Open seats create factional fight for Congress

Melissa Nann Burke, and Jonathan Oosting
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The next three months promise campaign warfare in Metro Detroit as primary battles heat up for three open seats to replace retired or retiring members of Congress.

Detroit council President Brenda Jones and Westland Mayor Bill Wild shake hands after filing to run.

The most expensive U.S. House race in Michigan is taking shape in the 11th District, where Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Trott of Birmingham is retiring. The race has attracted more than a dozen candidates, with six Republicans, six Democrats and a Libertarian filing petitions to run by Tuesday’s deadline.

Together, the candidates already have spent nearly $2 million and raised more than $5 million through March 31, according to campaign finance reports. Michigan’s primary is more than three months away on Aug. 7.

I. Conyers

Three Democrats have lined up for the primary contest to succeed Rep. Sander Levin of Royal Oak, who is retiring after 36 years in office. Levin’s son, Andy, and former state Rep. Ellen Lipton have emerged as early frontrunners after state Sen. Steve Bieda of Warren ended his campaign this week to pursue a Macomb County post.

In the 13th District, it’s looking like the Wild West with eight Democratic candidates filing petitions for candidacy, including Westland Mayor Bill Wild. They are vying to replace longtime Democratic Detroit U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., who resigned in December after nearly 53 years in Congress.

J. Conyers III

The slate includes John Conyers III, state Sens. Ian Conyers and Coleman Young II, Detroit Council President Brenda Jones and former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, who alone has raised more than all other 13th District candidates combined. If successful, Tlaib would be the first Muslim woman elected to Congress.

Analysts have said the crush of candidates could split the African-American vote in Detroit, paving the way for a Wayne County suburbanite such as Wild to clinch the nomination.

But Tlaib’s activism and dominant fundraising inside and outside the district may pose a greater threat to veteran Detroit politicians, said Greg Bowens, a political and media consultant not involved in the race.


“She has a lot of crossover appeal that reaches far beyond the Arab community,” said Bowens, who grew up in Detroit and serves on the executive board of the neighboring 14th Congressional District Democratic Party.

“People like to vote for history. When it comes to the first woman, first African-American, first Muslim — people could be drawn to that. We’re used to electing African-Americans from that district, but we’re not used to seeing history being made in the form of Rashida Tlaib and what she represents.”

13th District


District Democratic Chairman Jonathan Kinloch had been trying to rally stakeholders around a consensus candidate to keep the ballot from growing too large but couldn’t discourage potential candidates from entering the race.

“There’s only so many resources available for individuals to be able to mount a real serious campaign,” Kinloch said, noting candidates for governor and other top races will also be tapping local donors. “They’re going to pull resources from the same pool.”

An African-American candidate could help Democrats motivate black voters so far frustrated by the early number of white candidates expected to top the ticket, he said, noting the results of the Democrats’ endorsement convention this month.

“An African-American nominee in the 13th District would definitely be a motivation and give black voters a voice,” Kinloch said.

The district covers parts of western Detroit and cities including Romulus, Melvindale, Highland Park and Redford Township.

Political observers also speculate that having two Conyerses on the ballot — the former congressman’s son and his great-nephew — could divide the name-identification vote, unless the cousins can differentiate themselves from one another.

Jones has experience running citywide races and the endorsement of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, but so far those haven’t translated into more volunteers, Bowens noted.

Other Democrats who filed in the 13th District include former state Rep. Shanelle Jackson and Kimberly Hill Knott, in addition to Republican David Dudenhoefer, the district’s GOP chair.

The special election to complete the remainder of Conyers’ term (November to Jan. 3) will coincide with the regularly scheduled 2018 primary and general elections.

That introduces the potential for ballot confusion and the possibility that different candidates win the special and regular primary elections.

Not everyone who filed Tuesday for the regular primary also filed for the special primary contest. Both Conyerses, as well as Jones, Wild, Tlaib, Mary Waters and Kentiel D. White filed for the special election.

“I would venture to say that very few voters realize that’s what’s going on, and that they’re going to have to vote in two places on the same ballot for the same office,” said Dave Dulio, chair of the political science department at Oakland University. “That could be confusing to people.”

11th District

Increasing diversity and relatively high education levels in the 11th District rank it among Michigan’s most likely to flip from a Republican-held seat to the Democrats this fall — at least “on paper,” said pollster and Democratic strategist Ed Sarpolus.

But the district — which includes Livonia, Canton Township, Troy and Novi — has a notorious independent streak.

“Let’s not forget this is the home of the Ross Perot voter,” Sarpolus said, referencing the 1992 independent presidential candidate. “This has always been there.”

In the Republican primary, former House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Raczkowski of Troy is well-known, but businesswoman Lena Epstein’s largely self-funded war chest is a “major factor,” Sarpolus said.

Former U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio of Milford, the quirky former reindeer rancher who previously represented the district, could be a wild card.

“He is like Donald Trump. He has a base that doesn’t go to anybody else,” Sarpolus said.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Mike Kowall of White Lake outraised Epstein last quarter but trails her in cash on hand with $131,000 to Epstein’s $1 million. Kowall is endorsed by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and the Police Officers Association of Michigan.

“Having access to funds is what matters. Is Kowall going to be able to compete with Epstein on the airwaves, in the mail and online? That remains to be seen. Epstein is in a strong position,” Dulio said.

Others seeking the GOP nomination include state Rep. Klint Kesto of Commerce Township and Kristine Bonds of West Bloomfield Township. Leonard Schwartz filed to run as a Libertarian.

Sarpolus argues that gender or race could play a role in the Democratic primary. The district, which includes southern Oakland and northwestern Wayne counties, has growing immigrant and ethnic populations, including Indians, Chaldeans, Lebanese and Japanese.

Entrepreneur Suneel Gupta and Fayrouz Saad, Detroit’s former director of immigration affairs, could compete, Sarpolus said, while Saad could draw female voters from digital manufacturing executive Haley Stevens.

Competitors have raised questions about Gupta and Stevens’ ties to the district since both moved back to Michigan to run for office after years spent living out of state. Gupta has raised more money from California donors than from inside Michigan.

“The other large ethnic group in that district is labor,” Sarpolus said, joking about traditional union strength among blue-collar workers in the district.

Several top labor groups are backing state Rep. Tim Greimel of Auburn Hills. Greimel, the former House minority leader, is the only Democrat in the field who has won an election.

Birmingham attorney Dan Haberman helped lead the statewide campaign to ban smoking in public spaces, which was signed into law in 2009. He has not previously run for office.

Former talk show host Nancy Skinner filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission this month. She ran in the 2014 Democratic primary in the 11th District, losing to Bobby McKenzie. She also lost a 2006 challenge to incumbent GOP Rep. Joe Knollenberg by 6 percentage points and said she is running to raise climate change as an issue.

9th District

In the 9th District, Lipton surprised many when she matched the fundraising of the son of the retiring congressman, bringing in $501,000 last quarter to Levin’s $386,000.

“I don’t think that (Andy Levin) is under-performing, but it speaks volumes about Ellen Lipton and how people are responding to her,” Dulio said.

“Levin has advantage with his name, but maybe Lipton can take advantage of the overall traction that female candidates are getting in 2018. We’re in for a really interesting couple of months.”

Levin and Lipton are both Harvard-trained attorneys. Levin, who lives in Bloomfield Township, is the former head of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth and has picked up union endorsements.

He created the No Worker Left Behind initiative to train unemployed residents for new jobs in the last recession. He later founded and runs his own company, Levin Energy Partners LLC.

Lipton of Huntington Woods worked as a patent lawyer specializing in medicine and technology before entering politics.

After her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, she decided to join the push to pass a ballot initiative allowing stem cell research in Michigan and to run for the Legislature. She is endorsed by Emily’s List, a national group that backs female candidates who support abortion rights.

The district includes portions of Oakland and southern Macomb counties, including Royal Oak, Ferndale, Warren and Sterling Heights.

Attorney Martin Brook is also seeking the Democratic nomination. The winner would face Republican Candius Stearns of Sterling Heights in the fall election.

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