The race to select a Democrat to run for Debbie Stabenow’s seat in the U.S. Senate is shaping up, in part, as progressive vs. moderate. The moderate is Elissa Slotkin, who is in her third term in the U.S. House representing Greater Lansing. At least two of her opponents, Hill Harper and Pamela Pugh, are making a point of running to her left. The Democratic primary is still almost a year away, but the race is very much in motion.
Slotkin’s reputation as a moderate took on new political meaning Tuesday with the news that former Republican Congressman Mike Rogers is going to announce soon that he will seek the GOP nomination for the Senate, the Associated Press reported based on three sources. Rogers is a conservative with strong security credentials who represented Lansing in Congress from 2001 to 2015. If he is the nominee, Democrats will need to ask themselves who is better positioned to take him on: a middle-of-the-roader like Slotkin or a candidate to the left of both of them?
I caught up with Slotkin last Friday in her district office in the Federal Building, a 91-year-old limestone mausoleum best known for housing the downtown post office. She moved there for better security for her staff, which she said had received threats, after first occupying space in a commercial building at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Saginaw Street. As one of Slotkin’s staff members escorted me from the elevator, I saw just one other person in the second-floor hallway as we wound our way to a modestly decorated office where the congresswoman awaited me.
I started by asking her about a vote she cast last month that intrigued me and provided ammunition for progressives who oppose her. Slotkin was one of just two Democrats to vote with Republicans in passing a ban on flying anything other than the American flag and military flags over military facilities. The timing of the legislation was clearly influenced by the appearance of the Pride flag over the White House and in tweets sent by two branches of the military as a salute to Pride Month in June. Where will it appear next, Republicans argued, the Pentagon?
The measure was an amendment to the Defense Department budget bill. Slotkin knows the Pentagon well, having served as an acting assistant secretary of defense. She serves on the House Armed Services Committee, where she voted for the DOD budget bill. She is pro military. But she changed her position to a “no” vote on the House floor “because of all the really horrible stuff that they larded into the defense bill” — including amendments to ban military funding for abortion and transgender surgery.
Slotkin said her decision to vote for the flag amendment — which would have passed without her support —came down to her personal engagement on this issue. “In the Trump administration, we started to see Proud Boys flags, Three Percenter flags, and especially the Confederate flag showing up in front of base housing on U.S. military bases in the United States,” she explained. “We heard about it; I saw pictures firsthand sent from my stepdaughter. We could see it growing.” She added that she and others “pressured” Trump’s secretary of defense to the point that the DOD banned all non-American and non-military flags. “So, you couldn’t have a Confederate flag, you couldn’t have a Pride flag, you couldn’t have a Three Percenter flag, you couldn’t have a pro-police flag, you couldn’t have an American flag with the blue line or the red line. You couldn’t have a trans flag. You couldn’t have any flag other than the American flag and the unit flag.” It was a policy that the Biden administration kept in place.
When the Republicans decided to make that policy law, Slotkin said, “I made the decision that I thought was the best to keep a lid on some of the darker impulses that we might see on our military bases, as controversial as it was. I could have easily just decided to do what everyone else was doing, and maybe that would be the politically expedient thing to do. But I had personally lobbied and gone over to the Defense Department to ask for the clamping down on the Confederate flag. This was the result of that. And so I made a controversial decision.”
Slotkin, whose late mother was a lesbian, said she sees the Pride flag as “hopeful, positive, prideful,” not at all like the Confederate flag or the others in any sense — except one: “We have this little thing called freedom of speech, and I don’t know how we ask the Pentagon to start making value judgments about certain flags. In the world we live in, there would be an automatic lawsuit, which is why the Biden administration upheld the policy” of the Trump administration.
“As someone who worked alongside the military my whole life,” she added, “I feel maybe better than some Democrats because I understand the culture in the military. 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 on behalf of.”
‘How I’m wired’
Whether or not you agree with Slotkin on the flag vote — and even her own chief of staff told me that he would have voted differently — it would be hard to argue that she didn’t think it through. As we discussed several measures on which she broke with many Democrats, she defended her decision-making process. “I don’t make willy-nilly decisions. I’m a substantive, thoughtful person who reads bills, unlike most of my peers, and makes decisions based on substance, and I’m happy to answer for every one of those bills based on substance.”
I mentioned to her that when I covered Congress in the 1970s, I was impressed that Richard Lugar, the late Republican senator from Indiana who was known for his thoughtfulness, would shut his office door at 2 p.m. every day to read for an hour.
Responded Slotkin, “When you walk onto the floor of the House, there’s a giant electronic board with all of our names in alphabetical order so that you can vote and make sure you voted. And I can’t tell you how many of my peers on both sides of the aisle run onto the floor, look up at the board and then just vote the way Democrats or Republicans are voting on that bill. And I would rather not be a congressperson than vote default like that and not actually read what I’m looking at. I just refuse to do that no matter how much Twitter drama that gets me. That is just not how I’m wired.”
Does that willingness to split with her party make Slotkin the Senate’s next Kyrsten Sinema, as The New Republic has labeled her? That seems unlikely. She has supported every Biden administration bill. “The difference between me and the other Democrats tends to be on amendments and on small substantive differences rather than major radical differences with the average Democrat.”
Those small differences sometimes land her on the side of Republicans, and she certainly embraces being seen as a moderate, which in her first election’s campaign translated into a promise not to support the reelection of Nancy Pelosi as House speaker at a time when Republicans were casting the liberal San Francisco Democrat as Public Enemy No. 1. (Slotkin kept her word by voting present in both 2019 and 2021, the last two times Pelosi sought the leadership post Pelosi relinquished the post in 2023.)
Though a centrist, Slotkin doesn’t regard left-wing Democrats — like her Michigan colleague Rashida Tlaib — and ultra-right Republicans as being at all alike. “I may not agree with everything my fellow members of ‘The Squad’ or of the further left believe in, but they’ve never tried to do an armed insurrection to bring down our democracy. And I’ve never had to barricade myself in my office because people are advocating for the Green New Deal. And that, to me, is a fundamental difference,” she said.
Her hope, she continued, is for “balance in the system” among Democrats and Republicans, which she analogized to how wolves and moose coexist on Isle Royale in Lake Superior. “When there’s too many wolves, they eat all the moose, and the moose population crashes. When there’s too many moose, they eat all the plants, and the wolves can’t handle all that. So we want balance. We’re deeply out of balance. But for me, my belief as a person and my belief as a congressperson is that leadership climate is set at the top. And Donald Trump came into this country and unleashed and made popular ideas that were taboo because they were destructive. And it set off a polarized time that is deeply unhealthy and that most Americans, and certainly most Michiganders, do not like.”
“We’re not healthy right now,” Slotkin continued. “We all know that. That’s not a secret to anybody. Our country is going through something right now. But can I always hold out hope for the Republican Party to rise from the ashes of whatever it is and become again a party that is concerned about the role of government in our lives and not about power and going back to a bygone era? Sure. So that is how I approach it. And because I have to work with Republicans every single day, usually at the local level, but often sometimes in Washington, I’m in the Problem Solvers Caucus,” comprising 62 House members equally divided between the two parties.
Slotkin’s reputation as a moderate bipartisan should play well overall in purplish Michigan as the Democratic candidate for the Senate. But first she must nail the nomination in next year’s non-presidential Democratic primary election next August. And that means grasping what matters to voters in the rest of the state.
“Where I have to put in more time and more effort to understand the issues are first and foremost in Detroit and secondly in Grand Rapids,” said Slotkin, who in February was the first to announce after Stabenow made her retirement decision public. “Even just running for six months, the education that I’m getting on urban issues, on historical inequality, on environmental injustice has been something that’s really affected me. And so I can’t tell you in general, I’m going to be X or I’m going to be Y, but I’m a thinking human being. I will learn from anyone and absorb and then make as practical decisions as I can. And I would say the things that will change for me will be my focus on our biggest city and on urban inequality.”
‘Show up, show up, show up’
Slotkin is well aware, too, that for the first time Michigan has no Democratic African-American member of Congress, something that has not happened in seven decades. Moreover, Michigan has never elected a Black senator. Three Democrats are hoping to make history: Harper, an actor, author and Detroit businessman; Pugh, a public health expert and president of the state Board of Education; and Leslie Love, a former state representative and the first African American to serve on the Michigan Natural Resources Commission.
Thus, winning the nomination means doing well in Detroit, a Democratic stronghold where nearly 40% of Michigan’s Black population lives. It means denying as many votes as possible to two Detroit candidates: Harper, a highly visible celebrity who chose to make it his home six years ago and from which he commuted to Vancouver to film his scenes in the TV series “The Good Doctor”; and Love, who was elected three times to the state House from there, beginning in 2015, until she was term-limited.
Slotkin likened what she faces in Detroit to what she faced in 2018, when she first ran for the U.S. House.
“Six years ago today, I was just getting into politics, so I understand what it’s like to be a new person in politics,” she said. “And it just means that I have to work really hard to earn people’s votes, particularly in Detroit. And I’ve been open about that. And all I can do in Detroit is what I did when I first ran for this district, which is show up and show up and show up and show up. Listen, learn and act. And at the end of the day, you never know exactly how you’re going to need your senator, right?
“Look at today. We have storms and power outages. We have major damage. You never know what you’re going to need to call your senator for. And the question is, when you call your senator, do they answer and do they act? Will they fight on your behalf? And I feel that I have demonstrated that through my work here in this district, and I’m prepared to do the same thing in a statewide race. And as for having African-American candidates in the race, especially, there’s two women who have a real history of public service, which I of course deeply respect. All that means is I have to work twice as hard to get to know people and to earn people’s vote.”
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