Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

May 26, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: Keeping the underdog streak alive

When the last census confirmed that Michigan would lose yet another seat in Congress — the fifth since 1980 — the Legislature went to work to make sure a Democrat would be the odd man out.

When all the dust settled, two incumbents found themselves facing off in what had all the signs of an epic battle.

Hansen Clarke is a 55-year-old, highly charismatic multi-racial Detroiter. He's a lawyer and former state legislator who also has a degree in art from Cornell University. Two years ago, he knocked off longtime U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick, best known as the mother of Kwame Kilpatrick, likely the most corrupt mayor in Detroit history.

People thought Clarke might be in Congress for decades. But thanks to redistricting, he has been thrown into a primary against Gary Peters, 53, another rising star.

Peters is a solid suburbanite who lives in posh Bloomfield Township. While he too has a law degree, he also earned an MBA and had a long financial career with Merrill Lynch and Paine Webber. Four years ago, he beat longtime GOP incumbent Joe Knollenberg in a district that had been Republican since the Civil War.

Two years later, he narrowly held on to the seat, bucking the GOP avalanche that gave Republicans control of Congress.

Now, the two former allies are trying to end each other's career, running in one of the most oddly gerrymandered districts in state history. The new 14th district begins in the wealthy Grosse Pointes; stretches through some of Detroit's worst slums, then moves into Oakland County, taking in a diverse assortment of communities from semi-rural Orchard Lake, to the Jewish neighborhoods in West Bloomfield to mostly black Pontiac and Southfield.

Winning the Democratic primary here is virtually tantamount to election; though Republican businessman John Hauler is on the ballot, he is unlikely to get more than a fifth of the vote.

In an interesting but odd twist, neither congressman lived in the district when the campaign started, though Clarke has since moved within its boundaries. Congressmen aren't required to live in their districts, but Peters indicated he may move if he wins, once his daughter finishes high school.

When the campaign started, the odds looked close to even. Slightly more of the 700,000-odd residents are black. Slightly more than half live in the suburbs, which looked like a level playing field.

But though there are more than two months left to go before the Aug, 7 primary, most observers think Peters is now an overwhelming favorite. The two-term congressman has worked tirelessly to earn money and endorsements, and has been trumpeting what he says was a significant role in helping secure the auto bailout.

Two months ago, his campaign had more than $1.2 million on hand, compared to only $563,909 for Clarke.

Though himself an Episcopalian, Peters seems especially popular in the affluent Jewish community, much of which he represented as a state senator in the 1990s. "His values are our values," said Wendy Wagenheim, an enthusiastic Peters supporter from Shaarey Zedek, a conservative congregation.

Ironically, Clarke has a close connection to the community himself, since his wife, Choi Palms-Cohen, was a Korean orphan adopted by a Jewish father. But significantly, few voters seem to know that.

Clarke's campaign took another blow when Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence also jumped into the Democratic primary race. A perennial campaigner, she is given little chance to win, but has widespread name recognition. Another African-American candidate, former State Rep. Mary Waters, is also on the ballot.

Last week, in a clear sign that the establishment is ready to place its bets, a group of influential Detroiters, all of them black, endorsed the white suburban congressman. "We desperately need someone who can bridge the gap "¦ and bring our communities together to solve problems we all face. Gary Peters is that person," said Bishop Edgar L. Vann II of Second Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, and several Detroit councilmen and legislators and other clergymen joined him in the endorsement.

But when reached by telephone in Washington, Congressman Clarke said he didn't care. "I'm going to win this race," he said. "This nation and this city and its people are in a severe crisis, and I am in Washington trying to deal with it.

"I think that is what's matters to people. I don't have time for that nonsense — chasing endorsements," he said, adding that he thought people made up their own minds. "Yes, you have to do some fund raising, but as a means to an end, not the end in itself."

There is a disarming openness about Hansen Clarke, whose father was a Muslim refugee from what was then East Pakistan, and whose mother was an African-American school crossing guard.

Ask Gary Peters' campaign a question, and you tend to get a carefully nuanced response, often filtered though press aides. Ask Hansen Clarke, and the congressman often calls you back directly.

Regardless of the smart money, it might be smart to remember that, indeed, nothing in politics is ever really over.

"I've been in three other races taking on incumbents," Clarke reminded me. "Twice in the legislature, one for Congress. I was the underdog, and I won them all."

Voters will decide in August whether he will go back to practicing law and art, or whether his streak remains alive.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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