In primaries across Michigan, next Tuesday’s ballot reflects political drama that is playing out on the national scene: A Republican Party in identity crisis.
But that's far from the only story that will unfold Tuesday.
Voters also will decide on a critical, if complicated, tax proposal that would phase out personal property taxes for large industrial machinery and small business equipment. Michigan businesses have pumped more than $8 million in the campaign to pass the proposal.
It is a ballot with something for almost everyone, with 40 open state House seats, 10 in the state Senate, a critical millage proposal for the southeast regional bus system, local proposals to fix crumbling roads and two city ballot issues to decriminalize marijuana. And if turnout in past primaries is a guide, these races will be decided by just a small fraction of eligible voters. In the 2010 August primary, 23 percent of eligible state voters showed up.
Regardless of the primary outcome, political experts see virtually no chance that control of the state Senate will change hands with the Nov. 4 general election. Republicans control the state Senate 26-12 and Inside Michigan Politics, a Lansing-based political newsletter, rates 23 seats as likely for the GOP, 13 for Democrats, with two tossups. Odds are better for a party shift in the state House, though Republicans still hold the edge. The GOP controls the 110-member chamber by a 59-to-50 margin, with one independent. Susan Demas of Inside Michigan Politics projects 54 likely GOP seats to 48 for Democrats, with eight tossups.
Ed Sarpolus, founder of Target-Insyght, a Lansing research and political consulting firm, rates the chances of Democrats taking control of the state House as “possible but not likely.”
In Republican primaries, tea party and libertarian forces are doing battle with establishment-backed candidates everywhere from the Grand Rapids-based U.S. House 3rd District to the 11th U.S. House district northwest of Detroit, to the 37th state Senate district in northern Michigan.
“It's not just Michigan. We are seeing these scenarios play out nationally,” Demas said.
She noted that the GOP is still shaken by the defeat in June of U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, knocked off by a little-known Tea Party economics professor named David Brat. The New York Times termed the result “one of the most stunning primary election upsets in congressional history.”
But it's not just Republicans fighting it out.
Dogfight among Dems
In the U.S. House 14th District in Wayne and Oakland counties, four Democrats are vying to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, who is running for governor.
Former U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke led in a poll by EPIC-MRA earlier this month against Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence and state Rep. Rudy Hobbs, D-Southfield, with 39 percent to 28 percent for Lawrence and 20 percent for Hobbs. Detroit Democrat Burgess Foster had 4 percent. Clarke is seeking a return to Congress – he was elected in 2010 in the 13th District but finished second to Peters in the redrawn 14th. Lawrence was third in that race.
Clarke and Lawrence have better name recognition in the district. Hobbs counters with endorsements that include the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, the United Auto Workers, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Hobbs is trying to make up for his apparent deficit with money. He had raised nearly $600,000 as of July 16 with nearly $200,000 cash on hand. Clarke raised about $160,000 and had about $20,000 cash on hand. Lawrence reported less than $6,000 in contributions and about $5,000 cash on hand.
The winner will be favored in the Nov. 4 general election.
In the Detroit-based 4th state Senate district, Democratic state Rep. Rashida Tlaib is taking on Democratic incumbent Sen. Virgil Smith in a race that has gotten personal. Detroit resident Howard Worthy, also a candidate, has not mounted a serious campaign.
“It's probably one of the more nasty races out there,” said Sarpolus of Target-Insyght. “They are both fighting for their lives.”
Tlaib attacked Smith for missing 40 votes since January 2013, while noting her own perfect voting record. Smith called Tlaib “a manipulator and a deceitful liar” for failing to tell voters who her opponent is on door-to-door excursions.
Tlaib accuses Smith of siding with Ambassador Bridge billionaire owner Manuel “Matty” Maroun, a fierce opponent of a new Detroit bridge to Canada. State campaign records show Smith accepted $4,000 in campaign donations from Maroun and his family. Smith accuses Tlaib of “character assassination” for suggesting those donations led to defeat of a proposed community benefits package for residents in the Detroit neighborhood that would be affected by a new bridge.
Tlaib had raised nearly $230,000 as of the July 25 reporting deadline and had a balance of about $29,000. Smith raised about $164,000 and had a balance of about $21,000.
The winner will be heavily favored in a district that is about 90 percent Democratic.
Little primary drama in top races
Republican state Attorney General Bill Schuette is seeking a second term. Two Democratic candidates have announced their candidacy, Mark Totten, a law school professor at Michigan State University, and Detroit attorney Godfrey Dillard. The nominees will be chosen at party conventions later in August.
Big-spending contests for governor and U.S. Senate will be decided Nov. 4, not on Tuesday. GOP Gov. Rick Snyder is facing former Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer in a race that has tightened in recent polls.
In the race to replace U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, who is retiring after six terms, former GOP Sec. of State Terri Lynn Land is campaigning against Peters. A recent poll by the New York Times showed the race virtually tied. The Michigan Campaign Finance Network calculated that TV ad spending in the gubernatorial and senate races totaled nearly $18 million the first six months of the year, with the vast majority of that money, $14 million, coming from outside groups.
Pot votes spreading
In the Oakland County cities of Oak Park and Hazel Park, voters will decide on ordinances that would decriminalize possession and use of less than one ounce of marijuana on private property. Similar measures passed in Lansing, Jackson and Ferndale in 2013, in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ypsilanti and Flint in 2012 and Kalamazoo in 2011.
Safer Michigan Coalition, the group backing decriminalization, is targeting several other communities for similar referendums on the fall ballot.
Tim Beck, co-founder of the coalition, is confident both measures will pass. He expects that in perhaps a half dozen years Michigan will do what Colorado has done – legalize and tax marijuana.
“It's inevitable,” he said. “The demographics are changing. Year after year, the numbers are getting more in favor of legalization.”
Voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties will be asked to approve a millage increase from .59 mills to 1 mill for the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) regional bus system. Officials say the system – which is running a deficit of $5 million a year – will go out of business without the increase. Some 80 percent of the system's buses have more than 500,000 miles.
In Ionia County in West Michigan, officials tired of waiting for state legislators to agree on how to raise the $1 billion that transportation experts say is needed to fix deteriorating roads. Residents will vote on a proposal to add 2 mills to repair deteriorating local roads and bridges. Nearly 80 percent of the county's paved primary roads are rated in poor condition. Voters in the city of Charlotte in Eaton County and in townships in Ingham, Clinton, Bay and Missaukee counties also are considering increases.
Juicy judicial races
Incumbent judges seldom draw challengers, but three metropolitan Detroit district court seats are notable exceptions:
In Novi District Court, Judge Brian MacKenzie faces attorney Scott Powers, and Travis Reeds, MacKenzie’s former law clerk. The top two will proceed to the November general election.
Responding to a complaint by the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office, Oakland Circuit Judge Colleen O'Brien in February found that MacKenzie failed to follow state law on at least eight occasions since 2004. Prosecutors complained that MacKenzie was hiding files and improperly dismissing domestic violence cases. The Detroit Free Press also reported that the FBI was reviewing a case in Mackenzie's court in which a drunken-driving suspect was tasered by police and later pressured to drop a related lawsuit.
In Bloomfield Hills District Court, Judge Kimberly Small is under fire for unusually harsh sentences given to first-time drunken drivers. She is opposed by Kevin Kevelighan, a Bloomfield Hills attorney. The Free Press reported that a 2011 national survey of drunk driving sentences found that no judge ordered first-time offenders to as many days in jail as Small.
In Southgate District Court, incumbent judge James Kandrevas was sued in 2009 after the court administrator, Lori Shemka, alleged the judge was funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars in court money into private accounts.
Kandrevas fired her, and Shemka sued under federal whistleblower statutes. According to Shemka’s attorney, Deborah Gordon, Kandrevas asserted his Fifth Amendment rights 222 times during his deposition. The City of Southgate settled the case in 2010 for $300,000. Kandrevas faces attorney John Graziani, a Southgate city council member, and council member Bill Colovos. The top two meet in the November election.