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.Boy, does that sound familiar. Rest assured, if I have anything to do with it, carpetbaggery WILL be an issue in this election.
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.
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.
“People will seize an opportunity to gain employment,” she says, “as opposed to a commitment to service.”
“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.
Caitlin Ross can have her picture taken in a wheatfield, call the 9th District "My" district, and claim that she has "lived in Eastern Washington for five years", but best she has only lived in the 9th District for less than 3 months, and at worst, doesn't even live here at all.