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Chad Selweski

Chad Selweski

Political Intrigue

December 15, 2017

Several years of anticipation and speculation about when longtime Rep. Sandy Levin would call it quits were always accompanied by a long list of potential candidates who would jump at the chance to run for the congressman’s coveted seat in suburban Detroit.

The veteran lawmaker kept everyone guessing but when the Royal Oak Democrat suddenly made his retirement announcement earlier this month, the initial shakeout indicated that the 2018 contest in the solidly Democratic 9th Congressional District might consist of just the two announced major candidates – Levin’s son, Andy, and State Senator Steve Bieda, a Warren Democrat.

Yet, the race offers plenty of political intrigue that will play out in the coming weeks and months.

Andy Levin clearly enjoys advantages because of his name and his subsequent ability to raise large amounts of campaign cash. His father and his uncle, former longtime Senator Carl Levin, will hit the campaign trail on his behalf. For the younger Levin, serving as the embodiment of a continued Levin dynasty that began in the 1960s will be mostly a plus in the all-important Democratic primary, though the Levin label is a double-edged sword. Bieda will clearly run as the candidate who represents fresh blood in Washington.

In an unexpected development, Andy Levin immediately received a hearty endorsement from former Congressman Dave Bonior, who represented Macomb County for 26 years. Bonior is also expected to campaign for Levin, and what’s left of his legions of political allies could provide a major boost.

At the same time, Levin, of Bloomfield Township, is a relative unknown in Macomb, which comprises a majority of the 9th District. In his one bid for public office, he lost a 2006 State Senate election in central Oakland.  In contrast, Bieda, a 13-year member of the Legislature, has worked hard at developing a grassroots following across Macomb by appearing at dozens of community functions each month. The term-limited senator is known for taking a “selfie” photo with those gathered at each event.

Macomb County is Key

Bieda’s Senate district entirely overlaps with the 9th Congressional District, which encompasses nearly all of the southern half of Macomb County and all of southeast Oakland. A bit more than 60 percent of the territory lies on the Macomb side, and the district overall has a 61 percent Democratic voting base, according to Inside Michigan Politics. So far, the lone Republican, a newcomer who declared her candidacy in October, is business owner Candius Stearns of Sterling Heights.

In the August Democratic primary it remains to be seen if Levin is viewed as an Oakland County candidate rather than simply his father’s chosen successor. But in a district where geography serves as an overriding factor, the prospect of several Oakland Dem candidates jumping into the ring would certainly benefit Bieda who, surprisingly, is likely to run as the lone Macomb contender of significance.

Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner could be a force in this bi-county race, if he decides to run. The chances appear about 50-50 even as Meisner, a former Sandy Levin aide, would love to serve in Congress but has kept an eye on running for Oakland County executive in 2020.

Other Oakland Dems weighing an election bid are former state Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, state Rep. Robert Wittenberg (possibly), and former District Judge Jodi Debbrecht Switalski, wife of Macomb Circuit Judge Mark Switalski. The Switalski name remains one of the strongest political monikers in Macomb County.

One quirk in this unfolding contest is that Meisner, Lipton and Wittenberg all live in Huntington Woods. That’s hardly an ideal political base as Huntington Woods (population 6,300) is so small that more than one-fourth of its land area consists of a golf course.

An Oakland County candidate that has already announced his entry into the race, Martin Brook, a Bloomfield Township Democrat, will campaign as the non-politician choice for voters. He is a former Bloomfield Hills school board member.

Democratic Party divisions

Watch for Democratic intraparty divisions lingering from the 2016 presidential campaign to create rumblings in this race as some Bernie Sanders supporters dismiss Sandy Levin as an old-school, die-hard Hillary Clinton ally. The hard feelings among some 9th District Dems also harken back to the 2013 fight over the state party chairmanship, when Congressman Levin played a leading role in successfully backing Lon Johnson for the job – and in pushing out then-Chairman Mark Brewer, one of Bonior’s most loyal, longtime allies.  How much of any of this rubs off on Andy Levin could steer the course of the campaign.

Another looming factor in the 9th may be how things play out in the nearby 13th Congressional District, where newly retired Rep. John Conyers has endorsed his son, John III, for his seat while his grand-nephew, State Senator Ian Conyers, is also expected to run. If Detroit area voters widely view the 13th as a political playground for nepotism and name-games, that sentiment might spill over into the 9th and hurt Andy Levin’s candidacy.

Levin, who owns a clean energy company, is emphasizing his brief role as director of the state Department of Labor and Economic Growth during the Granholm administration. But in announcing his candidacy he took the unusual step of trumpeting his past work for human rights causes in South Africa, Haiti and Tibet. It seems certain that Levin will run to the left of Bieda, a former state House member who has served in Lansing as a policy wonk, not a Sanders-style speechmaker.

In the end, voter confusion could work in Levin’s favor as those filling out their ballots in August may not make the distinction between Sandy and Andy. The battle for the 9th will be intriguing yes, but despite all the strategizing and carefully planned campaign tactics, the outcome could boil down to voters simply saying, “I’m voting for Levin again.”

A freelance writer from Macomb County, Chad Selweski was the political reporter at The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. At the Daily he earned 50 journalism awards and in 2014 he was named by Politico as one of the “Media Stars” in seven political battleground states. He can be reached at chad.b.selweski@gmail.com.

December 14, 2017 · Filed under Chad Selweski


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