Selweski: Dems Move Left in Congressional Race to Coddle Bernie Sanders Backers

March 29, 2018, 7:57 AM

The writer covered state and regional politics for The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. He contributes to Deadline Detroit and blogs at Politically Speaking

By Chad Selweski

Among traditional liberal Democrats, standing to the left is right, and any leaning toward the right is wrong. But in 2018, Michigan’s top Democratic candidates seem to take this ideological stance: The more to the left, the more you are right.

The Dem race for governor displays a decidedly leftist tilt this year as potential party nominees, particularly Shri Thanedar and Abdul El-Sayed, cater to the politics of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist of the 2016 presidential election and the hero of many Millennial voters.

Steve Bieda (left) and Andy Levin

In the Michigan attorney general campaign, Democrat Pat Miles has faced criticism for flip-flopping on several issues as he tries to move away from the political center.

But this leftward shift on the ideological spectrum may be nowhere more prevalent than in one of the state’s premier congressional contests of 2018 -- the suburban Detroit race to replace retiring Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak. The 9th Congressional District is solidly Democratic, so winning the August primary essentially means capturing the seat.

One leading candidate, Levin’s son, Andy, a rather mild-mannered guy from Bloomfield Township with a diverse professional background, has raised a few eyebrows by running as a “radical” and a “hell raiser” in this Macomb-Oakland district. At the same time, Levin’s chief Democratic opponent, state Sen. Steve Bieda of Warren, has undergone somewhat of a transformation after he jumped at the long-awaited opportunity to succeed Sandy Levin.

In past years, Bieda portrayed himself as a moderate, pragmatic Senate Democrat who demonstrated a bipartisan approach by working with Republicans in Lansing and getting dozens of bills passed. But in his congressional campaign, he has emphasized progressive politics, erased his prior pro-life stances on abortion, and has tried to cozy-up to the Greater Detroit chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) – a small, determined group that is, if anything, further to the left than Sen. Sanders.

A Turn Toward Liberalism

After six years in the state House, Bieda successfully ran for state Senate in 2010 as a fiscal conservative determined to reform welfare and “treat business more fairly” on taxes. His Senate district comprises an array of south Macomb communities associated with the storied “Reagan Democrats.” And when he ran for re-election in 2014, his campaign approach had not changed much.

While Bieda acknowledges that his abortion views have evolved into a pro-choice stance, he insists that that his overall manner of legislating included liberal views on health care and LGBT rights.

Bernie Sanders

But 2018 brings a new bipolar era in Democratic Party politics, whether initially sparked by Sanders shocking win in the Michigan 2016 presidential primary or propelled by the opposition expressed in November 2016 and beyond to Hillary Clinton by the “Bernie Bros,” as the rogue group is derisively labeled by veteran party activists. Inflexibility is the name of this new game. As the Democratic primaries approach, some on the left are looking for new blood; some are out for blood.

Meanwhile, Bieda declares: “I’m a pragmatic person. I’m about getting things done. Anybody who knows me knows who I am.”

Yet, who Bieda is – or Levin, for that matter -- remains complicated.

Bieda, 57, has spent 13 years working in the Legislature as a reformer – on criminal justice, campaign finance, and voter eligibility issues. Yet, he still campaigns in traditional ways, racking up endorsements from labor unions, police and firefighters, and local and state elected officials. Though the senator has been term-limited for nearly four years, he has continued to collect significant sums of money from Lansing-based PACs.  

As for Levin, also 57, he has no track record as an officeholder. On the campaign trail he shows a feisty side by recalling his activism in protests during his college years against dictatorships and despotism in South Africa, Tibet and Haiti. Compared to his uncle, former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, and his dad, a soft-spoken, old-school liberal Democrat who has served nearly 36 years in Congress, the son’s emphasis on left-wing causes provides a method of distancing, so he is not viewed as a Levin legacy candidate.

Martin Brook and Ellen Cogen Lipton

Andy Levin has worked as a union organizer, ran and lost a campaign for a state Senate seat, served in the Granholm administration, and formed a company that renovates government buildings for maximum renewable energy benefits.

Two other Democratic candidates, former state Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton of Huntington Woods, and former Bloomfield Hills school board member Martin Brook, are also competing in the primary field.

Insiders Assume Outsiders' Role?

In addition to eyeing campaign cash from traditional Democratic sources -- Levin from the nation’s capital, Bieda from the state capital -- both are clawing for support among the Sanders wing of the party – more broadly, from newly emerged left-wing groups that include names such as the #Resistance, the Arena, the Indivisibles and Our Revolution – which did not exist in Michigan politics four years ago.

When Bieda spoke to a DSA gathering in February, some of the young idealists later dismissed him as the guy in a suit and tie who overemphasized his Macomb County roots and seemed like a member of the “military-industrial complex.”

Both major contenders have their work cut out for them as neither personifies the outsider role that would make them a favorite among Sanders supporters. Still, embracing the far-left too closely could derail either of these campaigns.

Is this playing both sides of the fence by both candidates? 

In the coming months, the grinding effort probably will shape up as a tight contest heading into the August primary. In football parlance, maybe the equivalent of a last-minute field goal kick wide to the left could determine the outcome.  

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