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Presidential hopeful Marianne Williamson: 'Detroit is a piece of my heart'

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Marianne Williamson, a Democrat from Iowa and presidential candidate, talks about creating a cabinet position to deal with the youth of America during a campaign stop at Keene State College's student union in Keene, N.H.

Washington — Democratic presidential hopeful Marianne Williamson will campaign in Detroit on Saturday, returning to the area she once considered home. 

Williamson, who is calling for a "moral and spiritual awakening" in the United States, is known nationally as a best-selling self-help author and charismatic spiritual teacher. 

From 1998 to 2006, she lived in Birmingham and then Grosse Pointe, where she raised her daughter and helped to lead a nondenominational congregation. 

"I came there to be the interim minister at what was then the Church of Today. Like many people, I went there to stay for a year and stayed almost a decade," Williamson said in a phone interview. 

"My daughter always says she had a happy childhood in Michigan, and that means the world to any mother."

She was credited with invigorating Renaissance Unity Church in Warren during her time as spiritual director there from 1998 to 2002, during which she expanded community outreach and started a gospel-style choir.

Controversy arose over a proposal to leave the Association of Unity Churches, which members decided against, and Williamson resigned in 2002 to pursue her own nationally syndicated radio talk show.

Williamson also wrote a "Faith and Policy" column for The Detroit News from 2004-07, often opining about politics and policy. She said she left Michigan when her mother was very ill and dying in Texas.

Now 66 and living in Des Moines, Iowa, Williamson is among a crowded field of at least 22 major Democratic candidates running for the presidential nomination. 

She has visited early primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as South Carolina and Nevada.

Starting this weekend, she plans two town hall-style events in Metro Detroit: A town hall on Saturday in Harper Woods focusing on criminal justice reform and policing in black communities, and a second town hall next Monday evening at Detroit Unity Temple.

Shooting for 'major' status

Williamson has not yet qualified for the first two Democratic primary debates this summer but expects to, saying she is fewer than 7,000 donors away from the threshold of 65,000 unique donors set by the Democratic National Committee.  

"In a large field, I wouldn’t necessarily write off anyone. Sometimes when there are a lot of options, voters end up making a surprising choice: Trump himself was such a surprise. So, too, was Jimmy Carter in 1976," said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. 

"That said, it does not appear as though she has really distinguished herself. My own impression is that the other candidate with no political experience, Andrew Yang, has made more of a ripple. But no one would list either on a list of the likeliest nominees."

Getting on the debate stages is a "must" for Williamson, Kondik added. 

"If Williamson has a moment in this campaign, it may be that something from the debates will cause it," he said. 

Last week, the website FiveThirtyEight declared Williamson a "major" presidential primary candidate after she met several criteria that could include staffing, media coverage and Google search traffic.

Williamson embraced the nod from FiveThirtyEight, saying it gives her campaign more credibility. 

"We're like 'The Little Engine That Could.' And so, you know, we get there when we get there," she said. 

"Every time you get an establishment nod such as that it's a good thing because,
obviously, I'm not in the club."

"I challenge the idea that only those whose careers have been entrenched for decades, in the system that drove us into this ditch are the only people we should possibly consider qualified to drive us out of it."

Democratic presidential hopeful Marianne Williamson campaigns in Fairfield, Iowa.

'Detroit a piece of my heart'

Williamson's campaign raised over $1.5 million during the first quarter of the year, including nearly $1 million from small-dollar donors.

She raised at least $19,000 from Michigan donors — ranking sixth in fundraising in the state ahead of bigger-name candidates such as Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, both of whom have campaigned in Michigan.

"That makes me happy," Williamson said. "I was there for a long time, and I made very dear and lasting friendships. Detroit is a piece of my heart."

Over the years Williamson has promoted feminist issues, racial reconciliation, love and forgiveness. Her policy platform includes support for the single-payer Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and "long overdue" reparations for slavery. 

She also wants to establish a cabinet-level Department of Children and Youth to address the needs of America’s children and families. 

At campaign stops, she talks about helping American children living in chronic trauma — from elementary school children on suicide watch to schools lacking adequate supplies. 

"Many of these children live in what's called America's domestic war zones, where the violence in the street, families, communities, schools is so great that psychologists say the PTSD of a returning veteran from Afghanistan or Iraq is no more severe," Williamson said.

"All the political establishment does is to normalize the despair of these children. I think they should be rescued no differently than if we were rescuing them from a natural disaster." 

'Shine light on prejudice'

Williamson has no experience in elected politics, but the presidential bid is not her first campaign. In 2014, she ran for Congress and raised over $2 million in an independent bid for the seat of longtime U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California. 

She attracted the endorsement of former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, among others, and came in fourth out of 18 in the primary election with 13 percent of the vote. 

Born and raised in Houston, Williamson attended Pomona College for a couple years and later became a teacher of the 1976 "A Course in Miracles" by psychologist Helen Schucman. 

She summarized the book's teachings this way for Religion News Service: "God is love. We are children of God. Love is both our identity and our purpose. When we remember that, life works. When we forget that, chaos ensues." 

While living in California in 1989, Williamson founded Project Angel Food, which serves home-bound people with AIDS in the Los Angeles area.

The author of 12 books, Williamson has spoken and written about politics since at least her 1997 volume, "Healing the Soul of America," in which she urged turning "spiritual conviction into a political force, as Gandhi did in India and (Martin Luther) King did in the United States."

Her self-help "Return to Love" in 1992 became a major bestseller featured on the "Oprah Winfrey Show," where Williamson became a regular guest. Her latest book, "A Politics of Love,” was published last month.

Her columns for The News ranged from endorsing a Cabinet-level Department of Peace to coordinate conflict-resolution and peace-building efforts, to defending evangelical leader Rick Warren for meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in 2006.

"What traditional politics is offering us is not working, and perhaps it is the religious people among us who should if anything be pointing that out," she wrote in The News in 2006.

Williamson in 2007 criticized CBS for canceling shock-jock Don Imus' morning radio show after racist comments he made about the Rutgers women's basketball team.

She condemned racial prejudice but suggested Imus' firing smacked of censorship.

"A left-wing Taliban scares me just as much as a right-wing one does, and the idea that Al Sharpton or anyone else is planning to 'purify the airwaves' doesn't just offend me; it horrifies me," Williamson wrote. 

"You want to get rid of prejudice? Shine a light on it. Don't send it creeping back under its rock."


Williamson campaign events:

10 a.m. to 2 p.m., May 11: A town hall meeting on criminal justice reform and policing in black/brown communities. A discussion with Williamson and former Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee, who is now police chief for Detroit Public Schools Community District, about criminal justice 

Where: Rhema International Church/TV Network, 20531 Kelly, Harper Woods, 48225. Doors open at 9 a.m. 

7 p.m., May 13Town Hall moderated by state Rep. Leslie Love. 

Where: Detroit Unity Temple, 17505 Second, Detroit, 48203

Benefits: Detroit Unity Temple Beacon of Light Summer Camp for kids and teens