A Winning Tradition
The only Jewish state rep from Detroit, Steve Tobocman wins with
ideals and courage.
rmed with a law degree and a master's
in public policy from the University of
Michigan in 1997, Steve Tobocman
made an unusual move — to southwest
Tobocman, who grew up in Farmington Hills
and went to high school at Cranbrook Kingswood
Upper School in Bloomfield Hills, used two
national policy fellowships he was awarded to start
Community Legal Resources with fellow law
school graduate Sally Schwartz. They offered free
legal assistance to nonprofit organizations in
After two years, he made another unusual move.
Tobocman ran for
against a two-term
from his southwest
Detroit district, a
majority Latino neigh-
It was frustrating, he says, that the elected offi-
cial didn't have the involvement in the community
development movement that he did. So he ran to
change that and revitalize his district.
While he had no political experience, he was not
unfamiliar with politics. Before graduate school,
Tobocman worked on Capitol Hill for then-U.S.
Rep. Howard Wolpe, D-Mich., and for the lobby-
ing firm of former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind.
"But D.C. left me wanting. I missed the grass-
roots, working with people," says Tobocman, who
has a genuine, engaging manner.
He returned to Michigan, started graduate
school and linked up with folks doing community
economic development work. As part of his pro-
gram he spent a year in southwest Detroit, direct-
ing the Southwest Detroit Graffiti-Free
Collaborative and participating in empowerment
"Steve is part of the great tradition of Jewish
community activism," says Doug Ross of West
Bloomfield, the former assistant secretary of labor
in the Clinton administration and one of
Tobocman's professors. "That is, people who are
born into middle-class, educated homes who
decide that making a difference in the world — by
dealing with injustice — is worth a life commit-
fashioned campaign, knocking on doors and out-
lining a vision distinct from his opponent.
"I centered on aggressive leadership that's
responsive to community problems and on achiev-
ing results," he said.
He faced anti-Semitic comments from
his opposition and heard remarks like "He's
that Jew from West Bloomfield" or
"Tobocman's a Jewish millionaire who'll
steal your votes.
But there were also those who welcomed
him and his religion.
During his campaign, he describes meet-
ing with potential voters from the
Dominican community. His heart sank
when his Spanish-speaking translator
relayed their first question, "Are you
grandfather once lived and worked as a tinsmith
before moving to the Dexter-Davison area.
"It was clear that Steve felt a connection to this •
neighborhood because of his grandfather's busi-
ness," says Margaret Garry, vice president for real
estate and development of Mexicantown
Community Development Corporation and his
first boss in that community. Garry saw from the
beginning Tobocman's political potential.
"Steve not only produces results, but he has
good insight in what there is to do and what's
most important to people — then he does it," she
says. "Like the first public act he passed in his
freshman year. He had a neighborhood empower-
teve is part of the great trad• m •on of
Jewish community activism.
"Yeah,' I replied. And they said, 'Great!'
They were Pentecostal and they said they
prayed for Israel, the chosen people. They
were behind me 100 percent."
Ideals Into Action
Tobocman, 33, a Democrat, won the elec-
tion by a margin of less than 200 votes.
SteveTobocman and his dog, Nelson
"You see his determination and talent,"
says Rabbi Sherwin Wine of Birmingham
Temple, where Tobocman became a bar
mitzvah. Tobocman's mother, Paula, was
ment zone act amended so we could have more
the temple's social action chair.
housing built in our neighborhood."
"I respect him for taking up that challenge," says
He is also working to pass a bill against con-
sumer fraud involving immigrants and another
While many see Tobocman as an outsider in his
that will allow the city to handle blight more
community, he sees his Jewish roots there on sev-
"Steve has a huge heart and I respect that he's
"I have a strong attachment to the immigrant
using it to make a different for people in Detroit
experience in America," Tobocman says. "My fam-
and all across the state," says Garry.
ily was fortunate to make it out of Eastern Europe
Ross concludes, "Frequently, people you
when they did. They escaped violence, poverty and encounter in politics are either idealists afraid to
harassment to come to a country that had oppor-
get their hands dirty, or opportunists, who have
tunity. And they prospered. That success comes
no vision or values.
with the responsibility to create that opportunity
"Steve is so effective because he can combine
ideals with the willingness to do the tough nuts-
He represents one of the largest immigrant dis-
and-bolts political work to make things happen.
tricts in the state. His district is also where his
And that's rare." ❑
Facing Jewish Stereotyping
To win election, Tobocman says, he ran an old-