BY: JON KING
With special primary elections set Tuesday for a pair of metro Detroit state House districts, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has endorsed Democratic candidates in each race: Mai Xiong in the 13th District and Andrea Rutkowski in the 25th District.
Whitmer is set to play a key role in the 2024 election cycle as co-chair of President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign, having done a series of abortion rights events for him this month. And she’s already garnered buzz as a potential 2028 presidential hopeful.
With both districts solidly blue, whichever Democrat prevails in each race will likely be the one to win the special general election, set for April 16. So why did the governor pick some Democrat over others?
“In simplest terms, it makes sense for the governor to endorse if she thinks one candidate will be more helpful in passing her agenda for the year,” said Democratic strategist Adrian Hemond, CEO of Lansing-based Grassroots Midwest. “I suspect that’s what’s going on here. I don’t think there are any implications for her political future other than in a governing sense. Outside of these districts, there’s very little awareness these elections are happening.”
The governor outlined a host of legislative priorities this year, from affordable housing to free community college, in her State of State address this week.
In 2022, Whitmer coasted to reelection, while Democrats won control of both the House and Senate for the first time in roughly 40 years. However, state Reps. Lori Stone (D-Warren) of the 13th District and Kevin Coleman (D-Westland) of the 25th District resigned after winning their respective mayoral bids in the Nov. 7 election.
Now the House has a 54-54 tie between Democrats and Republicans, although legislative rules allow the Democrats to retain control.
House Republicans, meanwhile, are trying to make the most out of the situation, having already shown an ability to hold up legislation and threatening to slow down the policy agenda laid out by Whitmer at her State of the State on Wednesday.
So Democratic leaders are waiting and hoping they’ll have a House majority after April 16.
Hemond added that while passions within the districts may be high, that is not the case statewide, making Whitmer’s decision to endorse easier to understand. And because of that low awareness, the potential political harm if one of her preferred candidates loses is also low.
However, not everyone is pleased with Whitmer’s decision.
“It’s almost as if somebody wanted to create an internecine conflict, similar to what’s going on in the Republican Party, and so there will be some pushback,” former state Rep. LaMar Lemmons III of Detroit told the Michigan Advance.
He is one of three candidates running in the Democratic primary for the 13th House District that includes Macomb and Wayne counties as well as the city of Warren and a small part of Detroit. The other two are Xiong, a Macomb County commissioner, and Suzanne Ostosh, executive director of Operations of Harvest Time Christian Fellowship Church in Warren.
There are also three Republicans vying for the GOP nomination: the Rev. Curtiss Ostosh (Suzanne Oshtosh’s husband), Brandon Cumbee and Ronald Singer.
Lemmons, who served in the House from 1999 to 2003 and again from 2005 to 2007, previously told the Advance he is running to bring Black representation to Warren and Detroit, after a marked decline in African Americans representing Michiganders following the redistricting process.
But when Whitmer endorsed Xiong, Lemmons said it was “unprecedented” and a “gut punch” for her to intervene before Democratic voters had an opportunity to let their voices be heard.
“I’ve received 15 pieces of mail supporting what I thought would be, quite frankly, an easy candidate to defeat if she was just left to her own devices,” said Lemmons. “But it appears as if I’m not running against Mai Ziong. In fact, I’m running against the white Democratic majority establishment. And I say that because I still retain the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus [and] the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus alumni.”
When asked for comment, Chris Jackson, the executive director of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus, told the Advance that Black representation in the Legislature matters “as does the voice of all Black Michiganders across the state.” However, as a legislative body, the caucus does not endorse candidates in elections.
A request for comment from Whitmer was not returned.
For her part, Xiong tells the Advance that while she was honored by Whitmer’s endorsement, she’s worked hard to get where she is and has never had anything just handed to her, citing her experience of coming to America at age three after her parents fled war-torn Laos during the Vietnam War and spent seven years in a refugee camp in Thailand.
“I’ve been so fortunate to have had the opportunities that I have had,” said Xiong who said she has gained solid name recognition in the district with literal leg work.
“I ran for [Warren city] clerk last year and lost by just 1,600 votes to the incumbent, but I knocked personally on 4,000 doors last year,” she said. “My team, overall, we knocked on 25,000 doors citywide, and so I have been able to go back to a lot of the people that I spoke to last year during the winter months, and people remember my name.”
But she says Whitmer’s endorsement came to her for more than just name recognition.
“I think having served on the Board of Commissioners in my second term, I’ve had some interaction with her,” she said. “So she [Whitmer] knows my work ethic and I think she’s excited for the possibility of me being in the state Legislature and making sure that we take care of working families. We’ve got very similar values and that aligns very well. I think I am the best person to represent everyone and she’s able to see that too.”
As for Lemmons’ claim that Whitmer’s endorsement opening up a racial divide, Xiong said she believes negativity is not what constituents in the district want.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to have differences, but if we can come together, I think we’re stronger than when we’re divided,” she said. “And so some of the divisiveness and the rhetoric that comes from other candidates or campaigns doesn’t work, because we have to work together in order to get things done for the district.”
Similarly, Whitmer also made an endorsement in the 25th District primary, saying she had no doubt Rutkowski, who serves as the Westland City Council president pro tem, “knows what it takes to lead for her community and … will continue her work for all families in Westland, Wayne, Canton and Dearborn Heights.”
The 25th District in Wayne County includes the cities of Wayne and Westland.
Rutkowski is facing four other Democrats in Tuesday’s primary: Wayne-Westland Community Schools Trustee Melandie Hines, Layla Taha, the program director for U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), Westland City Council member Peter Herzberg and former Michigan League of Conservation Voters Director of Partnerships Shannon Rochon.
Josh Powell of Westland is the sole Republican running in the district, and thus is expected to automatically advance to the special general election in April.
“I’m thrilled to have the support of a diverse coalition of organizations, leaders and neighbors in this race. I am honored to have the support of labor organizations like the UAW and Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters, other groups like Planned Parenthood, Giffords and Mom’s Demand Action and of course the backing of so many neighbors and elected leaders, including Governor Whitmer. This is such an important race, and we need the best Democratic candidate to advance on Tuesday to keep the seat in the Democratic caucus and continue the momentum in delivering for our community and the people of Michigan,” Rutkowski said in a statement to the Advance.
Lemmons says her endorsement by Whitmer overlooks Hines and Rochon, two other Black candidates in that race he feels are more than qualified.
“And that’s really disappointing in that our Black numbers are down,” he said. “In the Senate, there is not even a Black male senator at all for the first time in my life.”
While that may be true, there is Black representation at the top of state government with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit), who are both the first African Americans to hold those positions.
This article is republished from the Michigan Advance under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.