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The cost of running for Congress

Jack Lessenberry

Anyone who thinks they know how Michigan’s fall elections will turn out is a fool, but this much seems fairly certain: The race for the 11th Congressional District will likely be the most expensive and the most hotly contested.

There’s no incumbent, since mortgage banker Dave Trott decided two terms were enough. The district, which consists of a collection of Wayne and Oakland County suburbs, leans Republican. But it is close enough that the right Democrat could win it in the right year.

As a result, each party has half a dozen contenders seeking to win the August 7th nomination. Among the Democrats, the race is mainly a three-way contest between Tim Griemel, a term-limited state representative from Auburn Hills, Suneel Gupta, an entrepreneur who has been raising lots of money for his campaign, and Haley Stevens, who was chief of staff for the Auto Task Force many credit with helping save the industry during the Great Recession.

I sat down yesterday with Griemel, who may be a slight favorite; he has the endorsement of former U.S. Senator Carl Levin, and has by far the most government experience.

He’s an attorney with three degrees from the University of Michigan, and practiced law briefly. But his heart has been in politics and public service ever since, at the age of 20, he volunteered to work for Alma Wheeler Smith’s state Senate campaign.

You could say Griemel, who turns 44 next month, has paid his dues. He’s served on a local school board and as a county commissioner before being elected to the Legislature in 2012.

His fellow Democrats chose him as minority leader soon after he was elected, but he voluntarily stepped down after his party failed to make gains two years ago.

Now, he’s running for Congress. He doesn’t bash his opponents.

“We all have similar progressive views,” he told me, adding that he has pledged to support any of his rivals in November should one of them win the nomination.

But he argues that he alone has the government experience to get things done, and to do so as a member of a minority, if need be.

Griemel’s not a single issue candidate. He wants, for example, to push Congress to adopt an infrastructure plan that involves more than roads, and in which Washington pays its fair share. He wants better skilled trade training, and common sense gun control, though he knows that will be hard.

But first he’s got to get to Congress, and that doesn’t mean just convincing voters and studying policies. Those are the fun parts. Mostly, it means raising money, all day, every day. Griemel told me he thought it would take a million dollars to win the primary and three to four million more to win in November. I think that’s an underestimate.

This is a seat both parties have to win. They will spend millions. If a Democrat does win, the GOP is sure to spend tons more in 2020, to take back a job that pays $174,000 a year.

Seriously running for Congress is all-consuming, and Griemel confided that he’s able to do it partly because he is single and doesn't have any children. I’m sure that’s right. And if you were wondering what’s wrong with our system, that simple, stark fact says it all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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