It seems almost inconceivable a Republican could have a shot winning a race in Michigan’s 5th state Senate District. In the last two elections, Democrats have won that seat with more than 80 percent of the vote.
But the 2018 Democratic primary saw incumbent and political rising star state Sen. David Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights) lose to a candidate who spent no money and had no campaign presence. That has some voters in the district taking a closer look at the candidates.
“We don’t know who she is. She just appeared,” said Patt Taylor Braxton, president of the O’Hair Park Community Association, which organized a candidate “speed dating” event at Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Northwest Detroit.
It’s one of the first candidate forums Betty Jean Alexander has attended since winning the Democratic primary in August.
“People went - Who? What? Oh, that’s LaMar Lemmons’ sister. And they said, ‘oh.’ Well that’s not good enough for me,” said Braxton.
LaMar Lemmons is a controversial figure in Detroit. He’s a longtime political operative and a member of Detroit’s school board. Alexander is not actually his sister – more like a very close family friend. Lemmons recruited Alexander to run for state Senate, even though she has no prior political experience.
“I’m a single parent, and I struggle every day like a lot of people do.”
Alexander’s message to voters is that she’s like them.
“I’m a single parent, and I struggle every day like a lot of people do,” she said.
“And I want to take that voice to Lansing and let them know how things are just not right with a lot of things they have.”
In the wake of her shocking primary victory, media sources including WDET scrambled to find out who Alexander was and find out more about her background. Documents revealed that Alexander has an extensive civil court record, and one criminal charge, with numerous evictions, liens and bankruptcies between Detroit and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Alexander is running mainly on the following issues: fully funding public education in Michigan, reducing auto insurance rates, guaranteeing clean and affordable water, and raising the minimum wage to $16/hour.
But it’s not clear how she plans to achieve those goals.
On how she would increase funding for public education:
“That’s what I’m going to work on, try to see where I can get that money from. You should be able to get it from – there’s, like, the lottery, there’s money from the lottery which should be going to schools, but I really can’t say that it is, because I don’t know, personally,” she said.
On what the state should do differently in order to address water contamination issues involving PFAS, lead, and other harmful pollutants:
“Well right now, they should be able to change it by, let’s see – I’m not sure how they need to do it. But I just know it needs to be done,” she said.
Alexander goes on to say she wants the state to replace all old pipe systems. But she was not able to identify a source of funding other than “the state.”
On auto insurance, she says rates should not be based on factors other than a person’s driving record. But she couldn’t offer any further ways to drive down costs.
“Where is Betty Jean Alexander?”
It’s this lack of detail that has her opponent – Republican DeShawn Wilkins – eager to compare their plans and experience.
“Where is Betty Jean Alexander?” asks Wilkins.
“That’s what everyone wanted to know. Why? Because it was never her intent,” he continues. ”Very nice lady, I’m sure. No aspersions cast against her. But, at the end of the day, you need to know what you’re dealing with. And this is why I think I’m getting support from independents and Democrats.”
Wilkins is an insurance salesman by trade, as well as a longtime pastor in Detroit. He is also focusing on reducing auto insurance rates. But his plan is more detailed. It would allow people to choose coverage levels instead of requiring unlimited benefits for catastrophic injuries. He also calls for regulating medical fee schedules for auto-related injuries.
Wilkins is solidly Republican. He wants to see the eventual elimination of the individual income tax in Michigan – although he does not say how he would balance the budget if that happens.
He’s also a supporter of President Trump. In fact, it was the 2016 election that made him come out publicly as a Republican.
“I got tired of the ridiculous rhetoric. You can disagree with a person. Do that. That’s fine. But for a black man, to constantly hear the phrase ‘racism’ thrown out at any drop of a dime, it bothered me. And so, I just came out.”
“For the first time in my life, I was thinking of voting Republican.”
Back at the candidate speed dating event in Northwest Detroit, undecided voter Paulette Watson just got done grilling Democrat Betty Jean Alexander about the issues. She said the experience did not make her any happier with her choices.
“She didn’t campaign for it. She didn’t work for it. And she just really got in as a fluke, really,” said Watson. “For the first time in my life, I was thinking of voting Republican.”
And she wasn’t the only person at the event who said they’re undecided in this race.