The year was 1992. Hecklers in Hamtramck threw broccoli at George H.W. Bush. Ross Perot got almost 19% of the presidential vote. And Michigan voters enacted term limits.
Fast forward to the present: Perot and Bush 41’s broccoli problem are largely forgotten, but term limits now shape elections for state office. Except in districts evenly enough divided between Democrats or Republicans that they might swing either way, it’s rare for an incumbent to face a serious challenge. Instead, political hopefuls wait for term limits to open the right slot.
That’s happening this election cycle with districts representing the Ann Arbor area. And jockeying is under way.
Next weekend, state Rep. Rebekah Warren (D-53rd District) will launch a campaign to succeed fellow Ann Arbor Democrat Liz Brater (D-18th District) in the Michigan Senate. A former state rep and former Ann Arbor mayor, Brater is term-limited and ineligible to run again for that seat.
Warren’s move will, in turn, trigger announcements from the Democrats who’ve politely waited for the two-term lawmaker to make her plans public before lining up to try and take her spot in the state House of Representatives.
Jeff Irwin and Ned Staebler are expected to enter the race for the 53rd District, which covers most of Ann Arbor and parts of Scio and Pittsfield townships. Irwin is a Washtenaw County commissioner representing a portion of Ann Arbor. Staebler is vice president of program administration at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and an Ann Arbor resident.
In the heavily Democratic district representing the city of Ann Arbor, the candidate who wins in a primary can expect to sail through the general election in November.
State Senate Race
Still eligible to run for another term as state rep, Warren’s bid for the Senate sets up a potential Democratic primary in the 18th District, which represents Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and the townships of Ann Arbor, Augusta, Dexter, Freedom, Lima, Lyndon, Northfield, Salem, Scio, Sharon, Superior, Sylvan, Webster and Ypsilanti.
Warren’s Washtenaw County colleague in the House – state Rep. Pam Byrnes of Lyndon Township – is serving her third and, under term limits, final term representing the 52nd District.
After rising to a leadership position as Speaker Pro Tempore, Byrnes says she’s seriously considering a run for the same 18th District Senate seat, but has yet to make a decision.
“Who knows what other opportunities might come up,” says Byrnes, who unexpectedly finds herself chairing a committee on a controversial plan for overhauling the health care system for public employees. “I’ll make a decision by the end of the year.”
Candidates have until May 2010 to file petitions to run for office.
For her part, Warren says the decision to seek the Senate seat stems from frustration over legislation that’s died in that chamber.
“I’ve had success getting legislation through the House and Senate and on to the governor’s desk,” says Warren, citing bills on Great Lakes water withdrawals and electronics-waste recycling. “But there’s been other legislation passed in the House that’s important to me – and to the county – that never even got a hearing in the Senate. We need different leadership there.
“I love what I do and think I’ve proven I can do a decent job for four or eight more years.”
Term limits enacted in 1992 set a cap of three two-year terms for state representatives and two four-year terms for the senate. Also limited to two four-year terms are the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and attorney general.
Previous term-limited local lawmakers have been temporarily sidelined when the end of their terms did not mesh neatly with the terms of other offices.
Brater, who Warren hopes to succeed, was out of government for several years after leaving the House in 2000. She returned as a senator in 2002 when former state Sen. Alma Wheeler Smith was term-limited after two four-year terms.
Smith, Warren’s mother-in-law, sat out two years until term limits opened the seat in the 54th House district, which covers the eastern part of Washtenaw County. Smith won that seat but is term limited again – she is now a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Ruth Ann Jamnick, a former state rep from the 54th District and former Ypsilanti Township supervisor, has been mentioned as another possible candidate for the Senate seat. She could not be reached for comment.
53rd House District
Warren’s decision not to seek a third term in the House leaves an open field for that seat, which represents most of the city of Ann Arbor.
Ned Staebler, a Harvard grad with a master’s from the London School of Economics and Political Science, has deep political roots. His great grandfather was mayor of Ann Arbor from 1927-31, and his grandfather was a congressman from Michigan, a candidate for governor and an active Democrat. His father is married to former University of Michigan Regent Rebecca McGowan, a Democrat.
Staebler joined the state economic development agency in 2004, after previously working in finance – including a stint as an associate director with Bear Stearns International Ltd. in London, England. He declined to discuss the race, pending Warren’s official announcement, but has created a campaign committee to raise money.
Jeff Irwin, a Democrat elected to the county board in 1999 when he was still a University of Michigan student, likewise comes from a political family.
His father served as a state senator from the Upper Peninsula in the ’80s and later in the Granholm administration. And Irwin remembers as a child seeing lawmakers debate. “I watched (former Democratic state Sen.) Lana Pollack go toe-to-toe with (former Republican governor) John Engler and I knew who I wanted for my role model.”
Irwin worked on statewide and Great Lakes issues for the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund for six years and later on state environmental policy with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters for two years. He’s served as chairman of the Board of Commissioners and devotes his attention to county government full time.
He says he’s likely to enter the race and will make a decision by the end of the month.
52nd House District
When Pam Byrnes first won election in 2004, she took the 52th District Democratic, and voters in outlying Washtenaw County have increasingly been ready to back Democrats. Still, Republicans like county commissioner Mark Ouimet think they have a reasonable chance of winning back the House seat.
While he’s not ready to say he’s in the race, Ouimet acknowledges that he’s considering a run and notes that in 2008 he polled about as well as President Obama in his county commission district.
Ouimet says he’s put the decision aside until after a county budget is in place, probably in November and no later than December. Other potential Republican candidates appear to be deferring to Ouimet.
However, he’s not the only county commissioner eyeing the House seat.
Democrat Ken Schwartz says he has “one foot in the water” and is meeting with voters across the district to try and gauge support. “It’s been pretty positive, but I won’t make a final decision for a couple months.”
Schwartz was elected to the county board in 2007 and represents the 2nd District, which covers the northeastern part of the county. Ouimet was first elected in 2004 and represents the 1st District, which covers northwest Washtenaw County.
If Schwartz decides to run, he’ll likely find himself in a Democratic primary. Saline Mayor Gretchen Driskell’s name regularly comes up in discussion about the seat. “I know it does and I have been thinking about it,” says Driskell. Former Byrnes primary opponent Dr. Philip Zazove, a family practitioner, is among other potential candidates.
What about Hieftje?
Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje says he’s been asked whether he was interested in either the Senate race or the chance to run for the House seat being vacated by Warren.
His answer: He’ll decide next month.
Although he said in 2008 that the mayoral race could be his last, Hieftje seems less ready to leave the job today. “Things are very difficult for local government in Michigan and I feel a responsibility,” he says.
Pursuing the Senate seat would presumably present a challenge for the five-term mayor, who would run up against out-county voters and their views of Ann Arbor liberalism.
In the city limits, it would mean facing Warren, who dispatched Hieftje ally and city councilmember Leigh Greden in the 2004 2006 primary for the 53rd District.
A three-way race for that House seat might favor the highest profile candidate, but Hieftje has had sufficient time in office to disappoint some city voters, and both Staebler and Irwin could be expected to run hard.
In any of the potential Democratic primaries for state office, candidates will need to differentiate themselves.
“Anyone who represents Ann Arbor is going to vote the same way,” says Irwin, “pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-human services. The question is what else do you bring to the table.”
Primaries will be held in August 2010.
State House campaigns by Irwin, Ouimet or Schwartz would create open seats on the county board, where commissioners will be elected to each of the 11 seats for two-year terms in 2010. Any move by Hieftje or Driskell would similarly open the respective mayor’s races next year. Warren’s husband – county commissioner Conan Smith, who is also chair of the Ann Arbor Democratic Party – is among several Democrats who have previously expressed interest in running for mayor of Ann Arbor, should Hieftje decide not to run.
The House seats in the 54th and 55th districts, which take in portions of Washtenaw County, are held by term-limited Democrats as well – Rep. Alma Wheeler-Smith and Rep. Kathy Angerer. Stay tuned for a Chronicle report on those races in the near future.