Bernie Sanders stumps for Reps. Levin and Tlaib in Pontiac

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Pontiac — Hundreds gathered Friday as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders returned to Metro Detroit  to drum up support for two Democratic Michigan lawmakers who are seeking third terms in Congress.

The “Get Out the Vote” rally at the Flagstar Strand Theatre came four days before U.S. Reps. Andy Levin and Rashida Tlaib face other Democratic opponents in the Tuesday primary election.

Sanders has endorsed both in their races in the 11th and 12th districts, respectively, and has touted them as progressive leaders. He urged potential voters heading to the polls to remember Tlaib and Levin were fighting for workers.

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, left, greets U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders during a rally Friday in Pontiac.

"We need members of Congress to tell the billionaire class, to tell these CEOs... that they cannot have it all," the Vermont senator said to applause.

In addressing their supporters Friday night, Levin and Tlaib said their contests were critical in helping push policies that have taken on more importance in 2022, such as health care affordability, gun control, abortion rights, battling climate change and creating jobs.

"Our lives are at stake here," Tlaib told the crowd.

On Tuesday, Levin challenges U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens in Michigan's new 11th District, which includes Oakland County communities such as Royal Oak, Birmingham, Farmington Hills, West Bloomfield Township and Pontiac. Tlaib's challengers include long-time Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey.

Both Levin and Tlaib have raised large sums in their bids but have seen an influx of outside, pro-Israel money poured into their races in recent weeks, running attack ads against them on TV. Sanders cited the outside spending when he endorsed Tlaib and Levin, both critics of Israeli policy. 

"Once again, these extremists are pouring millions of dollars into a congressional race to try to ensure the Democratic Party advances the agenda of powerful corporations and the billionaire class," Sanders said in a statement at the time.

He was referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee whose super political action committee, United Democracy Project, has disclosed at least $4.2 million in spending in the 11th District, including ads boosting Stevens and attacking Levin. 

Sanders alluded to the issue again Friday.

"When you’re taking on folks who spend many, many millions of dollars putting stupid ads on television, it’s hard," he said.

In Tlaib's race, an Atlanta-based group, Urban Empowerment Action PAC, has pledged to spend up to $1 million in the final weeks to propel Winfrey. The PAC has said it includes Black and Jewish business and civic leaders, and that its endorsement of Winfrey is due in part to Tlaib's stance on Israel, which she has called an apartheid state.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib speaks during a rally also featuring U.S. Rep. Andy Levin and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders Friday, July 29, 2022 in downtown Pontiac.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders leads a rally at The Flagstar Strand Theater in Pontiac, Friday night, July 29, 2022, as he campaigns for U.S. Reps. Levin and Tlaib.

Tlaib opted to run in the 12th District, which covers Dearborn, Southfield and part of Detroit, as well as Livonia, Inkster, Westland, Garden City and Redford Charter Township, after representing the 13th District for two terms.

Her opponents next week are Winfrey, former state Rep. Shanelle Jackson and Lathrop Village Mayor Kelly Garrett.

Tlaib did not mention the competitors by name during the rally Friday but suggested the race has attracted large amounts of money and outside interests because some officials feared her "unapologetic" stances on corporate influence in politics, environmental justice, poverty as well as other issues.

She told the crowd she was driven by a belief that transformative change "starts with us in the street, in our communities, building movements right here on the ground. When you are rooted in community you know in your bones that doing nothing isn’t an option."

Describing the importance of the election, Sanders denounced the influence of money in politics and said voters "cannot allow billionaires to buy elections."

"We need an economy and we need a political system that works for all, not just a few," he said.

The message enlivened attendees such as Jessica Bissa of Sterling Heights.

"For everything going on in the country, we’ve got to protect the people," she said.

Nicole Strickland of Grand Blanc attended with her husband James and 3-year-old daughter, Harper.

She said they were longtime Sanders supporters. Although their family is not in the districts Levin or Tlaib represent, Strickland considered the election important enough to have statewide implications.

“People out there are concerned," she said.

Tlaib and Levin have both drawn campaign support from fellow politicians as the election nears. Last week, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts stumped for Levin in Pontiac.

The progressive Democrats known as the Squad, U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, touted Tlaib in another area event the same day.

Levin and Tlaib also were linked days earlier, when both were arrested near the U.S. Supreme Court during a protest supporting abortion rights.

The lawmakers have both called to expand the Supreme Court and halting the filibuster in the Senate to codify abortion rights in federal law.

Sanders called the pair "outstanding members of the Congress who every day are fighting for the rights of working families and are prepared to take on powerful corporate interest."

Levin, who in 2018 won his retiring father’s seat, has characterized the 11th District primary as a contest between a progressive and a centrist, although he and Stevens have similar voting records.

The Bloomfield Township resident’s campaign has focused on his priorities to protect workers, abortion and voting rights as well as positions differing from Stevens, such as shutting Enbridge's Line 5 oil pipeline running through the Straits of Mackinac and adopting a single-payer health care system.

Ariadna Rocha, of Rochester Hills, 20, reacts to a speech by U.S. Rep. Andy Levin during the rally.

On Friday, Levin touted his support for union rights, addressing structural racism and environmental concerns.

"We’ve got to take aggressive immediate comprehensive action to save life as we know it on this planet," he said.

Stevens’ ads and other outreach have mostly concentrated on her record, including her work on former President Barack Obama’s auto task force, efforts to boost advanced manufacturing and getting more women and girls in science, technology and engineering career fields and to address the nation's semiconductor shortage and gun violence. 

The Waterford Township resident, who has earned the endorsements of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, has outspent and out-raised Levin, reporting her campaign had nearly $1.5 million saved for the final weeks. 

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee pro-Israeli lobby group has given $636,000 to her campaign and an AIPAC-affiliated super-PAC contributed $2.4 million.

Levin has called the amount of dark money in the race “sickening.”

Friday’s event came the day after the Tlaib campaign said it has knocked over 25,000 doors and made 120,000 phone calls.

The Palestinian-American who grew up in Detroit rose to national prominence in progressive politics soon after being sworn into office in 2019; in a viral video, she touted going to Congress to "impeach the mother (expletive),” referring to then-President Donald Trump.

About 60% of the population of Tlaib's current district was drawn into the new 12th District. With Dearborn included, Tlaib could for the first time represent the city and its sizable Arab American population.

She is seen as the likely frontrunner in the race, which will see her national profile, local groundwork and at times divisive stances tested for a second time. 

Winfrey is viewed as Tlaib’s top challenger, due to name recognition from her 17 years as clerk and having raised $310,000 through July 15, according to campaign finance records.

A crowd gathers for a rally.

The clerk is also the only other Democratic candidate in the race currently serving in Wayne County, which covers most of the district.

During her campaign, Winfrey has touted her clerk experience and her work in the 2020 election, which saw Detroit votes come under attack by Trump supporters. She has also highlighted efforts that saw Detroit become the first municipality in the state to open satellite voting centers in the city’s neighborhoods. 

On Friday, Tlaib vowed to keep fighting for her constituents and said they "inspire me every single day."

"We know that we are worth so much than any Fortune 500 company or billionaire and that people, all of us, should not only be able to survive but we should be able to thrive," she said. "And it shouldn’t be this hard."

Melissa Nann Burke contributed