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Political fight brewing in Oakland Co.: Democrat vs. Democrat

Oakland County Democrats are bracing for a high-profile primary contest between two sitting members of Congress — U.S. Reps. Andy Levin and Haley Stevens — that's likely to be intense and expensive.

The race is the first incumbent-on-incumbent primary for a U.S. House seat in Michigan since the last redistricting cycle a decade ago and one of a handful of member-on-member congressional primaries so far across the country. 

The match-up between Levin, 61, and Stevens, 38, is already generating tension and upheaval within Democratic circles as the sophomore lawmakers scramble for endorsements from key constituencies and jockey for fundraising dollars from donors. 

Democratic elected officials and groups from labor to environmental interests — many who worked alongside both candidates in the past — are being asked to take sides, prompting some stakeholders to endorse both or sit out the race altogether. 

Party insiders lamented that neither Levin nor Stevens opted to run next door for the open seat in the new battleground 10th District. Having an incumbent in that race might have given Democrats a better shot of holding on to that seat in a year when control of the U.S. House hangs in the balance.  

Other Oakland Democrats are feeling primary fatigue after enduring a contentious battle in 2020 between Democrats Dave Coulter and Andy Meisner for county executive, which Coulter won. 

"To see a primary like this, it is disappointing. There’s no one that’s happy about this, and everyone wished it weren’t happening, especially when this will consume resources and energy that could frankly go toward other important contests in November," said Dave Woodward, a former chairman of the Oakland County Democratic Party who now chairs the County Board of Commissioners.

"But candidates have to make the decisions for themselves. The dust will shake off, and the primary will happen, and we will move on."

Levin: 'It's a natural fit' 

Levin and Stevens both announced for the newly drawn 11th District within hours of the new congressional map being approved Dec. 28 by the redistricting commission. The Democratic-leaning seat covers Royal Oak, Farmington Hills, West Bloomfield Township and Pontiac.

Both lawmakers passed over the 10th District that covers a portion of Macomb County, including Warren and Sterling Heights, Harrison and Shelby townships.

They both stressed that Oakland County is their home — Stevens moved to Waterford Township in recent weeks from Rochester Hills, and Levin lives in Bloomfield Township.  

Some Democrats had expected Levin, in particular, to run in the new 10th District because 65% to 70% of the population of his current district is there. 

About 41% of Stevens' current district population is in the new 11th, compared with 26% of Levin's constituents. The rest of the new 11th is largely represented by retiring Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield.

"Of course, no one wants this primary. It's just that that open seat is less than a percent of my current district," Stevens said.

"It's disappointing to hear a fellow Democratic colleague decide that we're going to have a better chance of beating a sitting member of Congress from the same party than taking on a Republican — in an era when we have voting rights to get done, health care legislation to get done, education and climate change legislation to get done."  

Levin said that's not how he viewed the decision. He said he wants Democrats to find a candidate from Macomb County who would be a good fit for what's now an overwhelmingly Macomb district in the 10th — one that includes areas of the county he's never represented. 

Levin, who succeeded his father Sandy Levin in Congress in 2019, said his family's roots in southeastern Oakland County go back 125 years to when his grandfather was a peddler in the countryside before opening a general store in Birmingham. 

"The new 11th is just a no-brainer for me. It's a natural fit. My house where I've lived for 16 years is smack dab in the middle of the new 11th," said Levin, noting the district includes Berkley, where he grew up, and Royal Oak, where his father lives.

"Really, my whole life has been here. I've loved representing Macomb and Oakland counties together. Still do. But we don't draw the districts ... and given what they drew, it just makes perfect sense for me to run here. And I'm really excited about it." 

Stevens said she's not demoralized by the prospect of the primary and that she's eager to get on the campaign trail. 

"I know there's voters up for grabs, and I will honor that there's people in this district who have been represented by Andy Levin," she said. 

"I wish it could have been that he would have introduced me to those voters and supported my candidacy," she added. "But I'm going to continue listening and working with the stakeholders and constituents in Andy's portion of this district and representing them when I win election." 

Stevens holds cash edge 

The candidates bring different strengths to the contest. Stevens, the former chief of staff to President Barack Obama's auto task force, flipped a Republican seat in 2018. She is viewed as the stronger fundraiser with a campaign operation that's stayed in overdrive as a result of representing a front-line district for the last two cycles. 

Levin, who has represented a safe Democratic seat, brought in $910,636 to Stevens' $1.9 million for the first three quarters of 2021 — figures that include both primary and general election donations. Stevens' campaign reported $1.5 million cash on hand as of Sept. 30 to Levin's $935,645. 

"She has demonstrated time and again the ability to raise significant money," said Dave Dulio, a political scientist at Oakland University. "On the other hand, it’s tough to outdo the Levin name, even though he’s done a fine job of making his own way and distinguishing himself as his own person and legislator."

Dulio was referring to Levin's father serving in Congress for 36 years after running two statewide gubernatorial campaigns. His father's brother — Andy's uncle — was the late U.S. Sen. Carl Levin of Detroit, who was Michigan's longest-serving senator.

Andy Levin has established a broad set of relationships from his time in workforce policy, clean energy and the labor movement, including long-running ties to unions including the AFL-CIO.

He's begun aggressively courting endorsements, having publicly rolled out about a dozen in the last two weeks, including Pontiac Mayor Tim Greimel and the Service Employees International Union.

Levin is also expected to seek the endorsement of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, of which he's a member. Stevens can pursue the endorsement of the New Democrat Coalition — a group of centrists that stress fiscal responsibility to which she belongs. Stevens already has the endorsement of EMILY's List, which works to elect Democratic pro-choice women. 

"My sense is that Stevens enters as the slight favorite," said Dave Wasserman, the House editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "The Levin machine in Oakland County is not what it once was but, perhaps more importantly, Stevens currently represents more of the new 11th District than Levin."

Levin's and Stevens' voting records are nearly identical. They were in sync on major votes 96% of the time in the last Congress, according to a ProPublica analysis. But they fell on different sides of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement that replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement, with Stevens in support and Levin in opposition. 

Levin has positioned himself as an outspoken progressive who has sponsored all seven bills to implement the Green New Deal framework targeting climate change. He backs single-payer health care, wrote legislation for free community college and has pressed for passage of legislation to protect collective bargaining rights, including giving the National Labor Relations Board more enforcement power.

"I'll run on being a strong progressive and someone who does the right thing," Levin said. 

In Congress, Stevens has focused on supporting small businesses and improving science, technology, engineering and math education, reducing plastic waste and promoting environmental stewardship, launching the Congressional Plastics Solutions Task Force. She's a cheerleader for advanced manufacturing and was previously endorsed by the Detroit and U.S. chambers of commerce.

"I am a new, energetic voice. I work hard, and I'm here to represent the future of Michigan and our needs in the Congress, and I'm fired up about it," Stevens said. 

Interest groups torn 

Some Democrat-aligned groups are feeling torn. Planned Parenthood Action Fund intends to make a dual endorsement given that both Levin and Stevens maintain a 100% on the fund's policy scorecard, spokeswoman Martha Spieker said. 

Mark Meadows, political chair for the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, said the group has not yet determined which candidate to support. Both have a track record of supporting its causes, which Meadows said will make the decision difficult.  

“There’s always frustration when we have two individuals running for a single position that have a good environmental record. We would prefer one of them to move to a new district, like the 10th, but that’s not going to happen,” Meadows said. “So that does cause some consternation, naturally.”

The Sierra Club has a candidate vetting process involving interviews or questionnaires and votes at the state and national level. Access will also be a factor in who they endorse, Meadows added.

“It’s a shame that we see two people that we like running against each other," he said. "It’s not a decision that we’re going to make lightly.”

The state Democratic Party’s Jewish Caucus will not be endorsing in the primary race between Levin and Stevens, said caucus chair Noah Arbit, though the district will host most of Metro Detroit’s Jewish electorate.

“This is going to be a very competitive race. You’ve got two very strong candidates. Both have been strong partners and allies to the Jewish community," said Arbit, who is also running for state House in the West Bloomfield area. 

He added it’s “definitely disappointing” that Levin didn’t choose to run in the new 10th, where there isn’t yet a strong Democratic candidate to vie for the swing seat.

“It would have been harder, but I definitely think he could have won that seat,” Arbit said. “It would have been the best use of his strengths."

John Paul Torres, a former Waterford School Board trustee, said he'll be backing Stevens, having worked with her on school issues since 2018 and been impressed by her collaboration with local officials, especially during the pandemic. 

"She’s accessible is the big thing. And she follows through on what she said she’s going to do," Torres said. "She was not too high up to think she knew everything and was smart enough to listen to the people at the local level and ask for what we needed." 

Lori Goldman, the founder of Fems for Dems, said she never wanted to choose between Levin and Stevens — "it's splitting the baby" — but she's supporting Levin, saying he's a responsive and effective advocate for Michigan who's good on camera. 

"I was sorry they’re in this district running against one another. I respect Haley very much, but I’m not torn," said Goldman, who is endorsing Levin in her personal capacity.

"Congressman Levin is my congressman currently, and his legacy before him with his father and his uncle is something that has been very well known in my family," she added. 

"His family legacy, like it or not, is something that is bankable. I want strong candidates, and however many attributes can be brought to that campaign to guarantee his win, that's what is important to me."