The best thing that happened to Senita Lenear in the Third Ward campaign was the silence of the Republican Party. In the last serious contesting for the Third Ward, the GOP jumped in on the side of Patrick Miles Sr. in his race against Scott Bowen, former chair of the Democratic Party. That battle was fierce and expensive, and it polarized the Democratic community: with the GOP on the other side how could they not support Bowen?
As it is, this year’s contest has seen the Democratic vote split between Lenear and Mike Tuffelmire, with African-Americans and a few other Dems supporting Lenear, and more progressive Dems lining up behind Tuffelmire. Given the make-up of the district, this split is likely to doom Tuffelmire — at the very least it has given him a head-wind in terms of reaching out to the high-voting precincts south of 28th and east of Plymouth.
Under the surface other tensions seem to be lurking. It’s flavor can be seen in this comment on MLive
If an individual moves to or re-locates into a community for the perceived purpose of running for an elective office, then that person is considered to be “carpetbagging”. This, it seems, describes Tufflemire if he has just recently, this calendar year even, moved into the Third Ward to run for this seat. This is the “white elephant in the room” and speaks to a lack of integrity in the process if Tufflemire and his supporters are attempting to commandeer this election by basically lying about how long Tufflemire has been a resident in the Third Ward.
While the question of residency in the Third Ward is a relatively minor one (Tuffelmire has long experience in the City generally), the sense that a status quo is being threatened or over-turned is palpable.
Part of the tension is certainly racial (see “white” in “white elephant” above): Lenear represents a new generation of leadership in the African American community, she has received a blessing of sorts from the existing commissioners, and she would be the first African American woman to serve on the City Commission. How could one oppose this? So we see a fair amount of identity politics at work. The question as to whether Lenear is the best representative or messenger for African-American politics in the City is a more difficult one, not least because some of her supporters are quite to her left.
Another part of the tension surely lies in the issue of gentrification. Tuffelmire’s chief supporters are those who are part of the redevelopment along Wealthy Street and East Hills; young urbanists; entrepreneurs; activists. This tension between the reviving neighborhoods, and the older (and poorer) African American neighborhoods to the south has been simmering in the City. The tragic story of the D&G Party Store captures these tensions. Tucked into the issue of gentrification is that of political power. The rise of the new neighborhoods has brought new voices to the table: owners, developers and the like. The older neighborhoods that were once minority are being shifted, if not pushed out; the success of the redevelopment understandably grates at residents. Does money flow only when white people take part?
And finally, there is the question of political agendas. Tuffelmire and his supporters represent a new politics, or perhaps better, a more robust politics that is moving out of Heritage Hill. When one looks at the issues, it is clear that the primary battleground in the Third Ward this year has been in the part of the district that belongs to the 75th State House seat of Brandon Dillon. Since redistricting, this seat is safe. The tension between Tuffelmire and Lenear is the beginning of the tussle for who will succeed Dillon: will it be someone out of the minority community? or someone out of the progressive neighborhood networks? Or could it fall to bridging figure such as 19th District county Commissioner, Candace Chivis?
Further complicating the political reality is the nature of two other seats: the slightly marginal D of the 76th State House now held by Winnie Brinks, and the 29th State Senate seat, Dave Hildenbrand being the incumbent. Republicans look at the center right stance of Lenear and see a potential candidate (this according to conversations with local party members). Would she go partisan? Her list of significant Republicans endorsements at least give a crack of possibility here, although the presumed commitments she has made to her supporters likely militate against it. For now.
So, if you listen carefully to the race, you can hear the scrape of political chairs being shuffled around. The Tuffelmire-Lenear contest represents a beginning of the reshaping of our City and state politics.