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Jack Lessenberry

Elissa Slotkin is the ‘real deal’

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    Elissa B. Slotkin poses for an official photo at the Pentagon portrait studio in 2014.

    U.S. Army/Eboni Everson-Myart

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ROCHESTER — Elissa Slotkin remembers the moment she decided to challenge two-term Congressman Mike Bishop this fall.

It was last May, when the House had voted to essentially repeal the Affordable Care Act, and President Trump was congratulating supporters in the White House Rose Garden.

Read last week’s column from Jack Lessenberry

Ms. Slotkin, who served three tours of duty with the CIA in Iraq, saw Mr. Bishop in the crowd. “He was beaming, and thrilled, so proud that he had voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act with no plan and no replacement.” She looked at her husband, Dave Moore, a retired U.S. Army full colonel and Apache helicopter pilot.

“This will not stand. You don’t get to do this. In the military, this is called dereliction of duty.” He nodded. “So,” she said with a small smile, “we decided to fire him that day.”

With that began Elissa Slotkin’s run for Congress, in Michigan’s Eighth District, which stretches from northern Oakland County through Howell and Brighton on to Lansing.

The district, which was tailor-made for former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, who retired in 2014, is Republican, but not impossibly so; President Obama carried it once. Mike Bishop, a 51-year-old former majority leader of the Michigan Senate, has won easily twice, but against weak and underfunded opponents.

Beating Elissa Slotkin may be harder, especially in a year when Democrats like Pennsylvania’s Conor Lamb have been winning in districts far more Republican. She also has another advantage:

“You know, because of my military background, I talk to voters who for the first two minutes think I’m a Republican.” she said.

But by the time they find out she is a Democrat, they tend to be interested enough to be willing to listen. It may be impossible for Republicans to paint the 41-year-old Slotkin as weak on defense.

Her life was transformed her second day of graduate school at Columbia University in New York, where she had gone thinking she might like to eventually lead an international NGO.

But that day was September 11, 2001. “I immediately felt I had to do something for my country,” she said. She thought of enlisting, but believed her mind had more to offer her country.

Thanks to a professor with connections, she was soon talking to the intelligence agency. Soon after, Ms. Slotkin, who speaks fluent Arabic as well as, oddly, Swahili, was in Iraq, where she eventually met her husband. She hadn’t been in favor of invading Iraq, but “when it is your country, you want it to do well.”

Bill Haney of Clarkston, a retired advertising executive and publisher, has seen “too many candidates” over his 80 years, but was “as impressed as I’ve even been,” by the former CIA analyst.

“She’s the real deal,” he said.

What she’s not is a single-issue candidate. Though an expert on military and intelligence issues, she mainly got into this race because of the health care issue.

“Obama care deeply needs reform, I own that,” she said. But it has helped many people. “Before the Affordable Care Act, one in five bankruptcies in this state was health care related,” she said.

That’s gone way down. But the fight is also personal for her.

During that ceremony where she saw Mike Bishop beaming, her mind went back to 2009, when her mother, Judith Slotkin, a well-known Detroit-area public relations and marketing professional, was diagnosed with the ovarian cancer that would kill her.

Judith Slotkin, better at taking care of her clients than herself, had no health insurance. “She was lying on a MRI gurney and they made us write a check for $8,000 before they would treat her,” she remembered. The Affordable Care Act came too late for the elder Slotkin, who died in 2011, when she was only 64.

“If I don’t run to change the way we do things,” what is the point?” her daughter said. There are some Democrats in the district who think she is not “progressive” enough, and are supporting Chris Smith, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University.

But she has far outpaced him in terms of endorsements — former Vice President Joe Biden is backing her campaign — and in money, raising more than $1 million so far and outpacing the incumbent in several recent quarters.

“That hasn’t been easy, because in order to run a clean and transparent race, I announced in January I was not going to accept any corporate PAC money,” she said. That wasn’t symbolic; “because of my defense and intelligence background, a lot of it would have been available. You wouldn’t believe how many Democrats have yelled at me for not taking it. But I’m not,” she said.

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She’s breaking with the establishment in other ways. Like Mr. Lamb, the upset winner in last month’s special congressional election in Pennsylvania, she thinks it’s time for the 77-year-old Nancy Pelosi to step down as leader of House Democrats, though she prefers to say “both parties need new leadership.”

And if Central Casting’s dream is a candidate as American as baseball and hot dogs, Elissa Slotkin has a made for Hollywood moment. Her great-grandfather came over from the old country and founded a sausage company in Detroit.

Back in the early 1950s, his son, Hugo had his sausage maker invent a new kind of hot dog that “plumped when you cooked them,” to sell at Tiger Stadium. They were soon known as Ball Park Franks.

Hygrade long ago passed out of the family, but these days Elissa and her husband live on her late grandfather’s beef cattle farm near Holly. If this year produces the kind of Democratic wave some expect, she may well spend next January in Washington instead.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.

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