OAKLAND COUNTY – Most volunteers for state Senate campaigns don’t get a personal greeting from a twelve-term U.S. congressman.
The race for the 13th District seat, though, isn’t a standard state Senate contest.
So when 11 carloads of College Democrats from the University arrived at the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters in Madison Heights, U.S. Rep. Sander Levin (D–Royal Oak) was standing in the rain to greet them.
They came to campaign for Levin’s son, labor organizer and attorney Andy Levin, who is in a close race with former state Rep. John Pappageorge for the 13th District state Senate seat.
Winning this seat, which is being vacated by term-limited Republican Shirley Johnson, is a crucial part of the Democratic effort to retake control of the state Senate for the first time since the early 1980s.
The 13th District spans the tony Detroit suburbs of Troy, Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills and working-class communities like Clawson and Madison Heights.
Like the rest of Michigan, it has been hit hard by the auto industry’s recent struggles. Troy-based auto parts supplier Delphi Corp. recently laid off thousands of white-collar workers in an effort to emerge from bankruptcy.
The 42 College Democrats got a pep talk from both Levins before they fanned out across the district in leftover “Victory 2004” ponchos to campaign door-to-door.
“While there is a possibility that we won’t take back the state Senate even if I do win, Andy Levin said, “there’s no chance of taking back the state Senate if I don’t win.”
But the Republicans are determined to hold onto their six-seat margin.
Six members of the University’s College Republicans also traveled to the 13th District Saturday to campaign for Pappageorge.
“This could be the winning vote right here in this house,” said Jordan Fennema, vice chair of the University’s chapter of the College Republicans, as he bounded up to the door of a modest two-story home in the middle-class suburb of Royal Oak.
Like Republican campaigns nationwide, the Pappageorge campaign is armed with data from the Republican National Committee’s Voter Vault database. The campaign equipped the College Republicans with detailed information about the voters they were meeting, such as whether they are anti-abortion or own guns.
The visits from the College Republicans and College Democrats come amid a torrent of campaign advertising targeted at undecided voters in Oakland County.
When the Democrats knocked on one Berkley door, the agitated resident who answered gave a terse response.
“I’m voting for (Granholm), that’s it,” he said, confused about for whom the volunteers were campaigning.
Pappageorge campaign manager Justin Winslow acknowledged the barrage of campaign material that voters are facing.
“You’re sort of walking into ground zero for a lot of people there,” he said. “Everyone is vying for those votes.”
The Michigan Democratic Party is running advertisements on cable TV in support of Andy Levin. The Michigan GOP recently sent mailings to voters in the district trying to paint Levin as a liberal interloper from Washington.
Levin moved to the district in May, but he grew up in Berkley and went to graduate school at the University of Michigan.
Levin’s last name will be helpful in the November 7 contest. His father, Sander Levin, has represented parts of the district since 1982. The elder Levin also mounted two unsuccessful campaigns for governor in 1970 and 1974. Andy Levin’s uncle, Carl Levin (D-Mich.), is an influential U.S. senator.
But Andy Levin isn’t relying just on his name to beat Pappageorge.
“People do love my dad and my uncle out there and that is great,” he told the College Democrats on Saturday. “But they need to learn to love me.”
The 13th District race highlights many of the issues facing Michigan.
Reeling from the effects of layoffs and a stagnant state economy, jobs are a key issue. While the district is currently held by a Republican, the traditionally conservative county has been trending Democratic over the past six years. In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry won 47 percent of the vote in the district.
As in the race for governor, candidates in Oakland County are shying away from potentially divisive social issues.
“It’s funny how on the west side of the state (campaign) literature is like ‘pro-life, pro-gun’ and the economy is at the bottom,” said Fennema, an LSA senior from Grand Rapids. “It’s more dangerous to talk about (social issues) over here.”
But the importance of social issues wasn’t lost on Fennema and his campaigning companion, Kinesiology junior Allison Schneider.
They hesitated before knocking on one door on their list because of a rainbow flag – a symbol of gay pride – planted in a flower pot outside.
Sander Levin said that because the election will be close, the campaign cannot afford to take any votes for granted.
“If this is a close race, and it’s likely to be, the person-to-person work you’re doing makes a difference of 3 to 4 percentage points,” he said.