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Don’t tell Chris Smith he doesn’t have a chance to be the Lansing area’s next member of Congress.
He wouldn’t believe you if you did. He remembers how everyone — from the “political experts” to the person on the street — thought Bernie Sanders wasn’t going to win Michigan. Look what happened.
There’s nothing wrong with being a non-establishment, progressive Democrat, and that’s exactly how the 60-year-old Michigan State University professor sees himself.
His policies check all the boxes. He wants Medicaid for everyone. The Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac shut down. Personal use for marijuana allowed. His first campaign video was a homemade message from his garage on gun control.
Smith’s effort to defeat the much better funded Elissa Slotkin in the 8 th Congressional District Democratic primary and unseat U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester Nov. 6 couldn’t be any more homespun, also in the spirit of the early Sanders movement.
All of the $57,500 he raised last year was from individual contributions. The East Lansing resident of 24 years isn’t taking any corporate checks. He’s not spending money on consultants ... until it becomes necessary.
His son, Eric, is basically his campaign manager. Smith designed his own campaign flier. He and a handful of volunteers collected all of his 1,500 petition signatures, which is 50 percent more than he needs to make the ballot.
Smith is hitting all the small groups. He found his way into the Students Demand Action anti-gun rally at the Capitol last week. He was available to answer questions from a small group at the Hannah Center on Monday. He’s scheduled to address folks at Stockbridge Township Hall this week.
Running for Congress is what Smith is doing most days. He’s on leave from his job in MSU’s School of Criminal Justice. His daughter, who just celebrated the birth of her first child, is finishing her doctorate and will join her college’s faculty. His son graduated from Stanford law school and is serving in the Michigan National Guard when he’s not working on Dad’s campaign.
His wife, Charlotte, has been supporting him since the day the seed of running for office was planted. That’s when Donald Trump won the White House. That seed germinated into a sprout during President Barack Obama’s goodbye speech when the 44 th president called for Americans “to pick up their clipboards” and run for office if they don’t like what’s going on.
“At that instant I looked at my wife and I said, ‘He’s talking to me,’” Smith said.
He’s been told he should get out of the 8 th Congressional race for the Democratic nomination. Even strangers have emailed him with a bucket of cold water.
They remind Smith that Slotkin is pushing $1 million in contributions. The national Democratic operation out of Washington is pushing her. Shoot, NBC News made Slotkin the face of their recent segment on the record number of female congressional candidates in 2018.
Smith might have been inclined to do just that, but he can’t shake Slotkin’s comment on the Friday Morning Podcast that she wouldn’t have run for office if Mike Rogers was still representing the 8 th Congressional District.
“To say you wouldn’t have run, it implies you find his voting record and his representation of the district acceptable. And it wasn’t,” he said. “American conservative union gave Rogers a lifetime 87 percent rating. Bishop’s an 88. They’re practically the same person by the way they vote.
“I can’t step aside if that’s how she feels.”
Smith is making the pitch that he’s the choice. So who is he?
He attended Red Cedar Elementary School until his family moved to Kalamazoo, where he graduated high school. He went to Harvard. He earned a Rotary scholarship that allowed him to receive his graduate degrees in England. His law degree is from the University of Tennessee and his doctorate from the University of Connecticut.
He’s lectured for years about public policy.
He’s also one of those rare people who can take a leave from his job and his employer will hold the job for him.
At the time Smith was poking around about Congress last year, nobody seemed to know who was going to run. Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., Rep. Sam Singh. In the spring of 2017, the field was bare.
The number crunchers told him that with a 56 percent Republican base number, the 8 th was next to impossible for a Democrat to win. That’s what chased other experienced officeholders from running.
“They said, ‘It’s a gerrymandered district.’” Smith said. “They’ll wait to see what redistricting brings.”
Smith doesn’t want to wait until 2022, when the next new maps would take effect. Somebody needs to wave the progressive banner. Stand up for the issues important to Michigan and the 8 th Congressional District.
“People need a choice, a progressive option,” Smith said.
(Melinn is editor the Michigan Information & Research Service, which covers the Capitol and politics.)