Friday, May 25, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

A tale of 2 incumbents: the Detroiter and the suburbanite

DETROIT -- When the 2010 Census confirmed that Michigan would lose another seat in the U.S. House, the Republican-controlled state Legislature went to work to make sure a Democrat would be the odd man out.

When the dust settled, two incumbents found themselves facing off in what had all the signs of an epic battle.

Hansen Clarke is a 55-year-old, highly charismatic, multiracial Detroiter. He's a lawyer and former state lawmaker who has a degree in art from Cornell University. Two years ago, he knocked off longtime U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick, best known as the mother of Kwame Kilpatrick, likely the most corrupt mayor in Detroit history.

People thought Mr. Clarke might be in Congress for decades. But thanks to redistricting, he has been thrown into a primary against Gary Peters, 53, another rising star.

Mr. Peters is a solid suburbanite who lives in posh Bloomfield Township. While he too has a law degree, he also earned a master of business administration degree and had a long financial career. Four years ago, he beat longtime GOP incumbent Joe Knollenberg in a district that had been Republican since the Civil War.

Two years later, he narrowly held onto the seat, bucking the GOP avalanche that gave Republicans control of Congress.

Now, the two former allies are trying to end each other's career, running in one of the most oddly gerrymandered districts in state history. The new 14th District begins in the wealthy Grosse Pointes, stretches through some of Detroit's worst slums, then moves into Oakland County, taking in a diverse assortment of communities from semirural Orchard Lake to Jewish neighborhoods in West Bloomfield to mostly black Pontiac and Southfield.

Winning the Democratic primary here is virtually tantamount to election. Though Republican businessman John Hauler is on the ballot, he is unlikely to get even a fifth of the vote.

In an interesting but odd twist, neither congressman lived in the district when the campaign started, though Mr. Clarke since has moved within its boundaries. Members of Congress aren't required to live in their districts, but Mr. Peters indicated he may move if he wins and after his daughter finishes high school.

When the campaign started, the odds looked close to even. Slightly more of the 700,000 or so district residents are black. Slightly more than half live in the suburbs, which looked like a level playing field.

Though there are more than two months left before the Aug. 7 primary, most observers think Mr. Peters is the overwhelming favorite. The two-term congressman has worked tirelessly to earn money and endorsements. He has been trumpeting what he says was a significant role in helping secure the auto bailout.

Two months ago, Mr. Peters' campaign had more than $1.2 million on hand, compared to only $563,909 for Mr. Clarke.

An Episcopalian, Mr. Peters seems especially popular in the affluent Jewish community, much of which he represented as a state senator in the 1990s. "His values are our values," said Wendy Wagenheim, an enthusiastic Peters supporter from Shaarey Zedek, a conservative congregation.

Mr. Clarke also has a close connection to the community. His wife, Choi Palms-Cohen, was a Korean orphan adopted by a Jewish father. But few voters seem to know that.

Mr. Clarke's campaign took another blow when Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence jumped into the Democratic primary race. A perennial campaigner, she is given little chance to win but has widespread name recognition. Another African-American candidate, former state Rep. Mary Waters, is also on the ballot.

Last week, in a clear sign that the establishment is ready to place its bets, a group of influential Detroiters, all of them black, endorsed the white suburban congressman.

"We desperately need someone who can bridge the gap … and bring our communities together to solve problems we all face," said Bishop Edgar Vann II of Second Ebenezer Baptist Church. "Gary Peters is that person."

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, several Detroit City Council members and lawmakers, and other clergy joined him in the endorsement.

Reached by telephone in Washington, Mr. Clarke said he didn't care about the endorsement for Mr. Peters. "I'm going to win this race," he said. "This nation and this city and its people are in a severe crisis, and I am in Washington trying to deal with it.

"I think that is what matters to people," he said. "I don't have time for that nonsense -- chasing endorsements."

Mr. Clarke said he thought that voters will make up their own minds. "You have to do some fund-raising, but as a means to an end, not the end in itself," he said.

There is a disarming openness about Mr. Clarke, whose father was a Muslim refugee from what was then East Pakistan, and whose mother was an African-American school crossing guard.

Ask Mr. Peters' campaign a question, and you tend to get a carefully nuanced response, often filtered through press aides. Ask Mr. Clarke, and he often calls you back directly.

It might be wise to remember that, indeed, nothing in politics is ever really over.

"I've been in three other races, taking on incumbents," Mr. Clarke reminded me. "Twice in the Legislature, one for Congress. I was the underdog, and I won them all."

Voters will decide whether he will go back to practicing law and art, or whether his streak remains alive.

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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