In the middle of the Michigan League’s Maizie’s Kitchen & Market, a dozen undergraduate students huddled around a laptop to sign in for their canvassing shifts. The small group decided to brave the January blizzard and knock doors for Solomon Rajput, a 27-year-old Ann Arbor native who put his medical studies on hold for a year to challenge Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., for Michigan’s 12th congressional seat.
Dingell has represented the district for the last four years. Previously, it was held by the late John Dingell for 59 years and before that, by his father John Dingell Sr. for 22 years. Rajput hopes to disrupt this 85-year-old political dynasty.
He said he was interested in politics as a teenager but was disenchanted with how candidates seemed to be controlled by big corporations. Still looking to make a difference, Rajput decided to enter the medical field.
“I ended up in medicine because it is a way to help people in a very vulnerable moment, heal people,” Rajput said. “I was thinking maybe we can change our health care system from the inside out.”
After Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election, Rajput’s political ambitions were reignited, leading him to found the activist organization Michigan Resistance. The goal of the group was to advocate for local progressive bills in the county and state legislature. Noting the success of progressive campaigns such as those run by U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., in 2018, Rajput said he became hopeful that he, too, would be able to make a difference through politics.
In September 2019, he decided to put his medical studies on the back burner and run for Dingell’s seat.
“I feel like times are changing, and it’s actually really exciting because we have a new generation of leaders who are running for office. We’re saying we’re not going to be beholden to corporate interest any longer,” Rajput said. “It’s so cool to see people like Bernie Sanders and AOC and Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, and what kind of leaders they can be when they’re just unapologetic champions for what the people need. And they don’t need to get their permission slip signed from their corporate donors before they can make any statement.”
In the corner of the cafe checking in volunteers was LSA freshman Gina Liu, the campaign’s campus coordinator for the University of Michigan. As more students filed into the cafe, Rajput began greeting them personally. He aims to not only campaign on a strong ideological platform but to rely on passionate grassroots volunteers while doing so.
“His experience is grassroots and his experience aligns with a lot of the constituents in this district and the young people in this district,” Liu said. “Seeing someone who actually is willing to fight the issues and also just not accept corporate money, that’s inspiring to me.”
Rajput’s platform is built on key policy pillars, including aggressively fighting climate change and rejecting corporate PAC money. He believes Congress needs to pass a Green New Deal.
Since District 12 has six colleges and a large student population, Rajput also believes it’s necessary to make college free and eliminate student debt. He argues that Medicare for All and single-payer healthcare should not only be supported as an opportunistic political move, but as a steadfast Democratic ideal.
“Part of the reason why I decided to run was because I was taking a look at how progressive our district actually is,” Rajput said. “Unfortunately, (Dingell’s) not the progressive champion that we need on these issues.”
As Rajput recounted his experiences canvassing, he claimed voters are not necessarily excited about having Dingell as their representative, but feel like she will always hold the seat. In these instances, Rajput makes his case a viable alternative.
“There’s this perception that Rep. Dingell is beloved in the community or that she is very active,” Rajput said. “(But) when we go and talk to voters, it’s remarkable how infrequently Congresswoman Dingell’s name is brought up.”
However, because he is new to the political sphere, Rajput’s understanding of some of the issues important to voters in the district is less developed. One of the predominant issues in District 12 is the man-made water crisis, where toxic PFAS chemicals have seeped into Michigan’s waters. These chemicals are linked to numerous health concerns, including cancer. Dingell co-authored the bipartisan PFAS Action Act, which passed the House of Representatives on Jan. 10.
While Rajput noted the work that Dingell has done to combat PFAS, he said he believes she and the Democrats are only making incremental legislation and not considering the larger issue at hand — climate change.
“Although we need to be focused on these more local environmental concerns, we can’t lose sight of the big picture,” Rajput said. “We can talk about this one chemical, or these few chemicals that are going to impact your health, but at the same time, are we putting blinders on when it comes to … the fact that our house is on fire when it comes to climate change?”
While Dingell has received criticism for not supporting the Green New Deal, she disagreed with the suggestion that local environmental concerns should be ignored and emphasized her record as a progressive congresswoman with a focus on environmental issues. In an interview with The Daily, Dingell said environmental groups such as Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters name her as one of the few representatives pushing for environmental bills every day.
“If you call any of the environmental groups … they will tell you that I have introduced the leading legislation in the Congress that is called the 100% Clean Energy Bill, which follows the UN recommendation in achieving the 100 percent clean energy economy by 2050,” Dingell said. “I am actually one of the only people getting bills through the Congress. So, I take great umbrage at his comment, to be perfectly frank.”
In November, three members of the Sunrise Movement held a sit-in protest at Dingell’s office in Ypsilanti where three were arrested. The young protestors demanded a meeting with the representative and urged her to sign on to the Green New Deal.
Dingell added that while she hasn’t come out in support of the Green New Deal, she has spoken with several stakeholders, including the Sunrise Movement and the Labor Coalition, to come to a conclusion all constituents will agree on.
“I met with Sunrise leadership and representatives, the Attorney General, Rashida (Tlaib) … We’ve been having conversations,” Dingell said. “I respect the work of those who are working on that.”
Rajput also opposes “forever wars,” and in an interview with Michael Arria of progressive news site Mondoweiss, Rajput took issue with the fact that Dingell had never made a statement against going to war in Iran, and only spoke out against its having congressional approval. Dingell rebuked the criticism, saying that she was one of the first Democrats to speak out against war in Iran.
“He’s got a way of … not telling the truth,” Dingell said. “I was one of the very first on the floor of the House to speak out about what the President did.”
Dingell stands by her record, noting that she is the co-chair of the Medicare for All caucus and has always passionately fought for quality affordable health care. She said she has consistently fought for progressive legislation and is proud of her ability to pass bipartisan legislation in Congress.
“I think that we gotta work with everybody, and (that) if you want to get a bill enacted that you’ve got to work across the aisle, because I know how to count votes,” Dingell said. “So if I can get a bill passed that will lower the cost of prescription drugs for a person in my district, that is a good bill. Then I’m going to work across the aisle … And that’s what I do. I put together friends across the aisle, and I try not to demonize people.“
Rajput said bipartisanship in this polarized era isn’t realistic.
“So I understand when people are saying … have the Republicans and Democrats figure out a way to work together across the aisle,” Rajput said. “That appeals to my emotions, like how it appeals to many other people in this country. However, I do believe that at this point, bipartisanship is a myth.”
As Rajput and a campaign fellow, LSA sophomore Alec Schlotterback, parked outside a residential neighborhood, they put on their campaign embroidered knit hats and gloves to bear the snowstorm. They divvied up the houses and trudged through the neighborhood as the snow and winds thickened.
“Canvassing with him is a pretty interesting experience because people react to him a lot differently than they do with a volunteer like me,” Schlotterback said. “They’re much more willing to listen to him and to share the things they care about when they see the candidate face-to-face as opposed to hearing about them from a volunteer. It’s also nice to know that he’s out there canvassing with us. It definitely helps me stay motivated knowing he’s out there knocking doors just like I am. Plus he’s got tons of energy and charisma and that really helps too.”
Rajput disappeared for a moment, having stepped inside of a house to talk to a constituent. While this action breaks traditional campaign protocol, he felt strongly about it. He said he spoke to a former Dingell supporter who left the conversation undecided.
“Knocking door-to-door, that’s how you change votes,” he said.
Reporter Julia Fanzeres can be reached at email@example.com