The size and complexity of the race for John Conyers’s former congressional seat continues to grow.
Former U.S. Rep. John Conyers was forced to resign his seat in Michigan’s 13th District over sexual harassment and cover-up scandals in December. Since then, eight candidates have announced their intention to run in the Democratic primary.
But things get even more complicated. Governor Snyder, rather than holding a special election right away, set the dates to coincide with the primary and general for the regular 2018 elections, in August and November. The 13th District’s Democratic Party chairman, Jonathan Kinloch, backed up the Governor’s decision, pointing out that it would allow voters time to get to know the field. But some of the candidates disagreed, and Democratic activist Michael Gilmore sued Snyder over the decision and accused him of racial bias in making the decision.
We did a run-down of the candidates back in December, but things have been in flux since then. Here’s an update on who’s in the race, and where they stand.
Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones Nets Two Big Endorsements
Jones is as much of a front-runner as exists in this wide open race, and her lead got a little firmer over the last month or so. The reason for this may be that the state Democratic Party is trying to introduce some stability into the race.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan gave Jones the nod in February — possibly in part because, as the Freep reported, his “partnership with City Council President Brenda Jones has been a hallmark of the city’s post-bankruptcy renaissance.” Duggan, both in this race and in his nod to Gretchen Whitmer in the gubernatorial contest, is the current voice of Michigan’s Democratic Party establishment.
A mysterious cabal of Democratic “stakeholders” in Detroit seconded Duggan’s choice this week, as the Free Press reported on Monday. The group of “clergy, labor union leaders and Democratic party activists” apparently met with most of the 11 candidates in the race and ended up settling on Jones. It’s hard to say whether their decision will swing public opinion, given that none of their identities have been released, but the members of the group have pledged to return to their various organizations to lobby in the council president’s favor.
The Democratic Party in general, and Detroiters in particular, worry that a primary with so many candidates might turn the seat over to, basically, a white outsider like Westland Mayor Bill Wild, when the 13th has historically represented Detroiters in both race and background. In a state whose population is about 14 percent black, there’s currently only one African-American member of Michigan’s congressional delegation, Brenda Lawrence of the 14th district in and around Southfield. When Conyers was still in office, the 12th and 14th districts together made black legislators 12.5 percent of the delegation; the same would be true again if Jones wins.
Jones became the first woman to officially enter the race in January. A player in the city’s scene since at least 1988 when she took home a Spirit of Detroit award, Brenda Jones is a homegrown Michigander, having studied at Wayne State University and its labor school. Jones spent time in labor before moving into politics, serving as president of the Communications Workers of America Local 4004.
Jones won a spot on the City Council in 2005 and was elected president of the Council in 2014. Apart from her position there, she also serves as a board member on a wide variety of Detroit organizations, including the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights and the Detroit Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues.
Mayor of Westland Bill Wild Gets into the Race
William Wild is another local son and University of Michigan at Dearborn graduate, and is one of just a few candidates in the race with executive as opposed to legislative experience. With the help of his father at the outset, Wild founded a thriving auto-recycling business called Scrap Busters. He has also, since 2007, served as mayor of Westland, in the middle of Wayne County. Wild was active in local government for quite a while before his election, serving on the city’s planning commission from 1999 to 2001 and on the City Council from 2001 to 2007.
Despite a failed bid to become Wayne County commissioner in 2014, Wild seems to have had a good run in Westland. He’s moved the city away from automotive production and into retail and dining, preserving both the community’s economic base and its population in a county that’s lost hundreds of thousands of residents over the last decade.
Attorney and Former Diplomat Godrey Dillard Gets into the Race
Dillard, who currently works as a magistrate in Fulton County, an adjunct professor at Wayne State Law, and as an outside counsel at his law firm, announced his bid on the first of this month.
Godfrey’s website is one of the more apparently complete entries in this race, promising both a list of endorsements and a set of policy positions. Unfortunately, it appears that his campaign is in need of a web developer, as most of the entries are unedited default filler text (the Economy & Jobs section reads, “I’m a paragraph. Click here to add your own text and edit me”).
Dillard took a basketball scholarship to the nearly all-white Vanderbilt in the 1960s before an injury and widespread racism led him to transfer to Eastern Michigan. He went to Ann Arbor to study law, and got a Master’s in International Relations at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. before serving as a general counsel with the State Department in then-Zaire.
Kentiel D. White Gets Some Press Pickup
White has been sort-of running for Conyers’ old seat since December, but not sort-of enough to get picked up until this week. Described by the Detroit News as a “little-known Southfield Democrat” who doesn’t live in the 13th district, White had previously been pursuing a long-shot campaign in Michigan’s 2018 gubernatorial contest.
White worked as a Community Service Officer for the Detroit Police Department before moving to his current job working “for a medical transportation company serving the Detroit and Ann Arbor Veterans and Rapid Response EMS.”
As his campaign website says, “He is committed to improving the State of Michigan by giving back to the communities and people who have molded him to ANSWER THE CALL TO ACTION ON A ROAD TO REBIRTH!”
Both this and his gubernatorial run seem more like plays for higher name recognition with an eye to future races, and while in a primary this large almost anything can happen, White is probably not the candidate to watch.
John Conyers III
The junior Conyers had not yet officially announced at the time of our last report, but he filed to run with the FEC late in January, forming a new campaign committee called Conyers to Conyers.
The congressman’s son is, like his father, a homegrown Detroiter, although he left the state for school. As his Huffington Post bio states twice, he attended both Morehouse College in Atlanta and New York University as an undergraduate. Conyers III has never run for political office, and his previous appearances in the public eye have included a minor scandal for his father’s office involving a government vehicle, and an arrest without charges for domestic violence earlier this year.
Conyers describes himself as a partner at Detroit’s first minority-run hedge fund, and as a “seasoned multi-discipline consultant who has provided fundraising and social media services to both political and business clients” — which could be relevant experience, or not, in about equal measure.
State Representative Sherry Gay-Dagnogo
Gay-Dagnogo didn’t feature in our last piece. Although she was one of the most outspoken of Conyers’ defenders before he was forced out of office, she wasn’t making noises at the time of his ouster. Gay-Dagnogo threw her hat into the ever-expanding ring last week, though, following quick on the heels of Jones’ announcement.
In a Facebook video called “The Announcement!”, she said:
It seems like in our leadership today, most people are looking for an opportunity to run instead of serving. To run, instead of fighting. I don’t care what capacity I’m in, I’m willing to fight. I’m not committed to my title, I’m not wedded to being called State Representative or anything else.
Gay-Dagnogo has served as the Representative of Michigan’s 8th District, serving Brightmoor and Rosedale Park up to about Seven Mile in Detroit, since 2014. Like many of the other contenders in the race, she is a Detroit native, and received a Bachelor’s of Science and Master’s in Education in Instructional Technology from Wayne State University. Before her election, Gay-Dagnogo worked for the city of Detroit, as a teacher at Detroit Edison Public Schools Academy, and at the United Way of Southeast Michigan.
Former State Representative Rashida Tlaib
At the time of our original piece, Tlaib had only dropped some since-deleted hints through Twitter, saying that she was “seriously considering” a run as late as December 7. The former state rep has now officially announced.
In a press release, Tlaib said:
My track record is based on a new approach to public service, one that is needed now more than ever. My residents have my cell phone. We work together to prevent scrap metal thieves from destroying our neighborhoods, win injunctions against polluters, and defeat corporate billionaires who flout our laws. We take on the fights for our community that others think are too hard or too controversial. And we win. That’s what I want to bring to this district.
Rashida Tlaib’s family moved to Michigan from Palestine, and she grew up in the state, picking up a bachelor’s in political science from Wayne State University and a law degree from Western Michigan University. Tlaib worked as a staffer for State Rep. Steve Tobocman, and when Tobocman was term-limited in 2008, he convinced Tlaib to run. She served as the representative for Michigan’s 6th District in southwest Detroit from 2009 to 2014.
Since term limits pushed her out of the legislature, Tlaib has been employed as a civil rights advocate at the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice in Detroit. Through her social media profiles, she says that she continues to be “a social worker at heart.”
If elected, Tlaib would be the first Muslim to represent Michigan in Congress.
Former State Representative Shanelle Jackson
Jackson, another politician who had not yet made any intentions clear in December but who had appeared in every digest of potential candidates, said Monday that she will make her official campaign announcement “in the next two weeks.”
Yet another native, Jackson attended the political science program at the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus before getting a master’s in social justice from Marygrove College in Detroit. Jackson served as the 5th District’s representative in the State House from 2007 until 2013, and while she hasn’t held public office since then, she has been unafraid to join the fray.
At the moment, Jackson serves as the director of government relations for the Detroit International Bridge Company and director of outreach for the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan.
State Senator Ian Conyers
Two years older than John Conyers’ son, Ian is the former congressman’s grand-nephew and is likewise Detroit-born and bred. He went to University of Detroit Jesuit for high school and got an undergraduate degree in government from Georgetown University, as well as a master’s in urban and regional planning.
Ian Conyers has been working with the Democratic Party in and out of state since his early life, and he worked both as a field director for Obama’s 2012 campaign and as the party treasurer for his great-uncle’s congressional district, the 13th. When Michigan’s 4th State Senate District came up for a special election last year, he jumped at the chance to join in with the family’s political tradition, and he has been serving in Lansing since November 23, 2016.
Conyers had discussed plans to run even before his great-uncle’s resignation announcement, in what the Detroit News reported as a kind of family dust-up. But so far at least, it looks like Ian is probably the more politically suited of the two Conyers youths.
Democratic activist Michael Gilmore
Featured on our site before the John Conyers resignation as the only Democrat then willing to challenge the congressman in a primary battle, Michael Gilmore went to Cass Technical High School, studied economics at Wayne State University, and has a law degree from the University of Detroit Mercy.
Gilmore is also currently suing Governor Snyder over a decision to postpone the election until November 6 to coincide with the 2018 general.
According to his campaign bio, Gilmore has held a variety of party positions, from a staffer for U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, to director of youth outreach in Michigan’s 14th Congressional District, to regional organizational director of the DNC in Wayne County. He’s also made a name for himself as a lawyer in the city, working with homeless vets through Project Salute and with nonprofits through the partnership between law firm Brooks Kushman and Challenge Detroit.
Gilmore has also so far provided the most detailed set of positions of the potential candidates, including tuition-free education for trade schools and state universities, a living wage for Detroit, the elimination of tax loopholes for the wealthy, putting an end to foreign wars, single-payer Medicare for all, and both criminal justice and immigration reform. This should give voters a good idea of where he stands.
State Senator Coleman Young II
One of the few candidates to come from out of state, Young was born Joel Loving and grew up with his mother in California. On discovering that he was the illegitimate child of former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, he changed his name and returned to Michigan, studying but not finishing a degree at Wayne State University, and starting a radio call-in show called “The Young Effect.”
Young served in the Michigan House of Representatives from 2006 to 2010 before term-limiting out, and has been in the State Senate since 2011. An unsuccessful run against Mike Duggan for mayor in Detroit has raised Young’s name recognition.
The Detroit News reported that Young would announce his candidacy at 11 am on December 11, but as of this writing no news has come from that quarter or through Young’s social media accounts.
Still Considering, But Running Out of Time
These folks have been talking to somebody, or else their names wouldn’t be all over the Conyers news — but as of yet they haven’t taken the final step of announcing a candidacy (and thereby assuming the risk of an embarrassing loss). Likewise, with the April deadline fast approaching, their likelihood of getting into the race is diminishing daily.
State Senator David Knezek
We included Knezek as a candidate likely to enter the race in December, given that he had released a statement that seemed pretty well preliminary to a run. But now that he’s made no more moves in the intervening months, it seems safer to move Knezek back into the field of talked-about potentials who, as the filing date on April 24th approaches, seem ever less likely to join in.
Along with Mayor Bill Wild, Knezek is one of only two white candidates to consider joining the race, in a district whose residents are mostly people of color. A Michigan native, Knezek served two tours with a Marine scout sniper platoon in Iraq, returning to the state for a degree in political science from the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus. Knezek climbed to the top of college politics, becoming his class president, and ran for the Michigan House of Representatives while still a student at Dearborn.
Knezek served as the youngest-ever member of the House from 2013 to 2014, and has served as the state senator for the 5th District, Dearborn Heights, since 2015. He was voted Legislator of the Year by his peers for his work on tuition reform in the House, and serves as chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
Detroit City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield
Another candidate who has been tied into the Detroit political scene for most of her life, Sheffield is the granddaughter of Rev. Horace Sheffield, Jr., who founded the Detroit Trade Union Labor Council. Mary Sheffield is also ordained and serves as co-pastor of the New Destiny Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit.
A 70-vote loss in the 2010 primary for the 4th District of the Michigan House when Sheffield was only 22 didn’t deter her from further runs, and in 2014, at 26, Sheffield became the youngest-ever member of the Detroit City Council. Along with her council seat, Sheffield chairs or participates in a large number of other city organizations, including the Detroit Ecumenical Ministers Alliance, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, and the Detroit Association of Black Organizations.
While Sheffield hasn’t officially announced and therefore hasn’t put up any specific platform, her publicity materials at the City Council focus on her work with and advocacy for at-risk youth, especially girls, and her emphasis on mentoring programs.