Congressional races offer a local picture in contrasts

By J. PATRICK PEPPER
Times-Herald Newspapers

All three of the area’s U.S. House of Representative seats are up for the taking next week following one of the most politically charged election seasons in recent memory.

The incumbents seeking to retain office are John Dingell (D-Dearborn), John Conyers (D-Detroit), and Thaddeus McCotter (R-Livonia), and the challenges facing each man differ greatly.

In the 15th House District, which stretches west from west Dearborn to Ann Arbor and south to the Ohio border, the race between Dingell and Republican Dr. Rob Steele has become a referendum on the health care overhaul passed by Congress earlier this year. Dingell is seen by some as the patron saint of health care reform, having introduced legislation to that effect at the opening of every Congressional session since he first was elected in 1954.

And the passage of the legislation, although not entirely the same as Dingell’s version, marked the end of a battle his family has waged since his father, John Dingell Sr., began pushing for universal coverage as a U.S. rep in 1937. But as public opinion has polarized on the controversial law, what was supposed to be a panacea has, in many ways, turned into an albatross for the 84-year-old Dingell.

And for the legislation’s critics, there is salvation in the Ann Arbor cardiologist Steele. A doctor with business credentials and no previous political experience, he has been the anti-Dingell: a nonpolitico, an outsider and a voice of conservatism in this historical bastion of liberalism. He has been a regular guest on national conservative media outlets – usually to speak on his opposition views about health care reform – and has been the beneficiary of a charging Republican base led by the Tea Party movement.

Still, Dingell has a superlative track record when it comes to besting upstart opponents. In his 26 bids for office, Dingell never once has won by less than a double-digit margin, most of the time taking more than 70 percent of the vote. And a Detroit Free Press/WXYZ-TV poll of 400 likely voters released last week gave Dingell a 53 percent-to-36 percent lead over Steele, with 5 percent of respondents undecided and 6 percent voting otherwise.

In the 14th House District – which comprises much of northwest Detroit, part of Dearborn and stretches south through several Downriver municipalities – it is a clash between the suburbs and the city. There Republican Don Ukraniec of Trenton looks to oust longtime Rep. John Conyers. But it could be a tough road for Ukraniec, who has neither the financing nor name recognition of his 15th District counterpart, Steele.

With 45 years in office, Conyers is second only to Dingell in terms of years served among active House members. And like Dingell, Conyers has won handily every election he has run in, mostly on the strength of a reliable, sizable Democratic base in his hometown.

And in 11th House District, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Livonia) is seeking his fifth consecutive term in a three-way race against Democratic challenger Natalie Mosher of Canton Township and Libertarian candidate John Tatar of Livonia. The district comprises parts of southwestern Oakland County and northwestern Wayne County, including Dearborn Heights, and has been considerably less predictable than the 14th or 15th.

Congressional peers regard McCotter as an intellectual, and his voting record has trended consistently conservative, although he did advocate for the government loans to automakers in 2009. Mosher, a former teacher and nongovernmental organization worker, is running on a platform of jobs and education. Tatar has mostly stuck to a small government in his campaign.