DETROIT — Rep. Gary Peters sways to the gospel music, drops a bill in the offering bucket and shoots up his right hand when the bishop exclaims, “Praise Him!”
He stands out in the entirely black congregation at Greater Emmanuel Institutional Church of God in Christ — his fifth of six church services Sunday morning.
“This is my Congressman. I voted for him and will continue to vote for him,” Bishop J. Drew Sheard said. “I didn’t tell you what to do. I just told you what I’m going to do.”
The enigmatic sermon is a tough act for Peters to follow. The two-term Democrat is many things in Michigan politics: a methodological campaigner, affable policy nerd — and probably the next Congressman to represent much of downtown Detroit. But Peters possesses all the expected charisma of an Episcopalian former financial manager from the suburbs (which he is).
Nonetheless, he is poised to defeat fellow Rep. Hansen Clarke in Tuesday’s Democratic primary in the majority-black 14th district. Clarke, an elected official from downtown Detroit for more than 20 years, boasts a Bengali father and black mother.
“I would like to see one of my own in Congress all the time,” said Patrice Brown, a member of the congregation at Greater Emmanuel. “But it’s OK that he’s not black. As long as he’s doing the right thing.”
Sheard offered the pulpit to Peters, who described the most notable vote of his career to the congregation: the health care overhaul law. Peters recalled he thought his Congressional career was over as he pushed the “yes” button. It almost was. He won re-election by 3 points in a highly competitive, suburban Detroit district.
“No matter who you are, and no matter where you live, you should be entitled to health care in the United States of America,” Peters told the parishioners Sunday. “I was proud to stand with our president — President Barack Obama!”
From the Suburbs to 8 Mile
Ironically, if Peters had voted against the bill, it would have immensely hurt his chances this cycle. The redrawn 14th district is heavily Democratic, and the average income level is a fraction of what it is in his current district.
Michigan lost a House seat because of population decline, and Republicans targeted Peters in their decennial redraw of the Congressional map. They moved Peters into the district of Rep. Sander Levin (D), but his home is only a few hundred yards outside the 14th district boundaries.
The reconfigured district is probably the most economically diverse in the country. It stretches from the gritty city of Pontiac, through the middle-class western Detroit suburbs and corporate Southfield, along commercial downtown Detroit, to some of the plushest lakeside neighborhoods with views of Canadian waters. The district’s axis is 8 Mile, a symbol of the Motor City’s financial disparity between the wealthier suburbs and downtown depression.
Women make up the majority of voters in this district. It’s one of the reasons a third prominent Democrat in the race, Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence, will siphon votes from either Clarke or Peters.
Neither Clarke nor Peters lived in the redrawn district, although Clarke has since listed a home address there. But as Peters knocks on doors in Sherwood Forest on a rainy Friday afternoon, it’s clear some voters view Clarke as the local candidate.
“I like Hansen Clarke here; I like you in Washington,” said Peter Williams, a 51-year-old who answered his door when Peters knocked. “Would you support him for mayor?”
Sherwood Forest is a quaint oasis several blocks from 8 Mile. It’s the kind of neighborhood that, if you speed down the street, someone will write down your license plate and tell the neighborhood watch. Nonetheless, one resident points to a beautiful nearby home priced around $40,000 — a sign of the decrepit local real estate market.
“I’ve known Hansen a million years, but I’m open,” said Ron Markoe, a retired transportation employee, in front of his manicured lawn.
Clarke was raised by a single mother in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Detroit. He served in the state Legislature for 14 years, ran a losing bid for Detroit mayor in 2005 and then ousted 14-term Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) in a 2010 primary.
“I’ve been in Congress for 18 months — long enough to see the system is really focused on one thing: keeping the people in office by raising a lot of money,” Clarke told a small crowd at a community event in a downtown hotel conference room. “I didn’t go to Congress though to change the system. You know what I went to Congress for? My life experiences.”
Clarke is an empathetic and passionate speaker. But his organization pales in comparison to the Peters campaign.
Clarke’s campaign repeatedly promised access to the Congressman over several days before Sunday, when his aide declined additional access to events. He does not list a public campaign schedule on his website.
Race and Brother Peters
In late June, Clarke swore off participating in future debates after “racist rhetoric and race-baiting by certain candidates” in the contest. Democrats believe Clarke referred to another campaign that researched his late mother’s death certificate, which said she was white.
But Clarke unexpectedly showed up to a debate Thursday evening willing to participate. Debate organizers denied his request, saying he missed the deadline. He sat and watched from the audience instead. Later on, Peters rejected Clarke’s persistent attempts to debate him one-on-one for reporters.
By contrast, Peters approaches campaigns with scientific efficiency. He loves that word — efficiency — and reminds his aides to plan his time accordingly. Peters becomes worried if he passes too many homes without knocking on a door. He calls undecided voters from a semi-permanent trailer parked in a local union’s lot.
If Peters wins re-election, he will be in a better position to run statewide. He could challenge Gov. Rick Snyder (R) or run for the seat of Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) if the 78-year-old retires next cycle. One Democratic aide described him as “the Democratic bench” in the state.
Peters is a polished politician and knows what it takes to win — and it shows.
As soon as he decided to face Clarke, he called almost every pastor in the new district. He nailed down the endorsement of the Michigan-Ontario Council of Bishops.
“I consider Peters to be a brother,” Sheard said after the service.
Peters’ efforts are paying off, according to a public poll. He ran almost 20 points ahead of Clarke in the July 23 survey by a local television network. His fundraising surpasses his colleague as well.
But the same poll also showed 76 percent of primary voters are worried about not having minority representation in Detroit. Those concerns are amplified by neighboring Rep. John Conyers, who is at risk of losing his seat to a white suburban state Senator in next week’s Democratic primary.
“It’s interesting because this district has never had, or it’s been a long time, that this district has had a Congressman who wasn’t African-American,” said Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh, who is neutral in the contest. “That would be something that a lot of people would have to get adjusted to.”
Almost 50 years after Detroit elected Conyers, race still looms over the city’s politics. But in this district, in one of the most economically depressed cities, it seems there are more important concerns.
Marsha Rutherford, a small-business owner in the Greater Emmanuel choir, ticked off the names of several politicians from her community who failed Detroit. That list includes former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, the recently incarcerated son of the former Congresswoman whom Clarke defeated.
“Cause you’re from here, does it really make a difference?” Rutherford said. “Because you’re from here, does it really justify my vote? Proof is in the pudding.”
An earlier version of this story stated that Rep. Hansen Clarke does not live in Michigan’s 14th district, where he is running. Clarke did not live in the district boundaries after it was redrawn, but he filed his nominating petitions using a home address that is in the district.