Susan J. Demas: The Name Game: Family Ties Still Boost Candidates in Michigan's Primary

  Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas

If you talked to folks in Michigan’s 14th state House District, they didn’t see very much of Cara Clemente.

The Democrat ghosted most big events, declined to fill out many campaign questionnaires and didn’t spend any of the roughly $35,000 she put into her own race.

But she had an ace in the hole: her surname. A Clemente has represented the 14th since 2005, starting with Clemente’s brother-in-law, Ed Clemente, now a state Liquor Control commissioner. He was succeeded in 2011 by his brother, Paul Clemente, who (you guessed it) is also Cara Clemente’s husband.

On Tuesday, she handily won a three-way Democratic primary with 53 percent of the vote. In a district that Inside Michigan Politics rates as having a 63.9 percent Dem base, you can safely bet that another Clemente will occupy a seat in the state House come January 2017.

Clemente is far from alone. Many term-limited candidates try to pass on the baton to spouses, children, siblings and even more distant relations. Name ID has proved to be a potent asset, which is why Democrats and Republicans both keep going back to familiar family trees for their recruits.

But this week’s primary offered a mixed mag in the “name game” approach.

In the special Democratic contest, newcomer Ian Conyers won in a crowded field to succeed now-jailed Sen. Virgil Smith (D-Detroit). It’s impossible to argue that his pedigree as Dean of the U.S. House John Conyers’ great-nephew didn’t help. The younger Conyers defeated another familiar name, former state Rep. Fred Durhal Jr. (whose son, Fred Durhal III, has succeeded him).

Sylvia Santana, wife of term-limited Rep. Harvey Santana (D-Detroit), won in the 9th House District Dem primary. Kim LaSata, wife of former Rep. and now Judge Charlie LaSata, won the 79th GOP battle. Kevin Hertel –– son of late Speaker Curis Hertel Sr., brother of Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing) and nephew of former U.S. Rep. Dennis Hertel –– won the 18th District Democratic nomination.

Daire Rendon, wife of term-limited Rep. Bruce Rendon (R-Lake City) blew away the competition in the 103rd GOP primary. Things weren’t so sanguine for Diana Farrington, wife of term-limited Rep. Jeff Farrington (R-Utica), who only won the 30th GOP primary by 54 votes. And Julie Calley, wife of Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, was unopposed in the 87th GOP primary, so she coasted to victory.

On the flip side, Carla Tinsley-Smith, daughter of term-limited Rep. Alberta Tinsley-Talabi (D-Detroit) lost her Democratic bid for the 2nd –– but she was defeated by a familiar name: former state Rep. Bettie Cook Scott. Colleen Carl, daughter of former State Board of Education Republican nominee Maria Carl and former Sen. Doug Carl, lost the GOP nomination in the 33rd.

One of the biggest upsets was the third-place finish (out of three) of former lobbyist and skilled fundraiser John Griffin in the 64th GOP primary, as both his father, Mike Griffin, and brother, Marty Griffin, have held the seat. But those Griffins ran as Democrats, which may have made John Griffin’s candidacy a harder sell.

Tracy Stille-Mulligan, daughter of former Sen. Leon Stille, lost big in the open 89th GOP primary. And Matt Muxlow, son of term-limited Rep. Paul Muxlow (R-Brown City) was handily defeated in the 83rd GOP race.

So family ties don’t guarantee victory. But in the era of term limits, it usually does buy some valuable name ID –– which is why you shouldn’t expect to see this trend end anytime soon.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.