Got Dem hopes

It's voters like Mark Knowles who give Democratic congressional candidate Nancy Skinner hope.

The 42-year-old chemical plant logistics manager lives in Farmington, which makes him part of the district that's sent U.S. Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Bloomfield Township) to Washington in every election since 1992.

But when Knowles met Skinner at the Harvest Moon Festival in downtown Farmington last weekend, he told her he's one of Oakland County's moderate Republicans ready to vote Democratic in this election.

"I've been Republican my whole life, but we need a change," Knowles says. "Look who we've got in office."

With President George W. Bush's approval ratings down, growing opposition to the war in Iraq, a crumbling auto industry, a dreadful state economy and continuing scandals among national Republicans, candidates like Skinner are banking on voters such as Knowles who say they'll invest their votes in change.

"That's how I know I have a chance," says Skinner, a Birmingham resident. "I've heard that for a year."

Despite all the negatives facing the Republican Party as midterm elections approach, the opinion among pundits is that incumbent GOP congressmen representing southeast Michigan are unlikely to lose their seats come November.

Skinner, 41, may be one of the Democrats' best hopes to prove the pundits wrong. A native of Royal Oak and a finance-accounting graduate of the University of Michigan, she worked for the Ilitch family on such projects as the redevelopment of the Fox Theatre. She lived in Chicago for several years, but returned to Michigan two years ago to host Nancy Skinner AM on WDTW-AM 1310 before deciding to run for Congress.

Her first-floor headquarters on Woodward Avenue in Birmingham aren't big enough to hold her election night party, but have plenty of advantages. "We had great visibility during the Dream Cruise," she says. "We had a sign that said, 'Honk if you've had enough.' People said, 'Enough of what?' So we put up another sign that said 'of Joe Knollenberg and George Bush.' It got noisy."

Skinner encourages campaign donations in amounts equal to the contributors' cost for a tank of gas in their own vehicles. She wanted to stay "on message" about the importance of reviving the auto industry and improving federal oil and gas policies that have not prevented the rise in gas prices. "Then they lowered the price," she said. "Now we tell people to pretend they drive Hummers."

Saturday night, after shaking dozens of hands, dancing to a country band and handing out literature in Farmington, she ducked traffic near an I-275 exit ramp in a suit and heels to plant her own lawn signs in visible spots.

"This is what you remember from the campaign," she says. "This is why I'm going to win."

Skinner's platform highlights: Formulate an exit strategy for Iraq, reduce the country's reliance on oil, support the domestic auto industry's research and development efforts and re-examine the federal No Child Left Behind Act and its effect on education.

"This election is critical. In the next two years we have a chance to turn this around," Skinner says. "I think with this election we can band together and bring new energy to Washington. We will put this country back on track."

Knollenberg didn't respond to interview requests.

If Skinner replaces Knollenberg in the 9th District, she would fill one of the 15 seats the Democrats need to reclaim a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. She's getting some national help: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. filmed a commercial for her, supporting her views on the environment, and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) will visit Detroit and stump for her later this week. Skinner lost the U.S. Senate primary in Illinois to him two years ago but the two are friends.

Skinner's would-be district accounts for about 60 percent of Oakland County residents, according to U.S. Census data. The district extends from Farmington Hills north and east to Waterford and Oakland Townships, and south from there to Royal Oak. Its residents are better educated and make more money than the U.S. average. About 43 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher compared to 27 percent nationally, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, while the median household income in the 9th District is $63,358 compared to $46,242 nationally.

Still, Oakland County went for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004, and Knollenberg's Republican challenger in the primary, Patricia Godchaux, drew 20,211 votes to the incumbent's 46,713. Skinner, incidentally, had 26,022 in the Democratic primary.

Carrie Christoph, 29, of Farmington Hills, believes this indicates the district could go for Skinner. Her support, she says, isn't unique among the district's fiscally conservative but more socially moderate populace.

She says Skinner's chances Nov. 7 are "better than anybody has had before."

Neighboring races have other Democrats hopeful. To the west in District 11, Tony Trupiano (D-Dearborn Heights), is challenging Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Livonia). Trupiano, a former radio host, restaurateur, public relations executive and hospital board member, says he's running because, simply, the country needs help from new politicians.

"I'm in this race because we are at such a profoundly important time in history," says Trupiano, 45. "I'm very concerned about our domestic agenda, as we continue to send over 2 billion taxpayer dollars a week to Iraq. ... You have to wonder what the future of our country really looks like when it comes to things like health care and education and employment."

District 11 includes the western edges of Oakland County and northwestern Wayne County.

A third race involves challenger Jim Marcinkowski (D-Lake Orion), a former CIA field agent and Royal Oak assistant city attorney, aiming for the seat held by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Brighton) in District 8. Stretching from the northern edges of Oakland County, the district includes Livingston, Ingham and Clinton counties and part of Shiawassee.

Marcinkowski, 51, a former Oakland County assistant prosecutor, ran and lost as a Republican for Oxford Township board in 2000, but he says the Republicans and their policies are decimating civil rights, providing too many specialized tax breaks and ruining the Michigan economy. He likens Bush administration policy to how the Soviets did business during the Cold War, which he fought as a field agent in Central America.

"They used torture. They used secret prisons. They tapped phones on executive orders. They bypassed justice. They rubber-stamped legislation. They didn't debate any issues. They determined economic policy behind closed doors much like the oil industry with Cheney," he says.

"You can either sit back and bitch or you can get off your ass and do something about it."

But those who track such things for a living are skeptical about the odds for southeast Michigan Dems.

"You've just got strong incumbents in districts that have too strong a Republican base," says Bill Ballenger, author of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. "I don't think there's any hope for them in Michigan."

Skinner says her polls, conducted by Lauer Research Inc. during the summer, showed her in a statistical tie with Knollenberg.

But EPIC-MRA, a polling firm in Lansing, hasn't done any polling in Skinner's race or the other two contests because it believes the GOP incumbents are a lock for re-election.

"When I don't even poll on something, it shows you how confident I am," says Ed Sarpolus, a vice president at the firm.

It's no secret that incumbents are hard to knock off. With better name recognition, a greater ability to raise funds and an established network with business and community supporters, they have reason to be confident.

Unless, says Ron Brown, an associate professor of political science at Wayne State University, voters strongly identify a candidate with the national party at a time when the national party isn't reflecting a district's priorities or viewpoints.

"It may boil down locally to the ability of the local House members, the representatives, explaining very clearly to their base why on [some] issues they supported Bush and why in the long run, it's good for Michigan," Brown says. "The Democrats ironically may be able to overcome it by blaming Bush for the Michigan economy and bringing in the war as an issue."

Karla Aren, a Farmington resident, is doing that herself. While talking with Skinner at the Harvest Moon Festival, she says she's decided this election her vote will stand for a change.

"I just want our money to stop going somewhere else," the 36-year-old stay-at-home mom says. "It just seems like we're not doing the right thing."

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]

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