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In Northern Michigan, Democratic Primary Offers A Choice for Change

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In a year of supercharged national politics and high political drama, an important U.S. Congressional election is unfolding in Northern Michigan that is symbolic of the changes in American politics following the rise of extremist candidates and agendas.

In Michigan's 1st Congressional District, a Native American social worker and local Democratic Party 'outsider,' Derek J. Bailey, is challenging the Democratic "establishment" candidate, Gary McDowell in a Democratic Primary to be held on August 7. Both hope to be the one who will take back the House seat from the incumbent Republican, Dan Benishek, on Nov. 6.

McDowell was the Democratic candidate who ran against Republican Tea Party favorite Benishek in 2010 and was handily defeated. What is significant about that election is that in a Congressional District that had been safely Democratic from 1993 to 2010, the "establishment" Democratic candidate (McDowell) lost the seat. While this has been analyzed from many perspectives, the prevailing view is that Gary McDowell lost in 2010 primarily because the voters did not accept his candidacy - he was the choice of the Democratic Party apparatus, and that didn't resonate well with the independent minded voters of Northern Michigan.

Now, McDowell is back for another try. Fundraising for his campaign from outside the District began almost as soon as the 2010 election was over. This time -- still the favored son of the Democratic insiders despite his previous loss to Benishek -- his campaign is flush with donations from coast to coast and "downstate" Democratic politicos.

His primary opponent, Bailey, began his campaign quietly in October of 2011, most unremarkably, by visiting friendly places. He spoke at county Democratic Party meetings, senior groups, potluck dinners, small business owners. He conversed with county commissioners and just about anyone who would take a few minutes to listen to him. A tall, softspoken man, Bailey's genuinely caring attitude and spiritual nature affect those who listen to him. He became known as a good listener and bridge builder.

"He (Bailey) took the time to listen to my viewpoint and showed great interest in what I had to say about the state of this country," said Judith Marie Clark of Traverse City, Michigan. "He provided me with how he would support his constituents if he were elected to Congress. He showed great passion when he spoke of the invasion of Asian carp into the Great Lakes...He feels that education is more than a normal consideration -- an economic imperitive. I found myself very impressed by him. He spoke of using grass roots contributions instead of PAC money or special interest group donations so that he can keep lobbyists at bay and concentrate on the business of the district as his uppermost priority. I began to work with him on his campaign and found myself even more impressed by his character, his willingness to listen intently, and to respond to and work with everyone he met, whether independent, liberal or conservative. To me, that is the mark of a great politician."

Bailey's campaign is gaining momentum and has attracted some Republican voters who are unhappy with Congressman Dan Benishek -- we'll call them "moderates"-- and feel that their Party has been hijacked by extremists. Such Republican voters have found something appealing in Bailey, who comes across as a candidate who is neither boastful nor overly idealistic, but rather, respectful of everyone he encounters.

"You don't have to be Native American to appreciate the core values we, the Anishinaabe people, expect from our leaders," said Catherine Holowell of the Les Cheneaux Islands area of northern Michigan. "I think we're all looking for those attributes in a candidate who will represent us in Congress and in my opinion, Derek has lived up to those ideals."

Bailey, 39, is the Chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Odawa and Chippewa Indians. He is fluent in his Native language as well as English and his father's language, Norwegian. Bailey was elected to his Tribe's Council in 2004 and in 2008 was elected Chairman. He holds a bachelor of science degree and a master of social work from Grand Valley State University and has served on several area boards and in a variety of capacities in his Tribal Nation and throughout the greater Northwest Michigan area. His service as Tribal Chairman has taken him to Lansing and Washington, D.C. where he has gained a solid reputation for fairness, hard work and leadership.

Bailey's campaign was largely overshadowed at first by all of the endorsements and contributions which came very early to the McDowell campaign. McDowell's early backers, listed on OpenSecrets.org, were primarily "downstate" Democratic politicos from East Lansing, Detroit and outside interests such as the Santa Catalina Island Company of Avalon, California; GOALPAC of Washington, D.C.; and Nancy Pelosi for Congress, to name just a few. None of the aforementioned donors replied to queries regarding their support for McDowell.

The United Auto Workers was another notable donor to the McDowell campaign.

Reached for comment, Dave Kelly, of UAW Region 1-D, said that the union's primary reason for their endorsement and donation of $10,000 awas because of his voting record on labor issues during the time he served in the Michigan State House.

But while McDowell's political persona is that of a good old hay bailing farmer, former UPS driver and former Michigan State Representative for the 107th District, the list of donors indicates that he has been rather busy outside the District at insider politics. The bulk of his financial support suggests that he's had to look outside the District for help that should have been forthcoming from within.

The questions that emerge in this race will continue to resonate in future elections following these years of extremism and gridlock. Voters are learning to ask: Who is giving you all this money from outside the District, and why for just a primary election? What do they want in return for their donations? If you are elected, how will your work be influenced by these outside supporters and whose voice will you respond to regarding important issues affecting the voters in your District?

Americans everywhere are expressing their weariness of the influence games in Washington, D.C. which prevent much-needed reforms. With a "politics as usual" style campaign, McDowell seems to be not so much the darling of the Democratic establishment as he is its hostage, and the primary election has yet to occur.

The voters of Northern Michigan certainly have their party loyalties at heart. But as this primary election unfolds, they will have a chance to show just how much they want a representative who hasn't been compromised by outside influences, deal making or machine politics.

Gary D. Horn, blogs at The Northern Michigan Democrat. This is his first piece for Off the Bus. If you're watching the politics in your area and would like to contribute as a citizen journalist to The Huffington Post's coverage of the 2012 elections, please write to us at offthebus@huffingtonpost.com.