Walking down a Woodbridge street peppered with lawn signs blaring the names of Robinson, Banks, Hassan and Hollier, it's immediately clear that there are no obvious winners in the wide-open 4th District election for the Michigan House.
11 Democrats are competing in the Aug. 7 primary for the newly drawn House seat, which represents a diverse group of constituents in Hamtramck and Detroit. While some boast long public service records, the open seat allowed four young candidates, all men -- Marcelus Brice, 28, Adam Hollier, 26, Mervin White, 24 and Jonathan Wright, 26 -- to jump headfirst into the race with vigor.
(Rep. Maureen Stapleton, who currently represents the 4th District, has been redrawn into the 6th, where she is running against Rep. Rashida Tlaib.)
"When you see an open seat, that's maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Jonathan Wright. He's a Virginia native who went to University of Michigan for undergrad, and then law school out-of-state, before moving to Detroit to start a life with his new wife (they married just days before the election).
Wright sees himself as the most conservative of the Democratic candidates, which he says would be a boon in the House; Wright anticipates that he'll be able to makes friend across the aisle. Despite his confidence, his down-to-earth attitude can approach cynicism when he's asked about the power of a state Rep. to make big changes, as well as his ability to win -- at least this time around.
"State Reps. can make a difference, but they really can't ensure it," he said. "You've got a lot of guys running thinking they can change everything ASAP. I'd pick little things I know I can focus on. I'm not making these broad, sweeping white-knight-type comments and gestures."
One of those "little things" would be crime. Wright believes he could find support in the legislature for a proposal to bring state troopers into the city of Detroit.
While every young candidate says crime is a major issue, they each bring a different approach to the table.
"What I found out from my community," said Marcelus Brice, speaking of senior citizens, "is they're used to these prescription [drug] prices. What they're not used to be is being afraid to go to the corner store."
Brice, who grew up in Detroit, ran for the House seat two years ago in the old District 4 and has previously worked as president of the MorningSide Community Association and as chair of the Michigan Midtown Democratic Party. He wants to increase the minimum sentence for those who commit crimes against senior citizens, which he says is an increasing problem, while putting more DPD patrol officers on the street to help lower the city's higher-than-average emergency response time.
Brice is also a part-owner of the clothing line Mark England Collection, a resume line that he believes sets him apart from other candidates.
"I know what it's like to create a job," he said.
Crime is also a key issue for Mervin White, who is considering a proposal (which he acknowledges as unpopular) to minimize auto theft by requiring identification to purchase gas. He would also plan to address the city's darkened streetlights and neighborhood blight. The youngest candidate and a native Detroiter, Wright says attending an online university allowed him the time and flexibility to get a jump-start on his public service career. He's interned for Sen. Carl Levin, Congressman John Conyers, Jr. and former Governor Jennifer M. Granholm.
Adam Hollier, the candidate endorsed by the Detroit Free Press and News, points to his community involvement as a strong point. In conversation, he takes a different approach to crime and its negative impact on the city, speaking instead about what's positive.
"It's [about] making Detroit the kind of place you want to live, the kind of place where your dreams are possible," he said. More than safety, transportation is at the top of his agenda, as well as strong neighborhoods and schools.
"We need to do a regional transit authority," Hollier added. "For too long we just haven't made it an issue we're willing to fight for … and it's number one on my agenda."
Hollier grew up in Detroit and returned to the city after he graduated from Cornell University, buying a home near where he was raised. The former chief of staff for state Sen. Bert Johnson received his Master of Urban Planning from the University of Michigan.
While the four candidates differ on issues and approaches, they do have some similarities. Each lives in Detroit rather than Hamtramck. And they all have quick retorts ready for those who would question their youth and readiness for office.
"I was able to work at the grassroots level and go to the senior homes," White said. "They called me fresh blood -- someone coming in who isn't really caught up in the politics of politics. Being a young person, I'm optimistic, [with] the talent and energy to get things done."
Brice agreed with his opponent.
"If you look at the history of this country, progressive change has always come from young folks, if you look at the Civil Rights era, that was college kids," he said.
"My age ... keeps me grounded and keeps me in tune with what's going on in society."
The 4th House district is not the only local race where a youthful candidate seeks to triumph over an experienced pol. Over in the 12th Congressional District, 25-year-old Daniel Marcin has gone on the offensive in his campaign against veteran incumbent Congressman John Dingell. The young environmentalist candidate, employed as an economist, uses the campaign website www.no30thterm.com, in reference to Dingell's long service record in the U.S. House.
"John Dingell acts like he's Mr. Senior Congressman," Marcin told AnnArbor.com. "If that's the case, he's going to have to own it. So anything that hasn't gotten done, I'm going to blame him for."
Dingell later took his own shot at his opponents, both Marcin and two others with little experience.
“I never thought ignorance or inexperience was a qualification for running for office,” he told Dearborn Patch.
Along with other young politicians, Brice doesn't see his age as a hindrance, or even, really, all that young.
"I do have some life experience," he says. "I think it's a perfect age."
Below, take a look at some of the other contentious races in the Michigan's August 2012 primaries.