Stephanie Roberts has lived on Ashton Street on Detroit’s northwest side for 17 years. A young man who is seeking to represent her neighborhood — District 10 — in the Michigan House of Representatives is her next-door neighbor.
At least that’s the address he lists. Roberts doesn’t see him as a true resident.
The candidate, 22-year-old Gabriel “Gabe” Leland, is the son of state Sen. Burton Leland, who represents District 5, which covers Dearborn Heights, Inkster and unincorporated areas of Wayne County. The address Gabe Leland lists in District 10 is actually the home of Sanford Sulkes, a longtime friend of the senior Leland.
But Roberts alleges that Gabriel does not really live at Sulkes’ house, and that he knows nothing about the needs of her neighborhood.
Roberts believes Gabe Leland is a carpetbagger, a politician who moves into a neighborhood, or pretends to, to establish residency and seek a specific elected post. The current 10th District Representative, Triette Lindsey Reeves, is term-limited and cannot seek re-election.
Roberts says Gabe Leland “shows up on Mondays and Saturdays, with his daddy with him. And all he does is collect his mail.”
The Lelands and Sulkes all say the Sulkes home is Gabe’s true residence.
Sulkes says Gabe rents a room on the second floor.
The candidate tells Metro Times, “I am registered to vote at that address, and have lived there since February 2003.”
Burton Leland calls to back up his son’s statement, but he gives a different date of his son’s move to the neighborhood. The senator says his son moved into the house not in February 2003 but in February 2004. He must have slipped and stated the wrong year, Burton Leland says. Metro Times asked Gabe to provide documentation — a utility bill or a driver’s license — reflecting a change of address. He faxed a copy of his driver’s license, on which the Secretary of State has placed a sticker with the Ashton Street address.
State law requires that a person be registered to vote at an address for 30 days before applying for candidacy in that district.
Roberts says Sulkes approached her after Metro Times had asked him about Leland’s residency, and told her to stop making trouble. But she says she is sick of politicians taking advantage of her neighborhood.
She is voting for Barbra Long, a candidate that Roberts says is a true resident. She says she has not worked on Long’s campaign, but has a Long campaign sign on her front lawn.
Bill Ballenger, who publishes the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, says that although the first carpetbaggers were Northerners who moved South after the Civil War seeking political and financial advantages, the contemporary definition still fits.
“Burton Leland hasn’t lived in Detroit for 20 years,” Ballenger says of the senator, who is serving his final four-year term, and served nine terms in the House before representatives were limited to three two-year stints. “And everyone knows his son Gabe went through the East Lansing school system. Now he’s running in a House district in Detroit. As far as I know, he spent no part of his upbringing in Detroit.”
Leland says Gabe has lived in Lansing most of his life, but spent “many weekends” in Detroit, and knows the city well.
Carpetbaggery is not unique to Detroit. Consider famous examples like Hillary Clinton and Bobby Kennedy, both of whom moved to New York and won election to the U.S. Senate.
Ballenger and Adolph Mongo, a Detroit media and political consultant, say carpetbaggers have taken advantage of Detroit communities for years.
“People do this because they think they own these seats,” says Mongo. “This is the kind of representation we’ve got.”
Ballenger says the term-limit law encourages carpetbaggery. Hopefuls move into districts where an incumbent is term-limited, establish residency and run for office. He says few carpetbaggers ever challenge an incumbent.
The District 10 incumbent, Reeves, says that as more candidates approach term limits, more unfamiliar names and faces will turn up as candidates.
“People will seize an opportunity to gain employment,” she says, “as opposed to a commitment to service.”
State legislators earn $79,650 a year. Representatives are allowed to serve three two-year terms. Senators can serve two four-year terms.
There are crowded races in the four Detroit districts where the incumbents cannot run again. Those term-limited out are Reeves (District 10), Alma Stallworth (District 8), Artina Tinsley Hardman (District 3) and Kenneth Daniels (District 2).
Metro Times visited District 10 addresses listed by candidates and talked with neighbors, none of whom would agree to be fully identified. Some of the candidates on the ballot next Tuesday — Leland, Michael Grundy, Jim Edmonson Jr. and Shanelle Jackson — did not seem well-known to neighbors.
All four registered to vote at their current addresses this year — Grundy in May, Edmonson in April, Jackson in April, Leland in February.
In each case, neighbors said they don’t believe the candidates truly live where they are registered. The candidates all say the neighbors are wrong.
A man who lives next door to the corner house on the 14600 block of Faust, where Grundy, 32, is registered, says a man in his 50s lives at the house.
Grundy, a vice president of a union local, says he is getting married this year and bought the house a year ago, an assertion confirmed by Wayne County records.
A neighbor across the street from the Fielding Street house where Jackson is registered says Jackson’s “people” live in the house, but not Jackson herself. Jackson, a former aide to state Rep. Virgil Smith, says she moved in four months ago to live with her cousin, but spends some nights at her mother’s house on Warwick, in District 7.
Jackson says she has old ties to the neighborhood, knows its needs, and decided to move back.
A man who lives next door to the dilapidated Forrer Street house listed as Edmonson’s address says Edmonson, 32, does not live there.
“Naw, that’s my partner there,” the neighbor, “Jimmy,” says. “Not no Edmonson.”
Edmonson, who once worked for former representative and current hopeful Lamar Lemmons, as well as Burton Leland, says he works all day campaigning, and gets home late.
He is “surprised Jimmy would say that,” and invites Metro Times back. During a second unannounced house call a woman peers through closed blinds and says the candidate isn’t there.
Aside from a couple candidates who registered at addresses this year, Districts 2, 3 and 8 show no signs of wholesale address changes that have not already been disqualified.
The Wayne County Clerk’s Office says that Thomas Stallworth, Alma Stallworth’s son, was removed from the ballot in District 8 in May because he failed to register to vote in that district after moving to Detroit from Southfield.
And possibly the weirdest of all is Lemmons’ attempt to establish his family as a political force in the city. He, his father, and his son are running in three different districts under the name Lamar Lemmons.
Ballenger says carpetbaggers don’t really know their districts or their constituents.
“The problem is, voters seem to look the other way,” Ballenger says.
Mongo suggests there is another extreme to carpetbagging. Smaller municipalities, he says, have kept elected offices secure for incumbents with draconian residency guidelines.
“I don’t think the opposite is fair. Like in Warren, the city says you have to live there for five years before you can run for mayor,” Mongo says. “I think a person needs to live in a place for a year, so the people get to know you. And you need to get to see what the community is about, understand that their cars have been broken into, that they’re paying high-ass city taxes.”
No one in the Legislature has tried to address the residency law, Ballenger says.
“For carpetbaggery to be a viable issue, there has got to be a sense of outrage in the community,” he says. “People have to say, ‘How dare this person try to represent us when they don’t even live here!’ But I’ve got to tell you, in Detroit, you’re in the wrong city to be looking for outrage. There’s no sense of neighborhood and community there that would fuel the outrage.”
The political focus and concerns of most Detroiters, he says, are on broad issues. Constituent relationships are less intimate. It’s easier for a carpetbagger to parachute in.
“It’s an old trend that has seen few efforts at correction,” says Ballenger. Unless citizens care enough to do the homework or demand a rewrite of the law, carpetbaggers big and small will continue to run. And some will win.Khary Kimani Turner is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org