In Senate bid, John James is blunt about police, racism. Less so about Trump.

John James, a Republican challenging Gary Peters for Senate, speaks to a group of workers in September at Casadei Steel in Sterling Heights, a Detroit suburb. (Bridge photo by Valaurian Waller)

STERLING HEIGHTS — In the shadow of two manufacturing plants, machinery humming in the background, John James gave his pitch to 50 workers on why they should give him their vote. 

He stuck to the basics. His experience in the Army, his hopes for health care, the fresh perspective he says he can bring to Washington. 

Then the question came: “Do you support the police?”

James, a businessman and former Army helicopter pilot, did not hesitate. "I absolutely support our law enforcement,” he began. “But I’m also a Black man in this country. I understand the fear and the anger and the grief associated with these killings and violent acts.”

He said police pulled him over with one of his three young sons in the back seat, fear gripping him as he wondered if he’d get shot. Police have stopped him in a parking lot of an upscale shopping center and drawn guns on him. He understands why people are protesting. 

“We must have public safety, we must have order, but we also must have a solution for Black men who are getting shot in their streets and Black women who are getting shot in their living rooms and bedrooms. That’s a fact.”

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As he concluded, the silence from the mostly-white audience was palpable. Asked afterward what they thought of James’ response, multiple people said they appreciated his honesty. 

Just over a week later, standing before a roaring crowd of thousands in Freeland ahead of President Donald Trump’s first visit to Michigan in months, James cited the same anecdotes but struck a different tone, leaning more heavily on his relationship to law enforcement. 

“I also understand what it’s like to be an officer patrolling areas where people would just as soon see you gone,” James said to cheers. “I understand what it takes to leave my family and my loved ones to stand up for people who can’t fight for themselves.”

This isn’t how James planned to campaign when he announced last summer he’d run again for Senate.  

Now, as protests continue in cities across the country and in Michigan, James’ pitch on race — that he can help bridge the divide between law enforcement and those who fear violence at their hands — is becoming a central part of his message.

The 39-year-old military veteran is widely considered one of the Republican Party’s only real chances at flipping a seat in the U.S. Senate in a year when they’re mostly playing defense.

He’s seen as a conservative rising star, and GOP consultants say he faces an easier election against first-term Sen. Gary Peters than he did in 2018, when he lost by 275,0000 votes to Debbie Stabenow, a 20-year senator and fixture in state politics since 1975. 

Party supporters are putting their money where their mouths are: Peters has consistently maintained an edge in the polls (though that has narrowed in recent weeks) but James has regularly outraised him, collecting $17.8 million to Peters’ $14.2 million in the past year. 

Political consultants from both parties say James’ family history in Detroit, military record of two Iraq tours and business credentials make him a formidable candidate to reach both the Republican base and moderate Democrats.

Republicans say James can help broaden the party’s reach with his mix of conservative business policy and blunt talk about racial equity. Democrats say James offers few concrete ideas and is anchored to Trump.

Two years ago, James famously said he supported Trump “2,000 percent.” Now, although he still appears with Trump at rallies, James goes out of his way to stake his independence, buying ads declaring “No one owns me.”

Ultimately, Peters and James will “fall both victim and victor of their parties” this fall, said Karen Dumas, a Democratic strategist and former director of communications for Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. 

“On the Republican side, there’s that detachment that has been the tone that’s been set by Donald Trump.”

“Everybody’s looking at uniting the country,” she added. “Who is going to bring this country together and make it become what it has pretended to be for generations?”

John James, a Farmington Hills businessman, is viewed nationally as one of the Republican Party’s best chances of picking up a seat in the Senate. But his fate is likely linked to that of President Trump, experts say. (Bridge photo by Valaurian Waller)

Both parties fail Black voters

James grew up in Detroit and the Oakland County suburb of Southfield and now lives in Farmington Hills. His parents were, and still are, Democrats. 

His father and namesake moved to Detroit from Mississippi and eventually founded an automotive logistics and supply chain management business, James Group International. His grandfather was a mason, his great-grandfather a sharecropper and his great-great-grandfather was enslaved. It’s an oft-repeated tale, one James usually caps by pointing out it could end with the fourth generation in the U.S. Senate. 

To James, that’s a parable of self-determination and the power of free enterprise. But he doesn’t profess to believe simple bootstrapping works anymore. 

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The gap between the nation’s wealthiest and poorest has widened for decades and economic mobility has dropped in kind. Too many Americans, he says, cannot change their circumstances. 

After graduating from Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills in 1999, he went to West Point Prep, West Point and later to Iraq, where he flew the Apache helicopters that are ubiquitous on his campaign merch. After eight years in the Army, he returned to Michigan and joined his father’s business in 2012. He finished two master’s degrees from the University of Michigan and Penn State and became CEO of one of its subsidiaries and president of James Group International two years later. As of 2016, the company made $129 million in revenue. 

One formative moment came when he tried to give one of his longtime employees who taught him to drive a fork truck as a teenager a promotion. She wouldn’t take it, telling him the increase in pay would make her grandchild ineligible for subsidized breakfast and lunch at school.

“It really struck me at that point,” he said. “How is it that people are disincentivized to pursue success in this country?”

He developed a belief in the value of the free market and economic growth as a way to help people. He maintains that a strong education system and social safety net are part of the equation, and they too would be bolstered by economic growth. 

For James, improving the economy means making changes to “onerous and punitive tax policies” and “unnecessary and costly regulations” that he argues make it challenging for businesses to compete in a global marketplace. 

He wants to make the education system less “one size fits all” and provide more choice (including through charter and private schools) and workforce development options for children. 

And he’s consistently said he wants to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, though he has not endorsed a specific replacement besides outlining it should protect pre-existing conditions and cover free primary care visits. “Tort reform, regulatory reform” and increased transparency will decrease costs and improve healthcare quality, he says. 

“I’m running in the Republican Party because the party's platform aligns most closely — not perfectly — to my economic and moral values,” he told Bridge. 

But the Republican Party has failed to make significant change for Black Americans, or even worked to reach them in the first place, he said. Nor has the Democratic Party, he said.

“Black people have been saying the same thing for centuries,” he said. Watching George Floyd being killed by police “shocked a lot of people into the reality that Black people have been living for hundreds of years.”

That reality was pounded into him as a child. When he argued or pitched a fit as a kid, his mother “pushed me back down into a chair and told me, ‘I am not going to lose you.’” 

Now, he’s worried for his own children.

John James has said he supports Trump “2,000 percent,” and speaks here at a Battle Creek rally supporting the president in 2019. (Max Elramsisy/ Shutterstock.com)

A Senate race amid a civil rights movement

James says his mom prepared him to lead in rooms where no one looks like him, and indeed, that’s where he finds himself. 

James is the only African-American Senate candidate Republicans have on the ticket nationwide this year, and if he’s elected, he would be the state’s first Black senator and one of only two Black Republicans in the upper chamber.

James said he can do justice to both Black Americans and the Republican Party, which is almost entirely white and mostly does not support the Black Lives Matter movement. In Michigan, 75 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable opinion of the group, according to an EPIC-MRA poll.

Asked directly by Bridge Michigan whether James supports Black Lives Matter, his campaign spokesperson, Abby Walls, said he “absolutely supports the peaceful protests but the violence has to stop.” He’s walked a similar tightrope in advertisements and speeches since Floyd was killed in late May. 

James opposes diverting revenue for police funds to social services (what some call “defunding” the police) and instead advocates budget increases for officer training, transparency, community policing, and hiring officers from within the communities they serve. 

“Talking about public safety is something that everyone can identify with,” James told Bridge. “We have to support our police, but that is not at the expense of making sure we end killing innocent, unarmed people.”

As a high-profile Black candidate, James was always going to be required to discuss race in a way white candidates are not, said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic political consultant and co-founder of Lansing-based consulting firm Grassroots Midwest. 

“It’s just something that we deal with,” said Hemond, who is also African American. “He’s making the best of a bad situation, running on the same ticket as Donald Trump. I think John James has done his very best to put out a centrist message that most people can agree with that is kind of unifying.” 

That may help James win over suburban voters who lean conservative but support police reforms, said GOP pollster Steve Mitchell, regions that are more diverse than they were even four years ago. 

“James is uniquely suited to be able to speak to some of those concerns in a way other Republicans aren’t,” said John Sellek, a Republican political consultant.

But many who spoke with Bridge said James hasn’t offered specific policy suggestions on police reform or racial equity. And for all his talk about supporting protesters, James has been absent at protests, said Greg Bowens, a suburban Detroit Democratic strategist.

“It just doesn’t seem like he’s willing to defend” Black communities, Bowens said. “He hasn’t ever taken a position that says ‘vote for me, I have your best interests at heart.’” 

The lack of specifics is a common knock against James among Democrats, who have also highlighted how his campaign has benefitted from a super PAC in part funded by the DeVos family. He’s also faced scrutiny from the Detroit MetroTimes, which claimed his company took advantage of tax breaks while failing to create jobs. James’ campaign denies the claims, saying the company created 100 jobs under his leadership and invested $6 million to keep its headquarters in Detroit. 

But the more than half-dozen consultants who spoke with Bridge agreed that James’ largest obstacle in his path to office, both with Black voters and with other moderates, is the president. 

The success of candidates for U.S. Senate, House and others are often tied closely with the success of their president from the same party. Trump’s unpopularity among Democrats and independents in Michigan has been consistent throughout the race, and he recently told a fervent crowd of more than 5,000 that James has his “total and complete endorsement.” 

Trump has been a defender of Confederate flags and monuments, has pulled back policies to reform police departments, and disparaged Black Lives Matter, calling the group a “symbol of hate” and its protesters “thugs.” 

Speaking ahead of Trump, James said the Republican Party is the party of “emancipation” and “the Civil Rights movement.” James echoed this in an interview with Bridge, arguing he hopes to be a voice for change in Washington. “I'm doing my best to channel my emotions into changing things. Not just for Black people, but for all people.”

Shortly after James made his argument that the Republican Party is the party of racial equity, Trump took to the stage and told the cheering crowd that “no city, town or suburb” would be safe from protesters if Democrats win in November. “They want to erase your votes and indoctrinate your children with poisonous anti-American lies.”

James, for one, claims he isn’t worried. 

“Bringing people together is the ultimate goal,” he said. “Recognizing these distractions with the president — the president is term-limited.”

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Comments

vladicat
Wed, 09/23/2020 - 8:55am

And what about the PPP money he took and his company lost jobs. His commercial about Peters taking healthcare in the Senate- well isn't he? Just another two faced liar.

Pure Michigan
Thu, 09/24/2020 - 1:38pm

I was wondering the same thing. Flip the seat? Sounds more like a flipflopping seasoned political liar that will say whatever the audience wants to hear, then back Trump "2,000%". We hear him say he wants to destroy that monstrosity of Obamacare in his own words. There was a big blue wave in 2018 over Obamacare and protections for preexisting conditions. We just CANNOT TRUST James.

Arjay
Wed, 09/23/2020 - 9:31am

John James’ ad saying that his workers have the same health insurance that his family has knocked the ball out of the park. I like the fact that he is a business man and not a politician, and has a military background with boots on the ground in a combat area, not once but twice. I have written to Sen. Peters and he is slow or has failed to respond. I see in James the same as Dave Trott who kept all his constituents informed not only what position he took but also why, and Dave Trott self imposed term limits. My guess for James is two terms then return to his successful business. John James deserves our support.

disagree
Thu, 09/24/2020 - 1:41pm

What healthcare insurance do his employees get when he lays them off? If the insurance is so great, give the same to all Americans. He's a politician, not a businessman. His father is the businessman. He just works for Dad and Mom, the Democrats.

SOHA
Wed, 09/23/2020 - 9:49am

This is a great article! It’s so rare in politics to find the perfectly suited candidate who has the actual life experience for caring and understanding of all political viewpoints so pertinent to our country today. John James is exactly what we need in the senate right now. He is the perfect public servant for these troubled times, and someone who can articulate the real answers and understanding that our nation and Michigan so desperately need.

John Q. Public
Wed, 09/23/2020 - 9:53am

"One formative moment came when he tried to give one of his longtime employees who taught him to drive a fork truck as a teenager a promotion. She wouldn’t take it, telling him the increase in pay would make her grandchild ineligible for subsidized breakfast and lunch at school."

While possible, that sounds apocryphal. The value of those meals (if free and not just reduced) over the course of a year is about twenty-five hundred dollars tops (estimated 400 meals at a very generous $6 per). If true, either it wasn't much of a promotion or grandma's decision was ill-considered.

Anon
Wed, 09/23/2020 - 1:18pm

This is more common than you think. In my field I see this all of the time. People will not work over a certain amount of hours to protect their food stamps or not lose their Section 8. The goverment has not figured out a good way to transistion people off assistance.

LH
Wed, 09/23/2020 - 5:21pm

I agree with Anon. Free and reduced lunch may be the issue this worker cited, but there are several other benefits tied to that same income limits. The Earned Income Tax Credit, Section 8, Bridge Card, subsidized health insurance and other benefits together can mean that someone earning less than $10,000 a year can enjoy a standard of living equivalent to someone earning $40,000 or more, depending on the circumstances. I also am aware of many businesses in my area who have cut hours or even closed (either temporarily or permanently) because they are unable to find employees because they are unwilling to give up the expanded unemployment benefits they have been receiving. Far too many people are content to feed at the public trough as much as possible.

mw
Thu, 09/24/2020 - 11:46am

Far too many people are okay with billionaires hording their riches like dragons while the rest of us are forced to choose between food and heat. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of Americans are closer to being homeless than we are to being rich. 30+ years of trickle-down Reaganomics has only widened the income gap.

Nobody "enjoys" a standard of living less than $10k a year, but yeah...lets keep the welfare queen trope alive. What does $10k/yr work out to for monthly take-home pay? Maybe the places that are having trouble finding employees should stop offering poverty-level wages and hours.

Greed kills
Thu, 09/24/2020 - 1:51pm

It's no wonder Republicans advocate destitution as a lifestyle. Desperate workers must accept anything that they can get and live in squalor, perhaps turn to prostitution to survive.

Doug Wood
Wed, 09/23/2020 - 10:04am

I am interested in the candidate's reaction to the current conversation about anti-racism education, which seems to have been categorized as lies and unpatriotic. Do we currently have a true and complete history of the Black experience in the history of this nation? I am awaiting a response from Mr. James on his Facebook page. He says it is a way to reach him, but all I get is campaign material.

Anonymous
Thu, 09/24/2020 - 1:53pm

Maybe James, as a Trump sycophant, will tell you there is no racism in this country.

t smith
Wed, 09/23/2020 - 10:07am

I stopped reading at "would make her grandchild ineligible for subsidized breakfast and lunch at school."

What James and other Republicans refuse to acknowledge is that base pay in this country is so inadequate that someone who works full time can't even afford to pay for her granddaughter's breakfast and lunch. James' solution for this? Take away the subsidized school breakfast and lunch benefits. Sure, that will work.

James is just another rich kid Republican masquerading as a man of the people but is paying for his campaign through massive cash backing by special interests.

Anonymous
Wed, 09/23/2020 - 2:31pm

As opposed to the rich Democrats being bankrolled by SuperPACS? Those same Democrats that constantly claim they have helped the black community with decades to prove themselves and zero to show for it? They just keep telling the black community ... "Don't worry, we will take care of you. Here are a few subsidies and food stamps to keep you sheltered and fed. Don't worry about having a good job, you don't need it as we will give you plenty of government funds to keep you comfortable. We will also try to reduce the crime in your neighborhoods so you can feel safe." Sounds more like modern day slavery to me. No thanks!

Kathi Geukes
Wed, 09/23/2020 - 10:52am

John James is not the person needed for our district....I don't trust him. He's willing to spout lies about Gary Peters and acts as if he shouldn't be held accountable for his lies. Too much like the "person" in the WH!!

Anon
Wed, 09/23/2020 - 1:20pm

I've voted Democrat my entire life. That's going to change this election. John James has my vote. The Democrat party is no longer a party that welcomes moderates. I'm tired of the bully tactics and daily outrage over the smallest things. Good riddance to them.

mw
Thu, 09/24/2020 - 11:27am

And the Republican party is welcoming to moderates? Look at the president's characterization of Mitt Romney, John McCain, Susan Collins and his praise of right-wing extremists who push Qanon conspiracies, like Marjorie Taylor Greene. Republicans call Mitt Romney a RINO even though they supported him enough to make him the party's presidential candidate in 2012. In fact, no matter what sort of Republican or Conservative bona fides a person holds, the moment they do anything seen as going against the president, suddenly they are the enemy of the right.

chief54
Wed, 09/23/2020 - 3:53pm

John James is a Republican therefore he is NOT his own man. Name me one current Senators that are their own man. They are scared to death of Trump in fear what he might tweet against them.

As for health care, Republicans are against health care, for whatever reason, therefore John James will not be for health care if elected, which is doubtful.

I guess it's nice to run for office making claims that just don't jive with Republican party and people believe or want to believe what's being said.

All the BS about Peters that is being broadcast is just an example between what people say and what they actually do. James is a two faced Republican and hopefully the good citizens of our state won't fall for it.

William C. Plumpe
Wed, 09/23/2020 - 4:38pm

James says nobody owns him?
That's a boldfaced lie.
James received $1 Million in campaign contributions from the DeVos family.
Nobody gives you $1 million dollars and expects nothing in return. James is a DeVos flunky and is owned lock, stock and barrel by the DeVos family. Anything left over Trump owns.

John Q. Public
Thu, 09/24/2020 - 11:26am

[M]y family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican party…. I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now, I simply concede the point. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment; we expect a good and honest government. Furthermore, we expect the Republican party to use the money to promote these policies, and yes, to win elections.

--Betsy DeVos

George
Thu, 09/24/2020 - 11:27am

Look the fact is that corporate America and the rich rule this country.....THAT's why neither party really represents you. Who do you think writes all the bills that are passed? The lobbyists. And who pays them. And they are so convoluted I don't think Congress really understands what they are passing. My take though is this: Repubs do 100% what the rich and wealthy want while the Dems do 80%. James says a lot of "nice" things in this article but his ads are TERRIBLE. They are filled with lies and misstatements so bold and obvious you have to wonder: "How stupid do you think I am?" As an independant why would I vote for someone who would post such ads? They are insulting. Do I love Peters? No. But he does only 80% of what people who really run this country want. Guess I have to settle for that.