Apr 15, 2008

The race for the 9th Congressional District features confrontations, videotape and Dr. Death

The U.S. Congressional race for Michigan’s 9th District may be a microcosm of the presidential election in Michigan, and it will also be an interesting race to watch that has already seen confrontations, videotape and now a guy with the nickname of Doctor Death as a candidate.

U.S. Rep. Joe Knollenberg, R- Bloomfield Hills, is seeking his ninth term in the U.S. House, and he will be challenged by Democrat Gary Peters, a professor at Central Michigan University and a former state Senator, and Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the well-known assisted suicide doctor, who plans to run as an independent.

The district’s boundaries are contained entirely in Oakland County, the second largest county in the state with 1.2 million residents. The county has long been known primarily as a Republican county, but that is fast changing as it trends Democratic. The Republicans maintain a 13-12 edge on the county Board of Commissioners, and the county executive, L. Brooks Patterson, is very active and well known in state and national Republics politics.

“Oakland County has been considered Republican, and most of the county commissioners are Republicans,” said Glenn Clark, the Republican Chair of the 9th Congressional District and a Troy resident. “However, it has gone blue at the top of the ticket since 1992.”

Michigan itself has been blue since 1992, and the last time it went for a Republican presidential candidate was for President George H.W. Bush in 1988. However, the decision by Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama not to campaign here for the primary, coupled with the decision by the Democratic National Committee not to seat Michigan’s presidential delegation in retaliation for moving up the presidential primary in violation of party rules, makes Michigan vulnerable to going red.

“It is definitely a swing district,” said Rochester Hills resident and Democratic activitist Bruce Fealk. “The district went for (Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John) Kerry in the last election”

Fealk, who operates the blog “Vote no on Joe,” is a story himself. He has been a vocal anti-war critic, and he began following Knollenberg around at events, as well as appearing at parades, wearing a huge papier-mâché likeness of Knollenberg. Fealk tried repeatedly to get Knollenberg to meet with him and other anti-war protestors to talk about the war, as well as the veto of the bipartisan SCHIP legislation. When that failed, Fealk began following Knollenberg around with a video camera.

That led to a confrontation last October between Fealk and Knollenberg’s then chief-of-staff, Trent Wisecup, in a convenience store. The incident made state and national news, and Wisecup called Fealk “un-American,” “not a citizen” and “blinded by” his “hatred of this country.” Fealk made more news when he was arrested in February in Troy while attempting to videotape a panel discussion on Black History Month, hosted by the Oakland County Republican Club.

But Peters also has a person trailing him with a video camera. CMU student Dennis Lennox has been following Peters around for months claiming Peters should not be teaching at a public university while running for Congress. That also led to a confrontation that made state news, although it was with a CMU dean and not Peters. Lennox has used that publicity to launch a bid for the Republican nomination for the 110 District seat in the state House.

The 9th District consists of the townships of Bloomfield, Oakland, Southfield, West Bloomfield, and pats of Orion and Waterford Townships, as well as the cities of Auburn Hills, Berkley, Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Clawson, Farmington Hills, Farmington, Keego Harbor, Lake Angelus, Orchard Lake, Pontiac, Rochester, Rochester Hills, Sylvan Lake, Troy and Royal Oak. It is the home of many whiter collar engineers, the headquarters of Chrysler and the home of a major Division I university, Oakland University. It has elements of both suburban life and urban life.

“This is a working class area with lots of white collar workers; kind of middle of the road,” Clark said. “It’s a great district to live in, and Troy was ranked as one of the safest places to live in the nation.”

Knollenberg – a U.S. Army veteran - owned insurance offices before going into politics, and used his connections as the former chair of the Oakland County Republican Party to run a successful congressional campaign in 1992. He has the makings of a political dynasty, and his son, Marty, is a member of the Michigan House. Knollenberg is the ranking member on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

Peters was born and raised in Oakland County, and he was a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve in a Construction Battalion unit (Seabees). In the private sector, Peters had taught at Oakland University and Wayne State University. He was the vice president of investments at UBS/PaineWebber. Peters also served as a vice president at Merrill Lynch.

His first foray into politics was serving on the Rochester Hills City Council. He was elected to the Michigan Senate in 1994 and served two terms before he was term limited. In 2002 he ran for the Michigan Attorney General and lost a close race to current AG Mike Cox by just 5,200 votes among more than 3 million votes cast. In 2003 Peters was appointed by the Governor to run the Michigan State Lottery. Last year Peters was named the Griffin Chair in American Government at Central Michigan University.

Kevorkian earned his reputation and nickname of Dr. Death by assisting in the deaths of nearly 100 terminally ill people. He ran afoul of the law in Michigan many times because it does not have an assisted suicide law, but he also managed to stay out of jail with the help of his attorney, Geoffrey Fieger. The cases earned so much media attention that Fieger parlayed that name recognition to win the Democratic nomination for Michigan governor in 1998, but he lost to the incumbent in the general election.

Without Fieger’s guidance, Kevorkian made a mistake that proved to be his downfall. On September 17, 1998, Kevorkian himself administered a lethal injection to 52-year-old Thomas Youk, who was suffering from terminal Lou Gerhig’s Disease. In past assisted suicides, the person committing suicide had injected themselves or used the machine Kevorkian designed. Kevorkian compounded his mistake by allowing the videotaped suicide to be broadcast on “60 Minutes” and then daring authorities to try to convict him or stop him from carrying out assisted suicides.

Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree murder by a Michigan jury in 1999 and sentenced to serve a 10-25 year prison sentence. Kevorkian, 79, is terminally ill with Hepatitis C, which he contracted while doing research on blood transfusions in Vietnam, and he was paroled on June 1, 2007 due to good behavior. He has indicated he plans to run as an independent. Many people have dismissed his run as insignificant, including many Democrats. Veteran Michigan journalist Jack Lessenberry, who was one of the first reporters to cover Kevorkian, dismissed it as just one more attempt at the publicity he craves.

But Republicans are hoping the lifelong Oakland County resident can drain off liberal vote for Peters.

“He’s a household name here,” Clark said. “It will be very hard to ignore him.”

As the incumbent, Knollenberg has had little trouble winning reelection over the years. He has had little trouble against a list of relatively unknown Democratic candidates, winning easily: winning 55 percent to 40 percent in 2000, 58-39 in 2002 and 58-39 in 2004. But 2006 was different. He had a close race with relatively unknown liberal radio talk show host and political activist Nancy Skinner. Knollenberg won by his smallest margin ever, 51-46 percent. Skinner indicated she was going to run for the seat again, but she got of the race early, deferring to Peters.

Ironically, she has ties to a candidate who many say may be a factor in this race. In 2004 she was living in Chicago and was a Democratic candidate for an open U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, losing in the Democratic primary election to one Barack Obama.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee took notice of that race after 2006, the current candidate and the trend of the district to designate it one of two targeted seats in Michigan.

“He is definitely on the edge,” Fealk said. “If we are ever going to unseat him this will be the year. Gary Peters is an excellent candidate and has done an excellent job of fundraising, and he has the DCCC and the unions behind him.”

Knollenberg votes with President Bush on most issues, and many people think he is vulnerable there because of the president’s low approval ratings, as well as Knollenberg’s position on the war in Iraq.

“He is very vulnerable on the war,” Fealk said. “If you look at his campaign web site, the war is not even listed as an issue. He is also very vulnerable on health care and the economy. People really need to look hard at his votes.”

Clark disagrees, and he said most people in Oakland County do not want the U.S. to leave Iraq before the mission is complete.

“That will be just one of many issues,” he said. “The fact is most people don't want to be there forever, but hey want to win. Most people I talked to who are against the war are not in favor of an immediate withdraw.”

There is also speculation on the effect the top ticket candidate will have on this race. Fealk says the historic nature of the potential Democratic nominees is sure to increase voter turnout for the Democrats, but he thinks Obama’s nomination will have a larger effect on turnout in the more urban Pontiac area and benefit Peters.

“I don’t want to make it a race issue, but I expect to see more turnout if he is the nominee,” he said. “I definitely think Obama will have a positive effect on turnout.”

Clark thinks Republican nominee Sen. John McCain will rally the district's many independent voters.

“John McCain is a candidate that will send a strong message to independents, and I think John McCain is the type of candidate we need to carry Michigan and Oakland County,” he said. “Michigan will be very important, specifically Oakland County, and I think we can win.”

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