Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has near universal name recognition across metro Detroit and she’s won her last three races in landslides against token opposition.
This year is different.
Worthy, 63, faces an aggressive challenge from Victoria Burton-Harris, a 33-year-old newcomer who’s attracted national attention after being endorsed by progressive icon Sen. Bernie Sanders and activist singer John Legend.
Burton-Harris’ campaign manager Chris Marchione said Sanders’ staffers contacted her after the police-related death of George Floyd as the former Democratic presidential candidate sought to have an impact in prosecutor races across the nation. The Legend endorsement was a pleasant surprise, even to Burton-Harris’s campaign, though the singer has long advocated criminal justice reform, Marchione said.
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She’s also been endorsed by a handful of city council members from around the county, including Mary Sheffield, president pro-tem of the Detroit City Council.
“It’s going to be much closer than past races,” said longtime Detroit political consultant Steve Hood. “Kym’s saving grace is everyone knows her name and she rocks the suburbs. She’s tough on crime.”
Hood said he expects Worthy to prevail because of suburban support. If the race were limited to Detroit, Burton-Harris could well pull it off, he said.
Republicans are not running a prosecutor candidate in heavily Democratic Wayne County, so the winner of the primary will face at most, write-in opposition in November.
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Burton-Harris currently works as a defense attorney and her message of reducing the number of Black men in prison, eliminating cash bail and so-called “poverty crimes” and scrutinizing police misconduct is designed to convince Detroiters that it’s time for a change.
She is following the playbook of progressive candidates across the country who’ve targeted prosecutor races as a way to reform a criminal justice system they say unfairly leads to mass incarceration, especially among people of color. Left-leaning outsiders have been elected on similar platforms in Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Francisco and Portland in recent years.
“I’m ready to change the practice of punishment only in response to crime, and I instead want to focus on prevention and intervention,” Burton-Harris told the Free Press. “I want to ensure that we don’t continue feeding the school-to-prison pipeline and we instead offer wraparound services, holistic services to our youth.”
Burton-Harris acknowledged that she doesn’t have experience as a prosecutor, but said if she’s elected, she will keep some of the current staff, add respected local lawyers and form a community advisory board to assist her.
“I don’t think that a prosecutor should govern like a king or a queen without anyone in their ear to guide them, without having folks who are experts in areas like mental health or substance addiction to guide their decisions with research and data,” she said.
Worthy is running a more traditional Democratic campaign, touting the support of elected Democrats like U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel, as well as unions like the Michigan Education Association, the Michigan Building Trades Council and SEIU Healthcare.
She also has endorsements from local government leaders including all 15 county commissioners, 22 mayors and six township supervisors.
Worthy acknowledges that many of the issues that Burton-Harris raises are legitimate. But she said they aren’t new and she’s been working on them for years, including her efforts to hold police accountable.
“I did the case that still stands as the first case in American jurisprudence where on-duty police officers were convicted of murder,” Worthy said.