U.S. Rep. Lawrence endorses Portia Roberson for Detroit-area seat in Congress

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Retiring U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence is endorsing attorney Portia Roberson in the Democratic primary for the open seat representing the bulk of Detroit in Congress, she said.

Lawrence, a Southfield Democrat in her fourth term, currently represents approximately 40% of the population of the new 13th District, which covers most of Detroit, Hamtramck, the Grosse Pointes and Downriver communities. 

She described Roberson, the CEO of the nonprofit Focus: Hope, as an experienced professional who is ethical, has integrity and who can "connect the dots" between federal resources and community needs.

U.S. Rep Brenda Lawrence speaks during a press conference at the Great Lakes Water Authority Water Resource Recovery Facility, in Detroit, July 8, 2021.

"I’m really excited that she can walk in and do the job. I’ve seen her be able to form networks and going to Congress — the reality is that you need to raise money," Lawrence said.

"She’s had the success of raising money for Focus: Hope, to stabilize it. She took an organization in dire straits and turned it around."

The seat is open because U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit opted to run next door in the new 12th District after the redistricting process and Lawrence's decision to retire.

The crowded primary race includes at least nine candidates, such as state Sen. Adam Hollier, former state Rep. Sherry Gay Dagnogo, former Detroit City Councilwoman Sharon McPhail, former Detroit police Chief Ralph Godbee, attorney Michael Griffie and state Rep. Shri Thanedar.

Two other endorsements announced Thursday went to Hollier and McPhail.

Hollier picked up the backing of the group Legacy Committee for Unified Leadership, comprised of leaders within the Black community convened by Wayne County Executive Warren Evans. McPhail was endorsed by the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus.

"There’s some people in this race who I have so much respect for, but at the end of the day, (Roberson) is ready at this time. It’s hard here in Congress if you’ve not had the opportunity to be tried," Lawrence said.

Roberson "has worked in the Obama administration, in the housing crisis with the community, and she has results. … She has been on the ground doing the work, and her resume compared to others is so many levels above the other people who are running."

Lawrence also said Roberson, a former criminal defense attorney and prosecutor, also understands the challenges of criminal justice, working with the skilled trades and values working with diverse groups.

Portia Roberson

Roberson previously worked for the U.S. Department of Justice as director of intergovernmental affairs and then led a team of federal officials embedded in Detroit City Hall through Obama's Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative. She went on to work for the city for mayors Dave Bing and Mike Duggan. 

Roberson in a statement said she was honored to have Lawrence's endorsement. "I’ve served as a leader in city, county, state and federal government and will use my experience and relationships to meet the needs of this district on my first day in office.”

Lawrence, who is the Michigan delegation's only Black lawmaker, has said she feels strongly the state should continue having a "qualified, committed" African American representing the state.

She stressed the need to have someone in office asking questions like why Black women are dying from childbirth at higher rates, why Black women carry the largest amount of student debt and why Black homeownership has been declining for years. 

"We need someone who can bring that voice to Congress," she said. "To be sure to be conscious of the fact of what we need to do with policy and what we need to do with resources to level the playing field."

Concern about the potential loss of Black representation in the 13th District is also what motivated the convening of the Legacy group by Evans, according to a statement. 

“We wanted to come together in unity to put our collective power behind the candidate with the best chance to win the seat," Evans said. Hollier "has a strong fundraising team and a campaign network to compete on the national level.” 

Evans also cited Hollier’s political and military experience, saying his service to constituents in his Senate district's 19 diverse communities "set him apart" from the other candidates in the field. 

The Legacy group includes 20 other endorsees from the faith, labor and business communities, including the Rev. Wendell Anthony of Fellowship Chapel and the Detroit Branch of the NAACP; and the Rev. Steve Bland Jr., president of the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit & Vicinity and senior pastor at Liberty Temple Baptist Church; and Bishop Edgar Vann of Second Ebenezer Church.

Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus Chairman Keith Williams explained the endorsement of McPhail, saying she led in the caucus' early polling and stressing her community experience. 

"She has a history in his community. She has given her heart and soul to this community," Williams said. "Her record is impeccable."

While the "floodgates" of endorsements have started, the 13th District race is anyone's to win at this point, longtime political consultant Mario Morrow said Thursday.

"Any time a sitting congressperson endorses someone, that’s huge," said Morrow, a Detroiter. "But today shows you how splintered this process is going to be, and how important it is, not only to get endorsements but to raise money."

The MDP Black Caucus also endorsed other congressional candidates Thursday, including U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell of Dearborn and Haley Stevens of Waterford Township, but the caucus snubbed Tlaib, who is seeking a third term.

Instead, the group is supporting Lathrup Village Mayor Kelly Garrett for U.S. House in the new 12th District, with Williams saying the caucus supports candidates who "show up." 

"We want some people that have been committed to our organization," Williams said. "Some people that we know have been living in this community, (whose) family has been living in this community, and then are not jumping from one district to another." 

The Tlaib camp responded to the endorsement.

“Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib is laser focused on her residents and created four neighborhood service centers throughout the district," spokesman Denzell McCampbell said. "Through the service centers, she has delivered more than $4.4 million back to her constituents and just secured more than $15 million for ten community projects across the district. She was ranked top among her class of colleagues for the amount of town halls she held and continues to be rooted in the community through bold advocacy and legislation. 

"Rep. Tlaib has a strong work ethic and does not stop when it comes to helping her residents. She is running in the new 12th Congressional District which contains two-thirds of her current 13th Congressional District. She has already begun to show her service-oriented approach in the new 12th by hosting a number of campaign town halls and reaching out to thousands of voters." 

mburke@detroitnews.com