Jul 5, 2022
A month before the Aug. 2 primary, state Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, appears to have the wind at his back in the race for the open 13th Congressional District seat. For months, his campaign, arguably one of the better organized in a crowded field of nine Democratic candidates, had been coalescing institutional support from the likes of Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, the Rev. Wendell Anthony and most recently, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.
A month before the Aug. 2 primary, state Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, appears to have the wind at his back in the race for the open 13th Congressional District seat.
For months, his campaign, arguably one of the better organized in a crowded field of nine Democratic candidates, had been coalescing institutional support from the likes of Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, the Rev. Wendell Anthony and most recently, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.
It also helps that a D.C.-based political action committee aligned with a staunchly pro-Israel group committed nearly $800,000 in television ads supporting him.
The question, said Lansing pollster Ed Sarpolus, who has done some of the only independent surveys in the race, is whether it's too late.
"Absentee voting is already on," he said. "It takes two to three weeks sometimes to see the benefits of advertising. How much does it help? We don't know that right now."
From the start, the race for this seat has been a muddle: a large field of candidates with varying degrees of name recognition, political experience and financial acumen with no clear front-runner. All of them running in a newly drawn district that, while anchored in Detroit and including the Grosse Pointes, Downriver and parts of western Wayne County, includes slightly more non-Black people than Black people and almost as many voters outside the city as in.
The candidates are a group that includes Hollier; state Rep. Shri Thanedar; former state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo; former Detroit City Council member Sharon McPhail; John Conyers III, son of the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers, Jr.; Focus: HOPE CEO Portia Roberson; lawyer and educator Michael Griffie; political consultant Sam Riddle and businesswoman Lorrie Rutledge.
It's a long list and all of the candidates are hoping, not without good reason, that the field fractures in a way that gives them a chance to slip through, since whoever wins the Democratic primary is virtually guaranteed to win in November.
"There is an appetite not to be told or cajoled into what to do," said Gay-Dagnogo, who is a current member of the Detroit Public Schools Community District board and is pushing back on any idea that Hollier, or anyone else, has the election in hand or that a large campaign war chest will make the difference.
"This district is over 60% women," she added. "They need a strong champion. ... This race, this seat, will be won by a Black woman."
Hollier believes he can win, despite Supreme Court overturning Roe
We won't know just how much any of the candidates have on hand to spend headed into the election until it's almost too late to matter: The campaign finance reports for the three-month period that ended June 30 aren't due until the middle of July.
If the previous period's reports are any guide, Hollier and the largely self-funding Thanedar will lead the pack, possibly by a lot. But Gay-Dagnogo may have a point.
The U.S. Supreme Court's decision last month to overturn Roe v. Wade and its guarantee of a constitutional right to abortion rocked the political world and is likely to continue a trend toward boosting female candidates. No male congressional candidate has won a Detroit-based district since the late John Conyers Jr. in 2016.
Hollier believes he can buck that trend.
"I don't think Black women are looking only to elect another Black woman," he said. "Black women have been the foundation of the Democratic Party and are invested in these races. They are going to elect the person they think is going to do the best job."
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Besides having a slew of endorsements from Black pastors — who count thousands of Black women in their congregations — he also has the support of state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, whose speech defending herself against baseless claims of sexualizing children went viral.
That pro-Israel support, however, could also lead to questions. It's coming from the United Democracy Project, an arm of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has gone after candidates who have questioned Israel's handling of civil rights among Palestinians in the occupied territories and targeted some progressive Democrats for defeat.
A volunteer firefighter and Army reservist paratrooper, Hollier presents himself on TV as someone who will run toward danger, not away from it. On the issues, Hollier and the others largely agree across the board, calling for better wages, improved working and living conditions and help from Washington for what is one of the most impoverished congressional districts in the nation — their argument is which of them is in a better position to get something done.
Hollier (whose name is pronounced O-lee-A) said in terms of gaining support there is no substitute for knocking on doors, using phone banks and getting out to meet voters.
He also pointed out that, when he won his state Senate seat in 2018, it was a nine-person field and that he was expected to lose.
"For me, it's going to be all about hustle," he said.
Thanedar says independence is key and race shouldn't hold him back
The infusion of support comes at an opportune time for Hollier, but he still faces what could be an onslaught of media buys from state Rep. Shri Thanedar, D-Detroit, a wealthy entrepreneur and scientist.
Thanedar said voters are fed up with politicians who count on funding from special interests and prefer "someone like me who doesn't depend on these lobbyists."
But he prefers to talk less about money than his grassroots efforts, knocking on doors directly. Doing so in Detroit, he said, he has heard "absolutely zero inquiries" about the fact that, as an Indian immigrant, he is the only non-Black candidate in the campaign. "People aren’t so focused on my race, they are focused on their problems."
Other candidates and other political leaders in Detroit especially, however, have argued that the district should elect a Black candidate, given that the only African American in the state delegation, Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, is retiring.
Thanedar's pitch is simple and direct: He was raised in abject poverty and made a success of himself. Getting his businesses started, he experienced discrimination, he said, including being stopped at airports and being denied loans at banks. "The discrimination that African Americans have experienced is much more serious than that but the life I've lived — that's where my passion comes from."
His political message is similar to the others: Congress must do more to address economic justice, health care, gun safety and voting rights.
Some political analysts believe Thanedar could do particularly well with some male voters and point out that, in a 2018 long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination for governor, he won the city of Detroit.
What will name recognition mean in the race?
Confounding any conclusive analysis of how the race will shape up is the presence of some names that are arguably better known in and around Detroit than those of Hollier and Thanedar.
Sharon McPhail, a former City Council member who has flirted with runs for other offices and faced off against then-Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer in 1993, is by any measure a recognizable political brand in southeastern Michigan, Sarpolus said. As such, she could have an impact on the outcome — if not win — if turnout is low and older women play an outsize role.
John Conyers, meanwhile, isn't the late John Conyers Jr., the iconic congressman who represented Detroit for decades and died in 2019 but his son, John Conyers III, who will be listed on the ballot sans the generational suffix.
Some have complained about this, suggesting Conyers is trying to bamboozle voters into thinking he is his father — though it would be hard to find a more widely reported political obituary in Michigan from that year. If anything, the carping may belie concerns of how the effect merely the name Conyers may have on splitting the primary ticket. It's certainly well known and could make up for some lag in campaign funding and outreach.
Conyers said he has concentrated his efforts, despite a "shoestring" budget, on maximizing efforts to attract absentee voters, believing they will be key to the election. While not shying away from his family name, he said he has also promoted a message that he knows the different sides of Detroit: the political hierarchy, as represented by his father, but also the face of crime and having an incarcerated parent. His mother, former Detroit City Councilwoman Monica Conyers, was imprisoned for bribery; two cousins were also killed, the victims of gun violence, in 2019, he said.
"I’m not just John Conyers' son," he said, describing his family as "one side that is affluent and one side that is not ... that's who I am going to D.C. to represent."
He has some endorsements that could carry weight, too, from the families of Breona Taylor and Jacob Blake, both of whom were shot by police, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., an iconic civil rights figure, has endorsed Conyers as well.
McPhail, a former assistant prosecutor and Detroit city counsel who the Free Press called "blunt-spoken" and "passionate" nearly 30 years ago, downplayed any need for a vast TV campaign or other indiscriminate methods of reaching out to voters. "There are people who know me and they've seen me do it (legislate)," she said. "I don’t think that’s true of anyone else in this race."
"I don’t believe in wasting money in a city where people are hungry," she said of some of the more expensive campaigns launched by her opponents. "I know where my voters are, I know who is open to my candidacy." She said she's targeting her efforts with them, touting plans to regulate guns and increase access to better education and jobs for people living in the district.
One other person who shouldn't be counted out given her electoral history and name recognition is Gay-Dagnogo. Along with Hollier and Thanedar, she is a current officeholder, having won a Detroit citywide seat on the school board.
Lacking the funding or some of the institutional support from unions she had hoped to secure, she said she is still finding receptive audiences for a message based "on years of advocacy, fighting for schools, fighting for affordable, fair auto insurance." And if some union leaders aren't supporting her campaign, she believes the rank and file will.
Roberson, Griffie intriguing choices in a scattered field
One of the more difficult aspects of handicapping the field is some of the newer candidates nonetheless show impressive credentials. One of those is Portia Roberson, chief executive of Focus: HOPE, a widely known nonprofit that provides workforce training, educational support and food programs.
Having worked for the Obama administration and having ties to Duggan, some observers thought Roberson might have had a clearer path to victory by now. She does have some key endorsements, including one from the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce that she shared with Hollier, and those from retiring U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, and former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing.
She said she believes she can still win, and it's only a matter of interacting with people. She projects an easy confidence. It's likely to be a low turnout election, unfortunately, she said, and women will be a deciding factor. And out stumping for votes, she said, "When they hear who I am and what I've done already, they move to me."
Another such candidate is Michael Griffie, a lawyer and educator, who has locked up endorsements from those such as retired state Supreme Court Justice Kurtis Wilder, state Rep. Tyrone Carter and the Detroit News. Affable and politically savvy, Griffie has been up on TV with an ad introducing him to voters and touting his background as a teacher and coach.
He readily acknowledges he's trying to target older voters and courting votes not just in the city but outside of Detroit, Downriver especially, knowing they could be key to winning in a split field.
He said he's meeting plenty of undecided voters — enough to flip the script on the race.
"For undecided voters, I don't think people with higher name ID have much of an advantage at all," he said. "People want a representative that has actually had their feet on the ground doing work. I think that’s what separates me from the field."
Rutledge, Riddle round out a fascinating primary ballot
Two remaining Democratic candidates, Lorrie Rutledge and Sam Riddle, come from opposing ends of the political spectrum experience-wise, to say the least.
Rutledge is a newcomer to running for Congress and, on her website, says she's a natural product manufacturer and distributor in southeastern Michigan, one who got into the natural product line after seeing how it could help battle illness. Her platform centers on a desire to enact a plan to transfer billions to southeastern Michigan — much as the U.S. did with Europe in the years following World War II — to rebuild the economy, improve health care and end squalor.
"My campaign is moving steady but slow as I started late and my financial resources are limited," she said. "I have not allowed these factors to stop me from spreading my message of hope."
Rutledge is clearly earnest in her attempt but she's not well known politically.
Riddle, meanwhile, is far from unknown, having worked for Monica Conyers in Detroit City Hall and getting swept up in a bribery charge as well. He also has worked in talk radio and last year managed a successful campaign for his partner, Mary Waters, for an at-large seat on Detroit City Council.
He is, to say the least, the most colorful candidate in the race.
Reached by phone this week after leaving a group of seniors at a community center, Riddle ran through the tenets of his campaign: basic income for single mothers, Medicare for all and getting rid of student loan payments. To work for jobs, justice and peace.
"I lived what others are talking about — they talk about it, I lived it," he said. "I know up from down. … I know what it means to get a piece of paper that says the people of the United States against your Black (expletive)."
Riddle said he doesn't have to worry about name recognition but that "It's rough as hell competing against the millions of dollars being poured into TV."
Among this large field, he's probably not the only one who feels that way. But there's still no guarantee a month out, with a crowd this big in the race, that money — or anything else — will be the deciding factor.