The Making of a Candidate
Political neophyte Brad “Bubba” Urdan wants a seat in the legislature and sees his chance in the newly carved 39th State House district.
When you have more than 2,300 Facebook friends and another 3,000 or so email pals, you’ve basically got a voting bloc.
So when a pair of dressed-down curious students crashed an organizational meeting where Brad “Bubba” Urdan announced his bid for state representative in the newly carved out 39th State House District in 2012, he didn’t betray a bit of discomfort.
On the contrary, Urdan acted as if they would be as much an asset to him as the 20 or so impeccably tanned and suited lawyers and businessmen who gathered in a spectacular Southfield boardroom to listen to his pitch for money and ideas.
In a company polo shirt stretched over his considerable girth, Urdan looked every bit the Everyman. During that half-hour in mid-September, he showed that that might be his greatest political gift: the ability to talk to everybody.
“Phillip,” Urdan intoned, addressing a dapper Phillip Fisher, who lent his office for the event. “Your father (the late industrialist/philanthropist Max Fisher) was a master statesman.” And, glancing heavenward as if summoning Max’s ghost, he added, “To get just a little help from Max, that’s why we asked to hold the press conference here.”
Dramatic, perhaps, but a revealing glimpse of Urdan’s ambition. He views himself as a Republican candidate with vision who will move Lansing out of its rut, get the job done for one and all, and attract Democrats and Independents to his cause by sheer likeability and finesse.
Perhaps that may be why guys like Brian Elias of Hanson Windows, Bob Stone of Telemus Capital, Daniel Stern of Lormax Stern, Zaid Elia of the Elia Group, and Weight Watchers International COO Hannan Lis (a Democrat!) joined Urdan around the gleaming lacquered table that afternoon.
“We have a bank account that’s empty,” Urdan, 41, announced, saying the campaign needs $200,000 to $250,000 to get through next August’s Republican primary. He asked everybody to kick in money, and to include a “Bubba for Michigan” logo on their Facebook pages when and if they have Facebook accounts. Oh, he told them, he’s legally changing his first name to “Bubba,” a nickname given to him by an elementary school bully that stuck. The name, he said, will distinguish him from 21-year-old Brad Hantler, who has also filed to run as a Republican in the same district.
“Where do I write a check?” asked Rabbi Eli Mayerfeld, executive director of Southfield-based Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, who later compared Urdan to Repubican Gov. Rick Snyder.
“When the current governor was running he was asked how he was going to make his plan happen. He said, ‘These are the right things to do, and we’re going to frame it that way.’ Given that he needs people in Lansing who are forward thinking, and given that people are looking to make sure Michigan is a place people can live and work, Bubba can do it,” said Mayerfeld.
Hammer on issues dear to the Jewish community, like property values, education and law enforcement, Lis advised.
“You’ve got to find one or two issues in your local district,” he told Urdan. “Knock on every door.”
Urdan is not your conventional candidate. He hasn’t held elective office, nor is he a college graduate. Urdan’s focus has been on community, serving as president of the Young Adult Division of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit in 2008, and sitting on the boards of Federation, Jewish Vocational Services, Jewish Community Center and the Oakland County Sheriff’s Advisory Board.
His real-world experience, along with his vast network of contacts and the traditionally Republican positions he holds, may prove more potent.
As someone who propelled a T-shirt store into a promotions business not long after graduating from high school (Andover High, Class of ’88), Urdan is naturally a pro-business candidate who wants Michigan to be an easier place for businesses to operate. He doesn’t support the medical marijuana law passed by voters, and he supports the privatization of government services, citing the outsourcing of food service operations in the Oakland County Jail to a private company.
“One thing I’ve learned in business is you’ve got to cut, cut, cut and then cut some more. Same goes with big, cumbersome government programs,” Urdan said, adding later, “We need to educate our kids and take care of our seniors.”
His campaign platform is still under construction, said Urdan’s campaign manager, law student Ryan Fishman.
Urdan’s current job is director of business development for Statewide Disaster Restoration, a Southfield company run by his friend Adam Becker.
Urdan’s personal back story is quite harrowing, but he preferred to leave it off the record. For the record, he lives with his golden retriever Rocky, whose photo he produces on his phone. He has never married. He is the youngest of four boys who grew up in a household marked by domestic strife, divorce and, at times, poverty. He remembers the electricity and water shutoff notices pasted on their front door. He remembers folks wondering how a West Bloomfield kid could be poor. He doesn’t feel sorry for himself, but the experience has left a mark. It has spooked him and sensitized him to the plight of people who’ve lost their jobs or their homes.
“I want to make sure nobody has to go through what I went through,” Urdan said.
Fishman believes Urdan has a real shot at the seat, given Jewish voters’ disenchantment with President Barack Obama, which could translate into a vote for a Republican presidential candidate next year. “I think this 2012 cycle is a great time for Bubba, who has so many friends on both sides, to run. Frankly, the Democratic party has been weak on Israel,” he said.
Yet, the legislative redistricting this year that changed the boundaries of the 39th and 40th State House districts could dilute the Jewish vote. West Bloomfield has been split in two so that the 39th encompasses the west part of the township and all of Commerce Township and Wixom. The 40th encompasses the east part of West Bloomfield, the other Bloomfields and Birmingham. Both districts are majority Republican.
Frank Houston, chairman of the Oakland County Democratic Party, called the redistricting a “hack job” that divides the Jewish community, a powerful and reliably Democratic voting bloc.
“With the Jewish community, they took most of that district and divided them in half, cutting the influence of Jewish voters,” Houston said.
Democrat Lisa Brown represents the 39th, but her home is now in the 40th, an area she hasn’t represented. She did not return phone calls seeking comment about her plans for the next election.
There is yet another unknown and that is Republican Dave Law, who twice represented the 39th District as a state representative and may run again, Houston said. His base of support is in Commerce, so if he can get voters there to back him, he’ll win, he said. Law has not filed as a candidate yet.
Even though Urdan is well respected and will work hard as a candidate, “if he had all of West Bloomfield intact versus the way it’s now been fractured, he’d be an even stronger candidate,” Houston added.
Long after the suits trickled out of that initial meeting, Urdan invited the pair of 20-somethings to take a seat at the lake-sized table. Both said they came after seeing the announcement on Urdan’s Facebook wall. They’d never laid eyes on him before then.
“I live in the community and I’m trying to find out what I’m interested in,” said Scott Ciborowski, a burly fellow in a T-shirt and shorts. He’s 21, lives in Wixom and takes classes at OCC. He described himself as an Independent.
“I came to ask certain questions,” said Nicole Trivax, a 22-year-old nursing student at Madonna University and a Walled Lake resident.
“As to the economy, I like what [Urdan’s] saying. I’m also interested in social issues … Just because we’re younger doesn’t mean there’s only one issue — like jobs — that we’re interested in.” She did not elaborate.
Urdan nodded in agreement, a look of genuine interest on his face. It was a gesture he will no doubt repeat a thousand times between now and Election Day.