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Bentivolio, newcomers battle in GOP Metro Detroit race to face Rep. Stevens

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

The GOP primary race to face Democratic U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens is a battle between five staunch conservatives who say they can win back the seat in what has become a swing Metro Detroit district.

The congressional primary features an eclectic array of four candidates with low name recognition and a former congressman with high name identification but little recent electoral success in a district that encompasses portions of northwestern Wayne County and southwestern Oakland County. They argue that Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, is too beholden to the Democratic majority in the House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California in a race that is expected to generate millions in fundraising.

Stevens, who won the seat two years ago by nearly 7 percentage points over Republican businesswoman Lena Epstein, already has a formidable war chest of nearly $4 million. The amount is approaching the $4.2 million she raised and spent two years ago to win the seat vacated by two-term GOP incumbent Dave Trott. 

Former U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio of Milford, 68, who held the seat in 2013-2014, is among the contenders that include lawyer and former emergency room nurse Eric Esshaki, arts foundation owner Carmelita Greco, Army veteran and longtime salesman Frank Acosta and Whittney Williams, a former marketing specialist for the auto industry and GOP committewoman. 

Kerry Bentivolio, a Former United States Representative, speaks to the crowd during a "March Against Sharia" on Saturday.

"It's a primary that the national Republicans are watching closely because obviously it was held by Republicans for a long time and they feel they should have it back," said John Sellek, the CEO of Harbor Strategies, a Lansing-based PR firm. "But it is one of those suburban seats that Republicans have lost ground in over the last two to three years."

Stevens remains in a position to win again, he said.

The incumbent has "done a very disciplined job of building a moderate image in a seat that she knew needed a moderate representative as a Democrat," said Sellek, who was a top official for Republican former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Bentivolio has the slight upper hand in the primary as a former congressman in a media market where it is expensive for new candidates to break through, he said.

"But any candidate who's been an incumbent and lost in their own primary is going to be facing an uphill battle," Sellek said. "To me at this point, it's up in the air."

Where candidates stand

Esshaki, 36, of Birmingham, describes himself as a constitutional conservative who favors less government and is pro-border security. He won a major victory in federal court that forced Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to ease the burden on congressional candidates during the coronavirus pandemic for meeting a signature threshold to qualify for the ballot.

Eric Esshaki, Republican candidate for the U.S. House

Esshaki said he is running because "I think that our Congress is broken" and that "people are sick and tired of the politics and politicians hiding behind talking points and rhetoric."

"I think they want more substance. And you look at somebody like Haley Stevens, who I think epitomizes the problem in our politics," he said. "She ran as a moderate, but she's done nothing but vote with Nancy Pelosi 100% of the time. All of her policies call for bigger government, higher taxes and I think the people of the 11th are tired of that approach to politics."

Esshaki said he's hopeful if he advances that the state and national GOP will rally behind him.

"There's no doubt about it that we'll need (fundraising) help," he said, adding that frustration with Democrats could aid his effort.

The most experienced candidate is Bentivolio, who lost by 33 percentage points to the well-financed foreclosure attorney Trott in the 2014 GOP primary. The Army veteran was elected in 2012 to a seat left vacant when Republican former U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter failed to collect enough signatures to make the August 2012 ballot.

"I'm a fighter, I don't give up," Bentivolio said of why he's running again. "I'm fighting for my grandkids. My kids. Your grandkids."

The former school teacher and reindeer rancher has made repeated bids to reclaim his congressional seat but has fallen short. In 2018, Bentivolio finished last in a five-candidate primary with 11% of the vote against well-known elected officials and political operatives. 

Bentivolio is running as a "proven conservative" who can defeat Stevens and fight socialist ideals. Stevens was wrong to want to get rid of the National Rifle Association and isn't about bipartisanship, he said.

"And now more than ever the progressive left threatens our way of life and our American values, and it becomes a greater threat with each passing year," Bentivolio said.

Bentivolio filed for bankruptcy in early 2015 after he left office, listing nearly $300,000 in debts and unpaid bills. He made $174,000 a year during his two years in Congress.

"Was it a blessing or a curse?" Bentivolio asked rhetorically during a December 2014 Detroit News interview of his time in Washington. "It's been a great lesson. ... This has been a really wonderful experience."

Bentivolio told The News at the time that he was facing severe financial troubles after an Oakland County judge ruled the one-term member of Congress had to pay $120,000 to his fired former campaign manager, Robert Dindoffer. 

Courtney Rice, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, defended Stevens as actually doing bipartisan work and getting things done in Congress while the Republicans talk.

"Rep. Haley Stevens has a strong record of working across the aisle to put Michigan's economy first, from leading within her party to pass the USMCA to President Trump signing her bipartisan bill to support STEM education," Rice said. "While Stevens is fighting for her constituents in Congress, the Republican candidates are busy fighting with themselves and running as far to the right as they can to win their primary."

Greco, 44, of Northville, said she is in the race "simply on principle" and how she sees "our personal liberties being threatened." She wants to protect constitutional freedoms and promote less government and lower taxes.

"I want to a voice for America," Greco said. "I see institutions rising up in our nation that I believe are, at the heart, dividing our nation. Those things deeply concern me as somebody that's born and raised in America. I know that this is the greatest nation in the world that offers equal opportunity to everyone."

The rise of left-wing politics is what brought Greco into politics, she said. "I felt moved to run for Congress to take a stand against this move toward socialism that I saw very prevalent in our culture, especially in our younger generation," she said.

Trump inspired immigrant

Williams, 37, of Canton Township said President Donald Trump was an inspiration for her to "stand up and share" her talents with the 11th District "because we want to make America great." Williams immigrated from Taiwan.

"I wanted to stand up and share with people that with hard work you can accomplish anything in this country," she said. "From where I came from as a Dreamer (in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) and not speaking any English, to be where I am today, I'm just grateful for those opportunities that were provided for me in this country."

Republican Whittney Williams of Canton Township announced her campaign for Michigan's 11th Congressional District on Aug. 19, 2019.

Stevens promised to reach across the aisle "and work with Republicans," she said, but failed to do so.

"And then she goes to D.C. and votes about 92% with Pelosi," Williams said. "There's kind of a disconnect there because it almost feels like the conservative voices aren't being heard. I'm just the average immigrant that wanted to stand up and do what's right and protect the things that make America great."

For his part, Acosta, 75, of Northville, said he is the candidate to beat Stevens because he has beaten the odds before, especially overcoming Stage 4 throat cancer, which he said was an act of God. He is of Mexican heritage.

Frank Acosta is a Republican who is running in the 11th Congressional District primary.

Immigration, lower taxes and less regulation are among Acosta's main issues.

Trump must be re-elected because he's "done such great things for America" regarding the economy and standing up for the country against foreign leaders," Acosta said. Trump's agenda "is my agenda," he said.

The Republican primary is between candidates "who are going to battle to see who's the most Republican or who is the most pro-Trump," Sellek said. 

"It's a political necessity to get out of the primary," he said about candidates who take more conservative positions.

"In a now swing district, any time that your candidates are having to run all the way to the left or all the way to the right, it's going to be a problem," he added. "And Haley Stevens has been able to stay, at least publicity-wise, in the moderate wing. She's not been forced to the left to a hard progressive position like some other candidates have been forced to do."

lfleming@detroitnews.com

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Twitter:@leonardnfleming