Bobby McKenzie, 39, a new face on Michigan’s political stage, would be the first Democrat in 40 years to represent the 11th Congressional District if he can prevail over Republican David Trott, a conservative attorney best know as the principle in a law firm responsible for the vast majority of home foreclosures in Michigan. Some polls show the two almost tied in the race to replace U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, the Tea Party reindeer farmer who lost to Trott in the August primary.
McKenzie grew up in Dearborn, graduating from Crestwood High School before earning his bachelor’s degree in economics from Michigan State University. He went on to earn a master’s degree from Georgetown University and has served as a visiting scholar at the University of Oxford. He worked on African refugee issues and taught courses at Wayne State University as an adjunct professor. Most recently, he worked as a senior adviser to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism. He is widely regarded as an expert on foreign affairs.
McKenzie sat down with BTL’s publisher Jan Stevenson and writer AJ Trager Oct. 3 to discuss his campaign, his views on LGBT rights and why he wants to have a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
BTL: Both you and your opponent are first-time candidates running in a district that has voted for Republicans in recent elections. How is the campaign going, and what are your strengths?
McKenzie: There is a real sense of optimism. Our polls show tremendous results and that we’re within the margin of error. Things are trending our way this year. We just need to get out the vote. This district may lean Republican, but it is not a socially conservative place.
BTL: If elected, would you become a member of the Congressional LGBT Caucus?
McKenzie: Why wouldn’t I? The way I see it, the “gay agenda” doesn’t seem radical. I mean, people want better roads. They want to make sure that seniors’ pensions aren’t getting taxed. They want to make sure that there are good jobs here in the district; they want to make sure that they have the same sort of equal rights that I have. I have not met a single person in the district that’s not pushing hard on these elements. And we have David Trott, taking away people’s homes for the past 25 years, with views so extreme on choice that even folks who are pro-life Republicans do not hold his views. (Trott opposes a woman’s right to choose in all circumstances, even with grave immediate danger to the mother’s life.) I mean, this is medieval. Department of Education – he wants to shut it down. This is one of his top priorities. Environment – Michigan’s largest oil spill in Kalamazoo was one of his companies, Enbridge. (Trott is a former partner at Enbridge Energy Partners. Enbridge is responsible for the July 2010 tar sands oil spill that dumped a million gallons of oil along 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River and its tributaries, the largest inland oil spill in American history.) So you’re talking about every single issue. We deserve better; we have a great opportunity here, but we have to get out the vote with everybody. And I just hope that the wider community recognizes that not only do they have a friend and advocate, but they also have a friend and advocate who can win.
BTL: You have come out in support of LGBT rights, including marriage equality. What was your personal evolution to become a supporter of LGBT rights?
McKenzie: I am a big believer in equality, and I have lived in some parts of the world where people don’t have equality at all – not just based on sexual orientation, but based on gender and world views and all kinds of things. And one of the things that makes America so great is that we have a place where everybody is supposed to be inclusive of everybody. And this is one of the few places in the world where this is embraced. Not by everyone but I certainly think that it’s trending that way. There wasn’t a clarion moment or an epiphany, so to speak. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had the great opportunity to travel the world over and live in a lot of different places in a lot of different countries.
BTL: Were your travels on behalf of the U.S. government or private sector work?
McKenzie: Both in the government and non-government. I did quite a bit of humanitarian work helping refugees. And having lived and worked in Cairo – where you have refugees living in grinding, physical poverty with no access to food rationing, no access to health care, no access to education, no access to human rights – you think about what we have here. We should be celebrating this.
BTL: Can you contrast and compare your positions on LGBT issues with your opponent and explain why LGBT people should get excited about your candidacy?
McKenzie: Sure. I mean, he has been careful not to talk about too much, but I suspect that if you were to ask him, presumably if he were to answer, you would get extreme views. My guess is: if he were to weigh on LGBT issues, I think you’re going to get all extreme views. But maybe you should reach out to him.
BTL: Well, we have. He doesn’t answer our calls – can you imagine!
McKenzie: This is what I’m saying. You know, I want to give everybody the benefit of the doubt, but he is probably not going to answer your calls.
BTL: What made you want to run for Congress? This is the first public office you’ve run for, correct?
McKenzie: That’s right. But I’ve worked on really complex problems at a very high level. And I also think that if you can, you should. And in my view, I’m trying to fight for everybody’s rights here. But on a fundamental level, I want to help people like my younger brother who got his undergraduate degree here, master’s degree here and couldn’t find work. (For) six to eight months. A kid with a lot of ambition, great work ethic, moves to Chicago and finds work there in a week. He spends a couple years in Chicago and then moves on to New York and then to Washington, D.C.
This is an issue that affects everybody regardless of one’s race, religion, sexual orientation, gender. I spoke to nearly 50 people at the Kiwanis Club meeting in Plymouth. I asked people, “With a show of hands, how many self identify as Republicans?” Maybe 47 hands went up. And then I told the story of my brother. And then I asked for a show of hands of people who know of a similar story and can relate to that. Every single hand went up. After my speech, I had two gentlemen come up to me and say, “I’m pro-life, I’ve always voted Republican, but I may be voting differently this year.”
BTL: We need people who not only support us, but who will also be strong advocates and fight for us. Is that something that you see in your future?
McKenzie: Without question.