Hill Harper on U.S. Senate race: ‘We want as many people in the race as possible’

Second Amendment

Updated, 7:08 a.m. and 10:33 a.m., 7/14/23, 

Actor Hill Harper this week formally announced his Democratic bid for the Michigan U.S. Senate seat left open in 2024 by retiring U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing).

Harper, an Iowa native, bought a home in Detroit in 2016, a 16,000 square-foot mansion in the city’s historic Boston-Edison community, where auto baron Henry Ford and Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr. once lived. He is a Harvard Law School graduate, where he was a classmate of former U.S. President Barack Obama, who remains a friend. 

Harper is known for his roles on television shows like “CSI: NY” and “The Good Doctor.”

On Tuesday, Harper launched his campaign in Detroit, Pontiac and Grand Rapids. 

State Rep. Leslie Love (D-Detroit) with members of the Aretha Franklin family on Aug. 24, 2020 | Ken Coleman

Other Democratic candidates for the seat include U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Lansing), Michigan Board of Education President Pamela Pugh, former state Rep. Leslie Love (D-Detroit), businessman Nasser Beydoun and attorney Zack Burns. 

Harper, Pugh and Love are African American, Beydoun is Arab American and Slotkin and Burns are white. 

When asked by the Advance on Tuesday at Harper’s Detroit event whether three African American vying for the seat will hurt chances of a Black candidate winning, he said, “No, it’s an open-seat process. We want as many people in the race as possible. That’s what democracy is.” 

Last year, there was an open seat in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, which includes Detroit, one of the nation’s largest majority-Black cities. Now-U.S. Rep. Shri Thanedar (D-Detroit), a businessman who immigrated from India, beat out a crowded Democratic field that included several African-American candidates. The other seat representing part of Detroit, the 12th District, is represented by U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), who is Palestinian American.

The Advance contacted Love and Pugh and all three Democratic African-American candidates confirmed that they met in June. They ultimately decided that they had mutual respect for each other and would pursue the Democratic Party nomination individually. 

“I like it’s important that the three of us talk to each other,” said Love. “I think that we are all intellect, capable people. Very accomplished leaders in our own way. There are rumors of people saying ‘We need to get the Black people together.’ So, I’m like, We can talk to each other. We are adults. Let us first talk to each other.’” 

Pugh agreed. 

“This is the most critical election of our lifetime,” said Pugh. “I’m going to talk to anyone and everyone about the importance of the race, so the three of us did meet to talk about the importance of this moment. To talk about the campaign and our campaign in general. I have great respect and regard for all of the candidates who have come forward.”  

Pamela Pugh, president of the Michigan Board of Education, launches her campaign for U.S. Senate at Comma Bookstore in Flint on May 23, 2023. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

African Americans are 14% of Michigan’s population and they are a key Democratic Party voting bloc. In 2022, 93% of Black voters cast their ballot for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, in the top-of-the-ticket race, according to exit polling. She defeated Republican Tudor Dixon by 11 points.

The Michigan Democratic Party is led by Lavora Barnes, who is African American, as is the state’s lieutenant governor, Garlin Gilchrist. 

The Michigan Republican Party also is helmed by a Black woman, Kristina Karamo, who unsuccessfully ran for secretary of state last year.

Several Republicans also have declared for U.S. Senate: Nikki Snyder, a member of the State Board of Education; attorney Alexandria Taylor, who has represented Karamo; former Berrien County Commissioner Ezra Scott; and Michael Hoover, who used to work for Dow Chemical Co. Former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican formerly from Howell who now lives in Florida, also is interested in running, per Politico. 

In an interview with the Advance on Thursday, Harper discussed why he moved to Detroit, his approach to campaigning, Obama and legislation he supports. 

Michigan Advance: What attracted you to Detroit? Some people would say, ‘Why would a noted actor move to Detroit a couple of years after the city government filed for bankruptcy?’

Harper: You know, originally. I came here [Detroit] for the first time for my dear friend’s wedding. I just fell in love with the place I thought it was, it was really the people that I loved. … And the love of the people made me want to stay and put roots down.

Michigan Advance: As you know, Michigan has 83 counties. Most Democrats don’t necessarily have to win all 83 and don’t even have to necessarily visit all 83. There are about 10 or 12 of them that are pretty important to victory, though. Talk to me about your campaign and your movement. Do you plan to try to go visit all 83? 

Harper: I plan to visit all 83 counties. And I plan to visit all 83 counties before the end of this year. You know, we got to remember the primary sales not until August 2024. I’m meeting people from all over the state and really trying to understand how they want to be represented by their next U.S. senator and what they feel they’re missing and what Michiganders want out of representation, because I want to see if their feelings are aligned with mine.

The folks I haven’t talked to across Michigan, no matter if it’s a farmer in the Upper Peninsula, or a single mom at the corner of Mack and Drexel [in Detroit]. They want someone who’s going to fight for them and fight for their best interest. And folks want basically the same thing we all want. We want a safe and quality place to send our kids to school, we want to make a living wage and have and work with dignity. We want to be able to take a vacation without going into lifelong credit card debt. We want to be able to go to college without amassing another lifelong type of debt. And so people feel that the cost of their living in all areas is just too high.

Hill Harper and his son Pierce Hill Harper | Ken Coleman

Michigan Advance:  Do you see any distinctions between your candidacy and other announced candidates? 

Harper: You know, certainly, there are distinctions between the different candidates, and I think it’s up to Michiganders to really understand and decide what type of representative they want. You know, this is early in the process for an open-seat primary. I am very hesitant to talk about other candidates, because, quite frankly, we don’t even know if all the candidates that will be running for the seat are even in the race yet. I don’t want to fall into the normal political tropes, because I’m not a politician. 

Michigan Advance: Have you talked to former President Barack Obama? Are you seeking an endorsement from him?

Harper: You know, obviously, President Obama has been a longtime friend and he’s somebody that ever since I’ve met him I’ve looked up to and not just because he’s taller than me [laughs]. I look up to him because he is committed to seeing the world become better. He’s committed to democracy and our democracy, and he’s committed to doing things the right way. And the right way is that folks are supposed to stay out of open seat primaries. That’s the way you’re supposed to do it.

Michigan Advance: Michigan has never had an African American U.S. senator. Are you motivated by that possibility? Becoming an African American sitting in that seat?

Harper: Without question, the historic nature of becoming only the 12th African American senator in the history of this country, you know, including Reconstruction, to become the first African American senator from such a diverse state. Michigan does not have a Black Democratic representative in Congress. 

I believe it’s not just about the Black voters, right? It’s an 83-county race. But the folks I’ve talked to, folks in the western part of the state and all around, they support having diversity and having diverse representation. There are so many Michiganders across the state that would love to see an African American senator representing the state.

Folks want to see someone who’s going to address record high inflation, someone who’s going to tackle income inequality, someone who’s going to deal with childhood poverty, and someone’s going to deal with the health health care system, and student loan debt crisis, someone who’s going to really deal with those issues and even more. 


Michigan Advance: What’s the piece of legislation that might be out there now that you can’t wait to vote for?

Harper: There’s a whole bunch of I can’t wait to vote for the Pro Act. And we have to undergird our unions and strengthen our unions. Because unions represent a living wage, they represent dignity in the workplace. They represent health care. And they represent pensions. It’s so many things that unions do extremely well. 

So the ProAct is certainly one … [and] the banning of weapons of mass murder. We have to protect our children; my son’s going into second grade. And I’m not going to allow the NRA and the billion-dollar gun lobby to try to dictate to me … the way they view the Second Amendment. Student loan debt, and the cost of education, affordable quality health care. There are so many things that come to mind. 

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