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Interview: Mayor Brenda Lawrence Is The Definition of An Underdog—To Get To Congress, She Has To Beat Two Incumbents & the Media

by P.D. Lesko

Brenda Lawrence (left) grew up on the northeast side of Detroit  and was raised by her grandparents; her mother died when she was three-years-old. She graduated from Detroit’s Pershing High School, and earned her bachelor’s degree in public administration from Central Michigan University. In 1997, she was elected to the Southfield City Council and in 1999 she was elected council president. In 2001, when she defeated longtime Southfield Mayor Donald Fracassi Brenda Lawrence became Southfield’s first African-American and first female mayor. When Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero ran for governor in 2010, he tapped long-time Dem Lawrence as his running mate.

Southfield, Michigan has over 78,000 residents, a city budget of $143 million and 833 city employees.

In late 2011, Lawrence announced she would be running in the newly redrawn Michigan 14th congressional district. She will face former Michigan Representative Mary Waters, U.S. Congressmen Hansen Clarke and Gary Peters, both of whom live outside the district. The 14th Congressional District is one of only two black majority Congressional districts in Michigan.

A2Politico political analyst Joseph DiSano recently explained why Michigan power brokers are lining up behind Representative Gary Peters, a white, middle-aged politico, in the Michigan 14th Congressional District race. The primary in that district has been dubbed “Michigan’s most interesting primary.” There has been continued speculation about why Representative Hansen Clarke, who is of Bangladeshi and African-American descent, chose not to challenge Representative John Conyers, but instead decided to run in the Gerrymander 500. Roll Call referred to the Michigan 14th Congressional District as one of the “ugliest” examples of gerrymandering in U.S.

Brenda Lawrence, meanwhile, decided to run for Congress in 2011, well before the Republicans in Lansing played their game of musical chairs and Representative Gary Peters found himself without a seat after the music stopped. In part, one imagines, Lawrence decided to run because she thought she could build on her political success.

In her State of the City address, delivered on March 5, 2012, Lawrence was told those present:

…[T]he city’s manufacturing sector is reviving, pointing to expansion by automotive suppliers such as Linamar and 3Point Machine. The mayor also pointed to investment from other sectors, including the opening of an expanded emergency department at St. John Providence Hospital, the city’s largest employer, and an emerging technology corridor on Telegraph Road. Another company, 1-800-Law-Firm, moved its national headquarters to Southfield. Affiliated Diagnostics converted a former florist space into a new medical technology center and mobile MRI unit, and Serra Chevrolet completed a new facility, complete with wind turbines.

It’s an enviable track record.

Despite the job creation in her city, unions such as the UAW and SEIU have lined up behind Representative Gary Peters. Peters has the campaign finances of a classic Washington insider: in 2011 the majority of his campaign funds came from PACs, not his own constituents/individuals. According to campaign finance records, Peters took money in 2011 from PACs of many corporations that mainstream media revealed to be among the country’s top 25 corporate tax dodgers: DTE PAC, Ford Motor Company PAC,  Raytheon PAC, Boeing Company PAC and Dow Chemical PAC. Most of these companies paid zero federal income taxes in 2011. Peters also took PAC funds from companies skittering away from the recent Rush Limbaugh PR disaster: Capitol One and Quicken Loans. As of December 2011, Rep. Hansen Clarke’s campaign was sitting on $500,000, and Peters’s campaign had pulled in over $1.2 million dollars. Lawrence is “funding raising very aggressively,” according to a source inside her campaign.

Michigan political analysts (and even some comments on her campaign Facebook page) call the Lawrence campaign a long shot. Those who are more Machiavellian, accuse her of trying to split the black vote in order to torpedo Hansen Clarke’s chances. However, officials from the Lawrence campaign indicate that Michigan Democratic Party officials may be none too happy with her entry into the race. The MDP is refusing to give Lawrence access to voter records normally made available to Democratic candidates running in state and national primaries.

Can Mayor Brenda Lawrence beat two sitting Congressman to become Michigan’s representative from a district that encompasses both some of the richest and poorest of the state’s residents? It’s the kind of political challenge that brings to mind the great political underdog stories, most notably her opponent, Representative Hansen Clarke, who toppled the powerful Representative Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick. One thing is certain: in economic downtowns, underdogs appeal to the electorate. A2Politico caught up with Mayor Lawrence to talk about her race to represent Michigan’s 14th Congressional District.

A2P: The new 14th includes some of the wealthiest (West Bloomfield) and poorest (Pontiac) state residents thanks to what “Roll Call” recently called the nation’s “ugliest example of gerrymandering.” Rep. Peters is sitting on over $1 million in campaign cash, and Rep. Clarke had $500,000 on hand as of January 2012. Is raising money going to be tougher with four candidates in the race?

Mayor Lawrence: Our new congressional district is a result of the concerted Republican redistricting power grab, but the lines are set for the next decade.  Detroit and Oakland County will be represented by the same congressperson.  I strongly believe our culturally and socioeconomically diverse communities in the new 14th district will be sources of strength.

Our campaign is actively fundraising and using a grassroots strategy in getting our message out.  The new 14th is one of the most progressive districts in Michigan.  Recent political history is full of candidates who lost Democratic primaries despite fundraising advantages due to their being out of step with the voters.

This campaign is engaged in a direct election to win the privilege of representing the new 14th in the United States House of Representatives.  I am the best representative of our diverse constituencies and the best messenger of our shared priorities. No amount of campaign cash can change that.

A2P: Michigan political analyst Bill Ballenger was reported recently as saying: “The bottom line is this, it’s [the 14th] a majority African American district, but the more black candidates get in, the better it is for Gary Peters,…(Waters) will take votes from Clarke in Detroit and Lawrence will take votes from Clarke in Southfield.” Comments on race and its potential to split the vote in this Congressional primary?

Mayor Lawrence: I stand proudly on a legacy of being inclusive, responsive and respectful of multicultural constituencies.  I have an established record of being inclusive and a 20 year political career of being elected by a very diverse constituency.  I am running on a record of being a successful mayor of a city that is a model for others to follow.  I am the candidate who is best able to appeal to both Oakland and Wayne County Democratic primary voters.

The national policy debate is drawing sharp attention to the need for more women in Congress. Of our fifteen current seats, only one is held by a woman: a conservative Republican. Michigan currently has no Democratic women in our delegation and I am the strongest candidate to reverse that trend.  That matters a great deal to progressive Democratic primary voters.   Moreover, the number of women elected to Congress in recent history is declining.  It has been proven that when a woman is at the table the conversation changes.

Moreover, of all announced candidates, I was on every voter’s ballot in 2010. I was enthusiastically nominated by our party as the first African-American lieutenant governor major party candidate in our state’s history. That was not the first time I made history, as I defeated a longtime (and, I should add, better funded) incumbent to be the first African-American and first female Southfield Mayor. I would again make history as the first African-American and first female Member of Congress from Oakland County.

If you look objectively at who will make up the majority of voters in this district’s Democratic primary, they are people I’ve known throughout my life and touched throughout my 20-plus years in public service in Oakland County. There is value in having lifelong bonds with those who you seek to represent in Washington.  I was raised by my grandmother and grew up on Lumpkin Street with these Detroit primary voters.  I graduated from Pershing High School with these Detroit primary voters.

When the vote totals are known on election night, I am confident that I will garner strong support from both female and male voters, black and white voters, Hispanic, Jewish and Chaldean voters, Detroit and suburban voters.

I am a strong candidate with a strong and growing base in this district.  As Mayor I am strongly connected to my constituents and work hard to represent my constituents and am humbled by their continued support.  We are a strongly Democratic city – and we vote in substantial numbers.

A2P: What do you see as Washington, D.C.’s role in helping with Detroit’s/Michigan’s economic recovery? How would you rate Washington D.C.’s efforts to get Michigan on the road to recovery over the past 3 years?

Mayor Lawrence: I strongly believe if you want to know the health of a country, take the temperature of its cities.  I have 20 years of fighting to get federal support and policy in support of our local units of government.  I have that experience and am uniquely qualified to connect the dots between local and federal government.  I understand the relationship and the means that are required to get support and assistance into cities and neighborhoods.

The investment in our infrastructure and our roads is lacking.  President Obama’s support of our auto industry was critical for Michigan.  I was proud to be leading a team of mayors walking the halls of Congress fighting for the auto bailout that proved to be a lifeline.  The gridlock in the current Congress has been a roadblock for our recovery.

A2P: Mayor Lawrence you said that, “It’s time to let the boys in Congress go home.” With an approval rating of under 12 percent, it would seem that Americans are more fed up than ever with Congress, and would like to send everyone home in 2012. Do you think the current unpopularity of Congress among voters could open the door a bit wider for one of the non-incumbents in the 14th?

Mayor Lawrence: There is no incumbent in this race. Candidly, I’m the only one who lives in the 14th District between Clarke, Lawrence and Peters – and I’ve lived in this district my entire life. My comments, in part, were meant to underscore how Congress is dominated by men.  I think Democratic primary voters share my frustration and that does open the door a bit wider than usual for my candidacy.

The latest surveys show that only 10 percent approve of the job Congress is doing.  At the end of the day, the institution isn’t living up to our expectations and isn’t meeting our needs. We can keep doing the same thing and voting for the same people, or we can make a change for the better.

This is a period of political uncertainty and transition. Since this is the first election when these lines are in place, now is the time for voters decide who they want to be their voice at the federal level. I am campaigning to be that voice.

A2P: In 2011, Rep. Conyers suggested that the state’s expanded Emergency Manager law is not Constitutional. Where do you stand on the state’s use of Emergency Managers versus allowing cities to declare bankruptcy? Where do you stand on the appointment of an EM for Detroit?

Mayor Lawrence: I strongly oppose Public Act 4 and the imposition of Emergency Managers by the state. I agree that it is clearly unconstitutional. In that same vein, I am ardently opposed to the imposition of an Emergency Manager for Detroit. With my over ten years as Mayor of Southfield and over twenty years of local public service, I am uniquely positioned to speak out with insight and passion against the state’s expanded Emergency Manager law.

Unlike others in this race, I’m not belatedly jumping onto the anti-Emergency Manager bandwagon. I’ve been standing in solidarity with these distressed communities and speaking out against these unconstitutional power grabs. When I get to Congress I will rattle the cages along with Congressman Conyers for this fundamental democratic cause.  I am acutely aware of the financial stress on the revenue situation of cities all over Michigan.  They are in need of support and guidance, however PA 4 is not a solution but rather an attack on the democracy of home rule and the right to elected representation.

A2P: Political analyst Bill Ballenger called the suggestion “silly” that EM appointments are targeting the state’s Black majority cities. Are EMs saving failing communities, or are the EMs robbing Michigan’s Black residents of their right to elected local government?

Mayor Lawrence: It may not be by design and it may not be consciously intentional, but that is obviously the reality we’re faced with in Michigan. There are numerous school districts and municipalities that are facing similarly dire circumstances, yet, they are not placed under emergency management.

The core issue, however, is the fundamental dismantling and discarding of our constitutional rights as citizens. Our revolution was fought over these core issues of taxation without representation and the right to redress our grievances. These democratic values are under siege and I refuse to stand by silently.

A2P: What makes you the best choice to represent Michigan’s 14th Congressional District?

Mayor Lawrence: I am a passionate, progressive leader for Detroit and Michigan who has a proven record of fighting for our families and taking on tough battles.

When I am in Congress, I will aggressively introduce legislation that makes our national policies more progressive and fight for their passage. I will be proud to support President Obama’s agenda only when it moving our country forward and improving our quality of life in the 14th district.  I will join the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

I am a resident and public servant in this district, and I’ve lived in this district my entire life. That connection to the constituents matters to me as a voter. The families in our communities deserve a voice who knows their struggle and can effectively speak for them and vote in their interest. My many successful years as Southfield Mayor demonstrates my ability to represent highly diverse communities.

When I am in Congress, we will have a Democratic woman representing us once again and rightfully boost the number of women serving. I will be an active member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and proactively work to boost the number of Democrats elected to Congress in districts around the country.  I also believe we need to stand strong with our friends, such as Israel.

The needs of our families and serving our district will be my central focus. I will be more engaged in the communities, making the federal government work for our families. I will be focused on connecting the dots to improve education for all the children in this district.  I will be passionate about improving the infrastructure in this district.  I will be partnering with community leaders in education to get our people back to work.

The economic challenges facing our Wayne and Oakland County families are serious. We need a passionate, progressive leader to address these challenges. I am honored by the growing support for my campaign for Congress and I look forward to securing the Democratic nomination this August. 

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