Waters, Harper say Black representation in Congress matters for Michigan •

The Michigan congressional delegation currently has one African-American member, U.S. Rep. John James (R-Sterling Heights).

But neither seat encompassing Detroit, the nation’s largest Black city, is held by an African-American representative. The 12th District seat is represented by U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), who is Palestinian-American, and U.S. Rep. Shri Thanedar (D-Detroit), who immigrated from India, holds the 13th District seat.

Michigan has had a Black member of Congress since 1955. Will that change in 2023?

Michigan also has never had a Black U.S. senator.

Those facts were on the minds of two candidates who held press conferences at last week’s Mackinac Policy Conference, Detroit City Councilwoman Mary Waters, who is challenging Thanedar, and actor Hill Harper, who is seeking the open U.S. Senate seat.

Waters, a former state House member who is Black, told the Advance in a May 30 interview at the conference that representation for Black Michiganders is very important.

“We’ve got to have somebody there who understands the unique needs of African Americans. Because we do have some unique needs — some of the things that we should be fighting for, when it comes to voting rights, for example,” Waters said.

She said that insurance redlining is an example of an issue that impacts African Americans and needs to be addressed by policymakers.

“So some of our issues are very unique, but we can also find a way to pull everybody together, so that we are addressing everybody’s needs,” Waters said. “That’s why I want to arm myself with the type of staff, too, who understands … that everybody in the 13th Congressional District is important.”

Waters added that she wanted to take “a page out of John Dingell’s book” in representing the district. Dingell was the longest-serving member of Congress in history who died in 2019.  

“John Dingell was the kind of congressman who had the ability to just bring this whole Downriver community together. He talked to the local municipalities [and asked], ‘What is it that you need? I’m in D.C.; what should I be doing? You know. that’s the kind of leadership that we need,” she said.

Detroit City Councilwoman Mary Waters after her press conference at the Mackinac Policy Conference, May 30, 2024 | Susan J. Demas

When asked which members of Michigan’s congressional delegation she would work closest with, Waters said, “I can work with all of them. I mean, I’ve known [U.S. Sen.] Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) a long time. I know Debbie [Stabenow] won’t be there anymore. I’ll get to know [U.S. Rep.] Elissa [Slotkin] (D-Holly) or Hill Harper, with whoever wins [the Senate race]. I’ve known Hill for about nine years or something like that. So I don’t meet strangers.”

Waters was endorsed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan during a press conference that day, with Duggan touting Waters’ ability to represent Detroit. Several other officials joined him, including Reps. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit), Kimberly Edwards (D-Eastpointe) and Alabas Farhat (D-Dearborn).

Duggan’s endorsement was “so wonderful” and will help with fundraising, Waters told the Advance.

“I so appreciate it and I appreciate the fact that I’ve been able to work with him,” Waters added. “He wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to work with me when I first got elected to [the Detroit City Council], but it turns out I’m like one of his best partners in terms of getting some things done.”

Thanedar defended his record on delivering for Detroiters in a text message to the Advance and said he’s “confident they will send me back to Washington for another term.” He noted that he’s won the Detroit vote in every election he’s run in. 

“Detroit has always stood with me and I remember that everyday in Congress,” he said.

Former state Sen. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit), who is African American, also was challenging Thanedar in the Democratic primary, but was disqualified from the ballot. Martell Bivings, who lost to Thanedar in 2022, is the sole Republican running.

U.S. Rep. Shri Thanedar (D-Detroit) speaks to reporters before greeting President Joe Biden in Detroit on Sept. 26, 2023. Biden visited Michigan to join striking United Auto Workers members on the picket line in Wayne County. (Andrew Roth/)

Meanwhile, the race for Michigan’s U.S. Senate seat, which is being vacated by retiring U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), has already gotten somewhat heated. 

Harper, who is African American, and Slotkin, who is white, are facing off in the Democratic primary, after businessman Nasser Beydoun was kicked off the ballot, although he’s filed a lawsuit. Two other Black candidates, Michigan School Board President Pamela Pugh and former state Rep. Leslie Love (D-Detroit), both dropped out of the race.

At the conference, Harper, an attorney and actor best known for the show, “The Good Doctor,” criticized the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce for canceling the bipartisan U.S. Senate debate after former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-White Lake) and Slotkin said they weren’t participating, but aimed most of his fire at Slotkin.

“There’s so many people out here across Michigan — I’ve been to all 83 counties —folks that don’t feel represented by their federal delegation,” Harper said during a May 30 press conference. “The fact that Elissa Slotkin pulled out of this debate is yet another example of the lack of representation that folks feel.”

On the GOP side, physician Sherry O’Donnell, former U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (I-Cascade Twp.) and businessman Sandy Pensler also are running.

Harper sought to draw distinctions between his positions and Slotkin’s record.

“She may have pulled out because she didn’t want me to talk about the fact that she didn’t co-sponsor the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act. Maybe she pulled out of the debate because she didn’t want me to talk about that. She didn’t co-sponsor the Cannabis and Expungement Act,” he said.

Slotkin voted for the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act, which stalled after the U.S. Senate didn’t act on reforms. She also voted for the Cannabis and Expungement Act.

On Friday, Harper spoke at a rally at the Michigan Capitol against police brutality in Grand Rapids alongside attorney Ben Crump and the families of those killed at the hands of police — Samuel Sterling, Patrick Lyoya and Riley Doggett.

Harper also made the case that he was more progressive than Slotkin on other issues, including student loan forgiveness and the Israel-Hamas war. And he challenged Slotkin to four debates before the Aug. 6 primary.

In his press conference on Mackinac Island, Harper noted he’s the only Detroiter in the U.S. Senate race and touted his endorsements from African-American leaders, including Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, former U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield), state Rep. Stephanie Young (D-Detroit) and state Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit). 

Former U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence takes questions from reporters following a press conference for U.S. Senate candidate Hill Harper. | Kyle Davidson

“Detroit has one the highest percentages of African Americans in the country. And I’m very proud of that. I’m very proud when our country is represented by the diversity that we have,” Lawrence said at the news conference. 

She noted that Harper talked to her for a long time before she endorsed him about his goals in the Senate.

“The fact that I have opportunity and my legacy to say that I promoted and get one of the few African Americans [elected to the U.S. Senate] is important to me. But it’s important to me what he stands for and his commitment to children and his commitment to medical issues. … Please, Lord, send someone to the Senate and to Congress that’s not trying to fit the political prototype and has fallen in line that would have the courage to stand up and fight for the things that we need in this arena. … I feel and I stand firmly that I feel that Hill Harper would be the best candidate.”

In a Monday interview with Slotkin, the Advance noted Michigan has never had an African-American senator, and asked her about some leaders stressing the importance of representation in their support for Harper. 

“I think there’s absolutely going to be African-American senators and governors. We have a lieutenant governor [Garlin Gilchrist] [and have had a] secretary of state [Richard Austin]. The days where it was common wisdom that an African-American person couldn’t win statewide are gone, and I think we’ve obliterated that,” Slotkin said. 

Slotkin, who was first elected in 2018 and has won all her elections in GOP-leaning districts, emphasized her record.

“I just think in this particular race, I have the receipts. I’ve been working in the job and can demonstrate what I’ve done, not just for my congressional district but for the state. When we think about a Senate that could be 50-50 — that literally if Michigan doesn’t win the election, we could turn the entire Senate Republican — and then we just can’t take any chances,” she said. 

“Then secondly, when I think about being in the job, how do you deliver results? Having some background in working the system to bring home things for Michigan is important. That, to me, is the difference between someone who has never worked in any policy realm on any substantive legislative issue versus someone who’s been nugging it out as a congresswoman, bringing things home for her community.”

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin speaks in Traverse City, May 31, 2024 | Susan J. Demas

Advance reporter Kyle Davidson contributed to this story.

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authored by Susan J. Demas
First published at https%3A%2F%2Fmichiganadvance.com%2F2024%2F06%2F08%2Fwaters-harper-say-black-representation-in-congress-matters-for-michigan%2F

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