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Effort aims to boost Black, progressive candidates in August primary

Aya Fayad
The Detroit News

Activists and leaders from Detroit and Wayne County gathered Monday to launch a "unity" effort aimed at boosting voter turnout in minority communities for several progressive Democratic candidates for Congress in the Aug. 6 primary election.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans at the event spoke in support of three Black candidates: Hill Harper, a candidate for U.S. Senate; Detroit City Councilwoman Mary Waters, who is running for U.S. House against Rep. Shri Thanedar; and State Board of Education President Pamela Pugh, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. House in mid-Michigan's 8th District.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans speaks during a press conference to help get out the vote at Hart Plaza, in Detroit, July 8, 2024.

Evans pointed to a diminished number of people of color representing Michigan in the U.S. House and Senate as an indicator of what he said is a "systemic lessening of interest in minority communities at the federal level." Detroit has been without a Black member of Congress this term for the first time since 1954 following the 2022 election of Thanedar, a first-term Indian-American congressman and wealthy entrepreneur.

"This is about people who care for their communities," Evans said Monday. "And their communities have often been marginalized."

An organizer of the "Detroit Unity Conference," Deputy Wayne County Executive Assad Turfe, said it was held in an effort to "rally our communities and unite in support of three exceptional candidates who embody the principles and shared life experiences of many minority communities today."

Several Muslim, Arab American, African American, Jewish and Latino leaders and activists joined to support the candidates, who took to the podium at Hart Plaza to tout their campaigns and encourage voters.

Attendees and speakers included Osama Siblani, the Arab American News publisher; Hira Khan, executive director of Emgage Michigan; and former state gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed, who recently endorsed Harper. El-Sayed now works for Evans as director of Wayne County's Department of Health, Human, and Veterans Services.

Harper, Waters, and Pugh, all African American, are endorsed by the Black Mayors of Michigan and Emgage Michigan, a nonprofit group focused on strengthening the political power of Muslim Americans.

Harper, an actor and author, is seeking the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate, facing three-term U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Holly.

On Monday, Harper announced his "unity agenda for Michigan," saying it's based on "the fact that we know so many Michiganders are hurting.”

"The first three words of the Michigan Constitution, and the first three words of the United States Constitution, are 'We the people,' " Harper said. "Doesn't say 'we the super PAC,' doesn't say 'we the big donor,' doesn't say 'we the politician' or 'we the political party.' It says 'we the people,' and we need to put people first in all that we do."

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Harper voiced his support for a Medicare For All universal health care system that provides taxpayer-funded coverage for medical, mental health, vision and dental.

"Every Tuesday, I've had the pleasure to go into multiple senior buildings across Michigan and talk to seniors — they're afraid," he said. "We have to protect our most vulnerable communities. We have to fight for them and advocate for them."

Waters said her campaign aims to address human rights issues in the 13th Congressional District, including access to water, housing, health care, energy and education. She's in a three-way primary with attorney Shakira Hawkins to try to unseat Thanedar. The 13th District includes much of Detroit, Highland Park, Hamtramck, the Grosse Pointes, Wayne, Romulus and Downriver communities such as Taylor, Allen Park, Lincoln Park, Southgate and Wyandotte.

(From left) U.S. Senate candidate Hill Harper, Congressional candidate and Detroit City Council Member Mary Waters, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, and Congressional candidate and State Board of Education President Pamela Pugh pose together before the start of a press conference at Hart Plaza, in Detroit, July 8, 2024.

While on the Detroit City Council, Waters said, "I've really been pushing housing extremely hard, because our people really do need the help. They just do. Detroiters cannot afford the rent that's being requested of them. They just can't. They don't have the income. So I have to take that to Washington, D.C. with me, because I want her to understand that we need more help from them, ensuring that we have affordable housing, true affordable housing, income based housing, all of those things that we need here."

Pugh, of Saginaw, is seeking to represent Michigan's 8th District, which covers Genesee, Bay and Saginaw counties and parts of Midland County.

It is currently represented by another Democrat, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, who is retiring. The battle for his open seat is expected to be among the most competitive and expensive U.S. House races nationwide this fall.

Former Flint Mayor Matt Collier and State Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet are also running in the Democratic primary. Kildee has endorsed Rivet.

Pugh said she is running on closing the income gap in the impoverished cities of Flint and Saginaw.

"The gulf between the haves and have-nots has continued to grow," she said.

Former U.S. Senate candidate Nasser Beydoun, a businessman from Dearborn, spoke briefly at the conference to reaffirm his support for Harper, who he endorsed last month, as well as the other primary candidates.

"I'm asking you to come out and vote for these three individuals, because you're not going to change this corrupt system if you keep sending those corrupt politicians back to Washington," Beydoun said. "We need new faces. These are them, so I'm asking you to please support them."