DETROIT — John James emerges with confidence from a former Detroit elementary school that has been transformed into a charter high school in the northwest side of the city. It is a stride any parent would hope to see in a son or daughter graduating from this school, founded by Jalen Rose, a former NBA player and member of the University of Michigan's legendary "Fab 5" squad.
Outside the leafy campus of Jalen Rose Leadership Academy High School, parents wait for their children to emerge as a handful of students play on the school's clay basketball court. James, a member of the school's board, has just finished a board meeting, to discuss his decision to run for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate
He's no Kid Rock, and that is a good thing for the Republican Party.
James is young, accomplished, black, determined, devout, and the kind of new conservative that the Grand Old Party needs in order to shake up next year's midterm election cycle.
He is at once full of energy, grace, command, and passion. When he tells you he is running on conviction, everything about this young man tells you he is not a poser. "I am called to a life of service. I want to serve my country and my community and my state. When I would come back from Iraq on leave during the great recession, the economic and societal devastation I saw here in my own state floored me," he said.
He is one of a handful of Republicans who are running to take on Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow. His primary rivals include Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bob Young. Rep. Fred Upton, who represents the Kalamazoo and environs, is considering as well.
"We need stronger leadership in the U.S. Senate. I think I bring that to the table. I graduated from West Point in 2004 and went to Iraq in 2007. I served as an Army captain in Operation Iraqi Freedom where I flew Apache helicopters and led two platoons. I came back home and joined the family business in 2012," he said of James International, the business his father founded.
His parent's guidance and example are what shaped him.
"My father was born in 1941 in Starkville, Mississippi, and lived directly across from Mississippi State University, and couldn't go there because he was black. As a result of the effort he put in, he went and served his country in Vietnam and then he went through and started a business. And because of the help that he received and the effort that he put in he was able to realize the American Dream," he said.
His father's determination has inspired him all of his life, "My father surely shouldn't be special. I am running because I don't want his story to be special in this country. Everyone should have an opportunity to get the American Dream. Their parents should have choice so their kids can have access to the American Dream. And that's what I want to fight for. I want to fight for working class, middle class, and for these children to have a much brighter future than the one they're looking at right now," he said.
There's a little irony there, his father and mother are both Democrats. In fact, his father donated to the very sitting U.S. senator he would like to face next fall in a general election.
James smiles, "I have been a conservative and Republican all of my life. My parents I suspect will support me," he says laughing.
James has been very successful in his post-military life, he became the president of the family company in 2014. "It's an automotive logistics company that specializes in warehousing distribution manufacturing and assembly and supply chain information systems. When I started the company it was making 35 million. It was good, it was very good. Strong customer base. I bring a passion for service, and I am pretty much an energetic leader. With a clarity of vision, we were able to grow from 35 million to 137 million in less than five years and added a hundred jobs here in Michigan," he said.
James says what people need at this time is pulling together instead of apart. That, he says, requires people to work together and get results so that the state and the country can succeed even in the toughest of environments. "I believe that I was needed, where I could do the most good. I want to continue my service to my country, continue my service to my community," he said.
The last Republican elected to the U.S. Senate from Michigan was Spencer Abraham in 1994 – he lost his re-election bid in 2000 to current Democratic senator, Stabenow, who is up for re-election next year.
Michigan stunned the political class last year when it's electoral votes favored Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.
While strategists calculate name ID and Stabenow's favorable ratings, and while the media focuses on whether musician Kid Rock — teasing a run for months — is actually going to jump in, James is about the business of winning.
He has already raised an impressive $300,000 in just under a month. With all due respect to Mr. Rock, James is not teasing about anything when it comes to public service. "I really believe that there is no substitute for experience," James says, "but I believe that relevant experience is most important."
James has zero name ID in the state, no establishment ties, no inherited built-in grassroots infrastructure. But for a party that is desperate to introduce young, vibrant, and innovative voices to Congress, James is certainly one to watch not just for Michiganders, but for the entire country. Rarely do major political parties give the new guy the keys to Washington, typically you have to ‘wait your turn.'
If James is successful, he will follow other maverick-type candidates who decline the tradition of waiting their turn and taking that risk and running, and possibly winning. For the GOP he just might be that future they've been waiting for.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.