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In 13th District, a crowded Democratic primary to represent Detroit, the Pointes and Downriver

Jul 21, 2022

An open seat in Michigan's redrawn 13th Congressional District has attracted a flood of Democratic hopefuls and raised the issue of what kind of minority candidate should represent the bulk of Detroit, a predominantly Black city.

An open seat in Michigan's redrawn 13th Congressional District has attracted a flood of Democratic hopefuls and raised the issue of what kind of minority candidate should represent the bulk of Detroit, a predominantly Black city.

Michigan's only African American in Congress, Democratic U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Southfield, is retiring at the end of the year and the Democratic stronghold of the 13th is viewed as the best opportunity to elect another Black representative.

Nine candidates are running in the Democratic stronghold of the 13th District, which covers most of Detroit, Hamtramck, the Grosse Pointes and Downriver communities. Eight African American candidates and an Indian American entrepreneur-turned-politician are vying for the nomination. The winner of the Aug. 2 primary effectively wins the seat since the Republican challenger rarely has a chance in Detroit and surrounding suburbs.

State Rep. Shri Thanedar of Detroit has been inundating the TV airwaves with ads. Thanedar is spending a part of his personal wealth to win the congressional seat, just as he did in 2018, when he finished third statewide in the Democratic race for governor, though he got the most votes in Detroit.

Political experts said the other strongest candidates are state Sen. Adam Hollier, who is endorsed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the Detroit Regional Chamber, and Focus: HOPE CEO and attorney Portia Roberson, who was endorsed by Lawrence and Emily's List, the group that backs pro-abortion rights Democratic female candidates.

The Wayne County district is currently represented by Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib. However, after Michigan's political maps were redrawn, Tlaib opted to run in the 12th District after Lawrence announced her retirement.

The other candidates include John Conyers III, son of the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., who is endorsed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.; former state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo; former Detroit City Council member Sharon McPhail; Detroit lawyer and educator Michael Griffie; community activist Sam Riddle and businesswoman Lorrie Rutledge.

Detroit residents are concerned there may not be an African American representative in Congress from Michigan and view the 13th District as the best opportunity to make it happen, said Greg Bowens, a Metro Detroit political consultant.

But the large field of candidate could divide the Black vote and allow Thanedar to win by a slim margin, Bowens said.

"To see a train coming towards you and to stay on the tracks instead of getting out of the way invites disaster," Bowens said about the crowded field. "It's a sticky wicket. The more folks we have in the race, the more it's going to be split up, and I think a lot of people are surprised that more haven't dropped out."

Hollier continues to lead the field in fundraising, bringing in nearly $413,000 during April, May and June and ending the quarter with about $371,000 in the bank. The second-highest fundraiser last quarter was Roberson, with about $170,840 in receipts and $141,612 in cash reserves.

But the financial advantage still lies with Thanedar, who gave his campaign $3 million more in June for a total $5.17 million he’s put into the race. Thanedar went into July with $2.18 million cash on hand.

Bowens and Lansing-based Target-Insyght pollster Edward Sarpolus both identified Hollier, Thanedar and Roberson as the front-runners.

"Shri is winning the advertising game, dominating social media platforms, commercials, while Adam has a strong presence, the union support," Bowens said. "Portia hasn't created an advertising presence, but she's out there and has a lot of support from women's groups."

Sarpolus estimated a third of voters have already cast votes by absentee ballot. In-person voting could potentially depend on name recognition and which candidates gets their message out to a wide audience in the next two weeks, he said.

"There will be a fight amongst the men to take away votes from Shri, potentially dividing between John Conyers and Adam Hollier," Sarpolus said.

Sarpolus sees McPhail, Gay-Dagnogo and Conyers playing roles as spoilers. McPhail and Gay-Dagnogo could take away female votes from Roberson, while Conyers could take votes away from Hollier, he said.

Here's a look at the candidates:

Adam Hollier

Hollier, first elected in 2018, is in his first term in the Legislature, where he serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee. His entire Senate district lies within the new 13th District.

Hollier, 36, has held governmental staff roles for state senators, shepherded the creation of Detroit's Public Lighting Authority and served as a volunteer firefighter before enlisting in the U.S. Army Reserve, where he serves as a captain and paratrooper in the 412th Civil Affairs Battalion.

"I’m fighting to get every family access to fair mortgages and appraisals, regardless of race. We must also provide rental assistance to families who need it, while ensuring housing is safe," said Hollier, who lives in Detroit's North End neighborhood. "When I get to Congress, I will work to make sure that everyone who wants to buy a home can do just that."

His priorities are also affordable health and child care, voting rights and improving infrastructure, including transportation. Hollier said he's committed to ensuring continued access to abortions and "ensuring that my 4-year-old daughter does not grow up with less rights and body agency than her mother or grandmother." More on his website.

Hollier has been endorsed by Duggan, the Detroit Regional Chamber, state Sen. Erika Geiss, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and multiple unions including American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 25; United Food and Commercial Workers; Service Employees International Union; and Unite Here! Local 24.

Bowens noted that some don't agree with Hollier's stance on Line 5 (he voted to construct a tunnel to contain it) or the 2019 auto insurance reform law; however his union support might help him make up those lost votes.

Hollier led the field in fundraising in the first quarter of the year and says he's raised over $900,000 total when including second-quarter receipts through June 30, which is believed to be a record fundraising haul for a first-time candidate running to represent Detroit.

"I understand the unique components and intricacy of ensuring that everybody in the district has the thing that they need to make their community successful," Hollier said. "Gas and groceries are too expensive and guns and ammo are too cheap; that’s why the leaders in Wayne County are supporting me as the partner to address these issues."

Portia Roberson

Roberson, 52, is a graduate of Cass Tech High School, the University of Michigan and Wayne State Law School.

She formerly served as a public defender and Wayne County assistant prosecutor. In 2009, she was appointed by President Barack Obama to lead the office of intergovernmental and public liaison for the U.S. Department of Justice. She later returned to Detroit to lead the White House initiative Strong Cities, Strong Communities, where she partnered with municipal leaders to secure millions in federal funding.

In 2013, then-Mayor Dave Bing appointed Roberson to serve as corporation counsel, the city's top lawyer. Bing has endorsed her.

Roberson is the CEO of Focus: HOPE, a nonprofit civil and human rights organization and is also chair of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. She formerly served as chair of the Detroit Police and Fire Pension Board.

Roberson said Lawrence asked her to consider running and "even though now is probably a crazy time to run for Congress, it's probably the time that's most necessary."

"Providing direct services to people gives me a different understanding about legislation and policy, but also thinking about how do we get it into the hands of people who need it, how long or how soon that happens," Roberson said of her role at Focus: HOPE.

She supports universal health care, criminal justice reform, a ban on assault rifles, elimination of policies that shield police officers who violate their oath from prosecution, and gender equity for women for equal pay and reproductive rights.

"We must end the practice of criminalizing and incarcerating the mentally ill and invest in providing them with the help they need to lead a functioning life," she said. "I support using federal dollars to incentivize officers to live in the communities they police and rewarding departments that show a steady and sustained decrease in citizen complaints."

Roberson has been endorsed by Lawrence, EMILY's List, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and the American Federation of Teachers.

"I have the personal, professional and educational experiences that make me the most qualified candidate in this race having already worked in a presidential administration, with cabinet secretaries and other elected to make sure money was coming back home to the city of Detroit at the time and now I want to do that for my district," she said.

Shri Thanedar

Thanedar, who represents Michigan's 3rd District across northeast Detroit, says he's running for Congress because he knows what it's like to struggle growing up in poverty.

The entrepreneur and chemist grew up in Belgaum, India, and worked odd jobs to support his family of eight. He immigrated to the United States in 1979 to pursue a doctorate at the University of Akron and became a citizen in 1988.

Thanedar's chemical laboratory companies made him a millionaire before he made an unsuccessful run for governor of Michigan in 2018, pledging not to accept any corporate political action committee donations. So far, he's contributed more than $5 million toward his congressional campaign.

As a state representative, he touts bringing in funding for Detroit public schools, literacy programs and co-sponsoring a $1.5 billion Racial Equality and Reparations Fund Act.

Thanedar, 67, believes his science background will allow him to craft legislation on climate change. Education funding is the key to fighting poverty, he said, adding that he supports making community colleges and early education tuition-free.

He's an advocate for equal rights, criminal justice and police reform and supports a single-payer system for health care coverage, which must include reproductive care and mental health care.

"I also believe I am the only candidate that wholeheartedly supports progressive policies like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, etc.," he said.

Thanedar said bankrolling his candidacy gives him independence. He's calling for campaign finance reform because "money is corrupting our politics."

As the only non-Black candidate in the race, Thanedar said he agrees there should be proper representation for the district. "But I do believe that this congressional seat belongs to the people of the district, and the people who should decide who they want."

Michael Griffie

Griffie, a civil rights lawyer since 2015, started as a high school English teacher and principal within the Detroit Public Schools. Griffie was a lobbyist with the Michigan Legislative Consultants for nine months. He attended Wayne State University on a football scholarship, earning an English degree.

In Congress, he'd like to focus on reducing classroom sizes by hiring more teachers, expanding funding for historically Black colleges and universities, expanding access to trade schools, apprenticeships and college loan forgiveness for working in the public sector.

Should he be elected, Griffie's priorities are protecting abortion access, lowering the cost of prescription drugs, closing the gun-show loophole, passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, investing in mental and physical health care and holding corporations accountable for environmental abuses. More on his website.

Griffie, 39, has been endorsed by state Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit; the Rev. Horace Sheffield; former State Supreme Court Justice Kurt Wilder; and Robert Bury, former CEO of Detroit Historical Society.

"There are a couple of reasons that set me apart from the field. I didn't fall off anyone's political tree like the majority of this race. I think all across the trail from Grosse Pointe Shores, Romulus and everything in between, there's an appetite to have someone that's really from our community," Griffie told The News.

Seven months in, he continues knocking doors every day and hosts Taco Tuesdays to meet constituents. Word of mouth is his most important tool, he said.

"Meeting people where they are is going to be my greatest advantage," he said.

Sherry Gay-Dagnogo

Gay-Dagnogo, 55, is an at-large member of the Detroit school board who got her start in public service as a legislative aide for several council members.

After obtaining two degrees from Wayne State, she went on to teach at lower education schools and said she "saw firsthand the successes and failures of the school system."

She later ran for the state House of Representatives and served three terms for the 8th District that ended in 2020. In Lansing, she pushed through bills that increased access to community college for adults who want to change careers and fought efforts to defund Detroit schools.

Gay-Dagnogo's top priorities are reproductive rights, inflation, gun violence, jobs, Medicare and Social Security. She said voters should choose her because she can be trusted to represent the priorities of her constituents.

"I know what it takes to transform ideas into law," she said. "As a state lawmaker, I sponsored bills to protect a woman’s right to choose; support small businesses; protect the pensions of first responders and restore the rights of returning citizens to obtain gainful employment."

"My door is always open to residents. I am not only for the people, but I am also with the people. As a Detroit native, I experience the same joy and exasperation as everyone else."

Sharon McPhail

McPhail, 74, has experience as chief administrative officer of Detroit Community Schools, charter schools on the city's west side. She previously served as an at-large City Council member and general counsel under former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

She received her law degree from Northeastern School of Law and was the fourth woman president of the National Bar Association. She has served as Michigan's assistant U.S. attorney and founded an adopt-a-family program for crime victims. She also has a foster child.

McPhail said in online advertisements she's running because "I'm tired of excuses," from politicians.

John Conyers III

The son of the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. is running for his father's old seat for a second time and could potentially benefit from his family name, experts said. He's also gotten endorsements from the Blake and Taylor families and the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.

They're backing his campaign in part because of his commitment to supporting police reform legislation in Congress, including a bill to end no-knock warrants by police. More on his website.

"We need to end no-knock warrants," Conyers has said. "I am blessed to have earned their support in this campaign and pledge to be a voice and advocate for families who suffer at the hands of police brutality across this nation in Congress.”

Sam Riddle

Riddle, 75, is political director of the Michigan National Action Network and a veteran running for Congress to help eliminate poverty and institutional racism, according to his campaign. He wants to advocate for better infrastructure to prevent future floods and is against Enbridge's Line 5 oil pipeline running through the Straits of Mackinac.

He supports Medicare For All, forgiving student loans, providing basic income, defending reproductive rights, and legalizing marijuana at the federal level.

"Detroit was turned into a slaughterhouse for the COVID-19 pandemic due to pre-existing poverty, inhumane lack of medical care for Black Detroiters and the systemic racism of water shutoffs and inadequate housing for single mothers. We need a holistic, all-encompassing Marshall Plan For Detroit," Riddle told The News.

Lorrie Rutledge

Rutledge, a businesswoman from Detroit's northwest side, aims to tackle blight and squalor in neighborhoods while advocating for healthier food options.

The former third-class stationary engineer and operator for DTE Energy is now owner of NatureFinity, a small manufacturing and distributing business of natural hair products and supplements.

Rutledge, 62, chose to run for office because she understands constituents' concerns as a resident, single mother and former union worker.

"Voters should choose me because I have a proposal to solve what I consider our district’s most critical issues. My solution is a ‘Domestic Marshall Plan’ that will address our district’s needs for better health care, economic development, and eradication of food deserts on a significant scale," she said.

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