Detroit’s political power is at stake in an open race for the state’s lone congressional seat representing a majority-Black population.
Eleven candidates are competing in the crowded Democratic primary to succeed U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, in the newly drawn 13th Congressional District and new fundraising reports suggest a handful of possible front-runners.
State Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, is building momentum early in the race, while John Conyers III has name recognition among Detroiters and nonprofit leader Portia Roberson has the blessing of Lawrence herself. Self-funding millionaire State Rep. Shri Thanedar has a strong cash advantage.
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Lawrence is Michigan’s only Black member of Congress and the seat is considered wide open for whichever Democrat wins the Aug. 2 primary. But political observers say the packed field could make it difficult for any contender to gain broad support and suggest that Black leaders move quickly to coalesce around one candidate or risk losing Black representation in Washington, D.C.
Michigan’s redistricting commission changed the state’s legislative boundaries at the end of last year. The state lost one representative in Congress due to sluggish population growth. U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, is running in the new 12th District, leaving an open race in the new 13th District covering most of Detroit, as well as Downriver communities and the Grosse Pointes.
Campaign finance statements covering the first quarter of 2022 provide one look at how the candidates are gathering support with less than four months before votes are cast. Hollier raised the most, collecting $513,013 from Jan. 1 through March 31. Next in line was Michael Griffie ($307,090), followed by Roberson ($267,539), Sherry Gay-Dagnogo ($221,333) and Thanedar ($180,758).
“The way this typically works in these political races is that money follows money,” said Adrian Hemond, CEO of the Lansing-based consulting firm Grassroots Midwest. “The folks who filed good FEC (federal election commission) reports are going to have the easiest time raising money because people assume they’re in a stronger position to win.”
Hollier started April with $453,279 left to spend on his campaign, which would be the largest cache of cash on hand if not for Thanedar’s injection of $5.17 million from his personal fortune. Thanedar, a chemist and businessman turned politician, raised only $395 from individual donors, by far the least of any candidate, but still has $5 million for his campaign.
Mario Morrow, a longtime political strategist in Detroit, said Hollier’s lead in fundraising distinguishes him as a front-runner. Whether Hollier holds on to that position depends on how candidates mobilize institutions, win the favor of faith leaders and build coalitions of voters willing to shell out donations.
Jonathan Kinloch, a Wayne County commissioner and chair of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party, said Conyers performed best in internal polling. Conyers is the namesake and son of the late former congressman who represented the 13th District from 1964 to 2017.
Conyers created his campaign organization in February and formally announced his candidacy at the end of March. He didn’t file campaign finance statements with the FEC as of Wednesday morning, five days after the deadline, so it’s unclear whether he has the funds to be successful. Kinloch said it’s a potential red flag, but also reflects that Conyers jumped into the race late.
“The fact that he has not indicated any real fundraising, that’s problematic,” Kinloch said. “If individuals do not have the ability to both raise money and have an adequate burn ratio once they start spending the money, they absolutely need to come to a quick decision on whether it makes sense for them to bow out. This race is too important for people to just be hanging on the ballot for the purpose of their ego with no real intention or infrastructure to win.”
Hollier raised the most from individual donors, collecting $508,013. He brought in $401,810 from donors with a Michigan address and $112,735 from Detroit residents. He also collected $15,620 from California residents and $13,050 from Ohio residents. Hollier loaned himself $5,000.
Griffie, the senior director of external affairs for Teach for America’s Detroit chapter, raised the second-most during the first three months of 2022. Griffie’s campaign collected $307,090 and he reported $252,905 in cash on hand at the start of April.
A BridgeDetroit analysis of FEC data shows $60,930 came to Griffie from Detroit residents, while $265,256 came from Michigan residents. He contributed $15,500 of his own money. Griffie is an attorney, former high school English teacher and founder of a Detroit charter school.
Roberson, chair of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, raised $267,539 and only spent $14,058 of it, leaving her campaign with $253,482 in cash on hand. Roberson collected $118,310 from Detroiters, $173,785 from Michigan residents and gave $5,800 of her own money.
Roberson is the chief executive officer of the Detroit-based nonprofit Focus: HOPE and served as Detroit’s corporation counsel under ex-Mayor Dave Bing and was chair of the Detroit Police and Fire Retirement System. Roberson’s donor list includes leaders of several nonprofit organizations, including the Knight Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Detroit Public Schools Foundation and United Way for Southeastern Michigan.
Gay-Dagnogo, a member of the Detroit Public Schools Board of Education who served two terms in the state House of Representatives, raised $221,333 and only spent $3,507, leaving her campaign with $217,826 at the start of April. Gay-Dagnogo raised $94,934 from Detroiters and $120,635 from Michigan residents, according to campaign finance statements.
Sharon McPhail, a former Detroit City Council member who also worked as former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s legal counsel, raised $35,065 and reported having $33,330 left to use on her campaign.
Lorrie Rutledge did not file any statements with the FEC as of Wednesday. Angela McIntosh, a Detroit insurance agent, reported no donations during the filing period.
Adrian Tonon, former director of customer service for the city of Detroit and the city’s first 24-hour economy ambassador, was the only candidate who spent more money than he raised in the first quarter.
Sam Riddle, of the Michigan National Action Network, also turned in signatures to appear on the August primary ballot.
Former Detroit police chief Ralph Godbee Jr., who became an ordained minister after leaving the department amid an affair scandal, ended his campaign after falling behind in fundraising. Godbee raised $52,421 and spent $44,464, leaving him with only $7,957.
Endorsements also could play a key role in the primary. Lawrence gave her support to Roberson, lauding her past work in the Obama administration and Southfield government. Lawrence’s campaign committee donated $4,000 to Roberson in March. Lawrence’s influence could be slightly diminished in the redrawn 13th District because it no longer includes Southfield or other Oakland County communities where her name carries the most weight.
“I do think that there’ll be some effort to consolidate support around a single Black candidate, and in all likelihood, that’s either going to be Hollier or Roberson,” Hemond said. “(Hollier) is a current elected official, and he’s got some experience running races like this. The big thing for me is what does the business community in metro Detroit do? What does (Detroit Mayor Mike) Dugggan do?”
Hollier boasts a long list of endorsements from elected officials, community leaders and local unions. This includes the Legacy Committee for Unified Leadership, which represents a large group of Black churches, labor groups and business leaders. It was convened by Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and includes names like the Rev. Wendell Anthony of Fellowship Chapel and the Detroit Branch of the NAACP.
“The church has always been a very important part of the Black political movement, and anyone who would ignore the church and equally ecclesiastical community would be doing it at their own peril,” Kinloch said. “The church community is not one that you go sashay up to at the time of the election. You absolutely have to have built your relationships before you need them.”
Griffie raked in a few of his own endorsements from state Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, Rev. Horace Sheffield and retired Michigan Supreme Court Justice Kurt Wilder. McPhail was endorsed by the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus.
Local Democrats are worried that splitting the electorate among a big pool of candidates could allow a dark horse to win without needing a majority. That’s expected to benefit Thanedar, who comes into the race with a significant financial advantage.
Self-funded candidates are not guaranteed winners in Michigan politics. Thanedar gave his own campaign $10.4 million four years earlier when he ran for governor, but it wasn’t enough to secure the Democratic nomination in 2018. Two years later, he moved to Detroit from Ann Arbor and was elected to his first term in the Michigan House of Representatives.
Candidates who make loans to their own campaign can recover whatever isn’t spent at the end of the race. Thanedar committed $5 million but only spent $145,554 so far. That’s the most spent by any candidate, but only a small fraction of what he has to work with.
“How much of his own money is he actually willing to spend? That’s an open question,” Hemond said. “The other question I have is: What is the point of diminishing returns for the money advantage? There’s only so many mail pieces you can send, so many digital ads you can serve before there’s just not much of a marginal impact of that next dollar.”
Kinloch, who presided over Thanedar’s swearing-in ceremony, said he’s tried to build relationships in the district, but may not have strong enough ties to labor unions and traditional Democratic institutions and power brokers.
Morrow said any candidate who is not Black will struggle to fill Lawrence’s shoes. Michigan’s 13th Congressional District is the only one with a majority Black population. It contains most of Detroit, which is home to a third of Michigan’s Black residents.
“I think people are tired of (candidates) buying elections and let’s face it, the reality is the majority of Detroiters, the majority of the residents who live in that district, feel that this should be a district led by a Black person,” Morrow said. “There’s an orchestrated campaign called A.B.S – Anybody But Shri. He is going to have a difficult time standing at a debate podium with majority Black folks and convincing them that he’s better qualified than the Black opposition standing next to him.”
The district also covers Hamtramck, Highland Park, the Grosse Pointes, Harper Woods, River Rouge, Melvindale, Allen Park, Ecorse, Lincoln Park, Wyandotte, Southgate, Taylor, Romulus and Wayne. Turnout is traditionally higher in suburban communities compared to Detroit.
“Detroit is going to be the number one target of getting the vote out, but if you capitalize on those other communities it’s icing on the cake,” Morrow said. “You cannot solely focus on Detroit, you have got to figure out a way to win those outside communities. You have got to dominate in one of these communities, and then make sure that you split the vote in the others.”
Hemond expects to see an effort to consolidate the Black vote in Detroit around one candidate while the suburban communities are up for grabs.
Martell Bivings, Articia Bomer and R. Vance Patrick filed to run as Republicans in the 13th District. Bomer nor Patrick reported fundraising totals for the first quarter of 2022. Bivings created a campaign committee on April 19 and has not raised any money. The district is considered a longshot for any Republican candidate.
Tlaib leads fundraising in Detroit’s other race
Thirty-eight percent of Detroit’s residents live in the newly drawn 12th District. The district includes more than a dozen of Detroit’s west side neighborhoods.
Nearly nine out of every $10 donated to candidates in Michigan’s 12th Congressional District race was pocketed by U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit.
Tlaib raised more than all her opponents combined and spent nearly six times as much during the reporting period covering Jan. 1 through March 31. So far, 87% of all donations in the 12th District race have gone to Tlaib’s campaign.
Several candidates who raised money did not file nominating petitions with the Secretary of State. Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey and Kelley Garrett, mayor of Lathrup Village, also filed to run in the Democratic primary.
Tlaib collected $495,054 in the first three months of 2022. Her campaign reported having $1.6 million in remaining cash on hand to spend at the end of March, also the most of any candidate. Winfrey trailed behind with $236,296 raised this period and $227,796 in cash on hand.
Winfrey’s campaign was launched in February, so the most recent report covers all of her fundraising activities. The filings show Winfrey loaned her campaign $1,000 and took in $7,500 from Political Action Committees. Winfrey has so far spent $15,618 on the race.
Tlaib raised $2.4 million throughout the campaign cycle, with 92% of her contributions coming from individual donors. Tlaib spent $1.28 million throughout the campaign cycle.
A significant portion of Tlaib’s fundraising is coming from out of state. Detroit residents only gave $7,626 in the first three months of the year. The fiery congresswoman benefits from a national profile.
A BridgeDetroit analysis found people with a Michigan address gave $43,802 to Tlaib’s campaign in the first quarter of 2022. Donors who live in Florida and California gave $155,631 and $149,830, respectively. Last year, Tlaib also took in more money from donors living in California ($497,480) and New York ($115,804) than Michigan ($92,678), according to FEC data.
Finance filings show Political Action Committees gave $53,075 to Tlaib’s campaign. This includes groups like the Arab American Democratic Action Fund, Council on American-Islamic Relations/CA and several labor organizations. Tlaib received $14,960 from The Squad Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee launched by progressive Democrats.
Garrett filed to run on April 14, so she does not have any fundraising numbers to report.
Three Republicans also filed to run in the 13th District.
Southfield resident Steven Elliott raised $16,900 and spent $4,090, leaving him with $12,810 in remaining cash. He put in $14,900 of his own money and only collected $2,000 from individual donors. Dearborn Heights resident Hassan Nehme did not file a campaign finance report, while Livonia resident James Hooper created his campaign on April 13, so he does not have any fundraising numbers to report.