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Wednesday, May 26,2010

'At the end of the day, you have to always challenge the status quo'

Kande Ngalamulume ready to fight the Mike Rogers standard

by Neal McNamara
Kande Ngalamulume bends down at the rear of a late model sports utility vehicle to pick up an assortment of empty plastic shampoo, body wash and food containers. The items had spilled out of the back of the vehicle, whose owner, an overweight blonde woman wearing a large T-shirt, looked down at Ngalamulume.

The woman did not seem impressed that a large, muscular man wearing a crisp white shirt, neon green necktie, suit pants and a reflective safety vest was down on the ground picking up her garbage.


The other volunteers at the Recycle Livingston center in Howell that day said that Ngalamulume’s clothes really raised the dress code around the place. Plus, the safety vest might have been a little unnecessary since the recycling center is essentially a large parking lot with more stationary Dumpsters than heavy machinery.


Ngalamulume’s dress was purposeful, though. The 31-year-old Lansing resident and Michigan State University graduate is running for Congress, and the Howell recycling center is smack in the middle of the 8th Congressional District, where he's running.


After Ngalamulume picked up the woman’s items, he carried them to a Dumpster reserved for plastics. Nearby the receptacle were a stack of glossy campaign fliers and a box of business cards. After toiling with recyclables at the rear of someone’s car, Ngalamulume would grab a flier and give it to a recycler. With some, he would chat about issues he thought were important to the state and the district.


As a campaign stop and an act of volunteerism, the recycling center was a stroke of genius. The place was a hotspot of young mothers in nice SUVs and retired folks trying to do their part to help the environment. Ngalamulume had been volunteering there for a few weeks.


When Ngalamulume walked up to an elderly couple in a truck, they took his literature, politely said a few words to him and put their vehicle in gear and drove off.


“They said it’s going to be a tough race,” Ngalamulume said when asked what the elderly couple said, the knot of his tie stained with sweat. But, he was exuberant.


“This is the heart of it.”


Conservative Livingston County is indeed the heart of the 8th District, which has been represented in Washington for 10 years by conservative Republican Mike Rogers. It is a traditionally conservative county; it went for John McCain in 2008 and George W. Bush in 2004 and 2000. It also hinges on scary conservative: Cohoctah Township, north of Howell, was home to a compound owned by the Ku Klux Klan’s grand dragon.


Former Gov. John Engler created the district after the 2000 Census, deliberately making sure it leaned very Republican. The district contains the mostly Republican Clinton and Livingston counties, plus a conservative corner of Oakland County, and a small chunk of rural Shiawassee County. Ingham County is the lone Democratic county in the mix, and Rogers has not carried it since 2002. Rogers lives in Brighton, a bland suburb in southern Livingston County.


Some may think the district unwinnable for a Democrat. Several have tried and failed: Bob Alexander, from East Lansing, was badly defeated in 2004; he tried again in 2008 and was defeated less badly. In 2002, Frank McAlpine ran and got about 70,000 votes to Rogers’ 156,000. In 2006, Jim Marcinkowski, a former CIA agent and former colleague of outed spy Valerie Plame, got about 122,000 votes to Rogers’ 157,000. (When Ngalamulume debuted his campaign in Clarkston several weeks ago, Marcinkowski and Alexander were at his side. Alexander is also helping run the Ngalamulume campaign.)


Another problem is redistricting. Because of the 2010 Census, a shift in population could cause the 8th to go away completely, or be gerrymandered by Republican state leadership to retain its red leanings. Some political science hobbyists have projected that the 8th will shrink in geographic size and end up somewhere down in the Detroit area.


But as Ngalamulume moves between sorting recyclables and sidling up to drivers’ windows to talk jobs, education and health care, he exudes a winning personality and demeanor. Ngalamulume is tall and muscular, but not imposing. He has a microscopic layer of hair speaks cheerfully to people, looking in their eyes and nodding as he talks. Some people take a few minutes to talk to him. Others, like the elderly couple, seem to just want to drop off their recyclables and move on their way.


Roger Tangney was driving a truck with a big decal on the back that read, “Lost your job yet? Keep buying foreign.” After talking to Ngalamulume, Tangney, a General Motors retiree, said that he feels America is going downhill and that Rogers is not helping.


“I don’t see where he’s done a hell of a lot,” Tangney said, referring to Rogers. “I’d give (Ngalamulume) a try — we can’t do any worse than we’ve got.”


Tangney said that “five to six years ago,” Ngalamulume might not have had a chance because he is black, but not anymore.


“He seems like a decent guy,” Tangney said. “But he’s got a long way to go.”




Mr. Ngalamulume comes home


Until a few months ago, Ngalamulume had a life in Pennsylvania. He had a career in corporate finance at Blue Cross, and lived in a Philadelphia suburb with plans to marry his girlfriend. It was a longtime goal of his to become a chief financial officer of a large corporation.


But, politics got in the way of all that.


Running for public office had been in his mind for some time, but he only decided on Thanksgiving to come back to the area and run for Congress. He lives north of the Frandor shopping center, behind a bowling alley.


“Professionally and personally I gave up a lot to do this,” he said. “That right there should tell people I’m very serious about this. But ultimately it is not about me; it’s not about what my future is, it’s about the future of the kids here in the state.”


He says his decision to come back to run for office is informed by Michigan’s hardships: job losses, a brain drain, aging infrastructure, and Rogers’ vote against health care reform, which Ngalamulume sees as an imperative. Though, his political leanings are also in part inspired by his birthplace.


Ngalamulume was born in Zaire in 1978 at the height of dictator Joseph Mobutu’s reign. Mobutu installed himself as president in 1965 after a coup. Mobutu squandered the country's resources, institutionalized corruption and had political enemies assassinated, among other atrocities. The country held sham elections where Mobutu was elected over and over, though he was eventually toppled in 1997. After, the country was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and a horrific war for control took place, claiming the lives of 6 million.


Seeing the antithesis of democracy in African dictators like Mobutu and Uganda’s Idi Amin motivates Ngalamulume political aspirations. It's hard not to see a parallel between someone like Mobutu, a president for life, and Rogers, whose political territory was carved out for him by someone who wanted nothing but a long Republican regime.


"You have a lot of political assassinations," he said of Mobutu's rule. "Mobutu killed off a lot of his opposition. There was no true democracy. There were not any elections. If there were, it was really just for show.


"When you hear all these stories and hear all these things, it led me to say, 'politics is about serving, not self serving.' I saw a need here and said, I’m going to come back and serve the people."


Ngalamulume grew up in Zaire’s principal city, Kinshasa, located on the country’s western edge. He does not remember much of the city, except going to a Christian school where the nuns would punish children by striking them on the knuckles with a switch. He has one blurry memory of a man on crutches chasing him as he walked to school.


His father, a professor at a college in Kinshasa, foresaw Zaire’s imminent collapse. He fled in 1987, landing in Athens, Ohio, where he attended Ohio University and worked in the cafeteria. Athens is a small city in southeast Ohio near the Kentucky border.


“He knew he had to get out of there and come to the U.S. and further his education and seek the American dream," he says of his father. "A lot of people told him not to do it, saying that he didn’t know enough English. But despite the naysayers, despite the difficulties, he did it. He knew he could do it, so he did.”


In 1988, Ngalamulume and his sister joined their father in Ohio. His mother stayed in Zaire, and he has not seen her since.


At 11, Ngalamulume underwent a religious transformation that he calls being “saved.” Religion was always important in his family, he said. He, his father and sister attended Athens Bible Church, and in the summer, he attended Camp Logos, a Bible camp.


“It was not something that we picked up when we got the U.S.,” he says. “When we got to Athens, we quickly found a church.”


While Ngalamulume’s stay in Athens was short, his religious experiences at Camp Logos stuck with him. He returned there in 2002 as a volunteer, going back every summer since.


The Rev. Jim Hixson, Ngalamulume’s pastor all those years ago, does not recall much about Ngalamulume except that he started showing up a few years ago as a volunteer at the camp.


“I think the camp impacted him in some way, and that made him want to give back,” Hixson said. “He cooks at camp. It is very menial. He works hard. He is just involved in the cooking. It’s a humble thing for a guy to do.”


In 1990, Ngalamulume and his family came to East Lansing so that his father could pursue a doctorate at Michigan State University.


Because of his father’s educational pursuits, Ngalamulume sometimes found himself without a parent. For his freshman year in East Lansing High School, he stayed with a young couple while his father went back to Africa to study. Jonathan Abuhl remembers taking in Ngalamulume and his sister in after their father posted an advertisement at their church, East Lansing Trinity.


“I’d say he was pretty much a typical teen,” said Abuhl, who now lives in North Dakota. “He really enjoyed football. He had friends and was extremely athletic — he was truly driven in his football, believing he’d be a superstar someday.”


Ngalamulume’s high school football career as a running back piqued the interest of coaches from schools like the University of Michigan and UCLA, but he chose to stay close to home and attend MSU. He played football as a second string wide receiver, behind future superstars like Plaxico Burress. However, the strain of football, running track and juggling academics was too much. His days were filled with punishing workout sessions and cramming for class. He did not return to football after his sophomore year. He focused on school and graduated with a degree in business — he says as a young man he never dreamed of being in the NFL, but of being a successful business leader.


“My goal was to always be a CFO for a major fortune 500 company,” he said.


After college, he left East Lansing and went to the Philadelphia area. His father, Kalala Ngalamulume, had become a professor of African history at Bryn Mawr College. In the Philadelphia area, Ngalamulume entered the world of finance, first at SEI Investments, then at Citco Mutual Fund Services. In college, Ngalamulume had internships at McDonald Investments, a branch of Key Bank, and Merrill Lynch.


He left Michigan for Pennsylvania not only to be close to his father, but also because he could not find work here. It is one of the reasons, he says, he came back to run for Congress.


“I thought I’d go to college, have a family and raise my kids here,” he said, referring to Michigan. “That dream has sort of dissipated over the years for many people. I have many friends who would love to come back, but just cannot afford that. For future generations, I want to make sure they can stay here.”



A contrast


If anyone in the 8th Congressional District know how hard it is to defeat Mike Rogers, it's Bob Alexander.


In 2008, a year in which almost 200,000 people in the 8th Congressional District voted for Barack Obama, Alexander only got 146,000 votes to Rogers’ 204,000. Rogers raised $1.3 million to Alexander’s $218,544. And Alexander’s face and name were plastered on a series of attack ads mailed out by the Michigan Republican Party to thousands of voters in the 8th Congressional District in the weeks leading up to election. The ads accused Alexander of supporting free health care for illegal immigrants and billionaires (based on Alexander’s support of Detroit U.S. Rep. John Conyers’ single-payer health care bill).


“If I believed what those ads said, I wouldn’t have voted for Bob Alexander, either,” Alexander said. “I had no money, and it was too late for me to respond even if I had money.That’s what Rogers does.”


Rogers won one of the closest elections in state history in 2000 when he defeated former Michigan House minority leader Dianne Byrum.


Byrum says her race against Rogers was not “openly dirty,” but she thought there might have been money coming in to his campaign that was suspicious. After the election, the state Democratic Party filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that Rogers’ campaign accepted money over the legal limit. The FEC found Rogers’ campaign accepted donations over the federal limit, and ended up being fined. Later, in 2003, Rogers became a top fundraiser for the National Republican Campaign Committee , dubbed a “money man.”


As of the end of March, Rogers’ MIKE R PAC had about $275,000 and given out $258,000 to Republican blowhards like Illinois’ Mike Dold and California’s Ken Calvert. (Calvert issued a dramatic press release at the end of March “urging” Obama to let California have a crack at offshore drilling.) At the end of March, Rogers’ campaign account had close to $900,000, according to the FEC.


“It’s become extremely difficult, but I would never say it’s unwinnable,” Byrum said of Rogers’ seat. “It’s a partisan district, it just really advantages (Rogers).


“I’m glad Kande has his name on the ballot and is at least challenging (Rogers). I hope he’ll bring out some of Mike’s votes and challenge him on it.”


The Christian Coalition, a family values group, rates Rogers 92 percent, though in 2009 he voted against increasing the Children’s Health Insurance Program. In 2003, he voted to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and more recently for bailouts for Chrysler and General Motors; he also voted for George W. Bush’s 2008 $60 billion economic stimulus package, but voted against Barack Obama’s 2009 $825 billion stimulus package. He’s voted against an increase in the federal minimum wage, for building a fence along the Mexico border, and against this year’s health care reform.


Based on voting tallies, Alexander is optimistic that Ngalamulume can oust Rogers. Alexander waves a chart that shows the Democratic candidate has increasingly more votes since 2002. Alexander predicts a Democratic win this year because of the thousands of voters that registered in 2008.


Plus, the Kande folks are counting that 8th District voters are getting tired of having an absentee congressman.


Mike Rogers “plays the 8th District like a Stradivarius,” Alexander says.


Mike Rogers “represents K Street more than the 8th Congressional District,” says North Oakland County Democratic Club Chairman Phillip Reid, referring to Washington’s boulevard of lobbying firms. Reid’s club has endorsed Ngalamulume. “Rogers has consistently voted against the interests of residents of the district.”


One of the first people Ngalamulume contacted in Michigan before beginning his campaign is state Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer. Brewer’s been chauffeuring Ngalamulume around to Democratic activists, but said it would be premature to judge how much support he would get from the state party.


“This is a year for an outsider like Kande to take on Mike Rogers,” Brewer said. “As we’ve seen in the elections, no incumbent is safe. I think Kande provides the right kind of contrast.”


When asked if he knew whether Ngalamulume is the first black person to run in the 8th District, and whether it might have an effect on his chances, Brewer said, essentially, that the district is colorblind.


“I don’t think (voters) make judgments based on names or other superficial factors,” Brewer said. “I don’t think his race is at all a hindrance. This is going to about the candidates and their visions.”


When asked if he thinks Ngalamulume can defeat Rogers, Alexander said that his race and religious background are advantageous and could get him into both large white congregations and predominantly black churches. Ngalamulume’s business background will also get him far in some circles, Alexander said.


“He speaks the language, he has an entr'e there,” Alexander said of the churches. “People would be hollering if I walked through the door.


“He’s a magnet.”




Fool’s errand


On a rainy Thursday afternoon, Ngalamulume is in his campaign headquarters on the first floor of an old house at 1510 E. Michigan Ave. in Lansing. On one wall is a blow-up of a May 7 issue of the Livingston Daily Press and Argus that features a photo of Ngalamulume and a story about his campaign kick
off. The office is small, but appears ready to hold a dozen or so
campaign workers. At a work station in the back is a poster board with
a picture of Barack Obama.


In
a small room at the back, which serves as Ngalamulume’s office, he is
asked what he’ll do if Rogers tries to smear him or crush the campaign
with dirt and money.


“Politics
is dirty,” he said. “I knew going into this that it’s not all glory.
It’s a very tough sort of field to be in. But, my concern is not about
me, it is about the people of this district.”


But what does piss him off is people who don’t take his campaign seriously.


“A
lot of people have stated that this is a fool’s errand to challenge
Rogers. Oh, he has all this money, all this influence. It’s a
Republican district. I’ve heard it all. But when people say, ‘Oh this
guy’s not a serious candidate,’ that’s what gets to me.”


And,
it seems, the people questioning his candidacy are not opponents, but
fellow Democrats. He relayed an anecdote about an e-mail he got from a
state Democratic activist who told him a union leader questioned
whether Ngalamulume is serious, or just throwing his name in a hat.


“There
are people who believe in me, and believe this can be done,” he said.
“I’m under no allusion that this is not going to be very difficult.
But when you look at the issues, they are on our side. Whether it is
financial reform, health care, the economy, the issues are on the
Democratic side. I don’t buy into the Republican perception that this
(November) is going to be a bloodbath.”


In
talking about what he would do for the 8th District voters, Ngalamulume
is broad — he supports creating jobs, making health care affordable and
improving education. Though, it seems, he has not yet honed a campaign
mantra. And although he is a Democrat, it would be wrong to call him a
liberal, which may be to his advantage. He says that he is more of a
moderate.


On a
personal level, he is against abortion, though he supports a woman’s
right to choose. He thinks Michigan’s corporate taxes are too high and
should be lowered. And, his views on health care are spiritual.


“I
truly believe health care is a moral issue. Not only does it make sense
economically, but also it is a moral issue. That comes as a result of
my faith. When Christ was here on Earth, he healed people. There was
no, ‘Well, this person deserves to be healed, but this person doesn’t
have the resources or the statures,’ or whatever it is. He healed
people, those who were sick, and those who were blind. Those were some
of the values that I picked up.”


His
favorite president is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his favorite book is
“The Great Gatsby,” and among his favorite movies are “Wall Street” and
“The Breakfast Club,” and he
likes the bands Journey and Foreigner. If his political career got as
far, he would aspire to be U.S. secretary of state. The reason he is
not a Republican, he says, is values.


“This is the party of values, a party that really looks after the interests of the people.


“Even
today, when you have financial reform, Democrats are trying to put out
some sensible regulations so we don’t find ourselves in the situation
we were in three years ago,” he said, speaking of financial reform
legislation that passed the Senate last Friday.


If
he loses, he wants stay in Michigan and maybe get his master’s in
business administration. He said he would not try for the seat again.


“Ultimately,
I want to see Michigan come back, and I think we can bring it back. I
think it is going to take bold leadership and good sounds policies. At
the end of the day, I do see myself here in the Michigan.”




An albatross


Johnny
Turner had just pulled away from a relatively long conversation with
Ngalamulume — as long as one can talk while cars are lining up behind
you to drop off recyclables. He clutches one of Ngalamulume’s pamphlets
and was rather excited.


“I’m ready for a change,” he said. “It can’t be any worse than it is.”


Turner was not a Democrat, though, saying that he votes for whichever candidate sparks his interest come election time, regardless of affiliation.


Tim Horvath was interested to know what Ngalamulume’s stance on veterans’ affairs is.


“I think he’s like any politician: He says the right things,” Horvath said. “I think he has a lot of positive energy.”


He
doesn’t appear, though, to represent Livingston, Clinton and Oakland
county voters. A movement to the right since Obama’s election could
cause the 8th District to be even more of a lock for a Republican.


Hearing all the reasons he should not run, Ngalamulume still offers reasons he should.


“One
of the things I learned when I was growing up is you have to learn to
compromise. It’s been evident in the last year, everything that has
come from this administration or this Congress, (Mike Rogers has) voted
against. So, what, for the next two years, he’s going to vote against
everything? We need someone who’s going to work. If you’re going to sit
on the sidelines, then let’s put you there permanently.


“This
is a democracy. What is the alternative? Let Rogers run unopposed? We
have elections and someone has to run against someone else. At the end
of the day, you have to always challenge the status quo,” he said.


“We’re going to make Mike Rogers’ voting record an albatross.”

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