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.
Michigan Primary 2012: Politicians On The Line
2012 will go down in history as one of Michigan's most contested primary election seasons. A Republican-led redrawing of voting districts eliminated stronghold Democratic seats and pitted party members against each other. Political careers are on the line in these important races for Michiganders voting on Tuesday, August 7.
13th District: John Conyers, D-Detroit
U.S. Rep. John Conyers, 83, is in the fight of his political life. The co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus is running against a crowded field in the new 13th Congressional District, which is now about 40 percent white. He may also be weakened by the scandal caused by his wife, Monica Conyers, still in federal prison after accepting bribes as a member of Detroit City Council. Can Conyers hang on for a 24th term? Caption: Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, attends a congressional round-table on college sports, offering their perspectives on current state of NCAA athletics, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
13th District: Glenn Anderson, D-Westland
The new 13th Congressional District's voting population includes residents from the Pointes, Detroit's East Side, and Downriver communities like River Rouge and Wyandotte. Conyers' fiercest opponent is Glenn Anderson, a former Ford employee with six years' experience in the state Senate. He says he supports urban policies like funding public transportation, improving broadband access across Detroit and working with banks to renegotiate mortgages in troubled neighborhoods.
14th District: Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Twp.
Rather than unsettle fellow Democrat Sander Levin following Michigan's new redistricting, two-term Representative Gary Peters declared his candidacy in the 14th. Long the frontrunner of the election, Peters' veritable scroll of endorsements runs the gamut, from Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper to the Detroit Regional Chamber to the Black Slate. He also leads his race in campaign fundraising for 2012.
14th District: Hanson Clarke, D-Detroit
Like opponent Gary Peters, freshman U.S. Representative Hanson Clarke jumped to the 14th in 2012, when new district lines would have pitted him against John Conyers. Clarke has made headlines by sponsoring a bill calling for student loan forgiveness, taking Fannie Mae to task over local mortgage disputes and even badgering President Obama to direct federal aid to Detroit. Yet those populist initiatives still haven't resonated with the 14th's voters, who are polling strongly for Peters. Caption: US Representative Hansen Clarke, Democrat of Michigan, speaks on June 24, 2011 during an interview with Agence France-Presse.
Michigan Senate: Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Holland
Pete Hoekstra's notoriety may help him clinch the Republican nomination to challenge Debbie Stabenow's Senate seat in November. Hoekstra's taken some hits this year for raking in lobbyist fees and airing a racially-charged campaign ad during the Super Bowl. And his bid for governor in 2010 didn't go far. Good pub or bad, all those things have helped make Hoekstra the only truly statewide name stepping up to challenge Stabenow. Caption: In this June 28, 2010 photo then U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra is shown in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Michigan Senate: Clark Durant, R-Grosse Pointe Farms
Cornerstone Schools CEO Clark Durant has created a successful, profitable charter education model in the city of Detroit. Perhaps it was too successful for Durant-- his $500,000 salary raised eyebrows during the campaign. And while Durant touts himself as the "Rebel With A Cause," his core issues don't stray too far from the traditional Republican platform. He still trails Hoekstra in the Republican primary.
11th District: Kerry Bentivolio, R-Milford
Teacher, veteran, Reagan enthusiast and.. reindeer farmer! There are no shortage of twists in the 11th District this year. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter suddenly resigned his seat a few weeks after it was revealed that he had turned in far fewer valid signatures than required to secure a spot in the primary election. Kerry Bentivolio, who had already entered the primary, was left as the heir apparent of the 11th District. Bentivolio doesn't have support of the state's GOP heads -- but he HAS secured the endorsement of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).
11th District: Former Rep. Nancy Cassis, R-Novi
Nancy Cassis hadn't planned to run against Rep. Thaddeus McCotter. But when McCotter dropped out, leaving the 11th District with a political newbie, reindeer farmer Kerry Bentivolio, as the only Republican primary candidate, Cassis began to campaign as a write-in choice. Unbelievably, the former state representative is currently leading Bentivolio in the polls. It's reported that she has the support of the Michigan GOP party. And both Bentivolio and Cassis are running as candidates in the special Sept. 5 election to fill the last three months of McCotter's seat. The price tag for the election? A cool $650,000. Caption: This undated photo released by the congressional campaign of Nancy Cassis shows Cassis, a Republican from Novi, Mich. She is running as a write-in candidate for the U.S. House seat that was held by U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Livonia, until his resignation earlier in July, 2012.
6th District: Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit
Rep. Rashida Tlaib is facing not just an opponent, but a friend in the battle over voters within the new lines of the 6th District representative's seat. She's made her name in Detroit voicing the concerns of Southwest Detroiters caught in the bridge battle between Gov. Rick Snyder and billionaire Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun. Tlaib, the daughter of two Palestinian immigrants, is the first Muslim-American woman to be elected to the Michigan legislature. However, she currently represents less than 40% of the district's total population.
6th District: Rep. Maureen Stapleton, D-Detroit
While Rep. Maureen Stapleton only has one term of experience, she's had almost two decades experience working in the city governments of Indianapolis and Detroit. This District 4 incumbent has taken Tlaib to task for opposing municipal lighting authorities to keep streetlights on -- Tlaib says she wants LED lights and guarantees that the money will be spent wisely. Stapleton's advantage may be that the new 6th District has gained a significant African-American population. Politicos say this will be one of the closest statehouse races in Metro Detroit.