The race for the Democratic nomination in Michigan’s 11th Congressional District took an adversarial turn Wednesday as Reps. Haley Stevens and Andy Levin faced off in their first debate. The two sitting Congress members were forced into a rare incumbent-on-incumbent primary in the wake of the 2020 census, which cost Michigan a congressional seat. That loss scrambled the boundaries of congressional districts in the heavily Democratic northern Detroit metropolitan area, where both representatives reside. While the race so far has been characterized by a lack of conflict or substantive engagement on the issues, the debate marked a turning point in its trajectory.
As the race heats up in preparation for the August primary, polling and fundraising reports indicate that neither candidate has a clear advantage, making the opportunity to gain momentum on the debate stage essential. Early numbers show that Levin is leading with voters of color, union households, and women, while Stevens is drawing disproportionate amounts of support from white voters and men. Stevens has amassed a considerable fundraising advantage, due in large part to the hundreds of thousands of dollars she has received from political action committees affiliated with conservative foreign policy groups. She has raised over $3.5 million this cycle to Levin’s $2 million.
Stevens, a former front-liner who flipped a Republican-held seat in 2018, has benefitted from the good will and national profile she cultivated by helping to deliver Democrats’ current House majority. Levin, meanwhile, is a former union organizer and the scion of a prominent Michigan political family, leaning on his strong relationships with progressive organizations and the weight of his last name to tip the race in his favor.
The debate, which was hosted by the Pontiac Community Foundation, offered Michigan voters the clearest view yet of the differences between the two candidates. Levin went after Stevens’s record on the minimum wage, environmental justice, and prescription drug reforms, at one point asking the audience: “Do you want somebody from the New Democrat caucus, which is more of a corporate Democratic caucus … or do you want to stand with the deputy whip of the [Congressional] Progressive Caucus? Do you want to stand with somebody who’s for the Green New Deal or somebody who’s against it?”
Stevens, for her part, chose not to attack Levin’s position on particular legislation or his support for cornerstone progressive priorities like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. In an interview with The Intercept given two weeks before the debate, Stevens’s communications director, Larkin Parker, downplayed the ideological gap between the two candidates. “A lot of people are trying to frame this as a moderate versus progressive showdown,” she said. “And that’s not what this is.”
Multiple observers across publications have noted the ideological divisions in the race — like Jonathan Allen, in an article NBC published the day before the debate, who called the primary “a proxy war over Israel policy and other ideological differences.” The Stevens campaign rejects that framing and has instead sought to minimize the gap, perhaps because Michigan’s newly drawn 11th District is significantly more liberal than either candidate’s prior district.
But on Wednesday night, the differences came across anyway. On Thursday, one of the three moderators, Pontiac City Councilman Mikal Goodman, endorsed Levin. In an interview with The Intercept, Goodman said Levin’s performance and his clear answers on progressive priorities were key factors in his decision to endorse. “As a lower-income Black male who grew up in the city of Pontiac on Section 8, experiencing first-hand systemic racism and environmental racism, you need someone who is willing to fight,” he said. “There are definitely some things that Haley Stevens has said that are close to, if not on, the mark. But I need someone who is consistently on the mark as much as possible.”
After a cordial start to the debate, tensions flared during an exchange on the House of Representatives’ efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Both Levin and Stevens supported the final passage of the Raise the Wage Act in 2019, following Democrats winning control of the chamber in the 2018 midterms. But Levin attacked Stevens for supporting two Republican amendments that would have weakened the legislation or nullified it altogether. Stevens, who has campaigned on her support for the popular policy, denied Levin’s characterizations, saying she doesn’t “believe in any poison pills.”
A review of the committee vote Levin referenced reveals that Stevens was the only Democrat on the Education and Labor Committee who joined Republicans in voting for two controversial amendments: one which would have exempted millions of workers employed by small businesses from the wage increase, and another which threatened to nullify the legislation altogether if a Government Accountability Office report found that the wage increases would contribute significantly to job automation.
In the following exchange, Levin pointed out that Stevens’s moderate position on prescription drug price reforms is also out of touch with the overwhelming majority of voters and the Democratic base. In an April 2019 letter to a constituent, which was first reported by Mother Jones, Stevens said she opposed reforms that would provide the government with “aggressive tools to ensure drug costs will be brought down.” In her view, she wrote, “allowing the U.S. government to sidestep patents” could have a “chilling effect on other industries and on research.”
The recipient of that letter, lauded Michigan activist Stefanie Mezigian, told The Intercept that the letter “contained a lot of pharma talking points.” According to Mezigian, who worked to elect Stevens in 2018, the letter marked a turning point in her relationship with her representative: She said she stopped receiving responses from Stevens’s office beyond the occasional form letter, and their public and private interactions took on a negative tone.
In a statement to The Intercept, the Levin campaign affirmed his support for legislation that provides the government with aggressive tools to negotiate the costs of all prescription drugs. “The government has to use its incredible market power to stop this corporate greed and put the importance of lifesaving health care above Big Pharma’s lobbyists,” it said. Stevens’s campaign did not respond to The Intercept’s request to clarify her positions.
Local media dubbed the “most tense exchange” of the night a moment when Levin, who is Jewish, asked Stevens to explain why she has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, a political organization that has endorsed dozens of Republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 election along with many establishment Democrats. Federal Election Commission reports reveal that AIPAC’s newly minted PAC has spent more than $300,000 in support for Stevens — far more than the fledgling PAC has directed to any other candidate. (Stevens, who is not Jewish, has also been endorsed by the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC.)
“I have been endorsed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee alongside all members of Democratic leadership, including whip Jim Clyburn, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer,” Stevens responded after an audience question, reading from a prepared statement. “In addition to these leaders of the Democratic Party, twenty members of the House Progressive Caucus also received this endorsement, representing over a third of Democrats endorsed by AIPAC. This endorsement is solely about members of Congress supporting Israel, and I am proud to unequivocally support the Jewish state.”
After further pressing from Levin, Stevens followed the pre-written justification with a dig at Levin’s decision to run against her in the newly drawn 11th District rather than in the neighboring 10th, a Republican-leaning district that contains many of his former constituents.
“It’s not up to politicians to choose their voters; it’s up to voters to choose their politicians. … I didn’t move to run in this race” Levin replied, referencing Stevens’s recent change of address. As The Intercept first reported, property records reveal that Stevens moved into the newly drawn 11th District from the newly drawn 10th District late last year, after the boundaries of the new congressional districts had become clear.
While Stevens stood firm on her support for Israel and AIPAC, she sought to minimize the difference between her record and Levin’s as the debate turned to the climate crisis. Levin promised to use his office to help shut down Line 5, a pipeline that carries millions of barrels of crude oil through Michigan each year. “At some point, you have to take a stand,” he said. “I am for a rapid transition to renewable energy, and I really hope my college will speak squarely to this straightforward question.”
Stevens instead said that the transnational pipeline is “not a federal issue.” She said she would support the eventual determination of Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is facing pressure to push forward with work to preserve the pipeline as she faces a difficult reelection campaign amid soaring gas prices. Stevens’s equivocation was a departure from her prior call to shut down Line 5 until regulators could determine with confidence that the pipeline does not pose a threat to the Great Lakes.
Goodman, the debate moderator who endorsed Levin Thursday, told The Intercept that local union politics help explain the candidates’ differing approaches to the pipeline question. While Levin has received endorsements from most national labor unions, Stevens has been endorsed by a handful of local unions with stakes in the pipeline’s continued operation. According to Goodman, unions like the Pipefitters, Steamfitters, Refrigeration & Air Conditioning Service Local 636, which has endorsed Stevens, have an understandable interest in preserving Line 5. Their membership depends on the jobs created through the servicing of the pipeline, leaving them to choose between providing for their families and supporting a rapid transition from fossil fuels.
“I think there are a decent number of [local unions] who are looking at it as ‘having Levin would be great for labor, but not in this specific area,’ because Andy is a champion when it comes to the climate crisis,” Goodman told The Intercept. “As my grandma would say, they know what side their bread’s buttered on.”
And while Levin touted his support for the Green New Deal on a half dozen occasions throughout the debate, Stevens declined to specify her current stance on the suite of policies, which would rapidly accelerate the transition to clean energy sources and provide economic support and reparations to the low-income communities and communities of color that have disproportionately borne the negative impacts of the fossil fuel economy.
“There are 27 senators and representatives who have backed all 10 Green New Deal bills — I’m one of them. My opponent hasn’t backed any of them,” Levin told the audience. When asked by moderators whether she wanted to rebut Levin’s accusation, Stevens demurred.
“Why don’t we do a time check?”
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