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Published: Sunday, 6/18/2000

A young crusader tries to beat the political odds

BINGHAM FARMS, Mich. - Matthew Frumin is seeking to follow the modern version of the classic American political dream. Raised in the Detroit suburbs by a benevolent doctor and a politically conscious mother, he went off to Washington to become a lawyer.

He married and had three kids. After practicing law for nine years with former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas' old firm, he took a job in the State Department as an assistant for global affairs, specializing in human rights and democracy issues. Then, this year, at 41, he quit to come home and run for Congress, emphasizing gun control, moderate health care reform, including a "patient's bill of rights," and the environment.

"The people in my district really should have a congressman who represents their views," he said, arguing that the incumbent, U.S. Rep. Joe Knollenberg, 66, (R., Bloomfield Township) is "too old, too conservative, and too out of touch."

That's an argument young men on the rise have used, some quite successfully, since George Washington's day. Toledo Rep. Marcy Kaptur did much the same thing in 1982 - she had held a job in the Carter White House and she beat an incumbent Republican.

But what's different about Mr. Frumin's race is that the experts say his crusade is hopeless. Michigan's 11th District, which includes many affluent Wayne and Oakland County suburbs, from Livonia to Bloomfield Hills, is ranked rock-solid Republican. "It will be very hard to dislodge Knollenberg . . . he is a sure thing in 2000," said Charles Cook, one of Washington's best-known political handicapper.

"I don't agree," Mr. Frumin said smiling, stuffing invitations to a fund-raiser into envelopes. "This district is changing, and even if they are Republican, the voters aren't that far right on the issues." He notes that President Clinton narrowly carried this district four years ago, as did his fellow Democrat U.S. Sen. Carl Levin.

There is some truth in what he says. The district is Republican more by affluence than social issues; these are voters who tend to be mostly pro-choice and more liberal than the right-to-life incumbent, a former insurance agent whose best-known cause is fighting to repeal the law forcing toilets to use less water per flush.

In any event, the young challenger intends a fight. Which is interesting, if only because there are not many races like this anymore. Officially, of course, every one of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives could lose his or her job this year.

But the reality is that few will. The smart money knows that no matter what happens before November, U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D., Detroit) is bound to defeat whatever hapless challenger's name is on the ballot. U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R., St. Joseph) will make similar short work of whatever Democrat comes forth to be slaughtered.

The sums involved to win any race have scared all but the hardiest challengers away. U.S. Rep. David Bonior, a Democrat who holds one of the most closely divided seats in the state, commonly spends $1.5 million every two years just to hang on.

More and more seats aren't really contested. But Mr. Frumin means to contest this seat, hard. Which could be significant even if he doesn't win. Republicans are likely to be in charge next year when the lines of all districts are redrawn to reflect population changes. Speculation has been that they may transfer some of Mr. Knollenberg's turf to the adjacent 12th District, which now has a narrow Democratic edge.

However, if Matthew Frumin runs a closer-than-expected race and vows a rematch, that could give Republicans second thoughts. "Whether I win or not, I may end up helping the party," he teased. He's hoping the party will help him with funding. He's raised $65,000 on his own, and hopes to hit $100,000 by month's end.

By contrast, Mr. Knollenberg spent nearly $1 million to win 64 per cent against a penniless opponent two years ago. "I really don't think it's all about money," Mr. Frumin said. But he knows it'll take several hundred thousand for any kind of a race.

When asked for a political hero, his answer is a surprise: "Muhammad Ali." Who, by the way, wasn't supposed to beat the champ either.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.



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