Harper hopes to climb Capitol Hill


A couple of Sundays ago at the East Lansing Farmers Market, I was approached by a campaign worker for U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin. She asked me to sign a nominating petition for Slotkin’s effort to be on the Aug. 6, 2024, Democratic primary election ballot for a chance to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow. I told her I’ll be happy to sign the petition, even though I wasn’t sure yet whom I’d support. Instead of thanking me, the worker launched into a diatribe against one of Slotkin’s five opponents, Hill Harper — the worker’s assumption apparently being that Harper was the one who had turned my head and not one of the other four candidates taking on Slotkin, who is widely considered the frontrunner. I found it telling.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin is considered the leading candidate for the Democratic nod in next year’s U.S. Senate race to replace Debbie Stabenow, who is retiring.
U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin is considered the leading candidate for the Democratic nod in next year’s U.S. Senate race to replace Debbie Stabenow, who …

But just who is Hill Harper that he may have the Slotkin campaign concerned? Before this year, I had never heard of him, even though he is a celebrity. Chalk that up to the nature of TV viewing today: Harper is an actor who has appeared regularly in “CSI: New York” and “The Good Doctor.” But they are on broadcast television, where I journey for local news and the PBS “News Hour” via an antenna and that’s pretty much it. If my highly unscientific poll of City Pulse staffers is any indication, I’m not alone in not instantly recognizing his name, at least before he entered the Senate race. 

No doubt, then, that Harper has a hill to climb to get to Capitol Hill — but he has built something of a base. He settled in Detroit in 2017, and Detroit is always pivotal in winning the Democratic nomination because of the Black vote. Since coming to Motown, he has started the Manifest Your Destiny Foundation to help youth, purchased the downtown Roasting Plant coffee shop and undertaken the renovation of a Boston-Edison Historic District mansion, where he is raising an adopted son as a single parent. His activism in Detroit on such issues as civil rights, a higher minimum wage and criminal justice reform, and his celebrity status are not all he brings to the race. He has a joint degree from Harvard’s law school and the Kennedy School of Government — where he befriended Barack Obama on the basketball court and decades later joined other celebrities to campaign for him for president.

In Hollywood, Harper served on the board of the actors’ union that is now on strike. He is quick to point out that he is the only union member in the Senate race. “Through the characters I played, I wanted to be like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier and Paul Robeson, these amazing artists and actors who are also activists,” he told me.

My initial efforts to interview Harper after he filed his candidacy in July fell on deaf ears. But in late August, Slotkin granted me an interview — which I thought might be the leverage I needed to get Harper’s attention, and indeed it was. After I notified Harper’s campaign that I’d be interviewing Slotkin  Friday morning, I quickly heard back: What are you doing on Thursday?

The interview was supposed to be in person at City Pulse, but thanks to bad traffic on his way from Detroit, we ended up talking by phone, then meeting in person for photos of him at the Capitol before he headed off for a local television interview.

To those who may paint him as a Hollywood carpetbagger, Harper, 57, who was born in Iowa, responds with flattery: He loves Michigan so much he has adopted it. His path to Detroit began with friendships he formed through two Michigan natives who were Harvard roommates. But it was the old Michigan film industry tax credit — “That was really a good government program, and look what politicians do, they get rid of it” — that brought him here for work.

That’s when, he said, a friend planted the seed that eventually led Harper to settle in Detroit. “‘When I have kids,’” he said he told his friend, “‘I want to raise my kids here because I’d rather have them turn out like folks from Michigan than folks from Hollywood.’ And that was my sentiment. And so fast-forward to 2015: I adopted my son Dec. 19, 2015, and started looking for a house here because I was a father.”

Harper talks to three visiting Ohioans in front of the Michigan Capitol. One of them lectured him on the importance of fundraising — not Harper’s favorite topic.
Harper talks to three visiting Ohioans in front of the Michigan Capitol. One of them lectured him on the importance of fundraising — not Harper’s …

“I chose Michigan.”

So, why does he think Michigan should choose him to replace Stabenow?

Harper talked about his history of activism, first in health care. “I’m a (thyroid) cancer survivor and both my parents are doctors, so healthcare has always been huge to me.” His Obama connection landed him on the President’s Cancer Panel, where another member recalled to Time magazine that he was a productive participant who left his celebrity status at the door.

As for elective office, though, he was not considering it until he said people started calling him right after Stabenow announced her decision not to seek reelection. He said they expressed their “frustration that for the first time in 57 years Michigan does not have a Black Democratic representative in Congress. For a state that’s so diverse, many people felt that was a shame.”

He’s not the only candidate who is hoping not only to change that, but also to become the first African-American U.S. senator in Michigan history. Two Black women have filed for the Democratic nomination: Pamela Pugh, a former chief health officer from Saginaw who was reelected last year to the state Board of Education and serves as president; and Leslie Love, a former state representative from Detroit.

“It’s not lost on many members of the Democratic Party in Michigan that Michigan in many ways is a red state until the I-75 corridor and Wayne County reports,” Harper said about the role race may play in the campaign. Indeed, in my subsequent interview with Slotkin, who is white, she talked about her need to “work really hard” to win over voters in Detroit, which makes up nearly 40% of the state’s Black population.

But, added Harper, “This isn’t just about identity politics, it’s about representation. And to be quite honest, not even just about race-based representation. I got called by folks who are parents and single parents like myself and saying, ‘Hey, the Senate doesn’t have enough people in the body that have kids under 10 years old like I do. The Senate doesn’t have one active union member like I am ... .’ Very few are very small business owners.”

Without saying so directly, Harper’s pitch is that he is not another career inside-the-beltway pol, which is clearly aimed at Slotkin, whose resume highpoints are posts at the CIA and the Pentagon, three terms in the House and now a foot on the next rung up the ladder. Given voter antipathy toward Washington, Harper’s strategy makes sense, although perhaps more in a general election — where he’d likely be facing Republican Mike Rogers, with his own well-established Washington-insider credentials — than in a Democratic primary against Slotkin,a known Republican slayer. She won back the 8th Congressional District in 2017 after eight terms of Republican control (seven by Rogers and one by Mike Bishop). Last year, she defeated former state Sen. Tom Barrett by 5%, a good margin in the new, purplish 7th Congressional District.

So far, Harper is taking the high road when it comes to Slotkin, but he hinted at legislative decisions she has made that he will no doubt bring to the fore, if need be.

“I am not a politician, and so I don’t want to fall into common politician tropes of folks talking about other candidates,” he responded when I asked him to state his case against Slotkin. Then he once again told me he’s got a 10-year-old, he’s a union guy, a small-business owner and an African American “knowing and dealing with racism.” He professes he wants to keep the focus on job creation, “particularly from the progressive side of the ball. So as a progressive and the most progressive person in the race, the fact that I do marry that with my sentiments around economic development, small business creation and job development, particularly in marginalized communities — I think that is my particular skillset.”

Later, though, Hill suggests that he will make an issue of Slotkin’s voting record when he says, “There are votes that we can look at and emphasize from candidates that are in the race that I don’t think are in line with many Michiganders’ progressive values.” I asked him if Slotkin’s choice to be one of only two Democrats to join House Republicans in voting for a successful amendment that banned the LGBTQ+ Pride flag (and all flags except the American flag and U.S. military flags) from military facilities was an example. Demonstrating he’d done his homework on a vote that only City Pulse has covered in Michigan media, he replied, “Yes, I was aware of that. I would’ve voted differently.” Asked to amplify, he said, “There’s a Pride flag that’s in the window of my coffee shop right now. And I believe that if you are willing to sacrifice your life for your country and that is a flag that is important to you, that you should have the ability to display that.”

In my interview with Slotkin the next day, she agreed that her vote was cast in the context of Republican efforts to keep the Pride flag from flying over the Pentagon, but explained her quite different motive for doing so, which was to keep the Confederate flag, the Proud Boys flag and other flags associated with anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment from flying. Said Slotkin, whose late mother was a lesbian, “For every Pride flag we would see at a place like Fort Bragg, you’d see 10 flags that would send a horrible message to that soldier flying the Pride flag or that child in that home who the flag is being flown in on behalf of.”

The amendment Slotkin supported reflects a policy instituted by the Trump administration but one that the Biden White House also backs. Slotkin has a 100% record of support for Biden initiatives that have come before her in Congress. In my interview with Harper, he expressed only enthusiastic support for Biden as well and said that some “extreme supporters” of Biden “have reached out to me and my campaign because they believe that my name on a ticket in November helps President Biden win the presidency. They understand that Michigan in many ways is a red state until Black folks vote. And so the African American turnout in November is going to be a critical piece” in keeping the Biden administration in power.

Harper’s position on Biden may be safer than questioning his second-term run, but it does not advance a case for being the candidate of change at a time when the majority of Democrats — 64%, according to a New York times poll released in July — say they want a different standard bearer. Even moderate Slotkin stuck her neck out in the 2018 Democratic primary election campaign for her House seat in declaring she wouldn’t support another ageing Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, for speaker. Slotkin voted “present” the last two times Pelosi ran, declaring it was “time for new leadership on both sides of the aisle.” In contrast, Harper says, “The idea that using ageism and his age as a distraction away from his accomplishments is politicizing and shameful.” Slotkin could have taken that tact as well when Republicans were vilifying Pelosi in the runup to the 2018 midterm elections, but she exerted her independence instead.

Harper entered the race in July. As the 3rd quarter fundraising deadline approaches, his website sought a modest goal of $15,500. Slotkin raised $5.8 million in the first two quarters of this year after announcing in February.
Harper entered the race in July. As the 3rd quarter fundraising deadline approaches, his website sought a modest goal of $15,500. Slotkin raised $5.8 …

Certainly, there’s a political risk for a Democrat in questioning Biden’s candidacy, but Harper is going to need to find ways to differentiate himself from the pack — in other words, take some chances. Slotkin will be able to buy a lot of attention: She raised $5.8 million in the first four months of her candidacy and will no doubt be reporting another big haul in mid-October, when she files her third-quarter report with the Federal Campaign Commission. Harper entered the race just as the third quarter was getting under way and hence hasn’t had to report anything yet. But almost certainly he is going to have to earn a lot of media attention that Slotkin will be able to buy.

Asked about the money race, he did what underdogs do: He deflected.

“If I’m elected to the United States Senate, one of the first things I’ll fight for is campaign finance reform. The only thing that not having campaign finance reform serves is incumbents in the establishment,” he said. “The people pay congressional member salaries, yet, on average, congressional members spend four to six hours a day making funding calls. On the people’s dime, on the people’s time. And I will make zero funding calls. That time could be much better spent meeting with people from the state, meeting with constituents, learning what their needs are, coming up and meeting with other lawmakers to work together to provide solutions. So, we’ve got to get the money out of politics.”

He pointed to last year’s election of Karen Bass as mayor of Los Angeles as an example of how money doesn’t have to determine outcomes. (The L.A. Times reported she was outspent more than 11 to 1.) He doesn’t mention that Bass represented Los Angeles for six years in California’s General Assembly, including the last one as speaker, and then 10 years in Congress before running for mayor. Or that, as one analyst put it, her opponent, mall developer Rick Caruso, “could have spent twice as much and he still likely would have lost.  Simply, Los Angeles wants Karen Bass. She was the right candidate at the right time.” Harper certainly has an impressive background. But in terms of a political profile, paraphrasing Lloyd Bentsen’s famous assessment of former Vice President Dan Quayle after the latter compared himself to John Kennedy: “You’re no Karen Bass.”

Harper and I ended our interview there. An hour or so later, he finally made it through interstate traffic to Lansing and met me and a photographer at the Capitol before he hurried off for a television interview. In person, he reminded me of many celebrity sightings I’ve had over the years in how often they are smaller than you’d imagined. He was impeccably dressed and an easy subject for photos, not surprisingly, given his professional experience before cameras. At one point, he suggested a pose he favored for himself.

As we finished on the Capitol steps, three men approached, one of whom was wearing a shirt emblazoned with an Ohio Legislature logo. They wanted to know if Harper was a Michigan legislator, suggesting to me they were in town to lobby for something. He explained that he was a candidate for the U.S. Senate. That prompted another one of the trio to launch into a lecture on the importance of fundraising. The gist of it was that except for bathroom breaks, you need to be on the phone all the time seeking dough. The message was clear: Raising money is the name of the game.

Harper kept a polite smile on his face as he wished them well. After farewells, we turned to walk to the car waiting for him on Capitol Avenue. I saw the smile disappear and his facial muscles tense up.

Reflecting on the free advice he had just received, he said in a low voice: “I hate that.”


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