After being snubbed by Trump, will James run for Senate again?

By: - March 1, 2019 1:59 pm

John James at the Detroit Regional Chamber conference, Feb. 28, 2019 |Ken Coleman

John James, a rising GOP star who lost to U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) last year, stayed mum about his political future while appearing at the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce Policy Conference in Detroit on Thursday.

After CNN reported James was the “the frontrunner” for United Nations ambassador, President Donald Trump last month instead tapped big GOP donor Kelly Craft, who’s served as Canadian ambassador.

Gary Peters at the MDP Convention, Feb. 2, 2019 | Ken Coleman

That’s sparked speculation that James, a Farmington Hills business executive, will vie for the U.S. Senate again in 2020, this time taking on freshman Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.).

James’ speech with his brother, Lorron James, at the Motor City Casino was his second public appearance in a week, after making the rounds at the Michigan Republican Party state convention in Lansing last weekend.

John James endorsed new party Chair Laura Cox, who said she was “so honored and blessed” to have his support. She alluded to the U.N. job and his future in a speech on Saturday.

“He’s a rockstar and selfishly, I’d like to keep him close to Michigan, wouldn’t you? I know, I know, you read all these cool things in the paper, but I’m a little selfish, I’m just sayin’,” Cox said.

During a conversation on civility in the public marketplace at the Detroit Chamber event, Lorron James, CEO of James Group International, described a talk he had with his brother just before his 2018 U.S. Senate launch.

John and Lorron James at the Detroit Regional Chamber conference, Feb. 28, 2019 |Ken Coleman

“You don’t have any name recognition. You’re not a political guy. What do you think you’re doing?” Lorron James recalled.

“But I’ll tell you what,” he added. “You can’t deny that a great job that he did and how close he came to actually winning. He’s inspired me and he’s inspired a lot of people. If you have an idea, if you have a will, there is a possibility that you can do it.”

Kelly Craft | Wikimedia Commons

This was actually the second time that John James had been up for the U.N. ambassador job. Last year, Trump selected State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert to replace Nikki Haley. After Nauert withdrew last month, James was deemed the “frontrunner” by CNN, but was ultimately passed over in favor of Craft.

That didn’t surprise Greg Bowens, co-founder and president of the Harper Woods-Grosse Pointe NAACP who ran for Michigan Democratic Party chair earlier this year. He said that James, who, like him, is African-American, never had a real shot at getting a job with Trump.

“The people and organizations who were calling John James a frontrunner were dreaming,” said Bowens, a public relations executive and political consultant. “The pattern and practice of this [Trump] administration is to not include people of color in most high-ranking and very important positions.”

James, an Army veteran, ran as a Trump loyalist last year and made the race closer than expected, losing to Stabenow by 6 points.

Greg Bowens

“Our president wakes up every single day and gets attacked,” James said at a July debate. “I think our president has shown remarkable aplomb.”

James also famously said he supported Trump “2,000 percent.” And during a broadcast of “Fox & Friends,” the president’s favorite show, James told Trump: “I will not let you down in Washington.”

James failed to make many inroads with African-Americans or other people of color in 2018, despite high hopes from Republicans. One reason may be his first general election TV ad included a bulletin board with a red, white and black swastika pinned to it, something Democrats criticized.

Ultimately, James admitted that using the swastika image was a mistake.

James also accepted a contribution from the U.S. Immigration Reform PAC. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists President Mary Lou Tanton as an extremist, noting she worked for another organization who wanted to limit “immigration mostly to northern Europeans.”

The PAC also contributed to U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has a long history of controversial statements about race and class. King was stripped of his House committee seats in January after defending white supremacy.

In the 2018 election, James performed poorly in Detroit, the state’s largest city and one in which African-Americans make up 83 percent of the population. James only secured 9,180 votes out of 191,295 ballots cast. Conversely, Stabenow, who is white and from Lansing, earned 177,885 votes.

James also failed to have crossover appeal with women, with Stabenow winning the female vote by 20 points in 2018.

He probably wasn’t helped by a speech last year to the all-men Christian Business Men’s Connection, in which James said we “have an obligation to future generations to make sure that we are operating within the role that we have to lead and yes that is not politically correct, but men, we have a charge to lead.” He added that “women want men who’ve been tested …”  

That provoked a backlash, especially as Michigan Democrats had just nominated an almost all-female ticket: Stabenow for U.S. Senate, Gretchen Whitmer for governor, Garlin Gilchrist for lieutenant governor, Jocelyn Benson for secretary of state and Dana Nessel for attorney general.

Debbie Stabenow at her Washington, D.C., office | Robin Bravender

“John James clearly has a backward and offensive view of women, including the fact that ‘women want men who have been tested’ as their leaders,” said Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications at EMILY’s List, a national organization that support pro-choice women candidates for political office.

“He hails from Michigan, a state that has repeatedly elected Debbie Stabenow to the Senate and just this year nominated an incredible group of women leaders at the top of its state ticket to fight for working families. So instead of talking about men and their ‘charge to lead,’ he should open his eyes. Women are leading Michigan into the future, and Michiganders do not need or want leadership from the likes of John James.”

As the ramp-up to 2020 continues, both parties are trying to appeal to white working-class voters, especially in the Midwest. The New York Times did a story this week on Democrats apparently being divided about whether to concentrate on the “Sun Belt or Rust Belt” and talked to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

She told the Advance that she hopes presidential candidates don’t skip the Midwest and it’s not an either/or proposition for Democrats to choose between racial justice and economic issues.

“When you show up in a meaningful way, it really keeps you tethered to how you can impact people’s lives,” she said.

Republicans are all-in on the Midwest. Cox, the new state GOP chair, called Michigan a “must-win state” for Trump.

“You know, the president has a great track record,” Cox said at the convention. “We’re really proud of all the things he’s accomplished and I think when we talk about that to voters, they’re gonna talk with their friends, their family and something’s gonna resonate with all the successes he’s had.”

But Republicans may have to answer for their support of Trump’s trade and tariffs policy. Whitmer discussed with the president how much those policies are hurting Michigan while at the White House this week.

During the 2018 campaign, James voiced support for Trump’s economic policies, “including proposed tariffs that have sparked fears of a trade war with China and other countries,” the Detroit News reported.

Trump’s trade war has hurt Michigan businesses, including auto suppliers, manufacturers, and farmers, however. Bridge reported that stocks for the Detroit Three auto manufactures “plummeted” due to “rising commodity costs tied to steel and aluminum tariffs.”

Holland is in deep-red Ottawa County, but Trump’s economic agenda is squeezing businesses there, too. Jeff Padnos, CEO of local scrap materials recycler Padnos, said of the trade war, “We are the ones on the front end getting clobbered.”

Still, Republicans like Cox and James seem to think that Trump has a winning hand on economics in Michigan.

“Our president is like a rust belt Robin Hood,” James said during the 2018 campaign. “People see him as somebody who will look at the establishment and say the American dream is for everybody, not just the coastal elites.’’

Full disclosure: Coleman worked for Peters seven years ago before he was in the U.S. Senate. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.