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Democrat Scholten joins race for Amash seat in U.S. House

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Democrat Hillary Scholten is running for Congress in Michigan's 3rd District.

Democrat and immigration attorney Hillary Scholten announced Monday she is running for Congress in Michigan's 3rd District, a seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Justin Amash.

Scholten, 37, of Grand Rapids is the second Democrat to enter the race, which is shaping up to be a three-way contest in the 2020 general election after Amash said last week he was quitting the Republican Party to run for reelection as an independent. 

Until recently, Scholten was a staff attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, where she represented Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, the Marine veteran and Grand Rapids native detained by federal immigration agents for deportation last year before they realized he was a U.S. citizen.

Previously, Scholten worked in Washington as an attorney adviser at the U.S. Department of Justice during the Obama administration before moving back to Michigan in 2017. 

"Like it did for a lot of people, 2016 really changed things for me. ... So much that I care about as a woman, a mother, a civil rights attorney is under attack by the policies of the current administration," Scholten said in an interview.

"I just felt it was time to stand up and do more. I think I have the skills and experience and investment in this community, in particular, to lead as the first woman congresswoman in the 3rd Congressional District."

"West Michigan is my home — I was born and raised here, am deeply involved in the faith community here, and I feel like I would be a great representative," she added.

Former Obama staffer and Ionia native Nick Colvin launched his bid for the Democratic primary last month. His campaign said he raised $118,000 in his first 12 days, besting Amash's $117,000 fundraising haul for the first three months of the year. 

Four candidates have filed to run in the GOP primary, including state Reps. Lynn Afendoulis of Grand Rapids Township and Jim Lower of Greenville, as well as Army veteran and retail heir Peter Meijer.

Michigan's 3rd District includes most of Grand Rapids and other parts of Kent County, Ionia, Barry and Calhoun counties and a portion of Montcalm County.

Amash, 39, won reelection to his fifth term last year by 11 percentage points over Democrat Cathy Albro.

In May, he became the sole Republican lawmaker in Congress to say President Donald Trump committed impeachable conduct after reading the report by special counsel Bob Mueller. 

Amash says he plans to run for reelection to Congress as an independent but has also repeatedly declined to rule out running for president as a Libertarian or independent.

On Sunday, Amash said it's "not something that's right on my radar right now." 

"I still wouldn't rule anything like that out. I believe that I have to use my skills, my public influence where it serves the country best, and I believe I have to defend the Constitution in whichever way works best," Amash told CNN on Sunday.

"If that means doing something else, then I do that. But I feel confident about running in my district. I feel a close tie to my community. I care a lot about my community. I want to represent them in Congress."

Scholten has not previously run for office, though she has spent most of her career in public service.

Her early endorsements include former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon and Kent County Commissioners Robert Womack, Stephen Wooden and Monica Sparks, according to her campaign. 

She grew up outside of Grand Rapids in Hudsonville, the daughter of a Grand Rapids public school teacher and a sports journalist at the Grand Rapids Press. 

She and husband Jesse Holcomb, a journalism professor at Calvin College, have two sons, aged 9 and 7, and attend LaGrave Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.

Scholten graduated from Gordon College in Massachusetts, then went on to the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore.

A social worker by training, she did housing advocacy for a group called AIDS Action Committee, then went into immigration work for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. Following law school, she clerked in the immigration unit at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit before going to work for the DOJ. 

Scholten said her roles advising the Obama administration on federal immigration policy has given her an understanding of how policies drafted in Washington affect everyday individuals in west Michigan.

She said her decision to run for Congress was spurred in part by Amash's conservative record in Congress. 

"He’s anti-choice — has not protected a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions, and has actively fought to take away Americans’ access to affordable health care," Scholten said, referring to Amash's votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. 

"Those are issues that matter to everyday people in our district and that I wanted to raise my hand and champion: Protecting our drinking water sources here, protecting Americans from senseless gun violence, protecting and strengthening our public schools. We need a leader who is prepared to go to Washington and stand up for those issues."