STERLING HEIGHTS — In the shadow of two manufacturing plants, machinery humming in the background, John James gave his pitch to 50 workers on why they should give him their vote.
He stuck to the basics. His experience in the Army, his hopes for health care, the fresh perspective he says he can bring to Washington.
Then the question came: “Do you support the police?”
James, a businessman and former Army helicopter pilot, did not hesitate. “I absolutely support our law enforcement,” he began. “But I’m also a Black man in this country. I understand the fear and the anger and the grief associated with these killings and violent acts.”
He said police pulled him over with one of his three young sons in the back seat, fear gripping him as he wondered if he’d get shot. Police have stopped him in a parking lot of an upscale shopping center and drawn guns on him. He understands why people are protesting.
“We must have public safety, we must have order, but we also must have a solution for Black men who are getting shot in their streets and Black women who are getting shot in their living rooms and bedrooms. That’s a fact.”
As he concluded, the silence from the mostly-white audience was palpable. Asked afterward what they thought of James’ response, multiple people said they appreciated his honesty.
Just over a week later, standing before a roaring crowd of thousands in Freeland ahead of President Donald Trump’s first visit to Michigan in months, James cited the same anecdotes but struck a different tone, leaning more heavily on his relationship to law enforcement.
“I also understand what it’s like to be an officer patrolling areas where people would just as soon see you gone,” James said to cheers. “I understand what it takes to leave my family and my loved ones to stand up for people who can’t fight for themselves.”
This isn’t how James planned to campaign when he announced last summer he’d run again for Senate.
Now, as protests continue in cities across the country and in Michigan, James’ pitch on race — that he can help bridge the divide between law enforcement and those who fear violence at their hands — is becoming a central part of his message.
The 39-year-old military veteran is widely considered one of the Republican Party’s only real chances at flipping a seat in the U.S. Senate in a year when they’re mostly playing defense.
He’s seen as a conservative rising star, and GOP consultants say he faces an easier election against first-term Sen. Gary Peters than he did in 2018, when he lost by 275,0000 votes to Debbie Stabenow, a 20-year senator and fixture in state politics since 1975.
Party supporters are putting their money where their mouths are: Peters has consistently maintained an edge in the polls (though that has narrowed in recent weeks) and James has regularly outraised him consistently, collecting $17.8 million to Peters’ $14.2 million in the past year.
Political consultants from both parties say James’ family history in Detroit, military record of two Iraq tours and business credentials make him a formidable candidate to reach both the Republican base and moderate Democrats.
Republicans say James can help broaden the party’s reach with his mix of conservative business policy and blunt talk about racial equity. Democrats say James offers few concrete ideas and is anchored to Trump.
Two years ago, James famously said he supported Trump “2,000 percent.” Now, although he still appears with Trump at rallies, James goes out of his way to stake his independence, buying ads declaring “No one owns me.”
Ultimately, Peters and James will “fall both victim and victor of their parties” this fall, said Karen Dumas, a Democratic strategist and former director of communications for Detroit Mayor Dave Bing.
“On the Republican side, there’s that detachment that has been the tone that’s been set by Donald Trump.”
“Everybody’s looking at uniting the country,” she added. “Who is going to bring this country together and make it become what it has pretended to be for generations?”
Both parties fail Black voters
James grew up in Detroit and the Oakland County suburb of Southfield and now lives in Farmington Hills. His parents were, and still are, Democrats.
His father and namesake moved to Detroit from Mississippi and eventually founded an automotive logistics and supply chain management business, James Group International. His grandfather was a mason, his great-grandfather a sharecropper and his great-great-grandfather was an enslaved person. It’s an oft-repeated tale, one James usually caps by pointing out it could end with the fourth generation in the U.S. Senate.
To James, that’s a parable of self-determination and the power of free enterprise. But he doesn’t profess to believe simple bootstrapping works anymore.
The gap between the nation’s wealthiest and poorest has widened for decades and economic mobility has dropped in kind. Too many Americans, he says, cannot change their circumstances.
After graduating from Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills in 1999, he went to West Point Prep, West Point and later to Iraq, where he flew the Apache helicopters that are ubiquitous on his campaign merch. After eight years in the Army, he returned to Michigan and joined his father’s business in 2012. He finished two master’s degrees from the University of Michigan and Penn State and became CEO of one of its subsidiaries and president of James Group International two years later. As of 2016, the company made $129 million in revenue.
One formative moment came when he tried to give one of his longtime employees who taught him to drive a fork truck as a teenager a promotion. She wouldn’t take it, telling him the increase in pay would make her grandchild ineligible for subsidized breakfast and lunch at school.
“It really struck me at that point,” he said. “How is it that people are disincentivized to pursue success in this country?”
He developed a belief in the value of the free market and economic growth as a way to help people. He maintains that a strong education system and social safety net are part of the equation, and they too would be bolstered by economic growth.
For James, improving the economy means making changes to “onerous and punitive tax policies” and “unnecessary and costly regulations” that he argues make it challenging for businesses to compete in a global marketplace.
He wants to make the education system less “one size fits all” and provide more choice (including through charter and private schools) and workforce development options for children.
And he’s consistently said he wants to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, though he has not endorsed a specific replacement besides outlining it should protect pre-existing conditions and cover free primary care visits. “Tort reform, regulatory reform” and increased transparency will decrease costs and improve healthcare quality, he says.
“I’m running in the Republican Party because the party’s platform aligns most closely — not perfectly — to my economic and moral values,” he told Bridge.
But the Republican Party has failed to make significant change for Black Americans, or even worked to reach them in the first place, he said. Nor has the Democratic Party, he said.
“Black people have been saying the same thing for centuries,” he said. Watching George Floyd being killed by police “shocked a lot of people into the reality that Black people have been living for hundreds of years.”
That reality was pounded into him as a child. When he argued or pitched a fit as a kid, his mother “pushed me back down into a chair and told me, ‘I am not going to lose you.’”
Now, he’s worried for his own children.
A Senate race amid a civil rights movement
James says his mom prepared him to lead in rooms where no one looks like him, and indeed, that’s where he finds himself.
James is the only African-American Senate candidate Republicans have on the ticket nationwide this year, and if he’s elected, he would be the state’s first Black senator and one of only two Black Republicans in the upper chamber.
James said he can do justice to both Black Americans and the Republican Party, which is almost entirely white and mostly does not support the Black Lives Matter movement. In Michigan, 75 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable opinion of the group, according to an EPIC-MRA poll.
Asked directly by Bridge Michigan whether James supports Black Lives Matter, his campaign spokesperson, Abby Walls, said he “absolutely supports the peaceful protests but the violence has to stop.” He’s walked a similar tightrope in advertisements and speeches since Floyd was killed in late May.
James opposes diverting revenue for police funds to social services (what some call “defunding” the police) and instead advocates budget increases for officer training, transparency, community policing, and hiring officers from within the communities they serve.
“Talking about public safety is something that everyone can identify with,” James told Bridge. “We have to support our police, but that is not at the expense of making sure we end killing innocent, unarmed people.”
As a high-profile Black candidate, James was always going to be required to discuss race in a way white candidates are not, said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic political consultant and co-founder of Lansing-based consulting firm Grassroots Midwest.
“It’s just something that we deal with,” said Hemond, who is also African American. “He’s making the best of a bad situation, running on the same ticket as Donald Trump. I think John James has done his very best to put out a centrist message that most people can agree with that is kind of unifying.”
That may help James win over suburban voters who lean conservative but support police reforms, said GOP pollster Steve Mitchell, regions that are more diverse than they were even four years ago.
“James is uniquely suited to be able to speak to some of those concerns in a way other Republicans aren’t,” said John Sellek, a Republican political consultant.
But many who spoke with Bridge said James hasn’t offered specific policy suggestions on police reform or racial equity. And for all his talk about supporting protesters, James has been absent at protests, said Greg Bowens, a suburban Detroit Democratic strategist.
“It just doesn’t seem like he’s willing to defend” Black communities, Bowens said. “He hasn’t ever taken a position that says ‘vote for me, I have your best interests at heart.’”
The lack of specifics is a common knock against James among Democrats, who have also highlighted how his campaign has benefitted from a super PAC in part funded by the DeVos family. He’s also faced scrutiny from the Detroit MetroTimes, which claimed his company took advantage of tax breaks while failing to create jobs. James’ campaign denies the claims, saying the company created 100 jobs under his leadership and invested $6 million to keep its headquarters in Detroit.
But the more than half-dozen consultants who spoke with Bridge agreed that James’ largest obstacle in his path to office, both with Black voters and with other moderates, is the president.
The success of candidates for U.S. Senate, House and others are often tied closely with the success of their president from the same party. Trump’s unpopularity among Democrats and independents in Michigan has been consistent throughout the race, and he recently told a fervent crowd of more than 5,000 that James has his “total and complete endorsement.”
Trump has been a defender of Confederate flags and monuments, has pulled back policies to reform police departments, and disparaged Black Lives Matter, calling the group a “symbol of hate” and its protesters “thugs.”
Speaking ahead of Trump, James said the Republican Party is the party of “emancipation” and “the Civil Rights movement.” James echoed this in an interview with Bridge, arguing he hopes to be a voice for change in Washington. “I’m doing my best to channel my emotions into changing things. Not just for Black people, but for all people.”
Shortly after James made his argument that the Republican Party is the party of racial equity, Trump took to the stage and told the cheering crowd that “no city, town or suburb” would be safe from protesters if Democrats win in November. “They want to erase your votes and indoctrinate your children with poisonous anti-American lies.”
James, for one, claims he isn’t worried.
“Bringing people together is the ultimate goal,” he said. “Recognizing these distractions with the president — the president is term-limited.”