Magazine June 1, 2020, Issue

John James, the Michigan GOP’s Rising Star

(Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
From Army aviator to the U.S. Senate?

Detroit

You can’t choose your crisis: As an Army chopper pilot in Iraq, John James said on May 7, “I didn’t get to pick which call I would take, whether I would take a troops-in-contact call or whether I would take a point-of-origin rocket-attack call. I had to figure out how to do both.” In an online interview with Rick Loughery of the Young Republicans National Federation, James called it good training for confronting the COVID-19 pandemic: “We have a dual obligation,” he said, to “flatten the COVID curve without flatlining our economy.”

As a GOP Senate candidate from Michigan, James refers to his military career at almost every opportunity. An op-ed he wrote in the Detroit News on May 5 carried this headline: “Leaders Should Learn These 3 Rules from West Point.” His campaign’s logo features an Apache attack helicopter in its background. “I don’t want to go to Washington,” he said on February 5, before the coronavirus forced him to suspend public appearances. “I want to go to the swamp about as much as I wanted to go to the desert.”

He really does want to go to Washington, of course—he’s running for the Senate for the second time in two years—but his audience of Livingston County Republicans that evening seemed to appreciate the expression of modesty. Gathered at a lakeside country club about halfway between Detroit and Lansing, just a couple of hours after the Senate acquitted President Trump in his impeachment trial, they listened as James roamed around a podium and, with the fluency of someone delivering a TED Talk, made the case for his candidacy. James mentioned the importance of the Constitution, the value of free speech, and the deficiencies of his opponent, Democratic senator Gary Peters. His lines were polished but also included moments of improvisation, as when he likened “Medicare for All” to “outsourcing our health insurance to people who can’t get a caucus right.” This was a jab at Iowa Democrats, whose bungled vote-counting had dominated the news just a day earlier. James didn’t mention Trump by name at all and brought him up only at the very end, with a veiled reference to the acquittal that turned out to be his biggest applause line of the evening: “I look forward to working with our president in his second term.”

If Trump wins a second term, he’ll probably have to carry Michigan in 2020 much as he did in 2016, when he squeaked out a surprise victory by a little more than 10,000 votes, or about two-tenths of a percentage point. James knows that his contest also could result in a photo finish. More than 25 years have passed since Michiganders elected a Republican to the Senate. The last failed candidate was James himself, who took on Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow in 2018. His loss was entirely predictable during a strong year for Democrats. Yet he outperformed every other Michigan Republican who sought a statewide office, and his loss, by less than seven percentage points, was much more respectable than the blowouts suffered by Stabenow’s previous challengers. “His run was impressive,” says John Engler, Michigan’s former Republican governor, “especially because he started from nowhere.” In the aftermath, James found himself in an unusual position: The setback had strengthened rather than weakened him, or at least it had convinced a lot of Republicans both in and out of Michigan that he ought to try again.

With the exception of Alabama, where voters probably will reverse 2017’s fluke election of Democrat Doug Jones, Michigan represents the best chance for a Republican Senate candidate to beat a Democratic incumbent in 2020. Polls already suggest a tight race, and James is sure to receive more attention and support than he did last time. “We’ll be there to push John across the finish line,” says Senator Todd Young of Indiana, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Flipping a Democratic seat may be reward enough for many Republicans, but the stakes in Michigan are in fact a lot higher: James could become the GOP’s next young superstar.

That’s partly because John Edward James, who turns 39 in June, is a rare political type: an African-American Republican. His great-great-grandfather was born a slave in Mississippi, and he likes to chronicle a brief family history: “In four generations, we’ve gone from a slave to a sharecropper to a mason to a truck driver and now potentially to a senator. That is absolutely remarkable, not just for our family but for our country.” His piece of the story began in 1981, when James was born in Southfield, Mich. He grew up mostly in Detroit, and although he was raised Baptist, he went to high school at Brother Rice, an all-boys Catholic school in Bloomfield Hills. (Today, he attends a nondenominational church.)

As a teenager, he didn’t think much about politics. His parents were Democrats, but he dated a girl who belonged to the Young Republicans of Oakland County. So James attended their meetings, too. As he listened to members talk about personal responsibility, a culture of life, and defending the Constitution, he kept thinking: “That makes sense to me.” He didn’t become a Republican then, he says, but “it planted a seed.”

Around the same time, he fell under the influence of Joe Anderson, a business friend of his father’s. Anderson had gone to West Point and then served in Vietnam, where he had become the subject of a French documentary, The Anderson Platoon, which won Best Documentary at the 40th Academy Awards in 1968. He encouraged James to take a look at the military academy. “The opportunity to serve others, to fight for this country,” says James, “I consider it a down payment on the debt that I owe my ancestors for the sacrifices they made for my freedom.”

James wasn’t quite ready for West Point, so he went to its preparatory school, then located in New Jersey. A year later, he matriculated as a plebe at the famous campus beside the Hudson River. On 9/11, when he was a sophomore, his economics instructor canceled the morning’s lecture and turned on the television: “There are some days you’re reminded why you’re here,” he said, as the Twin Towers collapsed. The statement made an impression on James: “America was under attack—and Americans would be looking to us to lead their children into battle and most importantly to bring them back. That’s very, very sobering.”

 

Following his graduation in 2004, James went to flight school and then Ranger school. In 2007, he deployed to Iraq. For the next 15 months, he flew more than 750 combat hours, mostly as a co-pilot/gunner in AH-64 Apaches. The job required him to keep track of radio transmissions, giving him a handy skill: “I can listen to four things at one time,” he says. “It drives my wife insane: When I’m watching the television and the kids are talking and she’s talking, she’ll ask ‘What did I just say?’ and I’ll rattle off the last sentence.” He met her on Match.com when he was posted to an enlistment center in Lansing. Today, they have three sons and live in Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit.

When James retired from the Army, he joined the company that his father had started in 1971 with a single truck that hauled beer between Detroit and Chicago. Over the years, it had grown into a large firm that managed supply chains, from storage and assembly to exporting and more. The son is now the president of James International Group, working from a warehouse headquarters in Detroit about a mile from the Ambassador Bridge, the only place in the world where it’s possible to drive due south to Canada.

Leading a big company probably would have been enough to occupy him for the rest of his career—but James says that he was haunted by visions of Detroit during the Great Recession. “I was in Iraq, and I saw pictures of homes that looked worse than the combat zone I was flying in,” he says. “I promised that when I came back, I would do everything I could to help.” At first, he focused on his business and the jobs it supported. Yet he wanted to do more: “There are places in Detroit that have not changed since I was a little boy,” he says. He points to an incident from a night associated with vandalism and arson, just before Halloween. “I remember specifically a building that was burned on Devil’s Night when I was a kid. I remember watching it burn. That building is still there today. Nothing has changed. That is unacceptable.”

He became involved in civic and veterans’ groups and got to know people in the circle of Rick Snyder, a Republican who was Michigan’s governor before Gretchen Whitmer, the current Democratic incumbent. One day, James was doing laundry while his wife and kids were out. “Something knocked me to my knees,” he says. “I remember feeling an overwhelming sense that I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do.” He resolved to look for new opportunities. Not long after, he says, several Republicans approached him about running for the Senate in 2018. He announced his candidacy and won a contested primary, but his prospects looked bleak. His campaign was broke. Nationally, Democrats were preparing to rack up wins in midterm races. In Michigan, a recreational-pot ballot proposal was boosting turnout among younger and more liberal voters. Around Labor Day, James trailed Senator Stabenow in the polls by more than 20 percentage points. By the time he lost two months later, however, he had whittled this down to 6.5 points. “It’s remarkable that he did as well as he did,” says Steve Mitchell, a longtime pollster in the state.

In the months that followed, it seemed as if everyone had a plan for James. His name came up as a possible successor to Nikki Haley as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. There was talk about a run for Congress from suburban Detroit. Last June, however, James announced for the Senate. The coronavirus has delayed a formal kickoff event and forced him to hunker down in his home, but he lacks a significant primary opponent, allowing him to focus on November. He knows he has lost at least one advantage: “This time, I’m not going to sneak up on anybody.”

His opponent is Gary Peters, a former House representative who won election to the Senate in 2014. Incumbent senators rarely lose, but they tend to be most vulnerable when they first seek reelection. Peters has shown signs of weakness. According to a poll last year by Morning Consult, more than a third of Michigan voters don’t even know who he is, making him the country’s most unknown senator. This will give James a special opportunity to define his foe, tying him to the controversial proposals of the most radical Democrats. “The Green New Deal would absolutely decimate Michigan’s economy,” he says. “Medicare for All is a terrible idea. We can barely pay for Medicare for some.” He warns about how a government takeover would rattle the lives of Michigan’s union workers: “They have probably the best health care in the world, duly negotiated—and making private health care illegal would take that away.”

In most respects, James is a mainstream conservative: He’s pro-life, supports gun rights, talks up border security, calls for regulatory rollback, and grumbles about trillion-dollar budget deficits and the mounting national debt. “Our No. 1 economic threat, national-security threat, and civil-rights threat is the educational system in this country,” he says. “We have failed our children for generations.” He supports school choice and sits on the board of the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in Detroit. He warns about risks to free speech: “Liberal violence is construed as speech, and conservative speech is construed as violence.”

 

James says that trade disputes have hurt his company’s revenues, but he backs the president’s approach. USMCA—the North American trade agreement approved by Congress in January—is “not a perfect deal, but it’s much better than what we had.” He also thinks the time has come to confront China over its trade policies as well as its provocations in the South China Sea. “If we don’t fight this conflict with soybeans now, we’ll fight it with bullets later.” Shortly after the coronavirus pandemic shut down Michigan in March, he slammed Beijing in an op-ed for the Detroit News: “The world must socially distance itself from the Chinese Communist Party.” He seeks to limit other ongoing engagements: “At some point, someone’s going to have to admit that being at war for 20 years is unacceptable, and we need to come up immediately with a game plan to extricate the United States from these never-ending wars,” he says. “We need to start rebuilding at home.”

Polls of likely voters have shown him trailing Peters by four to seven points. That puts him within striking distance, well ahead of Election Day. In addition, James started to outraise Peters in the second half of last year, and he has kept it up through the first quarter of 2020. He’ll surrender a portion of this, as he has promised to donate 5 percent of all fundraising revenues to Michigan charities—his campaign recently gave $250,000 to coronavirus relief in Michigan—but he insists he’ll win the money race. “We will be better-funded.”

The typical strategy for Michigan Republicans is to pile up votes in Grand Rapids and the western part of the state, carry the suburbs around Detroit, and write off Detroit and its heavily black population. James, of course, isn’t a regular Republican. “I’m a new kind of Republican who can bring about a future that is inclusive, positive, and diverse,” he says. “I was raised by Democrats, and my values haven’t changed. I’m not sure my dad knew I was a Republican until I said I was running for office.” If James can capture as little as 15 or even 20 percent of the black vote, he could be unstoppable. He’ll have a partner in the president, who not only wants to win Michigan again but also hopes to sway more black voters than he did last time, when exit polls suggest he received only 8 percent, around the paltry rate of recent Republican presidential candidates.

“I feel like both parties have failed the American people and black people in particular,” says James. “The Democratic Party has taken black people for granted and the Republican Party hasn’t even tried.” He has a message for everyone: “I have experiences that can bring us together. I was raised by people who have seen their uncles swing from trees. I’ve been pulled over and feared for my life. But I’ve also been an officer on patrol in areas with folks who’d just as soon see me dead. I understand what officers feel when they put their lives on the line to protect people and are underappreciated.”

John James speaks these words with passion and authority. His most persuasive line, however, is color-blind: “If you keep sending the same people back to Washington, nothing is going to change.”

This article appears as “From Army Aviator to the U.S. Senate?” in the June 1, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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