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I would vote for him.
Butler uses church roots to hit down-home chord
July 27, 2006
Email this Print this BY TINA LAM
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
U.S. Senate candidate Keith Butler talks with Yvette Robinson, left, of Detroit and Cheryl Costantino of Harper Woods at the Art Exchange Gallery in Detroit. Butler had been campaigning since 7 a.m. on Wednesday last week; this stop went into the evening and was his last of the day. (HEATHER ROUSSEAU/Special to the Free Press)
• Butler on issues
Come back Friday
This is the first of two stories about the Republicans running in the Aug. 8 primary for the chance to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow in the November general election. Come back Friday for the story about Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard.
Butler in brief
Political party: Republican
Running for: U.S. Senate
Current job: Senior pastor, Word of Faith International Christian Center
Previous elective office: Detroit City Council, 1990-94
Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Michigan at Dearborn, where he studied sociology, psychology and history; completed theological studies, Rhema Bible Training Center near Tulsa, Okla.
What he drives: Chevrolet TrailBlazer
Last book read: "The World Is Flat"
Best movie seen in the last 12 months: Spends free time with family
He's a big -- make that huge -- fan of guns. He wears genuine alligator shoes. He says "ma'am" a lot and introduces himself in a deep bass voice with a slight Southern drawl.
He is more handshaker than backslapper, more preacher than politician.
That's some of what you learn in a day campaigning with Keith Butler, who is running an underdog race for U.S. Senate as that rare political commodity -- a conservative black Republican candidate.
A minister, Butler serves up the Republican gospel of traditional values and small government but adds the notion that the party of Abraham Lincoln should be the true spiritual home for African Americans. He has called the GOP his party for nearly half of his 50 years.
He faces Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard in the Aug. 8 Republican primary for the chance to meet Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a first-term Democrat, in November.
A year ago, Butler was the favorite after Bouchard dropped out for health reasons. Bouchard rejoined the race in October, saying his problems were resolved. Now Butler is the underdog, but only slightly, says Bill Ballenger of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. Polls show that Butler trails.
"I'm going to surprise the political pundits," he says.
A native Detroiter, Butler -- who now lives in a mansion in Troy -- is still comfortable on the city's streets.
He is also at home on the main streets of towns like Brooklyn and DeWitt, where his pro-family, pro-marriage, anti-abortion views appeal.
From dirt-poor roots that stretch to rural Mississippi and Alabama, Butler has become the wealthy chief executive of an international religious empire.
To his mega-church's 22,000 members, he is "Bishop," head of the Word of Faith church in Southfield, which he founded. He also founded 26 other churches, as far away as Bulgaria.
Among conservative out-state Michiganders hungry for a candidate who talks their language, he's a near celebrity.
"I can't wait to tell all my friends that I met him," gushed Lorene Knight, 52, a clerk in the Register of Deeds Office in Clinton County. Butler walked through Knight's office in St. Johns last week, looking for hands to shake.
Knight heard about Butler from friends at her church, the Church of the Living Word in Ovid. She said he has her vote.
"I'm Christian and pro-life, and I've heard friends talking about him. He targets exactly what we're looking for," she said.
Down the hall, District Judge Dick Wells said he, too, would vote for Butler.
"I'm impressed by a Republican who can win in Detroit," he said. "The only way we'll win that Senate seat back is to win in Detroit."
Butler likes to talk about his only stint in politics, four years on the Detroit City Council starting in 1990. He's the only Republican elected to the council since World War II.
"I was wildly popular with the people because I got things done," he said.
Butler's not-so-secret campaign strategy -- beyond appealing to heartland conservatives -- is pulling votes from Detroit, first to beat Bouchard and then to upset Stabenow.
"If he were a different kind of black Republican, this would be his year," said Mildred Gaddis, an influential talk show host on WCHB-AM (1200) radio in Detroit. "The landscape is awesome to send a message that we don't want Democrats to take us for granted."
But she said black Detroiters, while respecting Butler as a minister, don't see him as one of them because he hasn't spoken out on city issues.
"He misused the pulpit to help George Bush get elected, and a lot of people were offended," she said.
Butler has raised $2.6 million, compared with Bouchard's $2.1 million, as of June 30. At least $85,000 in donations have come from members of Butler's churches. He hopes Democrats and independents in Detroit will cross over and vote for him in the primary, something political analysts like Ballenger say is iffy.
In a typical Detroit primary, Democrats outnumber Republicans 6 to 1.
A day on the campaign trail
Butler started his day a week ago Wednesday before 7 a.m. as he usually does, in the passenger seat of his black Chevy TrailBlazer while his driver, Robert Gholston, consulted the schedule and plotted their path by GPS.
The first stop was a Beaner's coffee shop on South Cedar in Lansing, which buzzed with other black Republicans. Some were Butler's supporters; some were candidates. Butler greeted people coming in for their daily coffee.
Annie Artis, 37, of Lansing passed out literature for Butler and her husband, John, an Ingham County Commission candidate. Artis owns a small mortgage company and became a Republican in 1982. She's a member of Life Changers Christian Center, which is associated with Butler's church, and has heard Butler speak often.
"Some of the things he said threw me for a loop," especially about wasteful federal spending, she said. "He educates us."
In a back room at Beaner's, Butler sat for a half-hour interview with the Lansing State Journal. In sound bites packed with statistics, he spun his views on subjects from Iraq to health care.
Setting a date for a U.S. exit from Iraq would be wrong because "leaving with our tail between our legs would embolden our opponents, who will attack us all over the globe," he said.
Health care expenses must be pared because they cost Detroit carmakers $1,500 per car while Japanese competitors pay only $300 per car, he said. He decried pork barrel spending by Congress, Democrats and Republicans.
"It favors the politically connected," he said.
Butler talked about the church he and his wife, Deborah, founded in 1979. It has grown into a 110-acre campus with a private Christian academy, a 24-hour phone prayer center, a jet, a Bible institute and programs he said provide food and shelter for tens of thousands of people each year.
One of his TV ads says he helps people, but only if they truly need it.
"I've been a force for good," Butler said. "I don't meet the 'heartless Republican' standard."
He proposes a flat income tax, legislation to make losers in lawsuits pay the expenses of those they sued, and government-funded medical savings accounts for people at birth to buy their own health care for a lifetime. He opposes the Michigan ballot measure that would halt race- and gender-based affirmative action for governments, schools and universities, saying white women have benefited most from it and that racism still exists.
In the campaign, though, Butler said race has not been an issue.
With few exceptions, he said he has been well received: "When people know what I stand for, they support me."
Butler's entourage reached the parking lot outside Sam's Kitchen in DeWitt before lunch.
Sen. Alan Cropsey, one of Michigan's most conservative legislators, accompanied Butler on Cropsey's home turf. Cropsey said he has known Butler since 1988 and was the first legislator to back him. He said Butler epitomizes a compassionate conservative.
"He's seen people who haven't made it, and he has clothed the naked and fed the hungry," Cropsey said.
Outside the restaurant, Jim Kail, 58, spotted the Butlermobile and came running up for bumper stickers and an autograph. "Oh, I definitely plan to vote for him," said Kail, a semiretired electrician. "He has great Christian values and morals. We need people like him."
At the Wheel Inn in St. Johns, while diners ate sloppy joes and drank iced tea, Butler told them: "I'm a gun owner, sir, and a member of the NRA. I love to hunt."
Cropsey chimed in, "He's with us on the Second Amendment."
Back in the car, Butler talked about his love of hunting. From nearly every inch of the high walls of his church office, heads and other mounts of 120 trophies he has killed from South Africa to Alaska peer down at visitors: a lion shot at 13 yards, a black bear, bison, boars, a cougar, moose, caribou, elk, deer.
What he has missed most on the campaign trail, he said, are his family and his hunting.
Detroit and a little Mississippi
As Butler crossed the main street in St. Johns, the driver of a Shred-It truck waved. "Mr. Butler!" he yelled. At the Big Boy, Doug Cook told Butler that he already voted for him by absentee ballot. "He may not be as ultra-conservative as me, but I can handle that," said Cook, a former minister who now markets fertilizers.
At Applebee's in Jackson, Butler talked about himself. He was born on Detroit's west side. His father, Robert, was a laborer who started his own landscape and building company.
His mother, Ida Lajean, was a secretary at American Motors. Butler graduated from Henry Ford High, a mile from his church, and later from the University of Michigan at Dearborn. He learned to be a minister at Rhema Bible Training Center outside Tulsa, Okla. His wife, Deborah, is a minister, as are his son, Keith II, and daughter MiChelle. Daughter Kristina works for the Republican National Committee in Washington.
On his father's side, his grandparents came from Mississippi; on his mother's side, they fled to Detroit from Alabama after the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on his grandmother's lawn. When Butler was a boy, his father took the children back for summers in Mississippi, where Butler learned to hunt, drive on dirt roads and use an outhouse.
"My dad wanted us to appreciate what he'd done for us," he said.
A push for Detroit votes
It was a long drive out to Brooklyn in the Irish Hills. At 4:30 p.m. at Jerry's Pub, a small handful of backers, mostly Catholics, gathered. Butler supporter Gene Hausmann passed out three pages of his favorite excerpts from Butler's book, "Reviving the American Spirit," published this year.
The day ended with a rally of mostly black Republican candidates at an art gallery on Woodward in Detroit.
"I do not believe Detroit is a throwaway city," Butler said, bringing the crowd of about 60 to its feet. "We need a leader who can speak to all people."
Evelyn Crane has been a member of Butler's church since 1983. A retired deputy superintendent of Detroit Public Schools, she is president of the Sojourner Truth Republican Women's Club.
She agrees with Butler on every issue and says others would if they heard him.
"I think I'll be at the victory breakfast," she said.