Commentary: Possibility of an upset

Jul 6, 2012

Congressional primary races are normally pretty boring, whenever an incumbent is on the ballot. Mostly they win almost automatically. The only exceptions tend to be cases when redistricting pits two incumbents against each other.

That’s what is going on this year in the half-Detroit, half-suburban 14th District, where Democratic Congressmen Hansen Clarke and Gary Peters are going at it.

But there’s another primary race this year that is just as dramatic – but which is happening mostly under the radar.

That one is in the neighboring 13th District, where Congressman John Conyers is trying for a twenty-fifth term.

There’s no other incumbent, and most people seem to assume the result is a foregone conclusion. But I’m not so sure. The district is about 56 percent Detroit, and the rest a bunch of mainly blue-collar white suburbs. The black-white ratio is about the same.

But the congressman has two black opponents who have served for years in the legislature and have some following and name recognition. State Representative Shanelle Jackson thinks that being the only candidate who is young and female will help her.

State Senator Bert Johnson is campaigning vigorously, sounding the theme that Conyers may be a big man in Washington and a revered civil rights icon, but that he hasn’t done much for the poor residents of the district for years.

And then there is Glenn Anderson, another state senator who happens to be from suburban Westland. Anderson echoes Johnson’s criticisms of Conyers. He does say Conyers, who is eighty-three years old, deserves respect. He just thinks he should have had the good sense to gracefully retire with dignity.

Politically, Anderson is not all that different from his opponents. He has had two major political heroes: Bobby Kennedy, whose campaign first drew him to politics, and President Obama, who he thinks may yet achieve greatness.  But in one way, Anderson is different from the rest of the major candidates. He is white, and he lives in the suburbs. And the mathematics seem stacked in his favor.

Let’s assume the voting pool on August 7 matches the racial composition of the district. John Conyers is not going to get many votes among the white voters of Dearborn, Westland, or Garden City and Romulus. Neither are the other black candidates.

Glenn Anderson has no campaign office in Detroit, and wouldn’t get many votes there regardless. But if Johnson and or Jackson do make a significant showing in the city, Anderson could easily win the primary with no more than 40 percent of the overall vote.

Last night I talked to Anderson, over ice tea at a restaurant in Dearborn Heights. He has no interest in making this about race, and proudly lists his suburban black supporters.

What he’s striving to make it about is competence.  Though he has lived in the suburbs since he arrived in Michigan as a fifteen-year-old from Tennessee, the issues that seem to concern him most are jobs and how to save Detroit’s crumbling neighborhoods.

He may still be an underdog. But he was six years ago too, when he became the first Democrat in decades to beat an incumbent state senator. If I were a gambler and looked for long shots, I just might think that this year, this one was it.

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