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Democratic primary will decide who goes to Congress in Metro Detroit's 14th district

In our political system, sometimes the primary election is the election.

That’s the case in Metro Detroit’s 14th Congressional district, where the winner of the Democratic primary is virtually guaranteed a win November.

There are three major candidates in this year’s primary, making for a pretty competitive race in a very strange district.

A “geographical monstrosity”

The 14th district is difficult to describe, because it doesn’t resemble anything that might be called a “shape.”

The district starts in southwest Detroit, and curls up along the Detroit River through northeast Wayne County.

It sweeps west through the east side of Detroit. Then, at 8 Mile Road—the border with Oakland County—it abruptly veers west and north again through a band of suburbs.

Finally, it shifts a little eastward once again to encompass the city of Pontiac.

Michigan Radio senior political analyst Jack Lessenberry calls the result a “geographical monstrosity.”

“It’s a very oddly-shaped district, with a lot of people who have not very much in common except they vote Democratic,” says Lessenberry.

And that’s by design. With state Republicans firmly in charge of the last re-districting after the 2010 census, they basically packed as many Democrats into one district as possible.

But the new 14th is a mix of wildly different communities.

The affluent Grosse Pointes and West Bloomfield are right there alongside impoverished parts of Detroit and Pontiac, and solidly middle-class Southfield.

In terms of racial makeup, it’s about 55% African-American. The rest is a mix of whites—including a sizeable Jewish community—along with pockets of Arab-American and Latino voters. That makes for a mish-mash of diverse interests.

For candidates, it means that “Somebody has to sort of try to be all things to all people,” Lessenberry says. “And we have a number of candidates who are trying to do just that.”

3 Democrats vie for an open seat

A recent candidate forum at a Farmington Hills synagogue highlighted this.

The three top Democrats—all African-Americans—faced a nearly all-white crowd of voters (a fourth Democrat, Burgess Foster of Detroit, is on the ballot but has run a low-profile campaign and raised hardly any money).

There wasn’t much disagreement on policy issues, but each candidate tried to find a way to stand out.

Hansen Clarke of Detroit is leading in most polls. He represented part of the district in Congress before, and ran for this seat in 2012.

Re-districting forced Clarke to go head-to-head with fellow Democrat Gary Peters, and Peters won. But now, Peters is giving up the seat to run for Senate.

Clarke says his prior experience in Washington is a big asset. “The next member of Congress has to be able to hit the ground running on day 1,” he says. “I’ve been able to work before to get resources back to the taxpayers here in Metro Detroit. Since I did it before, I know that I can do it again.”

Of the three candidates, Clarke has the best name recognition—and the least money.

But Clarke insists that doesn’t matter, because he’s a diligent, hard worker who puts his constituents’ needs first.

“And not just focus on the stuff that typical politicians focus on--fundraising and endorsements,” Clarke says. “You know, that might help the politician, but that doesn’t help anybody else.”

The candidate who has the most money and almost all the endorsements is Southfield state representative Rudy Hobbs.

A former elementary school teacher, Hobbs has close ties to some of Michigan’s most powerful Democrats.

And with some senior members of the Michigan delegation leaving Congress this year, Hobbs says the state needs a new generation of leaders.

“We need to replace them with individuals who want to go there, who want to work, and can actually work their way into leadership,” Hobbs says. “And I’ve proven that. I’ve been in a leadership position with pretty much every job I’ve ever held.”

Hobbs promises to focus on “issues that unite” the district--like building a regional transit system in southeast Michigan.

“We often say our district is 75 miles long, 18 different communities, 2 counties… but we have to move with one goal,” says Hobbs. “And that’s being a great region.”

The third major candidate is Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence, who touts her years of experience in local government—and wants to put the same skills to work in Congress.

“I’m very excited for the opportunity to be able to connect the dots between the federal government and local government,” says Lawrence.

Lawrence describes herself as a practical, “independent thinker” who avoids “partisan debates” to focus on getting things done.

Being the only woman in the race may give her some advantage--Lawrence has received endorsements and support from national women's groups like Emily's List.

But Clarke still seems to be leading the field in these final days of the campaign. And Jack Lessenberry says it’s still anybody’s game.

“Given the nature of a primary, where you have a small electorate and nobody’s really sure who’s going to vote, it’s conceivable any of these three could win,” Lessenberry says.

But we are pretty sure about this: whoever does come out on top Tuesday will go to Congress as the next representative of Michigan’s 14th district.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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