Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 10, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: Benson to run hard race for Congress


Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — There’s no doubt that Jocelyn Benson has a stunning record of accomplishment - or that she is one of the potentially hottest political properties in Michigan.

Three years ago, she lost a race for secretary of state - but led the Democratic ticket in what was a huge Republican year.

Now, she faces a difficult choice. She has one of the most important and visible legal jobs in the state. Barely 36, she is interim dean of the Wayne State University law school, and seen as likely to get the job on a full-time basis -- if she decides that‘s what she wants.

But she is now thinking about leaving that job to risk her entire career in a run for Congress. In a district that is normally Republican, and where she would likely face a contested Democratic primary as well.

“Yes, it is a difficult choice,” she said over lunch last week. “This is a tremendous job and there is so much more I want to do here.“

“But many people are urging me to run. My husband wants me to run, and I really want to be a voice for military families.”

The seat in question is the Eleventh Congressional District, which is normally Republican - and includes an assortment of mainly affluent Wayne and Oakland county suburbs.

U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, R-Milford, won election last year on a fluke, after long-time incumbent Thaddeus McCotter was kicked off the primary district for fraudulent signatures.

Bentivolio, a reindeer trainer and amateur Santa Claus, holds tea party views so extreme that GOP establishment leaders are attempting to defeat him in next August’s primary with a more conventional conservative, David Trott, a foreclosure attorney.

Trott will have big bucks behind him, but primary elections tend to draw more extreme voters, and it isn’t clear who will prevail. Additionally, Democratic State Chair Lon Johnson already has recruited a candidate, Bobby McKenzie, 39, a former U.S. State Department official. McKenzie says he’s not getting out even if Benson gets in, setting up a potential situation one high party official succinctly called “a mess.”

What may be most puzzling is why Jocelyn Benson would give up her present job— and risk being labeled a two-time loser — for a risky shot at being a freshman congressman.

Her law school appointment came after degrees from Wellesley, Oxford, and Harvard Law School and stints as an investigative journalist for the Southern Poverty Law Center, working for the NAACP on voting rights issues, and as a law clerk to U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon Keith.

Fiercely active in Democratic politics, she was the party’s nominee for secretary of state three years ago. That’s the job she - even now - says is the one she really always wanted. In fact, she is he author of a book: “State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process” that looks at best practices adopted by holders of that office around the nation.

Shortly after it was published three years ago, she sought - and won —the Democratic nomination for secretary of state. Unfortunately, it was an overwhelmingly GOP year. Though Benson led the statewide Democratic ticket, she lost, 52 to 47 percent to current Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

That was not seen as a fatal blow to her career. After her defeat, she founded the Michigan Center for Election Law, and also a group called Military Spouses of Michigan.

She has a personal stake in the latter: her husband, Ryan Friedrichs, voluntarily joined the U.S. Army at age 34, and served as an enlisted man with an airborne brigade in Afghanistan. His service ends in August. Last month, Benson, a dedicated runner, went to visit him, and while she was there, ran in the Venice Marathon.

Today, she says, her biggest causes are helping military families and doing something to reform congressional and legislative redistricting in Michigan. She says her choice as to whether or not to run is “how I can best make that happen.”

Some can’t understand why she would want to give up a perch as highly visible major law school dean for — in a best-case scenario— a job as freshman member of Congress, with no seniority and little power, especially since Democrats are likely to remain in the minority.

“She is one of the most driven, smartest and most ambitious women I have ever seen,” a veteran Democratic officeholder said.

“What would be a tragedy is if she is unable to contain that ambition and ends up losing everything as a result.”

Without doubt another defeat would be costly. Not only would Ms. Benson have to give up her position as dean, it may appear that she intends to use any job only as a springboard to higher office.

She also would be instantly transformed from fresh face to two-time loser and chronic campaigner. Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was calling people and telling them Benson had definitely decided to run for Congress.

They, however, likely have an ulterior motive: She is seen as apt to be a magnet best equipped to pull in campaign money.

On Friday, she said she had not yet made up her mind.

But added, “I know I will have to soon.”

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, an 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.