By Susan J. Demas
Counterterrorism expert Bobby McKenzie tells Inside Michigan Politics today he's running for Michigan's 11th Congressional District as a Democrat, whether former Secretary of State nominee Jocelyn Benson does or not.
"To be honest, I'm focused on myself and my campaign and doing what's best for my family, my community," said McKenzie, 39, of Canton. "I've been working on this for many months, and I've reached out to many folks. ... I've made an informed decision, and this was not done lightly."
McKenzie, who most recently worked for the U.S. State Department, is set to announce his bid later today for the western Wayne and Oakland County seat held by U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-Milford).
In his first media interview, McKenzie said that he wanted to have final discussions with his family before making the announcement. A media report this weekend erroneously stated McKenzie's announcement would be on Monday.
McKenzie, whose grandfather moved the family in the 1950s from Alabama to Southeast Michigan, said he's running for Congress because of his commitment to the area, whose economy has been "devastated."
Benson, who lost in 2010 to now-Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, last week made headlines for her interest in the MI-11. She reportedly was wooed in Washington, D.C., by U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and others. Benson also has been considering a rematch with Johnson.
Benson's potential candidacy has been a recent development. Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson and others have been working for months to get McKenzie to run.
McKenzie already has a fan in former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), now an MSNBC contributor. Murphy, who worked on the Democratic National Campaign Committee's Red to Blue program, told IMP that he's "pretty pumped about Bobby," who he said will "without a doubt" have crossover appeal.
"He's a fantastic candidate - a top-tier candidate for the DCCC -- and he'll be an even better congressman," Murphy said in a phone interview. "He'll be one of the top 10 recruits in the country for the DCCC. ... He's been national security expert and got things done in a national arena."
Murphy, an Iraq war veteran and former West Point professor, said he's known McKenzie for two years.
"He's been my go-to guy on national security," Murphy said. "No one knows more on national security than Bobby McKenzie."
Murphy said the recent government shutdown should be a big factor in the 2014 election.
"The fact that 72 percent of intelligence officers furloughed during last shutdown is a pretty damning indictment of the current congressman," Murphy said. "The fact that military families were not paid benefits for servicemen who were killed in Afghanistan ... is absolutely immoral. I don't know how folks in Michigan who love our country could, in good conscience, send someone back to Congress after the pain to our war fighters."
A 'No Labels' Approach
A Dearborn Heights native, McKenzie attended Michigan State University, where he was a walk-on at the basketball team in 1997 and 1998. But McKenzie notes his "entire playing time was 9.6 seconds" and adds that people's interest in his athletic history stems from the fact that "I'm 5 foot, 11 -- a pretty normal-looking guy."
"If I go out and play, the legend will die immediately," he said with a laugh.
While earning a B.A. in economics from MSU, McKenzie worked as a student coop for the CIA, later serving as a graduate fellow. He completed his M.A. in security studies from Georgetown University and currently is working on a Ph.D. at the University of London, where he has submitted his dissertation on humanitarian solutions to refugee crises.
Since June, McKenzie has worked as senior advisor for countering violent extremism at the State Department, countering youth recruitment in terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda by improving education and communities. He has worked in conjunction with the State Department since 2012, working with Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin.
Although McKenzie said it's been his career objective to attain a State Department position, he felt "an obligation to get involved" in politics back home. McKenzie toldIMP that the MI-11 needs a member of Congress who "cooperates and collaborates across the aisle." He noted his experience "working on very complicated problems" in foreign affairs and said he can offer "practical solutions."
The GOP side of the race is shaping up to be a big battle. Bentivolio, elected last year after U.S. Rep.Thad McCotter (R-Livonia) stepped down amid a petition-gathering scandal, is facing a strong challenge from attorney David Trott. The longtime GOP fundraiser, not surprisingly, far outraised Bentivolio last quarter.
McKenzie said he'd take "almost a No Labels approach" to win in the GOP-favored district, referring to the centrist, bipartisan Washington group. But he wasn't afraid to take some shots at his GOP opponents.
"I have a background contrasts nicely with a divisive Tea Party ideologue and a bankruptcy lawyer who's made a lot of money off the misery of people in this district," McKenzie said.
But former Michigan Republican Party Chair Saul Anuzis said Democrats are going to struggle in the MI-11, no matter who the candidate is.
"The only chance Democrats will have is if they demonize Dave Trott or distort what Bentivolio's record might be," Anuzis said.
A 'White Boy from Michigan Trying to Learn Arabic'
William McCants, a former U.S. State Department official, said he met McKenzie in 1998. They were both studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo - which would become a highly coveted skill post-9/11.
McCants recalls that McKenzie received some blowback for being a "white boy from Michigan trying to learn Arabic but that condescension only fueled" his desire to do it.
While McCants admits his initial reaction to McKenzie's congressional candidacy was, "Huh," the John Hopkins University adjunct professor said it "makes sense," given his foreign policy and public policy expertise.
"Rob has never followed a conventional path," McCants said, noting that McKenzie rebuffed lucrative job offers to work on his Ph.D.
Jake Bright said that he and McKenzie have been "lifelong friends" since they were sophomores at MSU. They shared and interest in international affairs and economics, but had similar backgrounds, with Bright describing them as hailing "from no-nonsense Michigan families with small businesses."
Bright said he was taken aback when McKenzie told him he was considering a congressional run.
"It's the last thing I expected in some ways," said Bright, a financial and business writer in New York City. "But when you look more at Rob's background, I can see him doing it. He's always had a commitment to community service since I've met him."
Bright notes that McKenzie has been a basketball coach for at-risk youth, and founded a nonprofit organization that mentored and counseled Ballou High School students in inner-city Washington.
Daniel Pydyn became "instant friends" with McKenzie on the little league football field four decades ago. The pair would go on to become co-captains of the Crestwood High School basketball team, spending summers selling merchandise for Kirby Vacuum, owned by McKenzie's dad.
Pydyn said McKenzie has "deep roots" in the community, even though he's lived abroad and in D.C., which has helped him build support for his congressional campaign. He described McKenzie as a "man of integrity" with "tremendous leadership qualities."
"He's a winner -- I can tell you that," said Pydyn, a senior warranty analyst at Detroit Diesel Corp. "Anything he's ever set his mind to, he always seems to come out on top."