Six Democrats battle for Conyers' congressional seat

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Candidates Coleman Young Jr., Brenda Jones and Bill Wild sit on stage during People’s Candidate Forum" for the Michigan's 13th congressional district at New Providence Baptist Church in Detroit on June 9, 2018.

Six current and former Democratic elected officials are competing to be the fresh face who succeeds former U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. after he spent more than a half-century in office.

Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones has broad name recognition in the Aug. 7 primary and dozens of endorsements. But former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit has emerged as the top fundraiser in the race — collecting more than $893,000 through June 30 in her bid to become the first Muslim member of Congress from Michigan.

Westland Mayor Bill Wild also is considered to have a shot if he consolidates suburban support in the district and the Detroit candidates splinter the city's votes. 

Others battling for the two-year term include the former congressman's great-nephew, state Sen. Ian Conyers of Detroit, ex-state Rep. Shanelle Jackson and state Sen. Coleman A. Young II, who unsuccessfully ran for Detroit mayor in 2017. Voters also must elect a candidate to finish out Conyers' unexpired term that will last almost two months.

The congressman resigned last winter amid allegations of sexual harassment from female staff. It prompted a host of candidates hoping to represent the 13th Congressional District, which covers parts of Detroit, Dearborn Heights, Westland and Redford Township.

"The 13th is still anybody's race," said political consultant Greg Bowens.

The candidates in the 13th District primary have together raised over $2 million, though Tlaib alone raised over half of that amount, topping $1 million. Second-place fundraiser Wild has received roughly $536,300 as of July 18, including $50,000 he loaned his campaign on July 5.

Conyers and Jones have raised $189,400 and $182,700 for the cycle, respectively.

Bowens noted Tlaib's ability to raise money and rally volunteers, Jones' name recognition that might help her "sleepwalk" to victory and Conyers' attempt to galvanize young Detroiters and build ties with the Downriver communities. 

But non-financial factors also will be the key for the winning candidate, he said.

"They have to be able to motivate people and organize people in a way that allows them to win on the battlefield," Bowens said. "Money alone won't get any candidate across the line."

The successor for Conyers is critical because Michigan has lost influence in Congress with the retirements of prominent Republican and Democratic officials including U.S. Reps. John Dingell, Mike Rogers and Candice Miller, said Dave Dulio, who chairs the political science department at Oakland University.

"The significance is less with filling the seat and more with filling the shoes of former Rep. Conyers," Dulio said. "His tenure was respected by many on the Hill."

Brenda Jones

Detroit Council President Brenda Jones.

Jones, 58, is backed by the United Auto Workers union, other labor groups, clergy as well as Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Wayne County Executive Warren Evans. She regards herself as "a voice for the people" and says she's not intimidated by her challengers.

"The number of candidates running today does not scare me," said Jones, a former union president and small business owner. "The citizens have said that I was their voice, and I represent all the people."

As the longest-serving member of Detroit's council, Jones has demanded more opportunities for city and minority-based businesses as well as transparency from the city's administration.

She doesn't reside in the district, but she isn't legally required to. Conyers also didn't live in the district. 

Jones is a trustee for the Michigan Municipal League and vice chair of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. She also sat on Detroit's Financial Review Commission, which this spring announced the city has emerged from strict state financial oversight put in place through its bankruptcy.

"I do feel that I'm the most experienced," said Jones, who has served 13 years as a Detroit legislator and is a two-term council president. "I am a public servant. That's what it takes. That's exactly what I will do."

Rashida Tlaib

Former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, of Detroit.

So far, Tlaib's grassroots campaign has earned her the strongest donor base in the race and she's become the recent target of attack ads.

"We've been really focused on direct human contact," she said. "Anyone can mail, anyone can do different kinds of political ads and campaigns, but the door-to-door is irreplaceable."

If elected, the 42-year old community organizer would be the first Muslim woman to serve in Congress. Tlaib said her candidacy has piqued the interest of people who had not been engaged in politics and "just want somebody that looks like them."

Tlaib, an attorney, has made a name for herself in tackling environmental concerns. As a state representative, she represented southwest Detroit, Ecorse, and River Rouge, an area considered to be among the most polluted in Michigan.

Attack ads targeting Tlaib, funded by the nonprofit group United for Progress, contend she failed to propose a $15-an-hour minimum wage while serving in the state House and supported the state's "takeover" of Belle Isle, among other things. The state's minimum wage is $9.25.

Tlaib has countered that the group is funded by "dark money" and her spokesman TJ Bucholz said people are trying to "pull her down because she's trying to take a progressive vision to Washington."

Tlaib led opposition against petroleum coke piles stored near the Detroit River and often has tangled with billionaire Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun over blighted and neglected properties.

"People want someone who goes beyond just voting the right way. They want someone who comes home and fights with them, side-by-side," said Tlaib, community partnership director for Detroit-based Sugar Law Center, a firm specializing in social justice issues.

Bill Wild

Bill Wild.

Wild is branding himself as an advocate for equal pay for women in the workplace and boosting the state's minimum wage.

In a television ad, Wild appears riding on the back of a garbage truck, picking up cans along the curb and tossing them in and saying "as mayor, sometimes to solve a problem you've got to roll up your sleeves and pitch in."

Wild is serving his third term as Westland's mayor, formerly served six years on the city council and was a planning commissioner. He also co-owns the Wayne-based Scrap Busters U-Pull-It Auto & Truck Parts.

Wild — the only candidate who does not live in Detroit — said he may not have as much name recognition in the city as the others, but his suburban presence and a 2014 bid for Wayne County executive give him a leg up.

Wild was re-elected mayor in November. He said retaining his position in Westland was his intent, but Conyers' retirement changed his priorities.

"This district really needs a proven, hands-on leader," said Wild, 50.  We're going into a hyper-charged environment in Washington and going to be expected to get things done. The skills I've learned align well with the needs of the district.

Ian Conyers

State Sen. Ian Conyers announces his run for U.S. Congress from Michgan’s 13th District in this photo from Friday, January 19, 2018. Conyers is a great-nephew of former Congressman John Conyers.

The only Conyers appearing on the primary ballot will be state Sen. Ian Conyers of Detroit, the former congressman's great nephew. Conyers Jr. endorsed his son, John Conyers III, who was disqualified from the ballot for an insufficient number of signatures.

Conyers said he doesn't believe the controversy surrounding his great-uncle's departure has tarnished his civil rights legacy with voters.

"The voters in our district are looking at the body of work the congressman was able to accomplish for us. Being able to add to that is incredibly important," he said. "In my opinion, the next step in civil rights is economic justice."

The first-term senator won a 2016 special election to replace Virgil Smith Jr., who resigned amid a domestic violence scandal. 

Elected at the age of 28, the Georgetown University graduate became the youngest state senator in Michigan history. 

Conyers has advocated for efforts to reduce gun violence in Detroit, protecting neighborhoods and building up the job market. He said residents "want someone to stand up for what's right and bring back some resources."

"It's about getting higher paying jobs and bringing them to the community to get on the ladder to the middle class like anybody else," said Conyers, 29. 

Shanelle Jackson

Shanelle Jackson is a Detroit Democrat running for the 13th Congressional District in 2018.


Credit: Shanelle Jackson for Congress

Jackson serves as director of government relations for the Moroun-owned Detroit International Bridge Co., which operates the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor.

She's held the role for four years and has "helped change the culture at a company that's been hated probably longer than I've been alive," she said. 

Jackson, 38, noted she's the only African-American executive at the Bridge Company and has used her influence "to help get folks like me employed." .

"In order to change an institution or organization, you have to be in the room and at the table to do it," she said. 

Formerly, Jackson served six years representing Michigan's 9th District. She won the seat at age 26, making her the youngest African-American woman ever elected to either chamber of the state Legislature.

She also was deputy director for the Michigan Department of Transportation, helping create a community plan for regional transit. 

As a lawmaker, Jackson sponsored a law that allowed the city to retain ownership of Cobo Center and created a regional authority for its governance.

Jackson said she's focused on jobs, pay equity, reducing violent crime and improving neighborhoods. 

Coleman Young

Coleman Young Jr. speaks.

Young announced his candidacy in December, a few weeks after his overwhelming election loss to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. 

Young, 35, said he's learned from the defeat and remains focused on promoting his 12-year "record of getting things done" in the state Legislature. Young touted his work on civil rights legislation, efforts to create jobs, curb blight and lower property taxes. He also noted support of appropriations for low-income residents. 

"There's a Scripture verse that says the brick that the building rejected is now the cornerstone of the foundation," he said. "I just believe I have the best record and am the best person to serve. I'll be very humbled and honored to have the vote of the public, and I believe I will."

Ex-Conyers staffer Kimberly Hill Knott, 46, of Detroit, is waging a write-in campaign after being disqualified for a lack of valid signatures.

"I realized I could not quit because I was not seeing a wholesome discussion on the issues that directly impact this congressional district," said Knott, a former policy manager for Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice.

Twitter: @cferretti_dn

Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed