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Mathis mulls leaving TV show to run for Congress

Melissa Nann Burke, and Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Greg Mathis, the retired 36th District Court judge, is considering leaving his long-running syndicated television show to run for Congress in former Rep. John Conyers’ district.

Mathis, 57, will announce his decision on whether to campaign for the 13th District seat on Jan. 15, spokesman Stacy Leak said in a Thursday email.

“Judge Mathis is a lifelong and current resident of southeast Michigan” who lived in the district for 40 years and operated the Mathis Community Center for 18 years, Leak said.

Mathis “would be giving up his show,” Leak added.

The courtroom show “Judge Mathis” has been on the air since 1999 and is produced in Chicago. Last year was the show’s 19th season.

If Mathis decides to run, he would join a field that includes announced Democratic candidates such as state Sen. Ian Conyers of Detroit, Rep. Conyers’ 29-year-old great nephew who angered his family by announcing his intention to run for Congress just before the ex-congressman announced his resignation on Dec. 5. Also in the mix is state Sen. Coleman Young II, who last year unsuccessfully challenged Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and is term-limited out of the Senate at year’s end.

Citing health concerns, Conyers said he was “retiring” amid a string of sexual harassment allegations by former female staffers.

The 88-year-old lawmaker endorsed his oldest son, John Conyers III, who hasn’t decided whether to run for his father’s seat.

Mathis has been involved in Detroit politics, as a former staffer for the late Detroit City Council member Clyde Cleveland. He was also close to the late Detroit City Councilwoman Brenda Scott, Detroit political analyst Mario Morrow said.

“He’s very astute and politically aware. I don’t know why you’d give up $15 million a year, though. I think his salary is between $10 and $15 million a year,” Morrow said.

“I think he’s going to think long and hard, and he’s going to be rolling the dice. Does he want to give up the lucrative celebrity life and move back into the district and serve the people?”

And while name recognition is a plus, it’s not as powerful as it used to be, Morrow added.

“Our voters are more sophisticated and knowledgeable and more involved in politics,” he said.

“People are going to look at who can serve the district the best and, with what’s going on in Washington right now, they are going to be very selective as to their next representative.”

Mathis, a Detroit native, has used his “gang to gavel” story to inspire others.

As a teenager, he was arrested several times, dropped out of school and served nine months in jail for gun possession. As a condition of his parole, he had to hold down a job and get a GED.

He went on to became a lawyer and a judge after his election in 1995 in Michigan's 36th District – making him the youngest person in the state to hold the position at the time.

He has operated the Mathis Community Center for 18 years and, in 2010, Mathis created the Prisoner Empowerment Education and Respect program that involved his traveling to jails and prisons around the country to motivate prisoners.

In 2009, Detroit named one of its streets, Mathis Avenue, in his honor.

It’s unclear whether Mathis currently lives in the 13th District, which includes much of the city and other parts of Wayne County. To run for Congress, Mathis isn’t required to live in the district but must reside in Michigan.

He and wife Linda sold their home in Bloomfield Hills in 2015, according to Oakland County property records.

Leak did not respond to an inquiry seeking to clarify the judge’s residence.

Greg Bowens, a Democratic political consultant, noted that TV personalities have used their celebrity to get elected to everything from mayor to president of the United States, and Mathis has the bonus of "deep roots" in the district that could help in a crowded primary.

He suggested the race will come down to organization.

“It becomes important to get the Democratic Party activists involved working for you. It’s going to be a bitter, bitter fight for those activists," said Bowen, who sits on the executive board of 14th Congressional District Democratic Party, which includes parts of Detroit.

“TV name recognition may not be enough to get you over the hump with activists in the 13th District. They want people who are involved with party politics all year long.”

If he decides to run, Mathis would join a field that is expected to grow.

Westland Mayor Bill Wild is reportedly considering a run, Morrow said. As is Mayor Mike Duggan’s Civil Rights and Ethics Director Portia Roberson, Bowens said.

Mathis holds a bachelor's degree from Eastern Michigan University and a law degree from the University of Detroit Law School.

Mathis has served as a national board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Morehouse School of Medicine, according to his website. He and wife Linda have four adult children.