Garlin Gilchrist may be the only person in Detroit who claims to not be surprised by the fact that he will be the one challenging incumbent Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey and not Heaster Wheeler. Because judging by the polls leading into the primary, Gilchist was given only about a 2% chance whereas Wheeler had 12%. But the incumbent Winfrey was polling far higher than either of them at about 48%.
But once the day was through, and the final votes had been tallied – pitifully few though they were – Gilchrist came in second behind Winfrey at 19%, qualifying him to be the challenger. Winfrey also did better than the polls predicted, coming in above 50%, but relatively speaking it was Gilchrist’s noticeable leapfrog effort past Wheeler – and an increase from single digits to double digits in the polls – that caught everyone’s attention. Granted, Gilchrist had raised far more money than any other candidate and he received the endorsements of both the Detroit Free Press as well as the Detroit News.
But this was a race that traditionally attracts barely any attention from voters, plus the race between Mayor Mike Duggan and challenger Sen. Coleman Young II was the one that had been garnering all the headlines for all the obvious reasons (white mayor vs. son of city’s first black mayor, the persistent two Detroits narrative, etc.). And Garlin Gilchrist was hardly a household name, whereas both Winfrey and Wheeler have been well-known quantities in Detroit for quite some time.
All of which is to say that this final stretch of competition between Winfrey and Gilchrist could easily prove to be as interesting as the one between Duggan and Young, and possibly more so. Because although the very large numbers gap between the two suggests Gilchrist has a long and arduous uphill battle ahead of him to even pull within striking distance of Winfrey, his ability to raise as much money as he did (more than $100,000) combined with his ability to come out of relative nowhere to shoot past a known quantity such as Wheeler has some believing that he may be more of a threat than the numbers alone suggest. Especially if he somehow manages to spark enough enthusiasm to benefit noticeably from the likely much larger voter turnout in November – or if he himself manages to increase that turnout with his well-documented abilities to turn out the vote such as he did for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
“We were able to attract a very rare level of support for a city clerk’s race. We attracted 200 volunteers to work on our campaign. We contacted 70,000 voters during the campaign either by knocking on their doors or via phone. We were able to put in the work to raise a significant amount of money and I think that work ended up paying off. I think that’s what enabled us to come through the primary. I didn’t see it as a surprise, I think hard work pays off,” said Gilchrist in a recent interview with the Michigan Chronicle.
Gilchrist said he also believes that the poll numbers showing him so far behind were taken early, and that many more people are now paying attention to the city clerk’s race because of the highly-publicized difficulties experienced by Winfrey during the 2016 presidential election. In an earlier interview, Winfrey asserted that her entire performance in office cannot be judged by a single misstep – albeit a very big one – and emphasized that she has conducted more than 20 successful elections throughout her three-term tenure. She also blamed Michigan’s voting laws as being “archaic,” not making any allowances for human error unlike other states, and reiterated the finding of the state audit which found no evidence of fraud during the election, but rather evidence of human error that accounted for the vote counting irregularities.
Addressing Winfrey’s point about the voting laws being archaic and not making sufficient allowances for human error, Gilchrist said that “I would agree with State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo and Rep. Stephanie Chang who also said that that law was exactly backwards. If the numbers don’t match, that should trigger a recount, not prevent it. I think that’s clear and should change.”
Gilchrist said that what happened in November 2016 was at least partially responsible for giving him a reason to run for city clerk, because it affected him personally.
“For me, I had a negative voting experience when I went to vote with my wife and my twin children who were three years old at the time in November 2016. I saw personally what it felt like to wait in a long line in Detroit in 2016. I saw what it felt like to be in a polling location that ran out of materials, that was low on paper, and pens and privacy screens, and it was not executed effectively. I saw how that prevented some people from voting because the process took too long and they had to go to work,” he said.
Another major reason Gilchrist said he wants to be the next city clerk is that he believes strongly in government transparency and emphasizes that one of the major responsibilities of the office – unknown to most voters – is to provide the community with access to the information about their government that will (hopefully) make it more accountable.
“The public record-keeping role, which means that the city clerk is responsible for giving people information about what the government is doing. The clerk and city council role, which means that the city clerk is the conduit through which transparency and accountability flows for your city council legislative body. …That kind of making government accessible to people leads to not only transparency but accountability,” he said.
Providing a stronger social media presence and connection for the office is also high on his list of priorities, particularly since “the black community is over-represented on social media,” and Detroit is still an overwhelmingly black city.
Gilchrist credits his experience working for the election of President as being the primary motivating factor in encouraging him to become involved in public service. It was in 2008 when he was recruited to work for the Obama campaign in Seattle through an email from MoveOn.org. He joined the campaign as a volunteer. He wound up running social media in Washington State for the campaign, and he also helped start a text message recruitment program.
“Now, fast forward, four years later, 2012, I was National Campaign Director of MoveOn.org, and I literally was writing emails to recruit people to come help elect President Obama. Again. It came completely full circle in a way, I couldn’t write that in a movie script. …I learned so much. It’s actually what inspired me. It changed my path and my career. I was a double engineering major in college who went to work at a software engineering company called Microsoft. I changed my path, I left that world, moved across the country, and got classically trained as a community organizer. That’s how inspiring and powerful that experience was for me.”