debbie Stabenow has always been a fantastic fundraiser, but I think those numbers are definitely meant to send a message to the now-many Republican challengers she might have,” said Susan Demas, editor of Inside Michigan Politics.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, has not ruled out a run, and Michigan musician Kid Rock has stirred speculation with a new website selling “Kid Rock for US Senate” gear through Warner Bros. Records.

James has “a very impressive background,” but he is “not very well known in this state and not nearly as well known as a lot of people who could be running on the Republican side,” Demas said.

James is a political newcomer who has not actively donated to other candidate campaigns in the past, according to a review of state and federal records. His father, prominent Detroit businessman John A. James, has primarily donated to Democrats, including $1,500 to Stabenow in the 2012 election cycle.

“My father supports his son and I love my father,” James said, acknowledging they have contrasting political beliefs. “I’ve been a Republican since I was 16 and a conservative my whole life.”

His personal politics are driven by a belief in the Constitution, James said. An “unapologetic Christian,” he described himself as “pro-life,” pro-business and “pro-Second Amendment.”

James said he supports Donald Trump, praising the president for nominating Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and for stocking his foreign policy team with military generals.

“There’s not enough combat veterans in government “who understand the consequences of failed policies,” he said.

As the head of an international logistics company, James said he is open to performing a “health check” on the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, which the president has said he wants to renegotiate.

James served in the U.S. Army for eight years, earning a Combat Action Badge and two Air Medals, among others, while logging 744.3 flight hours in Iraq, his campaign said.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder launched his 2014 re-election campaign at a James Group International facility in Detroit, where he was flanked by James and his brother, fellow businessman Lorron James. Snyder this year appointed James to the Michigan Council on Future Mobility.

A group of Metro Detroit business leaders began courting James for a Senate run this spring, and a group called the National Security and Opportunity Fund has run online ads encouraging a candidate with combat and job creation-experience to join the race.