James doesn't stress race in Senate bid, but could become black GOP pioneer

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James, center, a businessman from Farmington Hills, greets supporters during the "Macomb for John James" event held at Villa Penna banquet hall in Sterling Heights, Mich., Monday, July 16, 2018.

John James is running for the U.S. Senate in Michigan as a Republican conservative, and if he tastes victory in the primary, he would become the party's first African-American in four decades running for prominent statewide office in November.

The 37-year-old Farmington Hills businessman and retired Armed Forces helicopter pilot is vying against Grosse Pointe financier Sandy Pensler by espousing Christian,  anti-abortion and gun rights views. With a win in the Aug. 7 primary for the right to face Democrat U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, James would be the first black Republican to advance to a high-profile general election contest since William Lucas in 1986.

Although experts say James faces an arduous battle against Pensler, he could prevail with white Republican voters where other candidates have failed.

"James obviously has a compelling life story even though he's a young man with his Iraq War experience and his businessman background and the fact that he was from a Democratic family and has become a Republican and a conservative," said Bill Ballenger, a political historian and former GOP legislator based in Lansing.

"It at least would be a good move in the right direction for the Republican Party to have an African-American nominee as a major statewide candidate for a major office."

James has downplayed the racial element in the campaign, declaring, "I am a conservative who happens to be black."

"I am running in the Republican Party because the platform most aligns with my values. I am pro-life. I am pro-Second Amendment. I am pro-family. I am pro-business," he said in a recent interview at the Detroit Athletic Club. "Even when I go talk with the black Baptist pastors, these are things that resonate with them as well."

What will "enable me to win actually has little to do with what I look like," he said. "I don't have a black message, I don't have a white message. I have the same message and the message, we're seeing, is resonating. People who want leadership, they want competence, they want credibility, they want character in their leaders; somebody who has courage and the imagination and humility to understand that you have to listen and learn before you lead."

But James is critical about how the political parties have treated African-Americans.

"Right now, I'm disappointed in both parties because the Democratic Party has neglected African-Americans and the Republican Party hasn't even tried," he said. "I believe my race will enable me to be an effective ambassador."

Senate campaign issues

Money will play a role in the Republican primary. While he raised $1.75 million in the quarter ending in June, James had $1.34 million in available cash while Pensler had reported nearly $2.28 million in the bank. Pensler previously loaned his campaign $5 million. 

The loan allowed Pensler to go up with ads during the Super Bowl in February and keep up a TV ad presence before James hit the airwaves.

The other factor is race because some primary voters won't vote for a black candidate, Ballenger said.

""It's stupid for the Republican Party not to embrace an African-American candidate who's quality," he said. "After all, this is the party of Abraham Lincoln, for heaven's sake."

James said that he thinks he'll appeal to some African-Americans because they "are overwhelmingly socially conservative." He gave an example of a black woman he met at the NAACP Freedom Fund dinner who told him she was excited to split her ticket and "I'm excited to have a Republican I can finally vote for."

In the primary, voters must choose whether to vote in all Republican, all Democratic or all Libertarian races. Splitting their tickets will invalidate their ballots. But voters can split their tickets in the general election. 

James' supporters said his background as a military veteran and successful businessman with conservative credentials will help him with voters. His endorsements include Right to Life, Clarkston musician Kid Rock and Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

James also has been attracting a crowd of young Republicans who follow him around as though he's the rock star.

Longtime Republican JoAnn Van Tassel, 80, is all in for James and she acknowledged some may not vote for James based on race: "There will always be a small minority that way. I think most people are far more open minded, they're going to vote for the person whose views more closely align with their views."

"First, he's a conservative. Two, he's a veteran. And three, he came back, joined the company business, increased sales, added new jobs," she said.

Trump issues

The Senate campaign has revolved in part around which candidate is most supportive of President Donald Trump, who has not endorsed in the primary.

James has accused Pensler of mocking Trump. The Grosse Pointe businessman has responded by saying he was complimenting the president when he said Trump could communicate at a "fourth-grade level."

Pensler has countered by attacking James for giving political donations to Detroit City Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, a Democrat who supports sanctuary cities.

James has said he went to "a meet-and-greet" for Castaneda-Lopez when she was a candidate for the nonpartisan office and her view on sanctuary cities wasn't known. He said he gave the $500 donation because she would represent the district where his family's businesses are located.

James also has repeatedly said that sanctuary cities should not receive federal funding for frustrating the deportation enforcement efforts.

But his campaign had a blunder earlier this month when a mailer was mistakenly sent out to a large sample of Republican primary voters saying James would "defend" — instead of defund — sanctuary cities. The printer issued a statement through the campaign taking the blame for the mistake.

History of black Republicans

Other states have elected African-American Republicans to the U.S. Senate, such as South Carolina's Tim Scott, but not Michigan, Ballenger said.

Lucas, a Wayne County executive who changed from a Democrat to a Republican in 1985, faced Democrat Gov. James Blanchard in 1986. He overwhelmingly lost.

Former Detroit City Council member and pastor Keith Butler was the last black Republican to run for a high-profile statewide office. In 2006, he lost in the U.S. Senate  primary to Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, 60.5 percent to 39.5 percent.

James has a better chance than Lucas and Butler to win statewide and has been traveling all over Michigan to talk to voters, said Wayne Bradley, former director of African-America engagement for the Michigan Republican Party who is now a consultant for James' campaign.

"When you look at the candidates we've had, he's by far the best Senate candidate we've had in a very long time," Bradley said.

Bradley added that James checks all the right boxes. "I think that people are looking at him as a great candidate, and he just happens to be black as well," he said.

The first black senator in U.S. history was Hiram Rhodes Revels. He and Blanche Kelso, who followed him, were appointed by their Mississippi state Legislatures during the Reconstruction era in the late 1800s South. Both were Republicans.

It would take 85 years before the next black Republican, Edward Brooke, was elected in Massachusetts in 1966 to the U.S. Senate. 

Democrats have elected Carol Moseley Braun in 1992 and Barack Obama in 2004 from Illinois. African-American Democrats Cory Booker from New Jersey and Kamala Harris from California are currently senators. 

James has managed to secure the Republican base and "not say anything stupid," said Kerry Jackson, a longtime Republican who worked on the Lucas and Butler campaigns and hosts "The Urban Conservative" radio show on 910 AM.

Butler ran a good campaign in 2006, he said, but "I just don't think it was his time." James is a different candidate because he appeals to a different GOP voting bloc that Trump unearthed, Jackson said.

"They are not deplorables, they are people that want their lives to be better and nobody's listened to them for a long time," he said.

Palmer Jerome Barney, an attorney who until Trump's election was a registered Republican, recently contributed to James' campaign. James' background can appeal to GOP primary voters, he said.

"His conservative message fits the conservative Christian community," Barney said. "He's very influenced by his faith, which is a strong point for the black community, too. I think the fact that he's a West Point graduate, which means he's extremely well trained."

Two stops during the weekend of July 7, in Clarkston and at a Republican picnic in Orion Township, showed James’ appeal. 

Van Tassel was one of the first to greet the candidate, imploring James in a phone video they took together to "talk about your background in creating jobs, of boosting the economy" as a way to beat Pensler.

"John's a rock star," declared Ann Durham, 55, of Royal Oak as she greeted the candidate with a hug.

"I just think John James is one of us," said state Rep. Jim Tedder, R-Clarkston, who is running for a state Senate seat and campaigned with James. "His background, his story. Humble roots, hard work. Disciplined. And I think he's someone frankly that can relate to people."


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John James

Age: 37

Residence: Farmington Hills

Professional background: President of James Group International and CEO of Renaissance Global Logistics in Detroit, which are firms that pack, transport and export auto parts and other manufactured goods. Former Apache helicopter pilot in the Iraq War

Political background: None