DETROIT — Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.) sat in the audience Thursday night, quietly listening to his opponents debate.
Four candidates — including his colleague, Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) — touted their credentials for the seat, while Clarke sat out of the debate, watching among a small crowd in the Wayne State University Law School auditorium.
Last month, Clarke said he would no longer participate in debates because of "racist rhetoric" in the 14th district race. But in a bizarre evening, Clarke appeared at the National Association of Black Journalists forum anyway to promote his struggling candidacy.
"I thought this was the proper forum for everyone to actually compare who we are as people, and for me to be able to address firsthand any issues," Clarke told reporters afterward. "I felt it was important for me to be here and be available at this one time."
Michigan lost a House seat thanks to reapportionment, paving the way for Republicans to rearrange the Detroit-area House districts in their redraw of the Congressional map. Clarke, Peters, Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence and former state Rep. Mary Waters are seeking the Democratic nomination for the 14th district. A recent poll showed Peters with a sizable lead.
Organizers said Clarke missed the deadline to participate. Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley interjected that Clarke told her Monday in her office that he would not attend the debate.
“He said he would not be here," Riley said. "On Monday, he said he would not do this debate.”
Several candidates mentioned Clarke in their answers, and Peters alluded to him once without his name.
“I voted with the president more than anybody else who’s running in this race, and I’m proud of that support,” Peters said.
After the closing statements, Clarke attempted to explain his change of mind. He said his business on Capitol Hill prevented him from committing to the forum, and he was ready to debate that night if his opponent — Peters — was willing. Clarke walked across the room to challenge Peters to a second debate immediately.
"You had plenty of opportunities to debate, my friend," Peters said, unamused.
"I'm just offering you another one," Hansen replied.
"Hansen, we had plenty of debates," Peters said. "I know you like media attention, but you had plenty of time. There are five candidates in this race. It shouldn't be just two of us."
An hour earlier, three other Congressional hopefuls focused their attention on another no-show: Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). The 24-term Democrat faces the toughest political challenge in a couple of decades in the Aug. 7 primary.
Three Democrats — state Sen. Bert Johnson, state Sen. Glenn Anderson and Wayne-Westland school board member John Goci — praised Conyers for his long service. But they emphasized it's time to move on.
“I think Mr. Conyers, while he’s done a great job over the years, I think any of us would struggle to say over the last 20 years, what he’s done," Johnson said. “We have to have a Congressman who is actively engaged, not just in Washington but on the ground in Detroit.”
“I think we all owe John Conyers a debt of gratitude for what he's done for us," Anderson said. "But I do believe that what someone did for us 50 years ago does not always mean that you’re entitled to hold that seat forever.”