Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Michigan primary includes long-shot challenges

ROSEVILLE, Mich. - Odds are that while you are reading this, state Sen. Mickey Switalski is knocking on doors in some small Oakland or Macomb County community. He's trying to enlist voters in what, if he pulled it off, would be the upset of the century.

Meanwhile, his colleague, state Sen. Hansen Clarke, is doing the same in impoverished Detroit, the affluent Grosse Pointes, and a collection of nearby working-class suburbs.

"We're Fighting the Power!" one of his supporters said in an exuberant e-mail this week. They are doing that, all right.

Both are Democrats - and both are challenging powerful, long-entrenched congressmen of their own party in Michigan's Aug. 3 primary. That would once have seemed madness.

But this isn't a typical year. Three members of Michigan's congressional delegation aren't running for re-election.

Two other freshman Democrats face stiff re-election battles. There's an angry, anti-incumbent mood in the air.

So it shouldn't be surprising that there are two primary challenges as well. Mr. Switalski, 55, has the tougher battle; he's taking on House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sander Levin.

Nobody sees Sandy Levin, the older brother of U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, as vulnerable. Forty years ago, he lost a close race for governor and has been a fixture in state politics ever since, winning his seat in Congress in 1982. But that doesn't faze Mickey Switalski.

"Nothing against Sandy, but it's time for new blood," he said. "Congress wasn't meant to be a lifetime appointment like the Supreme Court. I mean, who gets to say it's over? The voter or the incumbent?"

The surveys say he hasn't a chance. "There is no race," said pollster Mark Grebner of Practical Political Consulting. His data found 78 percent supported the champ, 8 percent, the challenger.

Yet the state senator isn't giving up. What's intriguing about Mr. Switalski is that he is hard to classify. If elected, he might be the only congressman fluent in ancient Latin and Greek.

Although he grew up in the district, he went to Louisiana State University and was going to become a professor of classical languages. But he got interested in politics.

In the Michigan Senate, he hasn't been afraid of unpopular positions. He thinks taxes need to be raised, as well as belts tightened. The nation, he argues, is drowning in debt.

He says: "I am telling you we can't afford steak. It's peanut butter and jelly, and you have to help do the dishes afterwards."

He may be the longest of shots, but his colleague Hansen Clarke, 53, may have a far better chance.

Mr. Clarke is facing Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick, the mother of Kwame Kilpatrick, the disgraced and imprisoned former Detroit mayor who two days ago was hauled into court in shackles, this time to face a 19-count federal indictment.

Two years ago, she almost lost the Democratic primary, getting past two former state legislators with only 39 percent of the vote. Now, although she is fighting five challengers, Mr. Clarke is the only one who is well known.

The district is anything but homogenous. It includes the east side of Detroit, a handful of working-class, mostly white downriver suburbs, and the five very affluent Grosse Pointes.

The district is ethnically diverse, but so is Mr. Clarke. His mother was an African-American school-crossing guard; his father, a Muslim from Bangladesh. Mr. Hansen, who grew up in poverty after his father died when he was eight, was raised a Muslim.

But he then became a Roman Catholic and for a time considered becoming a priest. He has been called a trifle eccentric.

Three years ago, he met a young woman on the phone. They had one date. A week later, he proposed they get married that day in Las Vegas. Choi Palms-Cohen said, well, why not?

His wife, an aspiring jazz singer who knew nothing about politics, has thrown herself enthusiastically into his campaign.

Term limits require Mr. Clarke, like Mr. Switalski, to look for a new job. I asked him whether he is running for Congress because family scandal had left the incumbent vulnerable.

"Oh, God, no," he responded. He said he wants the job because he thinks it would enable him to get something done on his signature issues, which include auto-insurance and banking reform.

Despite the scandal, when he decided to run, a friend told him: "Hansen, why are you doing this? She has so much power."

Mr. Clarke, who went from food stamps to Cornell University, laughed. "Politicians don't have the power," he said. "People do. And they can use it to make change."

Mickey Switalski also hopes that's what happens.

But if it doesn't, he may be able to take comfort in the knowledge that, exactly 10 years ago, another Democratic state senator took on a powerful incumbent congressman - and was crushed, losing by more than two to one. But he went on to fight another day.

His name, incidentally, was Barack Obama.

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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