The election to replace Kerry Bentovolio in Michigan’s 11th Congressional District, one of the most absurdly gerrymandered districts in our state, has been one of the most interesting races in the state this election cycle. Multi-millionaire “Foreclosure King” David Trott massively outspent Bentivolio to win the Republican primary. On the Democratic side, Bobby McKenzie, a former Senior Advisor in the Bureau of Counterterrorism in the U.S. Department of State, beat two other candidates to face off against Trott.
I sat down with McKenzie late last week to discuss his campaign and the man he’s running against. Despite Trott having spent millions of his own dollars, money earned at the misery of others, the race is a statistical dead heat. When voters are given details about Trott’s history of making millions of dollars foreclosing on homes during the peak of the Great Recession, McKenzie has the lead, showing just how important it is that McKenzie’s story, and Trott’s, as well, are told.
McKenzie is running a smart campaign and his compassion for others – both abroad and in southeastern Michigan – comes across clearly when you speak with him. He has nearly completed his PhD dissertation on the topic of humanitarian assistance in Egypt from the perspective of those receiving aid. And, despite Trott’s lame, desperate, and inaccurate depiction of McKenzie as a “carpetbagger”, McKenzie has deep roots in Michigan and sincere desire to make things better for Michiganders both in southeast Michigan and across the state. It’s a sharp contrast to a man who has helped rig the foreclosure system to his own benefit and who has amassed a huge fortune based on the misfortune of our fellow citizens.
Tell me about yourself and why you think you’re qualified to represent the 11th Congressional District in Washington, D.C.
I’ve got southern roots. My grandfather came up here in the 1950s. He was a World War II vet with an eighth grade education. He moved his family to Delray, Detroit and worked on the docks for Roadway Trucking. He was a member of the Teamsters Local 299 and, at that time, Detroit was one of the greatest cities in North America. I mean, it competed with New York and Chicago. I had another uncle who worked for the Teamsters for 30 years and two other uncles who were UAW members.
I use these examples because labor matters. The middle class matters. As Vice President Joe Biden pointed rather poignantly out in his speech on Labor Day, we forget that about how important our weekends are! And eight-hour days. And sick leave. And so on. And we need to remember these things. There’s no doubt that my uncles and my grandfather are rolling in their graves looking at where we are today. This is Michigan: the Right to Work for Less State. So, I certainly hope that the labor organizations in this state motivate the union households in Michigan to get out the vote. If they do, it’s not just a win for me. It’s more people out voting for Mark Schauer and Gary Peters, all the way to the bottom of the ticket.
Jumping forward quite a few decades, I tell the story of my younger brother. He did his undergraduate degree and Masters degree here at the University of Michigan. Great kid, great grades, a lot of ambition. And spent six months trying to find work, swamped with student debt, moves to Chicago and finds work there in a week. He spent a couple of years there before moving to New York City for a couple of more years and now he’s in Washington, D.C. There are a lot of serious problems with that.
My sister is a public school teacher in Detroit. She hasn’t gotten a raise in four years and recently found out that she might have to take another 10% pay cut. Thankfully, they were able to have that reversed but the point is, there are a lot of problems here and I think we can do a whole lot better. I think we need to turn things around and I think I’ve got the skill set and the drive and determination to try to improve southeast Michigan. And I’m going to work very hard to do that.
How do you answer people when they say, “He’s a carpetbagger, he never lived here until he ran for office”?
I would offer that I grew up here. My entire family is here. My entire family lives either in or around the district, all in southeast Michigan. I went all the way through high school here. Did my undergraduate at Michigan State, played varsity basketball for Tom Izzo who, by the way, has the highest favorability of anybody that we polled!
I know that this is the line that David Trott is going for. They can say that if they want but my father’s had a small business for 50 years right down Ford Road. He runs a small vacuum sales and repair shop. He’s a polio survivor who was in an iron lung when he was nine and still was successful. So, these are my roots, and there are a lot of problems here that need to be dealt with. It comes down to the old adage that, “If you can, you should,” and I certainly think I can do a whole lot better than what we currently have and what we’ve had in the 11th District.
What we have right now is a unique opportunity because this is an open seat and it’s not often that you have an open seat. And it’s not often that you’re running against a guy who has these sorts of negatives.
I thought the primary in the 11th District was interesting because none of you had previously served in elected office before. You say that you’ve got the skill set for it. What do you mean by that? What kind of skills are you talking about?
I’ve got proven problem-solving skills. I think I’m a leader. I’ve worked on some very complex problems that brought people together in places where you have to find common ground.
Are you talking about your time at the State Department?
Well, even before that. One of the more challenging jobs I’ve had in the past few years was that I established a center in the Middle East. It was a huge initiative for the US. There were 29 countries involved and I was the project lead on that. I traveled to over 20 countries; everywhere from Bogata, Columbia to Jakarta, you name it. I had to bring people together and try to work together to try to keep the world safe. So I certainly believe that, if I can manage a large team of international staff, a $10 million budget, and, most importantly, to bring 29 countries together that don’t normally see eye-to-eye, I think I can bring things forward here in southeast Michigan.
What would be your top priorities if you are elected?
Jobs. We have got to find a way to bring people back to Michigan. You gotta make sure we’re not shipping jobs overseas. This absolutely has to be reversed. I certainly don’t like the idea that companies and jobs are being shipped out of the state. I also don’t like the idea that there are companies that were built here who are putting their headquarters elsewhere. So, I think we need to close the loopholes on that.
I think we also need to raise the minimum wage. The fact that we’re arguing over $9 an hour is hard to get my mind around because that’s not even a livable wage. For a single mother, how does she make ends meet?
I want to be sure that folks like my 76-year old father can retire with confidence and dignity and that he’s able to have the retirement and Social Security that he’s earned; with emphasis on “earned”.
So, jobs and making sure we’re taking care of the elderly, and certainly making sure that students aren’t swamped with student debt. These are the key things that I want focus on.
Any thoughts specifically on how you bring jobs back to Michigan? What we need to be doing differently than what we’re doing now?
Sure. I think one of things that we need to do – one of things that I need to do as Representative – it’s not just about legislating in Washington, D.C., in fact. It’s about using the office and the title, to leverage that to try to attract business, to try to attract entrepreneurs. We need to try to make sure that people want to come here like they did in the 1950s. Right now, people don’t always have that view. So, what can we do to make sure, for example, that Canton is a hub of activity? You know President Obama had money earmarked – something like $175 million – for light manufacturing in Canton. It got moved to Detroit. I want to make sure the we can identify and earmark opportunities and keep them here in the District.
I want to make sure that we see Detroit grow and prosper but I also want to make sure that we’re talking about the suburbs and the exurbs and that doesn’t just mean the confines of the district. This goes back to Trott making remarks about carpetbagging. I want to try to improve ALL of southeast Michigan. It’s absurd to look at it any other way.
What you’re talking about reminds me a lot of how Gary Peters talks and the things that he has done to be an advocate for bringing jobs back to Michigan. He’s done a pretty job of doing the sort of leveraging of the position that you’re talking about. Who would you count as your role models as far as politicians go?
In no particular order: John Dingell. I have immense respect for John Dingell. Gary Peters, he’s obviously done a fantastic job. Both of the Levins. And, of course, Debbie Stabenow is extraordinary. Stabenow won the 11th District by 53%, in fact.
And they voted for Kerry Bentivolio at the same time. That’s remarkable! So, talk about that a little bit, about the 11th District voters’ history of electing very, very right-wing people but maybe not being as right-wing as they vote. Would you say that that’s true, that they’re not?
Well, the polls show that the District is not as socially conservative as people think. Here’s another interesting fact: Do you know the [LGBT] magazine Between the Lines? Do you know the city that has their largest readership? It’s Livonia. Two to three thousand readers there. So, I think that, until you run a serious race, until you run a serious campaign, until you have the infrastructure in place, you don’t really know what a district looks like. Think about Knollenberg’s [9th Congressional] district, circling back to Gary Peters. People thought that was an unwinnable district for Democrats. In 2006 there was a race that was closer than anybody thought it would be. At that point, people started thinking, “Huh. Maybe Knolleberg is not irremovable.” Two years later, enter Gary Peters and the rest is history.
Did redistricting make this a more difficult or less difficult district for Democrats?
They removed Westland and Redford and, with that, probably 30-some thousand Democratic votes. But, still, what we’re finding on the issue of Choice and the issue of education, on both sides of the aisle, people don’t like David Trott’s views. This is a guy who, for 25 years, has served only one person: himself.
So, how do you fight against all of that money that’s he’s got?
Well, you know, at the end of the day it’s about trying to get people out voting. We need to make sure that we rally people to vote. We’ve got 70,000 people who live in labor households. As Lon Johnson has said many times, there were nearly a million Michigan Democrats who didn’t vote in 2010. 59,000 of those were in the 11th District. So, we need to focus on working very closely with the Coordinated Campaign to get those 59,000 folks out. We need to continue to engage and collaborate with labor within the limits of the law to make sure that as many of those 70,000 individuals get out and vote. If we do that, I think we’re going to be alright.
So, go ahead and unload on David Trott. Give me what you’ve got on him. I don’t want to talk the whole time about him but it’s worth knowing more about what he represents.
I’ve given you the key things. This is a guy who is very self-interested, a guy who doesn’t care about much other than himself. He has enormous wealth. To put this in perspective, Terri Lynn Land is one of the wealthiest Senate candidates in the country. Trott is worth ten times what she’s worth. In 2008 alone, Michigan’s worst year during the recession, David Trott had his best year ever. His firm raked in over $70 million that year. It’s a sad reality that we do live in a world where people are seduced with money. But money’s not everything.
Looking at what’s happened here in southeast Michigan and the idea that this guy is going to try to buy this seat with money that was made off the misery and misfortune of middle class families is incredible. There’s this perception that the foreclosures in Michigan were isolated to one geographical area. Not so. There’s Dearborn Heights. Dearborn. Canton. Livonia. Plymouth. Howell. I’m naming cities both in and out of the district because it’s not specific to one city or one district. It cuts across all ages, races, ethnicities, walks of life, and David Trott is a guy who has streamlined this business. This is a guy who has made foreclosing and evicting people as efficient as possible.
Is it illegal? No. Do we want this guy representing us? Absolutely not! We need to be clear about what kinds of people we want representing us. If he wants to do what he wants to do, that’s fine. Let him do it from his law offices. But he shouldn’t be in Washington, D.C. representing people. To me it’s just appalling and I certainly hope that we see more in the media and that people are writing about him the way that you have, the way the Detroit Free Press did because people DON’T know.
Here’s one example: there was a family, a lower income family, that tried to buy their house back for $10,000 after Trott & Trott foreclosed on them. The offer was refused by Trott and they were evicted. After they were evicted, the house went on the market for $4,900. He’s set up a process where he gets a flat fee per foreclosure so what happens after that doesn’t even matter.
So the banks lose out in this situation, too. In this case, they lost over $5,000. Everybody loses except David Trott.
Exactly. He got a flat fee in the neighborhood of $400 to $1,200 on each foreclosed home no matter what happened and so he had one mission: to make sure they could churn out foreclosures. And, in all the stories we’ve collected – we set up a website and we set up a hotline [(947) 517-7105] – there’s one common theme that runs through them all: there was a bureaucratic process that was confused and confusing and, if you didn’t have a lawyer or you couldn’t get through the documents, God help ya. Because they would tell you, “The law is the law, it’s black and white. We’re sorry, you have to leave.” And that’s that.
What about him selling off his stake in Trott & Trott?
How long have you been doing this blog?
Okay, so if you decided to divest, would you say that you’ve never been involved in a blog before? Of course not. And he’s been in this business for over twice as long as you’ve been blogging.
The key, for me, though, is that the way I win is not by bashing Trott. The way I win is by being a better candidate and there’s a way forward here. I completely understand the importance of highlighting and contrasting, especially when you have somebody like David Trot. But the reality is that people want to see a better southeast Michigan. And, when I talk to people, whether they are Democrats or Republicans or Independents, I hear the same things: We want to make sure we keep our kids here, we want to be sure we’ve got good jobs, and I hear from a lot of families across the district, when I tell them the story of my brother, who say, “This happened to us, as well. Our daughter is there. Our son is there, but not here.”
The only way we’re going to reverse that is by working together and focusing on bringing back the middle class as best we can.
Let’s check in on your positions on some of the major Democratic issues. Are you pro-Choice?
For it and in support of the LGBT community as much as one can be.
Trott says he’ll repeal the Affordable Care Act. Do you support it?
I support Obamacare. The idea that somebody up to 26 can be covered means that they can be focused on school and looking for a job. These are positives. The fact that we are the most successful industrial countries in the world and the we’ve got tens of millions of people who are not covered is incredible. We can do better and we deserve better and we should be doing better. So, I fully support it. I mean, previously if someone on had a pre-existing condition – like pregancy! – they couldn’t get insured. There are other things, too, that we don’t often think about. For example, if someone is dealing with mental illness or depression, they couldn’t get covered. That can prevent someone from going to school, from finding or keeping a job, and so on. So, I think, while we can certainly refine and improve it…
Like we did with Medicaid and Social Security…
That’s right. And the resistance when they were introduced was just as big. But the bottom line is that, I think, history will show that this was a smart move, it was the right move, it was the morally right thing to do.
[Photos by Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog]