Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry


Michigan dean’s possible Congress run comes with risks


Jack Lessenberry.

The Blade
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DETROIT — There’s no doubt that Jocelyn Benson has a stunning record of accomplishment — or that she is one of the potentially hottest political properties in Michigan.

Three years ago, she lost a race for secretary of state — but led the Democratic ticket in what was a huge Republican year.

Now, she faces a difficult choice. She has one of the most important and visible legal jobs in the state. Barely 36, she is interim dean of Wayne State University’s law school. She is seen as likely to get the job full-time — if she decides that’s what she wants.

But she is thinking about leaving that job to risk her career in a run for Congress in a district that is normally Republican, where she would likely face a contested Democratic primary.

“Yes, it is a difficult choice,” she said over lunch last week. “This is a tremendous job and there is so much more I want to do here.

“But many people are urging me to run,” she said. “My husband wants me to run, and I really want to be a voice for military families.”

The seat in question is Michigan’s 11th U.S. House District. It includes an assortment of mainly affluent Detroit suburbs.

Republican U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio won election last year in a fluke, after incumbent Thaddeus McCotter was kicked off the primary ballot for having fraudulent signatures on an election petition.

Mr. Bentivolio, a reindeer trainer and amateur Santa Claus, holds Tea Party views so extreme that GOP establishment leaders are working to defeat him in next August’s primary. They favor a more-conventional conservative, David Trott, a foreclosure attorney.

Mr. Trott will have big bucks behind him, but primary elections tend to draw more-extreme voters. It isn’t clear who will prevail.

Additionally, Michigan’s Democratic Party chairman, Lon Johnson, has recruited a candidate, Bobby McKenzie, 39, a former U.S. State Department official. Mr. McKenzie says he’s not getting out even if Ms. Benson gets in, setting up a potential situation one high party official called “a mess.”

What may be most puzzling is why Ms. Benson would give up her present job — and risk being labeled a two-time loser — for a risky shot at being a freshman congressman.

She has degrees from Wellesley College, Oxford University, and Harvard University law school. She has served as an investigative journalist for the Southern Poverty Law Center, with the NAACP on voting rights issues, and as a law clerk to U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon Keith.

Active in Democratic politics, she says — even now — that secretary of state is the job she really always wanted. Her book, State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process, looks at best practices adopted by holders of that office around the nation.

Shortly after the book was published, she sought — and won — the Democratic nomination for secretary of state. Unfortunately, it was in an overwhelmingly GOP year. Ms. Benson led the statewide Democratic ticket, but she lost, 52 to 47 percent, to Republican Ruth Johnson.

That was not seen as a fatal blow to her career. After her defeat, she founded the Michigan Center for Election Law, and a group called Military Spouses of Michigan.

She has a personal stake in the latter: Her husband, Ryan Friedrichs, joined the Army at age 34, and served as an enlisted man with an airborne brigade in Afghanistan. His service ends in August.

Last month, Ms. Benson, a dedicated runner, visited him in Italy, where he is stationed now. She ran in the Venice marathon.

Today, she says, her biggest causes are helping military families and reforming congressional and legislative redistricting in Michigan. She says her choice about whether to run is: “How I can best make that happen?”

Some people can’t understand why she would want to give up a perch as a highly visible law school dean for — in a best-case scenario — a job as a freshman member of Congress. As a representative, she would have no seniority and little power, especially because Democrats are likely to remain in the minority in the House after next year’s election.

“She is one of the most driven, smartest and most ambitious women I have ever seen,” a veteran Democratic officeholder said. “What would be a tragedy is if she is unable to contain that ambition and ends up losing everything as a result.”

Another defeat would be costly. Ms. Benson would have to give up her position as dean, and it could appear that she would intend to use any job only as a springboard to higher office. She would be instantly transformed from fresh face to two-time loser and chronic campaigner.

Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was saying that Ms. Benson had definitely decided to run for Congress. The committee, however, likely has an ulterior motive: She is seen as apt to be a magnet to pull in campaign money.

She insists she has not yet made up her mind. But she said: “I know I will have to, soon.”

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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