Is this Michigan House seat held by a Trump-friendly Dem the next big pickup for progressives?

President Donald J. Trump listens as Michigan State Rep. Karen Whitsett talks about her recovery from the COVID-19 Coronavirus, Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in the Cabinet Room of the White House. | Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks via Flickr Public Domain

Roslyn Ogburn’s effort to defeat state Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit) appears to be gaining steam. The housing activist, block club president and mother of five is one of several candidates looking to unseat the first-term Democrat.

As the Aug. 4 Democratic primary draws closer, key issues in the campaign for the seat that covers a portion of Detroit’s west and a slice of Dearborn center on Whitsett’s voting record and support for GOP efforts; her friendly relationship with President Donald Trump; and who can best bring resources to the district to fight the COVID-19 crisis that has particularly rocked Detroit. 

Ogburn has racked up endorsements from a slew of Michigan heavyweights, including the AFL-CIO and UAW, as well as two progressive former Democratic presidential candidates, U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who both campaigned in Detroit this year. After former Vice President Joe Biden’s 17-point Michigan primary win, progressive activists are eager for a high-profile win.

Roslyn Ogburn on the campaign trail | Shawn Lee photo

Warren said Ogburn would be a “powerful advocate for all working families,” while Sanders noted she “is up against a Democratic incumbent who has been widely denounced for pandering to the Trump administration.”

The 9th state House District has nearly 70,000 residents, about 91% of whom are African American. Its neighborhoods are a mix of middle-class residents, as well as those who fall below federal government poverty guidelines. 

The other Democratic candidates vying to replace Whitsett are Marc Cummings and Nicole Elcock. Republican James Stephens has no primary challenger. The district is heavily Democratic, so the primary winner is virtually assured to be elected in November.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (R) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) greet each other at the start of the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 30, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Referendum on Whitsett

Like this year’s presidential election, the race looks to be a referendum on the incumbent.

Whitsett has been caught up in a firestorm of controversy in recent months. She told the Advance late last month that the Democratic Party establishment has moved away from her because she visited the White House and thanked Trump in telling her story about having coronavirus, which made her a hero in right-wing media. 

“I’ve been crucified by the Democratic Party,” Whitsett said. “I went to the White House as a citizen to fight COVID. I went there to be with other survivors. Not as a state representative.”

She said she contracted coronavirus in March and took hydroxychloroquine, which has been linked in multiple studies to heart problems and even death in some patients. Trump made his advocacy of the drug central to his initial response to COVID-19.

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Whitsett has credited Trump for its availability, saying that the anti-malaria drug saved her life. Along with other virus survivors, Whitsett on April 14 visited the White House and met with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. She also attended a meeting with Trump and African Americans when the president visited Southeast Michigan on May 21.  

Also in April, Whitsett chose not to sign an April letter endorsed by 35 of the 51-member House Democratic caucus. She was the only Detroit House member not to do so. The letter called for state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) to condemn the April 15 actions of armed right-wing protesters at the Capitol, which he declined to do. The rally was promoted by conservative organizations with ties to the GOP and the billionaire DeVos family.

President Donald J. Trump participates in a listening session with African American Leaders Thursday, May 21, 2020, at the Ford Rawsonville Components Plant in Ypsilanti, Mich. | Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour via Flickr Public Domain

In May, Whitsett sided with Republicans on a bill, SB 858, which aimed to cap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency powers to respond to COVID-19 and would have allowed restaurants, bars, theaters, gyms and other public venues to open by May 15. Whitmer vetoed the bill.

In addition, some Democrats are concerned about her alliances. Several weeks ago, Whitsett endorsed state Rep. Lynn Afendoulis (R-Grand Rapids) who is running for the 3rd Congressional District seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (L-Cascade Twp.). A strong Democrat, immigration attorney Hillary Scholten, also is vying for the seat that the party is targeting.

“I know she can do this. I’ve seen her at work. And I know she supports the president for all the right reasons — not just because he’s a Republican, but because she respects a leader who gets things done,” Whitsett said in an Afendoulis press release. “She had a long and successful career in business before this, and she doesn’t need to run for office. But I have watched her use her experience to guide Tax Policy and make important decisions, and I know the people of West Michigan will be well-served by sending her to office.”

After peaceful demonstrations against police brutality of African Americans evolved into window breaking, fires and looting in Grand Rapids on May 30 and May 31, following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Afendoulis introduced HB 5901 to increase penalties for those who demonstrate publicly.

Lynn Afendoulis | Nick Manes

“We want prosecutors to be able to charge them as terrorists,” Afendoulis said. “As social terrorists. Because that’s what they are doing. They are terrorizing the social fabric of our communities.’’

Jonathan Kinloch chairs the 13th Congressional District Democratic Organization, which includes the 9th state House District. He said he’s troubled by Whitsett’s political actions. The group voted to censure Whitsett and back Ogburn.

“[Ogburn] is the right person to address the concern raised by residents in the 9th District of electing a Democrat who really is a Republican,” Kinloch said. 

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), a member of the progressive group of four freshman congresswoman of color known as “The Squad,” also has endorsed Ogburn.

“Roslyn Ogburn has always fought for community, especially on housing and environmental justice issues,” Tlaib said. “You do not have to question where Roslyn stands because it is always with the people and rooted in community.”

A four-way race

Marc Cummings, another candidate for the seat, grew up in the area and attended Barton Elementary, Charles Drew Junior High School and Mackenzie High School. He also believes that Whitsett has been ineffective and argues Ogburn doesn’t have name recognition. 

Marc Cummings | Marc Cummings photo

“A lot of people that I know haven’t even heard of this Ogburn lady,” Cummings said. “Who is this woman?”

Ogburn’s supporters point out that she has been Warwick block club president for the last seven years and is a precinct delegate. She co-founded Nexus Detroit, a food pantry that provides meals to thousands of families in Detroit each week. 

The 43-year-old also is a housing organizer for Detroit Action, a nonprofit that fights for housing and economic justice. If elected in November, Ogburn has pledged to help her district rise from the coronavirus crisis that ripped through Detroit and help to make the district safer.

“District 9 deserves better leadership, one who will work to ensure homeowners and renters are protected, with access to PPE [personal protection equipment] and doctors to survive,” Ogburn said. “We must ensure access to affordable and clean quality water.”

Ogburn’s other big endorsements include: AFSCME, SEIU, Sierra Club, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights and the Progressive Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party.

Roslyn Ogburn | Shawn Lee photo

Duggan backs Whitsett

Whitsett, for her part, said she is not worried about the endorsements that Ogburn has received. After the coronavirus rocked Detroit and her district, Whitsett said she distributed 180 iPad tablets for students who were homebound due to the statewide school closure due to the pandemic.

“We have been able to disperse more than 600,000 meals,” Whitsett added. “I literally received 20 tons of potatoes. I’ve given out more than 200 mini refrigerators, toasters, air fryers and microwaves because we’ve had far too many people who have not been prepared for this COVID situation.” 

Whitsett continues to have strong political backing from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a powerful Democrat with deep ties to the Biden presidential campaign. His leadership fund has given at least $6,700 to her campaign effort, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that tracks money in politics. Ogburn has not yet filed a campaign finance report. Whitsett has banked $8,726 last year, the most current filing recorded. 

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“Karen Whitsett is an excellent state rep. who was suffering from COVID-19 and feels that hydroxychloroquine helped her, and she expressed that,” Duggan said last month. “There is room in the Democratic Party for a whole range of opinions. We need to be friends and stop fighting with each other and pull together right now. We need all Democrats pulling together.”

However, some residents in her district view her as suspect. Patricia Butler, who has lived in the area for 22 years, described Whitsett as a “ghost.”

“We don’t know her,” Butler said. “I don’t know what she looks like. She doesn’t participate in anything. I don’t know how she got in. Maybe she had more money than the opponent. I don’t know her.”