Democratic voters in Michigan's newly drawn 6th state house district will have the unenviable choice of picking between two incumbents during Tuesday's primary. The upcoming vote pits current 4th district State Rep. Maureen Stapleton against her colleague in the 12th district, State Rep. Rashida Tlaib. Patrick D. O'Connell of Ecorse (who ran as a Republican in 2008) is also vying for the Democratic spot on the November ballot.
Due to redistricting by state Republicans, the district's new boundaries now stretch roughly from Detroit's Indian Village neighborhood along the Detroit River, down past River Rouge and into the city of Ecorse. The redrawn district includes residents from both Stapleton's and Tlaib's current constituencies.
Bill Ballenger, the editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, said the battle for 6th district is one of the most closely contested in the state.
"Of all the races pitting incumbents against one another -- there are three others -- this one to me is the hardest one to predict," he said.
Both candidates have reputations as tough campaigners, Ballenger added.
"Tlaib is more aggressive. She's a hard charger," he said "Stapleton had to overcome a big field two years ago to win her Democratic primary to get elected in the first place, so she's no slouch when it comes to campaigning either."
Noting that Tlaib is Michigan's first Muslim-American state representative, while Stapleton is African-American, Ballenger said demographics, particularly ethnicity, could play a role in Tuesday's primary.
The district is a 59.4% black district. Stapleton represents 30% of the district. [Tlaib] represents 38% of the district. 48.8% of the portion of the district represented by [Tlaib] is Hispanic. 57.8% of the 'new' part of the district is black.
Although this would appear to favor Stapleton, Ballenger cautions that Tlaib has a history of winning support from a diverse pool of voters. Ultimately, it may be the candidates' visions, personalities and voting records that clinch the race.
Although Stapleton, 49, has only been a state representative since 2010, she has an extensive history in public service, working as teacher for Detroit Public Schools and holding a variety of administrative positions in municipal and county government. The daughter of a Detroit teacher and Detroit police officer, she grew up on the city's northwest side.
Her priorities as a legislator include public safety, rolling back portions of the Driver Responsibility Act (which added hefty fees to various driving offenses) and fighting childhood obesity, according to a questionnaire she submitted to the Detroit Free Press.
In May she introduced legislation that would allow Detroit and 40 other Michigan communities to create public authorities responsible for municipal lighting. The measure has since passed the state house. The Detroit Regional Chamber, The Small Business Association of Michigan and the Detroit Police Officers Association have endorsed her sixth district bid.
Stapleton's opponent Rep. Talib, first elected in 2008, is a progressive firebrand who also happens to be the first Muslim woman to serve in Michigan's legislature. Born and raised in southwest Detroit, she is the daughter of Palestinian immigrant parents and the eldest of 14 children. The 36-year-old legislator got her start in politics working as a policy analyst for former Democratic Floor Leader Steve Tobocman, whose seat she won after term limits ended his House career. Prior to that she was involved in nonprofit work and grassroots activism, advocating for progressive justice issues like affirmative action.
Tlaib, a married mother of two, told The Huffington Post her highest priorities are public safety and education. Her public safety initiatives include sponsoring a bipartisan bill to address scrap metal theft and working with the 36th District Court to establish a community court in Southwest Detroit. The court, based on a model developed in Red Hook Brooklyn, would offer alternatives to incarceration for "quality-of-life" crimes like prostitution, small-time burglary and vandalism.
Not content with simply legislating from Lansing, Tlaib has also put her energy into activities that she says "raise the bar" for what people expect from a state representative.
Drawing on her background as a grassroots organizer, she has organized sit-ins, personally blocking traffic in order to raise awareness about issues like the closing of a local high school in her district. She also maintains a neighborhood service center in southwest Detroit that allows her to keep in touch with her constituents and help them with tasks like filling out taxes and navigating mortgage paperwork. And Tlaib's been one of of the most vocal critics of the Detroit International Bridge Company and its owner, Matty Moroun.
"I don't think we're cutting it, when we just go up and vote or we offer amendments," she said of her sometimes unorthodox approach to public service. "You've got to go beyond that, because [otherwise] you're not going to be able to change your neighborhood or really impact peoples lives immediately."
If there is a wild card in the sixth district Senate race, it's education. Tlaib opposes state-led efforts to tinker with Detroit's public school system and has been endorsed by the Michigan Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.
Stapleton, however, faces opposition from teachers unions' because of her her support last year of Public Acts 101 and 102, Republican-sponsored measures that weakened teacher tenure.
Reports say Stapleton also has announced the recent disclosure of an independent $40,000 SuperPAC contribution from Parents And Teachers For Putting Students First, a group linked to the controversial "anti-union" and "pro-charter" education advocate Michelle Rhee.
According to Ballenger of Inside Michigan Politics, the SuperPAC money could benefit Stapleton if used effectively, but could also hurt her campaign, if it rallies teachers and their supporters against her.
"$40,000 in a race like that could be a game changer," he said.
Gongwer News Service reports that the UAW has dropped its joint endorsement of Stapleton and Tlaib, and is instead only backing Ms. Tlaib, in response to the group's support of Stapleton.
Rep. Stapleton did not respond to multiple requests for an interview with The Huffington Post.
Find out more about some of Michigan's most contentious races below:
Flickr Photo by kristin_a (Meringue Bake Shop)
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that Rep. Stapleton's campaign had accepted funds from the Parents And Teachers For Putting Students First SuperPAC.
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