Opinion
8:39 am
Tue November 5, 2013

Should the Dean of Wayne State University run for congress?

Lessenberry commentary for 11/5/13

Today is Election Day in local communities all across Michigan. But politicians being politicians, many are already looking ahead to next year’s statewide and congressional elections.

For everyone in the game, deciding whether to run is a matter of weighing hope versus experience; ambition against common sense. Sometimes, long shots pay off. On paper, it made no sense for a freshman senator to run for President six years ago, and not just because there was a formidable front-runner. 

The challenger was black. I thought his candidacy was hopeless. But as the world knows, I was gloriously wrong. However, back in 2000, Barack Obama was the one who was wrong. He challenged an incumbent congressman in a primary race. He lost by more than 2-1, drained his finances and strained his marriage for a time. Every situation is different.

But now, one of Michigan’s potentially biggest stars faces her own dilemma. Few have accomplished as much at a relatively early age as Jocelyn Benson. Barely 36 years old, she is already interim dean of Wayne State University law school. She has degrees from Wellesley, Oxford and Harvard Law. She has a stunning resume that includes stints working for the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP, NPR and the revered federal appeals judge Damon Keith. 

Three years ago, she published a well-received book that looked at best practices followed by secretaries of state nationwide. Later that year, Benson was the Democratic nominee for Michigan secretary of state. She lost, but so did every statewide Democratic nominee, and she did better than any of the rest.

After that, she threw herself into election law reform and founded a group called Military Spouses of Michigan, after her husband joined the army as an enlisted man at age 34.

I thought she would likely wait till term limits removed the incumbents and then run again for secretary of state or attorney general. But now, she faces temptation. Some Democrats are urging her to give up being dean and to run for congress in the eleventh district, now represented by Tea Party favorite Kerry Bentivolio. That would be a risky choice on many levels.

There is already a serious Democratic candidate, former state department analyst Bobby McKenzie, and he says he’s not getting out. The district leans Republican, and establishment Republicans are trying to beat Bentivolio in the primary with David Trott, a conventional conservative they think would be unbeatable in a general election.

If Benson gives up her powerful job, runs and loses, she may be seen as a two-time loser and a chronic campaigner. Besides, you can make a strong argument that being dean of a major law school is a far more visible and powerful position than that of a freshman in congress. There, she’d face raising millions every two years for reelection battles, and it would likely be a long time before she could put her name on any major piece of legislation.

I’ve seen few politicians with as much potential who have gotten as far, as fast. It would be sad on many levels if, in this case, ambition got the better of common sense.   

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.