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11th Congressional race pits newcomer against newcomer

If you live in the 11th Congressional District and you're confused right now - it is NOT your fault. Here's a quick recap.

The 11th Congressional District became even more Republican after the most recent redistricting. So five-term incumbent Thaddeus McCotter was considered a shoe-in. That is, until it all fell apart in July.

Turns out some of McCotter's staff didn't get the 2,000 signatures needed to get their boss on the ballot.

Instead, like unsupervised schoolchildren let loose in an office, they'd cut and pasted and photocopied old signatures and turned those in.

McCotter briefly considered running as a write-in candidate, then he abruptly resigned.

That means voters will have to cast two votes on Election Day - one to fill the six weeks in his current term and one to fill the next two-year term.

For the six week period, if you just count major party candidates, the choice is either Republican Kerry Bentivolio or Democrat David Curson.

And for the full term, the focus of this story, either Bentivolio or Democrat Syed Taj.

There's not much money being spent by the campaigns, less than two million dollars total. That's a relative bargain for such a high-profile seat.

But that hasn't stopped the campaigns from going negative as two newcomers to politics learn to sling mud like the big boys.

Bentivolio is a military veteran, who says he's just a "regular citizen," fed up with what's going on in Washington.  He now owns a Santa Claus-for-hire business, complete with real reindeer.

Taj is a physician who emigrated from India and whose only political experience is township trustee. 

Taj says he'd hoped to conduct a purely positive campaign.

That hope is dashed.  His campaign is airing television ads calling Bentivolio's views extreme and pointing out that mainstream Republicans initially opposed him.

The attack ads rely on embarassing information about Bentivolio dug up by the Detroit Free Press. Such as, in his last job as a teacher, he was reprimanded for verbally abusing students.  A construction business he owned went bankrupt.   

Bentivolio also appears to be a very unpolished candidate.

His campaign has kept interviews with mainstream media to a bare minimum, and he asked a reporter to turn off her tape recorder while he pondered how to answer a softball question, "what have you learned about campaigning so far?" 

On the other hand, Bentivolio shines during forums, where he states his positions with confidence.

At a recent forum hosted by the Clements Circle Association, while the other candidates awkwardly squeezed themselves into child-size seating at Emerson Middle School in Livonia, he alone stood.

"I will not spend your money, I will not raise taxes," he told the audience.  "I signed a pledge, I'm not gonna do it. I can't negotiate that. I'm not going to borrow from my grandchildren's future. It's just not gonna happen."

Bentivolio's campaign is slinging its fair share of mud, too. Almost daily press releases attack Taj for aligning himself with "socialists and terrorist sympathisers" after Taj attended a fundraiser hosted by a physician who is a member of the Detroit Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and received a campaign contribution from the Council on American Islamic Relations.

Despite the negative press, Bentivolio has that all-important "R" after his name on the ballot.

Democrat Syed Taj is undeterred. He supports the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare, he doesn't think compromise is a dirty word - but he's convinced Republicans to vote for him before.

"When I ran in 2008 for the township in Canton, until then, Canton was a Republican town," Taj says.  "And they all told me, you can never win here, no Democrat ever won before. I said, well, okay, I'll do it."

Taj says his internal polls show a neck-and-neck race; Bentivolio's campaign manager says that's nonsense. A poll commissioned by Fox 2 found Bentivolio 8 points ahead.

The only thing that is certain, there's a surprise in store for the career politicians in Washington, D.C.

'Cause a newcomer from Michigan is coming to town.



Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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