The long-time leader plans to unite the cities of the 14th Congressional District on her second congressional run for a U.S. Representative seat
"She should be here any minute," says Ken Coleman, Brenda Lawrence's campaign consultant on her latest bid for Capitol Hill. He leads the way into her new headquarters past a bundle of old "Lawrence for Congress" lawn signs, presumably left over from her failed campaign in 2012.
It's the first week of February, and Lawrence-now on her fourth term as mayor of Southfield, the "center-of-it-all city" with a majority Black population-is now a second-time contender for the 14th Congressional District seat. Officially throwing her hat into the race in January, it's an important time for Lawrence's camp. They have until April 22 to file at least 1,000 petition signatures that will officially make her a candidate for the seat. The primary election is Aug. 5.
Coleman, recruited by Lawrence, helped U.S. Rep. Gary Peters win his seat for the then-newly redrawn 14th District in 2012-which saw Peters defeat three candidates (including Lawrence) for the win. A "Peters for Congress" sticker is still noticeably stuck to Coleman's Jeep outside.
"Right now is just a matter of putting the team back together," Coleman says about Lawrence's campaign strategy, walking past district maps to a bare conference room. "We are still just settling in," Coleman explains.
The campaign space is a skeleton of an office, overlooking an empty strip mall amongst a watch repair and Einstein Bros Bagel. Inside, the last tenant seemingly left in a hurry-heavily scuffing the walls, staining the carpet, and taking the finishing of the ceiling with them.
Out of character for the illustrious mayor, who is responsible-and sometimes mocked-for overseeing the construction of what residents called the "Taj Mahal of learning"-the Southfield Public Library. Lawrence was unfazed by the lavish label, evenly rationalizing, "What better thing for a community to be known for than a 'Taj Mahal of learning.'"
Lawrence for congress
In 2001, Lawrence became the first African-American and the first woman to be mayor of Southfield. In her current bid for a congressional seat representing the 14th District, she is set to make history again as the first African-American woman of Congress from Oakland County.
Lawrence, as current mayor and congressional candidate, now divides her time between city and campaigning duties.
Today, she is skipping a luncheon with Gov. Rick Snyder to give "my guys," as she refers to them, at the Southfield Public Works Group a pep talk. Coleman explains that city residents have blamed Public Works for the unpatched potholes on Greenfield Road, a road that is the domain and responsibility of Oakland County, not Southfield.
"They really need the morale boost," Coleman adds.
Lawrence arrives and is in good spirits. "Good morning," she says, extending a hand and a familiar campaign smile.
Lawrence, 59, believes this is her year-and others agree.
"They say Lincoln ran something like eight or 10 times before he finally got elected president," says Lansing mayor, Virgil Bernero, who tapped Lawrence as his running mate for his failed 2010 gubernatorial campaign. "So sometimes you have to find yourself. Politics is a lot about timing. And I think this is Brenda’s time."
The political environment seems to be in her favor. Peters is pursuing a seat in the Senate, soon to be vacated by a retiring Carl Levin, leaving the 14th Congressional District seat open once again.
And early poll results for the congressional seat race-conducted by research firm Lake Research Partners and released by Lawrence's camp-puts her ahead by 37 percent of the vote over competition Rudy Hobbs (6 percent), Bert Johnson (5 percent) and Jessica McCall (under 1 percent, but has since dropped out of the race). In a press release about the poll, her approval rating among Southfield residents is touted as 78 percent.
Despite four previously failed campaigns, including a run for Oakland County Executive against L. Brooks Patterson in 2008, Lawrence says she is not discouraged. As one of southeast Michigan's most popular mayors, her track record shows the resume of an experienced worker.
"I am running under the model that experience does matter, and the fact that I've had experience being a voice and an ear to a lot of ethnic groups has prepared me to be effective in this campaign."
Lawrence's plans to embrace all cities in 14th District
The 14th District, which includes Pontiac, West Bloomfield, Keego Harbor, Sylvan Lake, Southfield, Oak Park, Royal Oak Township, Harper Woods, Farmington Hills, Orchard Lake, Lathrup Village, the Grosse Pointes, Hamtramck and portions of Detroit, is diverse.
Its map looks like the sort of children’s drawing only a mother could hang up with pride. Only in this case, the children are Michigan Republicans who are said to have intentionally gerrymandered the district to tie together Democratic areas.
But Lawrence says that when she sees the map of the 14th District she sees a unique opportunity.
"I can tell you, from my experience being a public servant, I see a group of municipalities," says Lawrence. "I see a vast array of diversity when it comes to economic and housing stock. And that is very energizing to me as a public servant."
Lawrence on Patterson's 'drop dead' remarks
The uniqueness of the district is frequently highlighted as including some of the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. Lawrence, standing up for part of the 14th Congressional District and her hometown, says Patterson's now infamous comments about Detroit in The New Yorker were "off-color."
"I want to take Eight Mile Road and make it a unifying part of this district and it seems at times Patterson tries to submit it as a divider," she says. Lawrence acknowledges that Patterson has a history of being loose-jawed when it comes to his opinions, but they have a cordial relationship.
"I don’t want to destroy the person, I want to win the race," she says.
In many ways, she is the Anti-Brooks. Sure, she's made her mark in Oakland County, but she also has affection and respect for Detroit proper. After her mother died when she was 3, she was raised by her grandparents on the city's northeast side and graduated from Pershing High School.
Later, she earned a bachelor's degree in public administration from Central Michigan University. She began her public service career in the U.S. Post Office, working her way from letter carrier to human resources in 30 years. She married her high school sweetheart, McArthur Lawrence, and they have two children, Michael and Michelle.
Lawrence says leadership, when it comes to women, color or city limits, means remembering what her grandmother taught her years ago.
"You are created equal to everyone," Lawrence says. "It's about bringing people together. And that is really my platform of public service-to ensure everyone has a voice."