Chandra Baker, right, poses with a supporter during a pre-Election Day campaign event. Credit: Darius Mitchell

Chandra Baker described her experience running for judge of Michigan’s 3rd Judicial Circuit Court in Detroit bluntly. “Many people did not think I could win,” she said.

The first-time candidate, who is a lead attorney in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, set the scene: “It’s my first time (running). I have no name, no money. And I’m going up against two powerhouses. But I believe that God is on my side, I believe I can win.”

“So when I lost, I’ll be honest to say that I was shocked,” she laughed. “I was extremely disappointed. I wanted to show that this could be done by somebody really passionate about it.” But she accepted the loss as soon as unofficial vote counts were reported, thanked her supporters on Facebook and promised them, “I’m not done yet!” She figured she might be able to leverage her strong third-place finish in future career moves.

There was no need for a plan B. On Nov. 17, official election results revealed that Baker had actually been victorious in her bid for Circuit Court judge. Nicholas John Hathaway, presumed to be the second-place finisher after top vote-getter Mary Beth Kelly, slipped to third place. The top two vote-getters in the race will fill the two open seats on the bench, serving six-year terms. 

The circuit court has the most extensive powers among the trial courts, and the Third Judicial Circuit is the largest in Michigan. Michigan circuit courts typically handle felony cases and civil cases with claims above $25,000, in addition to cases involving family matters and personal protection orders. 

County-wide, Baker’s lead was a slim 371 votes in a race that garnered more than 1 million votes. She led in Detroit, where she received 100,688 votes to Mary Beth Kelly’s 64,129.

“When the tables turned, of course I was elated,” the Detroit native and Wayne State University Law School alum said. She added that in upcoming years she aspires to be “a judge that is part of the community, not just a judge that you see when it’s time for re-election.”

We talked to Baker about her experience as a first-time candidate and how she hopes to make a difference in the lives of victims and defendants from the bench.

Detour: You won in a very tight race and you’re a non-politician with, as you have said, “no name and no money.” How did you create a successful campaign?

Baker: I ran my own campaign, with grassroots help. All of my campaign volunteers were, pretty much, my coworkers or friends.

I started campaigning really early, because I knew I didn’t have the advantages of money or name recognition. I really believed that this was my time, and I didn’t know that two main people were going to end up running against me, because at the time I started those individuals (Nicholas John Hathaway and Mary Beth Kelly) weren’t in the race. 

I’m glad I started early, because it allowed me to go out and meet people and get a feel for what was important to them, as opposed to just paying somebody to do that. I went to a lot of different meetings: community meetings, churches. I made sure that I connected with individuals and different unions to get their endorsements. I was endorsed by the Free Press. The Detroit Bar Association, which is an organization of lawyers and judges, gave me an “outstanding” rating. From what I understand, that rating is generally reserved for people that are already sitting. I think all of that helped. 

What did Election Day look like for you?

I had voted early because I knew I would probably not be able to stand in line. So, basically, I ran around and I met people. I drove from one part of Wayne County to the other on Election Day, I don’t know how many times. I had about eight volunteers, and I tried to place them out of the city, in places like Northville or Redford where my presence wasn’t as large. I went to different polls, dropped off lunches, gave out literature, and then I was moving volunteers to different polling locations… that day was absolutely nuts.

Why did you begin working in the legal system, and why did you decide to run for judge?

I’m not a traditional student. I went back to school at 36. When I graduated from undergrad I was going to go to law school, but just to be honest, I was so tired of school at that point. I wanted to take a break and I needed to work to get the money to pay for more school. I didn’t want to go from loans in undergrad to loans in law school. 

I had numerous management jobs, but I knew that it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. All I’ve always wanted to do was make a difference. You know, clearly I’m not a national figure, but I think that in every space I take up I should be able to make a difference to whoever I come in contact with. And that was one of the reasons I became a prosecutor. I thought about the victims and the things that they have gone through — somebody who has lost someone due to gun violence, for example — and being there for them, trying the case, and coming out where justice prevails. Or, on the opposite side, being able to help a defendant who, because they got me as a prosecutor, got a better deal or got an opportunity for somebody to look at them independently. 

I know to those people I make a difference. Now that I’ll be a judge I’ll have an opportunity to do that on a much larger scale. And that is what I want to do.

Chandra Baker. Credit: Shawn Lee Studios

As a judge you don’t necessarily push policy — people think of it as a position of enforcement. How can you still shape what justice looks like in Wayne County?

When I was campaigning I had an opportunity to talk to different judges, and working in the trial court I’ve seen what judges can do. Judge Deborah Thomas put together the Veterans Treatment Court, and Judge Timothy Kenny, who’s the chief judge of the Wayne County Circuit Court now, developed the Mental Health Court

So you can put together diversion-type programs for individual needs. It’s the legislature that really has to make a lot of changes with respect to criminal justice reform, but judges have a lot of leeway when it comes to sentencing. In juvenile cases, for example, the courtroom can get information from certain programs that service troubled youth. And when you have that kind of information, those are programs that you can send youth to as opposed to an incarceration situation. 

What is a moment in your career that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m still the supervisor of the Wayne Arson Reduction Unit at the Prosecutor’s Office. And I’ve pretty much done everything in that office, but since I became a supervisor I’ve been able to sign my own warrants and handle my own cases and that has given me the opportunity to really make a difference. Not only to victims but to defendants, too. I make sure I talk to victims about what they want to see done, and then I also talk to the defense counsel with respect to defendants. Is this a defendant that really is, as people think, a career criminal? Or is this somebody that is dealing with a difficult situation? Maybe they have a drug problem or a mental health problem, and so we steer them in that direction. We help that client get whatever they need and hopefully that will reduce recidivism. When I work on cases, I believe that everybody benefits because we work together, and I’m proud of that.

What should Detroiters know about you and your work? What can they expect from you? 

I grew up in Detroit. Detroit is close to my heart. Most of the defendants, unfortunately, that come through the prosecutor’s office are African American, which is the majority of the city of Detroit. And so it’s very important to me that when they come before me they are treated fairly. Because these are people who have not always been treated fairly, especially in the criminal justice system, and even just in the justice system, period. I will do everything I can to make sure that they have the resources they need to to support their legal voice, and their rights are protected. 

Portions of this interview were edited for length and clarity.

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