On this day in 1976: Michigan Secretary of State Richard Austin announces historic U.S. Senate bid

By: - March 9, 2023 6:30 am

Richard Austin (left) with Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh and others during the late 1960s. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Michigan Secretary of State Richard Austin announced on March 9, 1976 that he would vie for the U.S. Senate, according to Associated Press reporting. 

To date, no African American had served in the U.S. Senate from Michigan – and that is still the case. Edward Brooke, a Massachusetts Republican, was the only African American serving in the U.S. Senate at the time. The body has 100 members, two representing each state.  

Austin formally announced his candidacy on April 27, 1976. The state’s first Black certified public accountant stated that one of his priorities would be to secure more federal funding for Michigan. He cited crime and economic issues as being the “most pressing problems in our country.” 

It came after U.S. Sen. Phil Hart (D-Birmingham) announced that would not seek re-election due largely to health consideration. Hart has held the seat since 1959. He died of cancer in December 1976. 

Stouts Mountain, Ala. native Austin, an African American from Detroit, had served as secretary of state since 1971. Prior to that, he was an elected member of the 1961-62 Michigan Constitutional Convention, a 144-member body that revised the state’s framework document for the first time since 1908. During his tenure as secretary of state, Austin had been a champion of mandatory seat belt use for motorists and creating the opportunity for voter registration at secretary of state offices. 

Ultimately, U.S. Rep. Donald Riegle (D-Flint), a former Republican, defeated Austin in the Democratic Party primary election on Aug. 3, 1976. He won the seat in November of that year.  

Austin, however, continued to serve as Michigan secretary of state until 1995. He died in 2001 at age 87. 

Currently, actor and businessman Hill Harper and former state House member Leslie Love, both African Americans Democrats, have stated interest in vying for the 2024 U.S. Senate seat currently held by the retiring Debbie Stabenow. U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Lansing) has officially announced a run for the seat. Democrats currently hold a slim 51-49 advantage in Capitol Hill’s upper chamber. 

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has said it planned to “aggressively target” the seat. The only announced GOP candidate is State Board of Education member Nikki Snyder of Dexter. Other Republican candidates may also enter the race.


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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.