Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry


Democrats see hope in Michigan U.S. House race



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LIVONIA, Mich. — A lot of attention is paid to Michigan’s bizarrely gerrymandered 14th U.S. House District. It snakes through Detroit’s suburbs, from the Grosse Pointes to far-out Pontiac, in an effort to pack as many Democrats together as possible.

But its Republican mirror image is geographically almost as strange, and the politics of Michigan’s 11th District in suburban Detroit is even stranger.

Incumbent Tea Party Republican Kerry Bentivolio, a former Santa Claus impersonator, is challenged in his primary by David Trott, an attorney known as the “foreclosure king.”

Meanwhile, Democratic insiders hope that Bobby McKenzie, a terrorism expert who has moved back to the district to run for Congress, can score an upset over whichever Republican survives.

That is, if he can first defeat three challengers in the primary: Nancy Skinner, a former radio talk show host; Dr. Nail Kumar, a urologist and native of India, and Bill Roberts, a follower of nutty conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche.

Most of the communities in the 11th District have little in common, except that collectively they tend to vote Republican — although not as heavily as other GOP-leaning districts.

The district was represented for years by maverick Republican Thaddeus McCotter, until he self-destructed two years ago. He was thrown off the 2012 primary ballot after his aides filed illegally photocopied petition signatures.

He then abruptly quit both the race and Congress. The only remaining GOP candidate on the ballot was Mr. Bentivolio, who also had been a reindeer farmer and a failed high school teacher.

Frantic GOP establishment efforts to get primary voters to write in a moderate state senator’s name failed. In the November general election, Mr. Bentivolio won with 51 percent of the vote.

Democrats scented opportunity. Some think they might have won two years ago had their candidate not been a Muslim physician with an unfamiliar name.

Republicans, meanwhile, have worried about the man some call “Krazy Kerry.” As a result, both parties have major nomination battles leading to the Aug. 5 primary.

Mr. Trott, a millionaire mortgage attorney, is trying hard to beat Mr. Bentivolio. He has the support of the party establishment, plus a fund-raising advantage.

Organizationally, the Bentivolio campaign seems to be in shambles. But the incumbent has a cadre of supporters and the backing of House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.

The incumbent also may have been helped by a major exposé in the Detroit Free Press of Mr. Trott’s career, complete with stories of families his company booted out of their homes.

All this has convinced Democrats that both GOP contenders are vulnerable — if they have the right candidate.

Their preferred choice has an interesting resumé. Mr. McKenzie, 39, gave up a position as a senior terrorism adviser in the State Department to run for the congressional seat. He came from modest origins; his father owned a vacuum cleaner store.

Thanks to a Lebanese neighbor, Mr. McKenzie became interested in the Middle East at a young age. He learned Arabic. He received a degree in economics from Michigan State University, a master’s in security studies from Georgetown University, and is close to getting a doctorate from the University of London.

He spent three years building and running an institute in Abu Dhabi designed to show young men that there are better alternatives than al-Qaeda.

Even when he was abroad, he worried about the collapsing economy of his home state. “My younger brother graduated from college and spent months trying to find a job in his field in Michigan,” he said. “Then he gave up, moved to Chicago, and had a job in a week. I want to go to Congress to do something about that.”

He has been vague about what he would try to do to bring jobs and growth to his district. No matter who wins, however, this race may illustrate something deeply wrong with our politics.

Mr. McKenzie is living off savings to make this race, which he can do only because he is a bachelor without dependents. If he wins the primary, he will need to raise millions of dollars to have a chance of winning a two-year job that pays $174,000 a year.

If he wins the election, he knows he will have to raise millions more to fight off a major GOP challenge in two years. That means spending vast amounts of time soliciting campaign money.

He noted with some wonder that last winter, Democrat Alex Sink’s campaign spent $5 million in an unsuccessful attempt to win a Florida congressional seat — just for a partial term.

Maybe the real question is: How long can out-of-control spending continue — and anything resembling democracy survive?

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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