Foes seek to capitalize on Detroit clerk’s woes
Six candidates, including a former NAACP leader, are challenging Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey in the Tuesday primary, hoping to capitalize on recent mishaps in her office.
The top two vote-getters will advance to the Nov. 7 general election.
A May poll found that Winfrey was vulnerable after a state audit of 136 precincts — triggered by voting irregularities — found “an abundance of human errors” by city precinct workers in the November election. She had less than 50 percent support in the Target-Insyght poll of 400 likely Detroit voters.
But Winfrey, 59, blamed the issues on outdated equipment and announced in January that the city was purchasing hundreds of new voting machines.
Winfrey, who is running for a fourth term as clerk, said earlier this year transparency and the “high level of integrity” in her office is helping her with voters. She touted cleaning up the city’s voter registration files, allowing voters to cast absentee ballots at satellite locations 30 days prior to elections, and partnerships with local schools.
If re-elected, Winfrey said she plans to continue advocating for “no reason” absentee voting in Michigan.
“As an elected official, one thing we do know is people like to know what have you done for me lately,” she said in an interview. “What I’ve done for the citizens of Detroit is work hard for the spirit of integrity and professionalism.”
Winfrey’s campaign raised $12,000 between October and July.
Heaster Wheeler is considered Winfrey’s toughest challenger because he was executive director of the Detroit Branch NAACP for more than a decade. He is also a retired Detroit firefighter and former assistant county executive for Wayne County.
His top priorities include making voter registration easier; improving recruiting, training and education for staff and volunteers; expanding community outreach by visiting schools and organizations to discuss the election process; and hosting “Coffee with the Clerk” sessions.
Wheeler said some Detroit senior citizens have refused to vote absentee because they don’t trust their ballot is being counted. If elected, Wheeler said he hopes to create a system where voters get a return receipt when they mail their ballots.
“I think the clerk’s office is broken,” Wheeler said. “And I think Detroiters deserve better.”
Wheeler’s campaign pulled in about $42,000 from March to July, according to campaign finance records.
Winfrey’s 2013 opponent D. Etta Wilcoxon is hoping to have a better showing this year. Wilcoxon has joined activist Robert Davis in filing lawsuits that so far have been unsuccessful in challenging the use of taxpayer bond money to help the Pistons basketball team move to the Little Caesars Arena in downtown.
Winfrey has failed to properly run the office and won’t take responsibility for her mistakes, said Wilcoxon, 60, in a prior interview.
“(The community) is embarrassed, and it feels that the current clerk must go,” Wilcoxon said earlier this year. “The city is a political giant. I understand the power and importance of the vote in the process.”
Wilcoxon’s pre primary campaign finance report has not yet been filed.
Other candidates are less well known. Garlin D. Gilchrist II is a computer engineer by trade who most recently worked as the city’s director for innovation and emerging technology.
Gilchrist, 34, said he has worked as a community organizer for MoveOn.org, and volunteered with the Barack Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012. His campaign committee raised nearly $102,000 between April-July.
The University of Michigan graduate said if elected he would focus on improving access to voter registration and voting; boost voter education efforts; and make more city records easily accessible.
“I will aggressively promote easier ways for people to register to vote, and use research-proven methods to increase turnout, like sending election day reminders via text message, opening more polling locations, and making more absentee ballot drop-off locations available,” Gilchrist said in an email.
Faustine Amara Onwuneme vows to bring more diversity to the city clerk’s office. Onwuneme, the 37-year-old owner of an African hair-braiding business, said there is a barrier between the clerk’s office and many cultural groups in Detroit that don’t vote in elections.
The office needs more employees who are bilingual, said Onwuneme, who speaks Japanese and French.
“I am very sociable with a lot of different cultures here in Detroit,” Onwuneme said. “A lot of groups are discouraged from participating in the voting process. People don’t even know where to vote.”
Cynthia A. Johnson has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Walsh College.
Johnson, 58, said her top priorities would be staffing changes, conducting a forensic audit of every department in the clerk’s office, and implementing training for employees. Johnson is also advocating for more training for poll workers including on-site or online tests, providing transportation for voters and ensuring hospitalized voters have absentee ballots.
“I am of valid age, a registered voter, and resident of the city of Detroit and have nothing in my background that would shame the office of city clerk or the residents of Detroit,” Johnson said in an email.
Ronald Creswell could not be reached for comment. A GoFundMe page says it raised money for Creswell’s city clerk campaign and lists his experience as a precinct supervisor and elections clerical assistant for the Detroit Election Commission.