Michigan's gerrymandered 11th District is about to have an interesting election

Jul 10, 2014

There’s been a lot of attention paid to Michigan’s bizarrely gerrymandered 14th Congressional District, drawn to pack as many Democrats as possible together.

But there has been even more strangeness in its mirror image to the left, the 11th District, similarly designed for Republicans. Shaped something like an irregular claw, the 11th begins with Birmingham and Troy in the east and arcs over to take in Milford and Novi in the west and Livonia and Canton in the South.

This was meant to be GOP territory. But it is not nearly as Republican as the 14th is Democratic. President Obama carried it once, and some think it could send a Democrat to Congress. And it hasn’t been short of controversy.

Two years ago, longtime Congressman Thaddeus McCotter’s career ended after his staff filed fraudulent ballot petition signatures.

That left Republicans with Kerry Bentivolio, a Tea Party supporting reindeer farmer. He won and is trying for a second term.

Establishment Republicans are attempting to knock him off in next month’s primary with multi-millionaire mortgage banker David Trott, also known as the foreclosure king. Whoever wins will have baggage.

And Democrats smell opportunity.

Whoever wins will have baggage. And Democrats smell opportunity.

Party leaders are mainly backing an interesting fresh face: Bobby McKenzie, a 39-year-old terrorism expert who grew up in Dearborn Heights, but became interested in the Middle East.

He worked in Abu Dhabi for a few years, setting up an institute designed to keep young Arabs from drifting into al-Qaeda. Later he was a senior anti-terrorism advisor for the State Department. But he fretted over his native Michigan.

Like many, he has southern roots. His grandfather moved to Detroit from Alabama, and ended up working on the docks and joining the Teamsters. His dad ran a small vacuum cleaner store. But times got tough in Michigan.

McKenzie knew of friends facing foreclosures. His younger brother graduated from college, tried for months to find a job, then left for Chicago, where he was employed in less than a week.

That motivated McKenzie to move back home to try to get voters to send him to Congress. 

Yesterday, he told me it hasn’t been easy. I got a sense that he hadn’t realized how much fundraising would be necessary. Nor does he have a clear shot at the Democratic nomination. Urologist Anil Kumar has no political experience but is pouring lots of his own money into the race. Nancy Skinner, a flamboyant former radio talk show host is running, as is Bill Roberts, a follower of Lyndon LaRouche.

Possibly because McKenzie is perceived as the front-runner, the others have tended to gang up on him. Because he once had a fellowship sponsored by the CIA, there’s a whispering campaign that he is really a spy. He is in fact a serious policy expert who speaks fluent Arabic and likely would be an asset on the Foreign Relations Committee. But that’s not the top priority for many voters.

They want jobs and opportunities and someone who can help get them, and so far, none of these candidates seems to have found a way to persuade citizens that’s what they can do.

Whoever does just might have a real chance to win.  

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.