Updated at 11:57 a.m.
The member-versus-member primaries of 2012 have been impassioned, nasty affairs thus far. They have ended close friendships (between Reps. Bill Pascrell and Steve Rothman), created tension between party leaders and backbenchers (as did the race between Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Don Manzullo), and even featured some profane shouting (between Democratic Rep. Russ Carnahan and Lacy Clay). Now, Detroit's 14th District primary between Democratic Reps. Hansen Clarke and Gary Peters, where race has taken center-stage, has turned as bizarre as any of them.
Earlier this month, Clarke -- whose mother was black and whose father was Indian -- announced at the end of June that he was skipping the race's remaining debates after alleged robocalls and emails claiming his mother was not African-American. "The way this happened, way robocalls went out, the emails, my mother's death certificate -- the timing was to have this issue raised at the debate, and that would have distracted entire focus," Clark said in an interview. "I didn't even address it. I don't want anyone to feel that they have to defend who they are."
But Clarke has also used the issue to fuel a nebulous attack against other candidates in the race. Peters, who is white, is Clarke's principal opponent, having significant labor support and favored son status in the Oakland County portion of the district, but other local officials (two black and one white) are in the primary, too. Clarke has said on numerous occasions that the attacks were initiated by "his opponent" in the race, but would not name names. Asked specifically if he thought Peters was behind the allegations, Clarke paused. "What these tactics are designed to do is to split up the black vote, and those tactics have failed," Clarke said.
The genesis of this story traces back to a private citizen supporting -- but not working for -- one of the other candidates, African-American Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence. Wendell Smiley unearthed a death certificate listing Clarke's mother as white, a find he said was the culmination of eight months of research. Smiley said questions of Clarke's ethnicity have been an issue "his entire career" and he "thought (Clarke) was lying." For her part, Lawrence disavowed Smiley's research in an interview with Hotline On Call. "I don't think this should be an issue," Lawrence said, noting that her campaign does not employ Smiley nor was it involved in disseminating the rumors.
In the middle of June, Smiley sent the information to several Michigan political pundits and reporters, who declined to pick up the story. Over a week later, Clarke announced he was skipping all upcoming debates; the Detroit Free Press
reported that radio host Mildred Gaddis
said on her show earlier in the week that a robocall questioning Clarke's ethnicity had gone out.
Smiley denied being behind any robocalls and questioned whether any actually went out. So did Lawrence. "I've never heard them; I've never seen them. I don't know of anyone who's heard them or seen them," Lawrence said. "It's incumbent on (Clarke) to produce the emails and the robocalls." Former state Rep. Mary Waters
, meanwhile, has suggested that Clarke has lied to voters about his ethnicity to get elected.
Meanwhile, Peters has studiously avoided the issue, a dangerous one in an area divided by race for so long. But it appears to be frustrating the two-term representative the longer it hangs around -- and Clarke has obliquely, persistently kept it in the spotlight. At a ceremony for a new Detroit patent office July 13, Clarke said he hoped the opening of the Elijah J. McCoy office -- named for an African-American inventor from Michigan -- will end the "racist overtones" troubling the area, according to a report from the Detroit News
Peters, who sat next to Clarke at the event, expressed frustration that race continues to be an issue. "Hansen is making very serious charges and yet he's not mentioning any names, and he's not providing any evidence," Peters told the newspaper. "To me it is absolutely irresponsible."
Clarke has continued to speak about the accusations -- and the unnamed forces making them. "People are desperate," Clarke said. "They are trying to win an election, they need to split the black vote so they're using the old tactics of the slavemaster to pit black people against each other. They are the tactics of colonial India, and that's why my dad left there."
Yet Clarke also disavows the focus the primary has taken. "I feel like I'm perpetuating something I don't want to perpetuate... even though politically it backfired on the opposition," Clarke said in an interview three days before the patent office opening.
Most recently, Clarke showed up unannounced
at a debate he had previously declined to attend, where he sat in the audience and later challenged an "unamused" Peters to a one-on-one showdown. There are only eight days left until the August 7 primary, but surely that's plenty of time for more of the theatrics and fireworks typifying this race, and other member-against-member primaries, so far this year.