Opinion
5:24 pm
Thu June 19, 2014

Brenda Lawrence has done well for Southfield. Would she do the same if elected to Congress?

I discovered something bizarre when Brenda Lawrence first ran for mayor of Southfield 13 years ago.

Back then, Southfield, a suburban business center and bedroom community just north of Detroit, had just become a majority African-American city. Lawrence was challenging a white mayor who’d been in office almost 30 years.

When I talked to some of the 70,000 residents, I found white voters who were excited about her candidacy and who wanted to get rid of the longtime incumbent. But I talked to upwardly mobile black voters who emphatically did not want a black mayor.

They told me that every community that elects a black mayor soon became an impoverished ghetto. Lawrence vowed that wouldn’t happen. She won, and it hasn’t. She has been in office ever since.

Southfield was hit hard by the recession, and there are too many vacant storefronts along the main streets. But it has remained a leafy suburb filled with well-maintained, solidly middle-class homes.

It is a place with intensely loyal residents and people who want to live there. And the voters have overwhelmingly continued to reelect their Brenda – even though she has tried three times for higher office. 

She ran for county executive against Brooks Patterson six years ago. Two years later, she was the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. Then two years ago, she ran for Congress in the newly created 14th District.

The 14th District Republicans created is one of the oddest-shaped districts in the nation. It starts in the Grosse Pointes, takes in about half of impoverished Detroit, and ends in a collection of suburbs, including Lawrence's Southfield.

You may have heard a lot about so-called gerrymandering – bizarrely shaped congressional districts aimed at preserving one-party dominance, not community cohesion.

Legislators did this in Michigan three years ago in order to pack as many Democrats into as few districts as possible.

Democrats might have done much the same thing if they’d been in charge, but they weren’t. The 14th District Republicans created is one of the oddest-shaped districts in the nation. It starts in the Grosse Pointes, takes in about half of impoverished Detroit, and ends in a collection of suburbs, including Lawrence’s Southfield.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary is virtually certain to win in November.

Lawrence finished a weak third two years ago. That's not surprising given that two incumbent congressmen were also in the race.

Now however, the man who won, Gary Peters, is running for the U.S. Senate. It’s now a wide-open race, and she may be the front-runner. Her rivals are state Rep. Rudy Hobbs, D-Southfield, who has many endorsements but little name recognition, and former Congressman Hansen Clarke, who is charismatic but often notoriously unorganized.

Lawrence thinks that as a mayor, she can bring a perspective to Congress that legislators immersed in partisan political battles may lack. Now 59, she’s lived in Southfield for years, but was born and raised in Detroit, and is optimistic about its future.

I asked what she most wanted people to know about her. “I keep my word,” she said.

“So many people label politics as a negative thing. But to me, public service is one of the most honorable positions you can have in America, to be able to have the trust of people who send you to be the keeper of their tax dollars.”

I don’t know if she’ll win this race, but I do wish more politicians saw their jobs the way she does. 

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