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Michigan's 13th District: Crowded race for John Conyers' old seat "too close to call"

a map of Michigan's 13th Congressional district
Federal Election Commission
Michigan's 13th Congressional district.

Since longtime Detroit Congressman John Conyers stepped down in Decemberin the wake of sexual harassment allegations, Michigan’s 13th District hasn’t had a representative in Congress.

Six Democrats are vying to replace Conyers. That means next week’s primary election will be decisive. It appears to be a very tight three-way race that’s too close to call.

Democrats dominate gerrymandered district

Let’s be blunt: Michigan’s 13th District is a creature of gerrymandering.

It covers portions of Detroit’s east and west sides. On its eastern edge, it juts down through industrial downriver suburbs like Ecorse, River Rouge and Melvindale. Then it sweeps out to cover communities in western Wayne County including Garden City, Romulus, and Westland.

The thirteenth is racially diverse. Just over half the voters are African Americans, with the rest a mix of whites, Arab Americans and Latinos.

But it’s so reliably Democratic, no Republicans are running for its empty seat in Congress.

That means voters like Detroit’s Jennifer McKenzie will choose the winner in next week’s primary. She’s concerned about things like special education funding.

“I know my son is a special ed student, and I had to be his biggest advocate,” McKenzie said.

She’s narrowed it down to two candidates. One is Ian Conyers, John Conyers’ great-nephew. He’s a 29-year-old, first-term state senator from Detroit who doesn’t see his political inexperience as a drawback.

“I think it should be about your personal experience,” said Conyers, who grew up in Detroit and returned to the city after graduating from Georgetown University and working with President Obama’s group Organizing For America. “I’ve got a long track record as an organizer, as a small business owner, and as an activist before joining the legislature.”

McKenzie also likes former Detroit state representative Rashida Tlaib.

“[She] really focused on how tax dollars are shifting toward corporate interests, and she focused on how we should shift money back to citizens,” McKenzie said.

According to longtime Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus, Ian Conyers is a long shot in this race. But Tlaib is very much in the mix.

Sarpolus says she’s one of three frontrunners with Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, and Westland Mayor Bill Wild.

Credit Detroit City Council
Detroit City Council
Brenda Jones

“Turnout and absentee voter count will probably make the difference,” Sarpolus said.

“Bill Wild is quite dependent on out-county votes. Brenda Jones is obviously counting on Detroit and African American voters across the county. And Rashida Tlaib is taking votes from both Brenda Jones and Bill Wild.”

The three frontrunners

Sarpolus says Jones has consistently held a slight edge. She has the support of most organized labor, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

“The one thing that I know, you can know everything, but you also need to know people. And you have to build relationships,” Jones said.

Jones doesn’t live in the district, but she’s represented parts of it for 13 years on City Council, where despite her leadership role she’s been a relatively quiet presence. She’s known for her ties to labor unions and for championing the skilled trades and vocational education opportunities.

Jones believes she’s best-positioned to get Michigan’s poorest district the federal resources it desperately needs. But her opponent Bill Wild believes his 20 years of local government experience gives him the edge.

Credit City of Westland
City of Westland
Bill Wild

Wild has been the mayor of Westland, a working class suburb in western Wayne County, since 2007. He admits that on some major national issues, there’s “not a lot of daylight” between the candidates.

“Whether it be talking about the 15 dollar minimum wage, or pay equity or expanding Medicare--those things we all agree on,” Wild said.

Wild suggests that makes intangible qualities like temperament even more important. He describes himself as a “hands-on, pragmatic mayor” who makes compromises to get things done.

“I think the thing that really separates us is probably going to be our experience. The proven track record of getting things accomplished and working well with others,” Wild said.

But Rashida Tlaib is the one with the late campaign momentum. She served southwest Detroit and some downriver communities as state representative from 2008-2014, where she was the first Muslim American woman ever elected. Most recently, she’s worked as a public interest attorney for the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice.

Tlaib says that if elected, she’ll keep a strong focus on direct constituent services, running neighborhood service centers throughout the district like she did as state representative.

“It helped me understand that getting people through everyday issues has to be as important [as] any bill I could ever work on,” Tlaib said.

More than any other candidate, Tlaib has been the focus on some intense negative attacks in this race. A dark money front group has run ads portraying her as overly-combative and sound over substance. She’s also taken heat for drawing a salary from her campaign funds--something she defends as perfectly legal, pointing out that her opponents are running for office while holding public office and receiving taxpayer-funded salaries.

And Tlaib doesn’t shy away from her reputation as a lawmaker who’s as comfortable leading street protests as she is in legislative chambers. She admits that her style and some of her positions alienate parts of what she calls the “Democratic establishment.”

Credit Rashida Tlaib for Congress / via Twitter
via Twitter
Rashida Tlaib

“I don’t care. I don’t want to win this based on endorsements,” Tlaib said. “I want to win it based on my work ethic, and my passion, and my love for the families I’m going to serve.”

A “jump ball” until Election Day

There are two other Detroit candidates in the race. Former state representative Shanelle Jackson is currently a lobbyist for the Detroit International Bridge Company, and shows a somewhat more conservative bent than her Democratic rivals (among other things, she’s said she’d be willing to “work with” U.S. Education Secretary Betsey DeVos); and State Senator Coleman Young II, son of the late, legendary Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young.

Young II unsuccessfully ran for Detroit mayor last year. Since January 2017, he’s also missed more votes than any other state senator. However, the 35-year-old has a successful legislative track record, and he’s also served longer as a legislator than any of his opponents.

“In the words of my father, the Honorable Coleman Alexander Young, I bring home the bacon!” Young said on the campaign trail. “I’ve done that as a state senator, and I’ll continue to do that as your Congressman.”

"It's too close to call. Turnout and absentee voters count will probably make the difference." --pollster Ed Sarpolus

Young’s campaign doesn’t seem to have broken through with voters district-wide, though pollster Ed Sarpolus says he has some hotspots of support in his state senate district. Jackson is only polling in the low single digits and hasn’t filed any campaign finance reports.

Overall, Sarpolus says this race remains a “jump ball” that’s too close to call. And with least 14% of voters still undecided as of late July, candidates will be scrambling for every last vote right up to Election Day.

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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