Peters, principally

Jan 13, 2010 at 12:00 am

People did vie to shake his hand and share his lunch table, but having U.S. Rep. Gary Peters at a homeless shelter last week for a meeting of community group leaders wasn't exactly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many people there.

After all, the first-term Democratic congressman from Bloomfield Hills has been making the same rounds since he was elected in 1994 to represent this Oakland County district in Lansing. This is his style: He shows up to community, business and academic events and hears what people have to say.

No media entourages, few stump speeches, just a lot of time with people in the community, says Deb Anderson, a Royal Oak school board member who was at the lunch gathering.

"We're used to seeing him around," she says, "and he always listens."

On break from Congress for the weeks around the holidays, Peters was busy. He toured university research facilities, met with automotive dealers and suppliers, volunteered at social service organizations and worked out of his Troy district office. Last week he fended off speculation that he would run for Michigan governor after Democratic front-runner Lt. Gov. John Cherry dropped out of the race. This week he helped host the congressional delegation at the North American International Auto Show and led a panel discussion on the Advance Vehicle Technology bill he sponsored last year. It easily passed the House with support from the UAW, the Big Three, environmental groups, the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — not exactly likely political bedfellows.

His supporters say that speaks to the consensus-building style he uses behind the scenes and praise him for doing what voters presumably sent him to Washington D.C. to do: represent his district and the state, which includes, front and center, the auto industry and its many factions. Peters campaigned on issues of health care reform, attracting or re-creating jobs in Michigan, moving the overseas military effort from Iraq to Afghanistan, and keeping environmental concerns front and center.

But his critics see in Peters a Democrat who is in step with other national leaders who have brought us an unsuccessful TARP bailout that has failed to create jobs, a flawed health plan, too much government and a budget with the soaring deficits his campaign rhetoric eschewed.

Mid-term elections often mean a decline in the dominant party's power, and this year has no shortage of challenges to sitting representatives and senators. The controversial health care package — Peters voted for the preliminary version — continues to dominate the national political arguments, the economy isn't healed, and the lack of a presidential election promises lower turnout — all factors that could hurt Peters as an incumbent.

Considering that vulnerability, Peters' seat is a target for the GOP to regain, and some of the forces that swept Peters into office in 2008 could work against him this November:

• President Barack Obama's current popularity doesn't nearly match the celebrity quality he had during the campaign, as people fervently debate his governing style and the costs and wisdom of his policies. Peters, like many freshman Democrats, rode Obama's coattails into office in 2008 when the party gained 21 new seats in the House for its current 257-178 majority. Will those coattails now shake Peters and other Democrats — freshman or incumbent — out of their congressional seats?

• Candidate Peters faced an incumbent, Joe Knollenberg, who was successfully linked to the sitting president, George W. Bush, who had fallen far from even his own party's favor by the general election. Will Rep. Peters' ties — real or perceived — to Obama now hurt him the same way? 

• A year ago Oakland County had a record number of voters, in part, because Obama's appeal drew first-time voters to the polls, and they were Democrats, the popular thinking went. That played out in Peters' race, which he won by 9 percentage points. In a mid-term election, though, with state offices such as governor on the ballot, will the same voters turn out and again support Peters? Or have opposition to TARP spending, health care and Michigan's nation-leading unemployment figures galvanized a new voting set that will create a personal job loss for Peters?

Paul Kubicek is the chair of the political science department at Oakland University, one of at least a dozen higher education institutions located in Peters' district. He says Peters has not surprised in office. He calls him a moderate Democrat who's come out strong for the auto industry, for example, with proposals for public-private partnerships for research and development. He also praises Peters' willingness to look longer-term in voting for policies like emissions "cap and trade" that have costs now for presumable environmental and commercial benefits later. 

He also cites Peters' news-making response to U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) after the former presidential candidate predicted Chrysler's imminent demise. During an Arizona NASCAR event last fall, McCain said if "anybody believes that Chrysler is going to survive, I'd like to meet them." Peters responded with a letter to McCain offering to meet and discuss Chrysler's contribution to the national economy. Peters also invited McCain to Michigan to meet with the automakers' employees. McCain declined, saying Peters was not "an objective observer," and Peters then sent a list of industry experts. McCain never responded, Peters says.

Peters, according to Kubicek, also has been visible to voters with his work on health care reform, been sensitive but not overwhelmingly pro-business, and supportive of the party and the president.

"Those who voted for him should be rather pleased with his performance and those who didn't will be disappointed," Kubicek says simply.

What's happened in Peters' first year may predict where the next year is going.

Challengers in the wings 

The 51-year-old Peters is a former financial manager who was a state representative from 1995-2003. He's also done stints as a university professor, a Navy reservist and as Michigan lottery commissioner. After unseating eight-term Republican Joe Knollenberg in 2008, Peters became the first Democrat to represent Michigan's 9th Congressional district in decades.

He landed key committee assignments on financial services, science and technology, and stepped into the spotlight related to auto industry issues, defending the industry against attacks in Washington, speaking out on worker-related issues, supporting "bail-out" funds to help lift GM and Chrysler out of bankruptcy, working for alternative fuels and other "green" technologies to be researched, developed and produced in Michigan.

He's also voted along party lines much of the time, drawing him praise and criticism. Recently he's begun to separate himself from both the congressional leadership and the White House as the 2010 election looms, politely criticizing some policies, voting against the majority, for example, on raising deficit limits. Asked about how his ties to Obama might affect this year's election, Peters answers that voters will re-elect or replace him based on his own Congressional record, a subtle deflection of any association. 

Peters, more prone to thoughtful explanations than quirky sound bites when he speaks publicly, says his campaign philosophy at this point in the race is to keep doing his job, although some interpret this as staying away from the ideological fray.

"I'm a big believer that if you're working hard and representing people in your district and working hard to solve problems that are confronting us in each and every one of our daily lives that the politics kind of takes care of itself," Peters says. "My complete focus has to be with grappling with the challenges that we're facing right now. The campaign will take care of itself as we get closer later this year."

Still, Peters says he knows holding his elected seat isn't something he can take for granted. He's raised at least $1.2 million, about triple the average amount raised by a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. His predecessor had been one of the biggest recipients of automotive campaign donations in Congress, but now, with the industry's contraction, those funds aren't around.

While Peters acknowledges that he has continually been raising money and will need more for what promises to be a multimillion-dollar race, he says the best campaigning he can do is his current work.

"We'll be continuing to do our jobs and doing them to the best of our abilities and communicating what we've been doing," he says. "We would expect that the Republicans will challenge us aggressively."

Those challenges have started. Nationally, Republicans are hitting hard, optimistically predicting they will "take back" the overwhelmingly Democratic Congress.

Peters' declared opponents are speaking out already, foreshadowing what is likely to be a partisan-based race with plenty of national party funding.

"I'm Fed Up With Washington," declared the subject line of an e-mail sent this week by Gene Goodman. Owner of an auto parts supplier in Troy, Goodman is one of three declared Republicans challenging each other in the August primary. The winner will face Peters in November.

Another of those challengers, Andrew "Rocky" Raczkowski, says he's running for many of the same reasons Goodman offers. An Army major, Raczkowski returned from active duty in Africa a few months ago. He says, when he got home, he took stock of Michigan's political landscape and decided to run for Congress against Peters. "I'm just extremely frustrated and I don't see the level of quality of politicians running on either side from either party," he says. To date, he's raised about $112,000.

Raczkowski's name may be familiar to Michigan voters. He was a state representative from Farmington Hills from 1997 to 2003 before term limits forced him out, and then he was the Republican challenger to U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Detroit). He lost in a landslide.

But he says he learned something in that race about the more conservative part of the Oakland County electorate that leans Republican but voted for Levin. "If you're straightforward and honest with the electorate and you put the electorate first, you always work for the people that voted for you, they always seem to reward you. They may not always agree with you, but they'll vote for you," Raczkowski says.

Paul Welday has also filed paperwork intending to challenge Peters for his seat. In 2002, Welday, of Farmington Hills, founded Renaissance Strategies, a marketing, communications and public relations consulting company. Before that, he had been Knollenberg's chief of staff for 10 years, and in the 1980s was the executive director of the Oakland County Republican Party. He's raised at least $160,000 for this year's campaign and acknowledges Michigan's 9th Congressional district is going to be an expensive race this year.

But he says it's important to challenge Peters, whom he paints as a liberal spender and as being close with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California).

"The pendulum has swung farther and faster than ever before. Peters is not going to be able to ride the coattails of Barack Obama, nor does he have Knollenberg to pick on. He has to defend his own record and his actions," Welday says. "He is part and parcel of the Democratic Party agenda, and it is completely out of step with Oakland County."

Susan Tolchin, university professor of public policy at George Mason University in Washington, says Congressional races around the country this year will likely feature such campaigning. "Every mid-term election is a reaction to the election before it. The party in power is usually very worried because of that," she says. "The Republicans are campaigning vigorously against him [Peters], practically everything he does elicits a comment. It will be very interesting to see whether that plays well in congressional elections."

Home turf

Michigan's 9th Congressional district stretches northward roughly from the midsection of Oakland County's southern border to just north of Pontiac. It includes both the wealthiest and poorest of the county's neighborhoods, based on U.S. Census information, with median household incomes ranging from averages of less than $18,000 to more than $155,000 annually. Large Chaldean, Jewish and Indian populations live in the district. 

Chrysler Corp.'s corporate headquarters are in the 9th's boundaries, and Peters says it's home to more auto suppliers than any other congressional district. At least a dozen colleges and universities have campuses in the district, and it also has an international airport, state parks and Cranbrook.

Still, Gleaners Community Food Bank estimates nearly 39,000 of the roughly 660,000 people in Peters' district live below the poverty level, and the county suffers from the same high foreclosure rates and unemployment numbers as much of Michigan.

Voters in Oakland County as a whole have been trending more Democratic in recent presidential and gubernatorial elections. In part, political watchers say, that's because middle class African-American and immigrant populations are increasing, and those groups tend to vote more liberal. In addition, many of the county's independents may be fiscally conservative but more socially liberal, favoring Democrats on some issues.

Peters' 2008 election made the county's four Congressional representatives an even split between Republicans and Democrats. Still county executive, L. Brooks Patterson and most of the mayors or township supervisors who list a party are Republicans.

Oakland County's voters are often independent, making a candidate's platform, record or personality as important as their party, Oakland University's Kubicek says. Incumbency is an advantage in most elections, but Peters, presenting himself as experienced but moderate, succeeded with not only the left-leaning voters but many in the middle who identified with his fiscally conservative, more socially liberal campaign platform.

Though Kubicek predicts Peters will keep his seat, barring any cataclysmic political or economic events, he says the congressman will have to constantly remind his district of his accomplishments related to the auto industry, green energy and small businesses. Republicans will challenge him by linking him to unpopular or at least controversial Obama policies, such as health care and immigration.

"They're going to try and paint him as out-of-touch and too liberal. It's a textbook strategy," Kubicek says. "People may be mad, but I don't know if this is going to change people's minds or that he's going to end up losing his seat over it."

On the Hill

Ask Peters how his first year in Washington has been and he quickly and predictably says, "challenging."

Then, in his characteristically understated, logical style, with a touch of the professorial, he illustrates how he walked into Congress as a new member in the midst of the "most challenging economic environment since the Great Depression." The United States was fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, General Motors Corp. was closing three plants in his district — read: 7,000 jobs lost — and Chrysler Corp., headquartered there, was filing for bankruptcy. 

"To be in Congress in a time when both General Motors and Chrysler are in bankruptcy, that's something we thought would never happen," Peters says. "That's never been in our consciousness."

Then after his first month in office, job losses in the country totaled more than 700,000 while Michigan's economic failure outpaced the national slide. 

"The biggest priority without question is jobs, but that's been our priority from the day we got here in January. That hasn't changed. Unfortunately, the economy continues to be very weak here, even though there are some hopeful signs," Peters says. 

He sits on the Science and Technology Committee, hoping to further alternative energies and the reinvention of the Michigan's largely automotive infrastructure, including plants, suppliers and manufacturers. 

"It's not just about building cars. It's about a manufacturing sector in this country. I don't believe you can have a middle class in America without a strong manufacturing sector," Peters says. "It's critical to middle-class America, and you can't have a strong democracy in America without a strong middle class, and if you don't have a domestic auto industry that drives not just cars but glass production and rubber and steel and all those components, and then all those technologies spin off to other industries that use manufacturing technologies, you're not going to have a strong country."

Peters also got the prestigious appointment to the House Financial Service Committee and is the only Michigan member seated there. The committee oversees the entire financial services industry: securities, insurance, banking and housing, and is chaired by U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.)

"I'm very impressed with Gary," Frank told Metro Times. "He's been one of the freshmen who's had a real impact. Early on, he played a major role in making sure we didn't let the auto industry go belly-up, and there were people that wanted to let it do that."

Frank, who has been in Congress for nearly 30 years, says Peters was the "single most effective person" in counteracting the anti-auto industry forces, surprising remarks considering Rep. John Dingell's (D-Dearborn) reputation as the industry's staunchest advocate.

Frank says Peters has gained trust through his modest style. "He's not a flashy guy. He's very thoughtful, and he's a sincere guy. Politicians tend to be a little nervous about each other," Frank says. "He's legitimate. People like that and he doesn't approach people in a blustery way. People do respond well to people who treat them fairly — even in Washington."

Back home

While he's been at the table for some of Washington's biggest financial discussions, Peters says he works hard to not lose sight of his home district, Michigan's 9th Congressional.

He's home with his wife almost every weekend, scheduling community events around his 12- and 14-year-old daughters' school and sports events. His oldest child, a son, graduated from Albion College and works as an accountant in Detroit. They found time for a Lions game together last fall.

The family posed for the "Peters for Congress" holiday card at Lighthouse of Oakland County, one of the many social service agencies Peters makes time for.

Last week, he had a day of meetings with automobile dealers, General Dynamics and Delphi, but also dropped by Gleaners Community Food Bank in Pontiac. There, he ditched the suit coat, cuff links and tie, rolled up his sleeves, and sorted canned goods into bins. After that, it was lunch at the Royal Oak homeless shelter, where he shared a chicken casserole with guests, volunteers and staff at the South Oakland Citizens for the Homeless. 

"With Royal Oak, homelessness is not something that comes to people's minds," he said, "but it's here. All over metro Detroit, there's not a single community where people are not hurting."

Staffers in his Troy office are assigned to work on constituent issues, fielding questions and trying to help people navigate the federal bureaucracy. Foreclosures, immigration and veterans' issues are among the top issues people ask about, and Peters has held community forums on them, linking people who need help with resources. 

Last weekend, about 200 veterans gathered at Baker College, where Peters emceed a panel of experts, including lawyers who work pro bono or at reduced fees on veterans' issues, and representatives from the Veteran's Administration.

Peters employed "robo calls" to publicize the event, and several vets said they got more information that afternoon "than in 20 years of telephone calls."

Among those who sought information was Fred Fernandez, a Vietnam veteran. The 62-year-old Fernandez, of Farmington, works as the general manager of a textile cleaning business and says he attended the forum to get general information. More-recent vets need more services that he does, he says humbly. But he stood in line to talk to Peters, wanting to offer ideas about health care and hear what Peters had to say. 

Did Fernandez vote for the Congressman? "I don't tell how I vote," he said grinning, "but I'm a conservative."

But for the 2010 election, despite some philosophical differences with Peters along party lines, Fernandez shares his thoughts. 

"He's probably going to get my vote because he's actually doing something about an issue that's very near and dear to me: veterans," Fernandez says. 

Community concerns

While Peters' challengers are focusing for now on health care, the economy and his lack of perceived success with those issues, a large group of his constituents have an additional priority. The district's Chaldean community has watched him closely related to international issues, says Martin Manna, executive director of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce.

"I was a big supporter of Joe Knollenberg and I've been pleasantly surprised by the efforts of Congressman Peters," Manna says.

Late last year, Peters introduced a resolution in Congress calling on the administration to work to ensure safety for Iraq's Christian and other minorities, such as Chaldeans, as U.S. troops draw down. With thousands of Iraqi refugees still leaving their homes and landing in metro Detroit, home to what's considered the largest Middle Eastern population outside of the Middle East, the local community is looking for an advocate in Congress to help with protections, funding for local social agencies serving the refugees, and other concerns.

But, Manna says, the majority of the Chaldean community owns businesses and, as such, has concerns about health care, taxes and other related issues. "What I know about the Chaldean community, in general, they always support a person rather than a party," Manna says. "In Gary's case, I think he has really shown that he is caring for this community, and whether or not everyone embraces that, I guess we'll see this year."

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