Politics and Prejudices: Gary Peters Campaigns for Senate

Oct 8, 2014 at 1:00 am

Fourteen years ago, voters in Missouri elected a guy named Mel Carnahan to the U.S. Senate. For the last few weeks of that campaign, Carnahan gave no press interviews.

He didn’t take part in debates, nor did he campaign at all. Nevertheless, he won, defeating incumbent Senator John Ashcroft. It’s just possible he may have inspired this year’s Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Michigan, Terri Lynn Land, our first major party stealth candidate.

Land, who was once a competent, if not creative Secretary of State, doesn’t talk to the press either. Though she sometimes shows up smiling and waving at county fairs and parades, she seldom announces her appearances in advance.

But while vanishing from view might have worked for Carnahan, he had an excuse Land did not: He was, well, dead. He was killed in a plane crash earlier in the campaign, but the voters’ contempt for Ashcroft was such they elected the dead man anyway. (George W. Bush then appointed Ashcroft U.S. Attorney General, where his most notable act was covering up the private parts on the building’s faux-Greek statues.)

Playing dead does not, however, seem to be working for Land, who has been falling further and further behind in the polls. Thanks largely to her rich developer daddy, she has been able to pour millions into her campaign, mostly for a barrage of savagely negative TV commercials demonizing her opponent.

Last week, over coffee one morning, that opponent, Democrat Gary Peters, seemed to find her attack ads mildly funny. Mostly, they show him in harsh, ominous, black-and-white photos. “I mean, don’t they have any color pictures of me?” he chuckled. “Color photography has been around for a while.”

Peters has been around for a while himself. Now 55, and a congressman representing a district that is half Detroit, half suburbs, he’s been in politics since he was elected to the Rochester Hills City Council a quarter-century ago. He is a curious mix of serious policy wonk (he has an MBA, a law degree, and a masters’ in philosophy) and financial expert.

The candidate was an executive at Merrill Lynch for a decade, then became vice president of investments at Paine Webber, a job he held while serving in the Michigan Senate.

Along the way he married a fellow political junkie, Colleen Ochoa, who now works in philanthropy, had three kids, and became a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve. Once upon a time, you might have expected a guy like Peters to be a moderate Republican. After all, he’s even an Episcopalian, for heaven’s sake (at least presumably.)

But there are no moderate Republicans these days. Peters is proud to call himself a moderate, and says he doesn’t care about ideology; he only wants to make things work better.

“I’ve had some difficult times in Congress, but the worst was when they shut down the government and actually threatened to default on the debt,” he said with some heat.

“To think we got to a point where, to get their way politically, people were willing to take the greatest country on earth and default on the debt — that to me was potentially unacceptable. You can’t have people like that in Congress.” “You have to solve the really big issues in this country collectively. The market’s not going to solve them for us. You’ve got to bring people with differing views together, common sense problem solvers.”

Terri Lynn Land, he noted, indicated last year that she would have voted to shut down the government and default on the national debt. Or at least we think that’s what she said. Hard to know, because after years of saying she opposed the 2008-2009 “bailout that literally saved the auto industry,” Land last week suddenly announced she would’ve in fact voted for it, that “any plan was better than no plan.”

This seems to directly contradict video we have of her at the last GOP national convention, but, hey, consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds — and in any event, Land doesn’t talk to us. Ever since she literally freaked out under media questioning in May on Mackinac Island, she’s been elusive as, well, John Galt. Reporters have only been able to talk to one Heather Swift, her 20-something communications director.

This is a bit frustrating not only for journalists, but for Peters, he admits. “I’ve never before had an opponent who wouldn’t engage with me on the issues.”

Well, I guess he could pretend to be running against Heather Swift, but as far as I can tell she's neither old enough to serve in the U.S. Senate nor registered to vote in Michigan.

Whatever anyone thinks of Peters, he told me, “I’ve never shied away from talking to people. You can actually talk to me and not just my press secretary!” Imagine that.

Actually, though I’ve sometimes been critical of him in the last, Peters in fact wanted to get together with me. Assuming he beats Swift — oops — Land, he’s all about Michigan’s economy. He sees manufacturing and transportation as key. Peters has taken the lead role in bugging the Obama administration to approve the $250 million customs plaza needed for the New International Trade Crossing bridge. The candidate said he’s been so persistent that when he ran into Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson at a party recently, the secretary threw up his hands and said, “I know, I know! Customs plaza! It’s a priority!”

Beyond that, however, Peters would like a new rail tunnel built under the river (the current one dates from 1909) and dreams of converting the old one to high-speed passenger rail. He spoke movingly of a Detroit mother he met who spends six hours a day on city buses, going back and forth to her job and taking her daughters to and from school.

“We have to do something about better transportation,” he said. “The M-1 rail is necessary, but just a start.” Michigan deserved a serious and thoughtful U.S. Senate contest this year, the first time since 1994 that an incumbent wasn’t running. Unfortunately, that’s not what we got.

However, it might say something that both the United Auto Workers union and the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce have endorsed Gary Peters. He told me he was still hoping that Terri Lynn Land would agree to some televised debates. You would think she would be eager to do so, especially since two new polls show her falling far behind.

That is, you might think that … if you hadn’t tried to see her trying to explain a few issues, most notably net neutrality, at Mackinac last spring.

Veterans Update

Back on July 29, I wrote about the continuing struggle of a valiant group of former Detroit-area servicemen, led by those who formed Vietnam Veterans of America, Detroit Chapter 9. They want to raise money and build a Veterans Memorial Park commemorating the history of all America’s wars. These aren’t a bunch of gung-ho killers; many were drafted and had to go. They just don’t want America to forget. Twice the city has promised them a site, and twice the city has gone back on its word. Last week, however, they managed to catch up with Mayor Mike Duggan at a community meeting.

Mike Sand, a former chapter president, told me it was a good meeting, and that the mayor suggested the veterans come up with three potential sites and then meet with him and Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones.

Let’s see if this time the city is as good as its word.