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Dems line up for chance to replace Rep. Sandy Levin

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

The race to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin is quickly taking shape in Michigan’s 9th Congressional District, where several high-profile Democrats are already preparing or considering campaigns, including the veteran lawmaker’s son.

Steve Bieda

Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township and state Sen. Steve Bieda of Warren are expected to run for the open seat that covers parts of southern Macomb and southeast Oakland counties. Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner and businessman Kevin Howley, both of Huntington Woods, are among other local Democrats who could jump into the 2018 primary.

“I think we’re at a point in time where everyone who has ever had this ambition is trying to figure out if they can raise the money,” longtime Democratic strategist and Macomb County native Joe DiSano said Monday, two days after Levin announced he will not seek re-election.

Andy Levin, a former state official who briefly flirted with a gubernatorial campaign, is expected to announce his candidacy in the coming days. He could prove a force if his congressman father backs him and provides access to established fundraising channels, experts said.

“His endorsement would be significant, but whether it’s enough to seal the deal remains to be seen,” said Democratic consultant Howard Edelson.

Andy Levin

Andy Levin’s last name would give him a “clear advantage” out of the gates, but Bieda and Meisner are both experienced campaigners capable of competing, Edelson said. Other potential candidates are likely eying the seat as well.

Bieda was calling supporters Monday to discuss his likely candidacy but does not plan to immediately announce a campaign, according to a source familiar with his plans.

Bieda confirmed Monday he is interested in the race but doesn’t want to jump in immediately during what he called an ongoing celebration of Congressman Levin’s “illustrious career.”

The term-limited state senator said he has enjoyed representing parts of Macomb County in the Legislature and believes the nation needs more “good people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and work hard for the people they represent.”

“I also look at some of the divisions and acrimony we have in our country, and I think we have to have people that work towards consensus and towards the common good,” said Bieda, who has developed a reputation for bipartisan work in the state Legislature. “Those are some really strong motivations.”

Meisner, a former state legislator who spent part of his early political career as a policy aide in Levin’s congressional office in Washington, D.C., said working for the veteran lawmaker was a “formative experience.”

Oakland County Treasure Andy Meisner

“The notion of succeeding him, candidly, is something that has crossed my mind,” Meisner said. “It’s something I’m getting calls about, and it’s something that I’m going to explore.”

Meisner did not have a clear timeline on when he will decide on a congressional run. As a self-described “political geek,” he said it’s important to take time and reflect on the legacy of both Rep. Levin, now in his 35th year in Congress, and his brother, former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, who spent 36 years in office.

“There was never a Levin scandal in all those years,” Meisner said. “There was never a suggestion they were trying to line their own pockets. There was never personal animus injected by them. Always respectful and professional but robust arguments.”

Howley, who runs a turnaround management company and lost his challenge to Republican Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson in 2012, said he is exploring a congressional run but is watching who else gets into the race.

“A decision was going to come from Sandy at some point in his career, but one never knows when,” Howley said of the timing. “It’s going to be hard to fill his shoes.”

With Levin stepping down, Republicans “look forward to aggressively competing to turn this seat red in 2018,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Matt Gorman said Saturday.

But that’s “ludicrous on its face,” said DiSano, arguing the seat is one of the safest in the state for Democrats.

Party nominee Hillary Clinton won the district in the 2016 presidential contest, though President Donald Trump improved on Mitt Romney’s margins from 2012.

“This is not the Trump area of Macomb County, and the Oakland County parts are staunchly Democratic,” DiSano said. “That’s just posturing by national Republicans.”

Republican businesswoman Candius Stearns of Sterling Heights has already declared her candidacy in the district, and on Saturday received the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden.

Levin’s retirement doesn’t change her approach, she said Monday.

“For me, I still feel that our constituents and the people of my district are looking for a new approach with better results for Michigan,” said Stearns, who runs her own insurance agency and said she is focused on improving health care.

Local Democrats preparing for something they haven’t seen in year: a competitive congressional primary.

“It’ll be a process that people in the 9th are not familiar with because we’ve been well-reprented by Sandy for so long,” said district party chairman Bob Fetter.

Among potential primary candidates, Andy Levin has a well-known name but has not connected with as many voters as Bieda and Meisner in recent years, DiSano said.

“In fact in my conversations with people, I hear a little resentment that he’s disappeared for the past eight years after losing his race for the state Senate,” he said, referencing the 2006 race Levin lost to former Republican state Sen. John Pappageorge by 720 votes.

Levin founded and currently works as president of Levin Energy Partners, which develops private-public partnerships for clean energy initiatives.

He previously worked as a deputy in the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth and was elevated to acting director in 2010 during the final months of the tenure of former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. As the state’s chief workforce officer, he created the “No Worker Left Behind” initiative to train unemployed residents for new jobs in the Great Recession.

The 9th Congressional District includes portions of Oakland and Macomb counties but shifted toward the latter when district lines were last redrawn in 2012.

Bieda is a well-known figure in Macomb County and already represents Center Line, Eastpointe, Fraser, Roseville, Warren and part of Clinton Township in the state Senate.

“You have to understand the people of this district,” Bieda said. “You can’t just parachute in here – and that’s not directed at anybody.”

Bieda said he’s built relationships by being active in the community, from churches to business to barbershops.

“Coming from an auto family and a family with maybe 100 years of involvement in manufacturing, I understand a lot of the economic unease people have in today’s economy,” he said. “And I think we need somebody who can speak to that, that understands that, that basically has grown up in that environment.”

Meisner lives and works in Oakland County but said he also has ties to Macomb due to his past work in Levin’s office. One of his top aides, Fred Miller, is also a longtime Macomb County insider and former state representative.

“Having helped to service some of those Macomb communities working for Sandy and now just regionally, I know people are concerned about a lot of the same sorts of things – making sure they’re getting a fair shake and that folks are having an opportunity for economic empowerment,” Meisner said.

Whoever wins the seat in 2018 may not hold it for long. Michigan’s sluggish population growth means the state is likely to lose another congressional seat after the 2020 U.S. Census, and the 9th Congressional District could be a target for dissolution by 2022.

The long-term fate of the district “is a consideration, but not a deal breaker for anyone trying to make up their mind whether or not to run,” Edelson said.