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The 9th district primary is an embarrassment of riches

Feb 12, 2018

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s 209th birthday, and it seems safe to say he probably wouldn’t have made it this far even had John Wilkes Booth left him alone.

If you’ve read much about Lincoln, you may recall that he served a single term in Congress, and then didn’t run again. I wondered about that for years, until I learned they had a deal where Lincoln would run for a term, and then another Whig would.

That’s nice and democratic, but not great for building up seniority. These days, congressmen tend to stay forever. This year’s elections are notable because of the forced retirement of John Conyers and the voluntary one of Sandy Levin, who between them served almost 90 years. This comes four years after Michigan lost nearly 60 years of seniority when John Dingell, the longest-serving congressman in history, stepped aside.

Last week, I noted the huge number of candidates running to succeed Conyers. I suggested adopting what’s called a “jungle” or “top two” primary system, in which the two top finishers in the August primary advance to November, regardless of their party.

There’s a somewhat similar situation in the 9th District, which includes a string of suburbs in south Oakland and Macomb Counties, not far north of Detroit.

This is Sandy Levin’s old district, and the lines have been drawn to make it essentially impossible for any Republican to win. This year, however, there are three candidates running in the Democratic primary each of whom is probably more qualified than most people serving in Congress now. All are lawyers, all in their fifties, and each has a stellar record of public service.

State Senator Steve Bieda of Warren is one of the best-liked lawmakers in Lansing, and one of the few Democrats with a demonstrated ability to work with Republicans to actually get bills passed.

Andy Levin, the congressman’s son, is the only one who has never been elected to anything. He did run once for a state senate seat, and lost. But he has run the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth and has been in charge of worker training for the state. Currently, he runs Levin Energy Partners, which, among other things, tries to create public-private partnerships to make buildings more energy-efficient.

Finally, Ellen Cogen Lipton of Huntington Woods is both a patent attorney with a degree from Harvard Law School, and a former chemistry teacher with a science background. While she was in the legislature, she too was successful in working with Republicans on important education bills. But she was best known for her work exposing the failures, inconsistencies and cost overruns in Gov. Rick Snyder’s special district designed to fix the worst Detroit schools, the now-defunct Education Achievement Authority, or EAA.

It’s hard to say who will win. Levin has the name recognition and probably will find it easiest to raise money. Lipton is the only woman in the race, and will be backed by Emily’s List. But Bieda is the only one from Macomb County, where two-thirds of the voters live.

This is another case where I’d like to see a top two runoff.

Or maybe we should just do as they did in Lincoln’s time. If we could somehow magically rotate all three in Congress, that would be fine with me.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.