Rep. Gary Peters (D)
Michigan 9th District
Oakland County, long considered just a suburban adjunct of Detroit, is now the center of a giant, spread-out, and mostly affluent urban area. It is only minutes on the Lodge or Chrysler Freeways from inner-city Detroit. North of Eight Mile Road, the terrain changes from Detroit’s worn-out, abandoned neighborhoods to giant office buildings and expensive houses on large lots. There is one shopping mall after another, education levels are high, and crime rates are low. Even physically, the two areas are distinct: Detroit is on almost perfectly flat land, while much of Oakland County lies on a line of hills and lakes that marks the southernmost advance of an Ice Age glacier. Birmingham and Royal Oak, little suburbs set among farm fields half a century ago, are now upscale gentrified nodes amid a vast suburban expanse. Bloomfield Hills is metro Detroit’s wealthiest community, and there are large corporate office centers in Auburn Hills. West Bloomfield is increasingly the focus of metro Detroit’s Jewish community and has a large number of Asians, many from India and Pakistan; there are also Chaldeans, descended from Iraqi Catholics. Oakland County has become the population center of metro Detroit. In 1950, the city of Detroit had 1.8 million people, and Oakland County had 396,000. In 2007, Detroit had 917,000 people, and Oakland had 1.2 million.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
But parts of the county are hurting economically in the wake of the dire financial troubles at the Detroit-based automakers. Interstate 75 in eastern and northern Oakland had developed as the nerve center of auto-company suppliers and manufacturers, and so took a big hit in 2008 and 2009 when General Motors and Chrysler closed several factories there. The old factory town of Pontiac has an African-American majority and major economic struggles in the wake of 1,500 layoffs at a GM plant and the company’s decision to cancel the town’s namesake brand. GM also suspended operations in Orion, furloughing another 3,400.
The 9th Congressional District of Michigan includes a little more than half the population of Oakland County. It does not include Southfield, Oak Park, Ferndale, Hazel Park or Madison Heights in the southeast—all heavily Democratic and part of the 12th District. It does include almost all of Royal Oak, all of Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, Rochester Hills and Auburn Hills, Farmington Hills (you begin to see the prestige value of hills to people who grew up in the flatlands of Detroit) and West Bloomfield, Pontiac and Waterford Township. It is Michigan’s most affluent congressional district, although the ongoing troubles at the domestic automakers could eventually have an impact on median income. The future of Chrysler’s corporate headquarters in Auburn Hills and of the six-figure executives who work there was in doubt in 2009 after the Italian automaker Fiat bought the company.
The district trended toward the Democrats because of cultural issues in the 1990s. This has created problems for Republicans; there is a strong Right to Life movement in Michigan, and as anti-abortion rights activists have gained power at Republican conventions and won nominations, voters have moved toward Democrats. Republicans no longer win huge majorities in Birmingham and Bloomfield Township, and they run no better in fast-growing Troy and Rochester Hills. Royal Oak, Farmington Hills and West Bloomfield, once solidly Republican, now lean Democratic, though Waterford Township, with a more working-class population, leans Republican. Republican George W. Bush carried the 9th District by only 51%-49% in 2004, and Democrat Barack Obama won it 56%-43% in 2008.
Rep. Gary Peters (D)
Elected: 2008, 1st term.
Born: Dec. 1, 1958, Pontiac .
Home: Bloomfield Township.
Education: Alma Col., B.A. 1980; U. of Detroit, M.B.A. 1984; Wayne St. U., J.D. 1989; MI St. U., M.A. 2007.
Family: Married (Colleen); 3 children.
Military career: Naval Reserve, 1993-2005.
Elected office: Rochester Hills Cty. Cncl, 1991-93; MI Senate, 1995-2002.
Professional Career: Merril Lynch, asst. v.p., 1980-89; UBS/Paine Webber, v.p., 1989-2003; Michigan Lottery commissioner, 2003-07; Central MI U., professor 2007-08.
The new congressman from the 9th District is Gary Peters, a Democrat elected in 2008. A fifth-generation Oakland County native, Peters grew up in Pontiac. While not known for his flair on the campaign trail, Peters has a broad array of interests. He had early success in his business career. He was vice president of investments for Paine Webber from 1989 to 2003, and before that he was an executive with Merrill Lynch for nine years. At age 34, Peters became a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserves, training as a sharpshooter and ultimately spending a dozen years in the Reserves. In the early 1990s, he got involved in politics, landing a seat on the Rochester Hills City Council, where he helped unearth an overcharge to the city that saved taxpayers $400,000. In 1995, he was elected to the state Senate, where he pushed legislation to cut taxes for the middle class and to improve access to children’s health insurance. He also led an effort to ban oil drilling in the Great Lakes. In 2002, Peters became the state’s lottery commissioner. The Detroit Free-Press later praised him for increasing lottery sales.
|Gary Peters (D)||183,311||(52%)||($2,509,019)|
|Joe Knollenberg (R)||150,035||(43%)||($4,135,864)|
|Jack Kevorkian (I)||8,987||(3%)||($880)|
|Gary Peters (D)||Unopposed|
In the 2008 election, he challenged eight-term Republican Rep. Joe Knollenberg. A fiscal conservative, Peters talked about middle-class tax cuts during the campaign, but didn’t swear off raising taxes on the wealthy, a group that includes many of his district’s constituents. Knollenberg criticized him for that stance. Peters attacked the incumbent for voting against legislation to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Knollenberg had faced some difficult races during the previous 16 years, but none that challenged him on nearly every front. He started out with a financial edge, but with the help of the national Democratic Party, Peters was able to bridge the gap. GOP presidential nominee John McCain pulled out of Michigan, making a tough political environment for Michigan Republicans even worse. Knollenberg also lost the endorsement of the powerful United Auto Workers, which backed Peters, despite Knollenberg’s leadership in securing a $25 billion bailout for the industry. The incumbent tried to distance himself from the unpopular Bush administration and the GOP, even skipping the Republican National Convention in September.
A crowded field in the general election favored Knollenberg. The three other candidates, including the assisted-suicide advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian, were expected to pull votes away from Peters. But the affluent district was mired in an economic downturn, which fueled anti-Republican sentiment. Peters defeated Knollenberg 52% to 43%; Kevorkian received 3% of the vote.
Peters sits on the Financial Services Committee and the Science and Technology Committee. In March 2009, he introduced legislation to place a surtax on bonuses paid to employees of companies that had received large sums of federal bailout money, but worded so as to encompass only insurance giant AIG. The proposed surtax, combined with existing federal and state taxes, would in effect tax the bonuses at a rate of 100%, returning the entire amount to the taxpayers.