SOUTHFIELD (AP) – Two years after knocking off a 14-year incumbent in the Democratic primary, U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke is at risk of becoming a one-hit wonder.
With Michigan’s congressional map significantly redrawn to erase a seat due to a drop in the state’s population, Clarke has been pitted against a fellow Democratic congressman and suburban mayor in what was expected to be one of the state’s most grueling primary races.
The newly drawn 14th District is diverse, combining some of the poorest and wealthiest pockets in the Detroit area – from the gritty urban banks of the Detroit River to the million-dollar homes of West Bloomfield.
There is little doubt that a Democrat will win the seat in November, so the Aug. 7 primary election is the real contest.
Clarke, who shocked Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick in 2010, appears to be an underdog again as endorsements and campaign cash flow to U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, whose home turf is Oakland County, where almost half the district’s voters live.
“You don’t need endorsements. You don’t need campaign money,” Clarke, a Detroit resident, said when asked about Peters’ support. “You need to have a drive to help people. You do that and you’re straight with folks, they’ll hire you.”
Peters, a two-term congressman, former state lawmaker and ex-lottery director, said it’s the first time in decades that a Detroit-area district includes a large chunk of the city and the Oakland County suburbs north of an infamous divide, Eight Mile Road.
“There are commonalities: People want a good-paying job. They want to have the ability to have quality health care. They want to have the ability to retire with dignity,” Peters said.
On key issues, there’s not much separating Clarke, 55, and Peters, 53. Both support the government bailouts for General Motors and Chrysler, and the nation’s new health care law recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Clarke is considered one of the most liberal members of Congress, with his votes following the Democratic Party line more than 90 percent of the time.
Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence also is in the Democratic primary after an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor in 2010. She is emphasizing the value of sending a woman to Washington.
To learn more about Detroit, Peters said he’s regularly in the city, even riding buses to talk to people. He met a woman who spends more than six hours a day riding or waiting for buses to take her to a job on the midnight shift and also transport her children to school.
“That’s outrageous,” said Peters, who considers a regional transportation system a “moral issue” and one that needs federal aid.
Although Peters has been in Congress just two years longer than Clarke, he is collecting most endorsements from unions as well as business groups such as the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. He’s also getting support from pastors of some of Detroit’s largest black churches, even though Clarke is from the city and has an inspiring up-from-bootstraps biography.
The Rev. Charles Williams II, pastor of King Solomon Baptist Church, considers Peters to be a more effective member of Congress. He also has a bad taste from 2010 when Clarke challenged Kilpatrick, the mother of disgraced former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, when she had clout as a high-ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee.
“He decided to play on the fears of the people and use her son against her. That is not clean politics,” Williams said.
Clarke makes no apologies for knocking Kilpatrick out of Congress.
“I’m the one guy who has defeated aspects of Detroit’s political machine that have failed Detroiters,” he said.
Clarke believes government can play a crucial role in an ailing economy by forgiving some student loans and reducing mortgage balances. But he also preaches personal responsibility.
“Don’t blame the white man, learn how to read, focus on education – that’s how you get pride and self-respect,” said Clarke, who is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
Clarke has skipped some candidate forums due to what he called “race-baiting” by other candidates who claim his late mother actually wasn’t black, but he hasn’t named the candidates. Clarke, who has long maintained his mother was black and father was Bangladeshi, said it’s a desperate attempt to discourage blacks in Detroit from voting for him.
Medgar Clark, who is black, runs a Detroit-based foundation and supports Clarke, said it won’t work.
“When people recognize you’re from Mack and Baldwin,” he said of Clarke’s Detroit roots, “they know you’re from the neighborhood.”
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