With about two months remaining until the filing deadline to get on the Aug. 3 primary ballot, more local candidates for state legislature are entering the race, vying for seats that are opening in several districts representing Washtenaw County.
David Rutledge – a Washtenaw Community College trustee and a county road commissioner – is joining a crowded field of Democrats in the 54th District state House primary. That seat, representing eastern Washtenaw County, is now held by veteran lawmaker Alma Wheeler Smith, a Democrat running for governor. For the Republican primary in the 54th, Rodney Nanney of Ypsilanti, who has previously campaigned for other candidates, is making his first bid for office.
On the county’s west side, only one Democratic candidate in the 52nd District – Scio Township trustee Christine Green – is firmly in the race, while Republican Mark Ouimet, a current county commissioner, is raising a sizable war chest for his primary campaign in that district. The seat is now held by Democrat Pam Byrnes, who is running for state Senate.
Districts that may be up for grabs are particularly important this election cycle: Following the completion of the 2010 U.S. Census, the legislature will redraw state legislative and congressional districts. Although that every-10-years exercise is meant to account for population changes, it typically creates political advantage and disadvantage. The most recent redistricting, for example, led to the creation of a congressional district map that in 2002 put former U.S. Rep. Lynn Rivers (D-Ann Arbor) is the same district as fellow Democrat U.S. Rep. John Dingell, ensuring that one of the Michigan Democrats would be knocked out of Congress.
Though providing updates on all districts, this report focuses on the 52nd and 54th District House races, where the fields of candidates have recently expanded or contracted. We’ll introduce candidates entering the contests – as well as some notable politicians who’ve decided not to run – and report on how candidates are faring in their fundraising efforts. Future reports will focus on candidates’ backgrounds and issues, in addition to looking at any new local candidates in the House and Senate races.
54th District: A Crowded Field
This district, on the county’s east side, typically favors Democrats in November, causing intense competition in the primary. Democrats in the race so far include Lonnie Scott – an aide to Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith – who faces a well-known candidate in David Rutledge. Additional competition comes from newcomer Dave Franklin, a 2006 Milan High School grad who works as a library clerk; activist Bill Riney of Ypsilanti Township, who runs a landscaping business; and another first-time candidate, Michael Mashif White of Ypsilanti, a training manager for AT&T.
There’s also a new name on the Republican ballot – Rodney Nanney is making his first run for public office.
A city of Ypsilanti resident, Rodney has been involved in city issues, including the campaign against a city income tax. “I’ve campaigned for other people,” says Nanney, citing Ypsilanti city council member Peter Murdoch’s campaign among others.
A consultant who provides planning, zoning and economic development services for local government, Nanney says he sees the effect of state budget decisions up close. “They’re starving local government and our schools to save the state bureaucracy,” he says. “I think this year people are ready for something different than usual in eastern Washtenaw County. It’s the year to get involved.”
While Nanney is a first-time candidate, Democrat David Rutledge has a long history as an elected official. He’s serving his fourth term as a member of the board of trustees at Washtenaw Community College, where the board is selected in nonpartisan, countywide elections. Rutledge also is a member of the Washtenaw County Road Commission, an appointed position.
Rutledge served as Superior Township supervisor in the 1980s. However, state office has been elusive. He’s previously run unsuccessful primary campaigns for the 54th. But after assessing the failures and talking to prospective supporters, he says he’s ready to capitalize on those experiences.
“Tough economic times have stirred the fire in the belly again,” Rutledge says. “I have passion and an unrealized dream.”
Rutledge says he’ll run on his experience in public service.
He’s currently co-chair of the county’s Success by 6 early childhood education program and served some 30 years on the county parks and recreation commission. During his tenure as Superior Township supervisor, the township officials created a technology center district on Geddes, he says. An effort to diversify a tax base heavily dependent on residential property taxes, the move didn’t pay dividends right away but is now home to the Hyundai America Technical Center.
Tax policy also emerges in the campaign of Dave Franklin, who offers non-traditional points of view for a candidate running as a Democrat.
He blames taxes and state regulations for the state’s economic and employment woes, and argues that lost revenue will be offset by new industries and jobs. He holds that property taxes are “immoral” and income taxes “unjust.”
“I’m a populist Democrat, if anything,” Franklin says. “More Jackson than a modern-day Democrat.” While Franklin says he finds that certain aspects of the Libertarian party philosophy are interesting, he says he doesn’t identify with that party. “I think diversity is a good thing for the Democratic party. I can be a Democrat without necessarily following a party platform.”
Bill Riney has previously been a candidate for the county board of commissioners, WCC board of trustees, and the 54th District seat. He has not yet filed a petition with the Michigan Secretary of State Washtenaw County clerk’s office to run in the 54th District race, but he’s been running a grassroots campaign since last fall. The campaign in part entails traveling through district neighborhoods with a trailer loaded with hotdogs and soft drinks that he gives away. “I’m out there every weekend,” he says.
Candidates have until May 11 to file the petitions required to be on the ballot.
Michael Mashif White, a resident of Washtenaw County for eight-plus years, has filed his petition, a process that requires collecting 200 voters’ signatures. He recently launched a campaign website, and has gotten involved in the county Democratic Party. He’s also been meeting local school and government officials and has pulled together volunteers to work on phone banks, develop e-mail lists and get ready to start canvassing neighborhoods.
Others in the Race?
The five-candidate Democratic field could grow further if Ypsilanti Township trustee Mike Martin and county commissioner Rolland Sizemore Jr. decide to mount campaigns. Both have said they were considering runs.
Martin said recently it was still possible that he’d run, but he was concerned about constituent reaction should he seek another office before completing a single term on the township board. Sizemore, now serving as chairman of the county board, says he’ll wait until a contract is finalized with the incoming county administrator, Verna McDaniel, and then announce his plans.
In addition to the Democrats, Ypsilanti resident Dave Palmer says he plans to run as an Independent. In that case, he will have until the middle of July to collect 600 signatures and file a petition with the Secretary of State Washtenaw County clerk to get on the ballot.
Palmer is a business manager for LaVision, a software and systems integration company. He’s a Washtenaw County native and has worked on Democratic and Green party campaigns. He also runs a consulting firm after hours. That company, ugconsulting.net, offers political consulting for independent and third-party candidates, as well as development advice for nonprofits and small business.
Since 2000, Republican and sometimes minor candidates have, at most, won 32% of the vote in the district that includes the city of Ypsilanti, and Augusta, Salem, Superior and Ypsilanti townships. [.pdf file of 54th District map] Palmer knows the numbers and the vote count he’d need to win. He thinks it’s doable and that an independent could help bridge the deep divide between Democrats and Republicans in Lansing or, failing that, hold their feet to the fire.
Following the Money: 54th District
Though fundraising has been robust in other parts of the county, that isn’t the case in the 54th District race. The threshold for reporting campaign spending is $1,000.
Democrat Lonnie Scott had raised less than $2,000 by Dec. 31, the close of a campaign-finance reporting period. He was the only candidate in the five-man primary field to report any contribution to his campaign.
With a goal of having $40,000 to pay for printing, mailing and other campaign expenses for an Aug. 3 primary, the 2005 Central Michigan grad has a long way to go.
“I think we’ll get there,” said Scott, buoyed by response to his first “phone bank.” That calling blitz reached several thousand 54h District residents who’ve previously voted in primary elections, he says. “I hope it will make them go to the website to learn more about me and the issues.” Information about a March 13 campaign event in Depot Town is also on the site.
“I’m in no position to self fund,” says Scott. “If the dollars don’t come, we have to hit the door-to-door work harder.”
52nd District: In, Out, On the Fence
On the county’s west side, two Democrats who’ve been considering the 52nd District state House race aren’t in it yet. In fact, one of them has officially decided not to run.
Saline Mayor Gretchen Driskell had given serious consideration to a run, but now says she’s decided against it. With local government suffering the impact of the state’s economic troubles, it would be the worst possible time to leave the city, she says. “Stability is better when you have to do some reorganizing and we need to make some changes to absorb cuts from the state. It was a hard decision.”
Still on the fence is Washtenaw County commissioner Ken Schwartz. In November, the Scio Township Democrat said he hadn’t made a decision, but that it would be a surprise if he wasn’t running for the 52nd District seat.
Three months later, Schwartz is much less certain.
One reason, he says, is the transition under way in county government. Several factors point to a broad shakeup: The retirement of long-time administrator Bob Guenzel, announced in December; the pending departure of at least two commissioners, Mark Ouimet and Jeff Irwin; and a retrenching brought on by falling revenue. A two-term commissioner, Schwartz says he’s in a position to help reshape county government.
In addition, Schwartz says he’s discouraged by gridlock and partisanship at the state level.
If he does run, Schwartz says it’s the message – and whether the Democratic base is energized – that will lead to a win in November, more so than money. But getting a message out takes some resources.
“Because of the economy, the average person can’t give a candidate $100 like they might have in the past,” Schwartz says. “Maybe they can give $10 or $20. … I’m evaluating where I can be most effective. I’ll make a decision by April 15.”
If Schwartz does stay on the sidelines, the one Democrat so far who’s definitely running – Scio Township trustee Christine Green – will avoid a primary. A lawyer elected to the township board in 2008, Green hopes to succeed current state Rep. Pam Byrnes and retain the seat for the Democrats, who’ve held it since 2004. Byrnes is term-limited in the House and is running for state Senate in District 18.
The district stretches from western Washtenaw County into a northwestern corner of the city of Ann Arbor and includes the city of Saline and the townships of Webster, Dexter and Lodi. [.pdf file of 52nd District map]
It’s generally considered a swing district.
Byrnes unsuccessfully tried to unseat Republican Gene DeRossett in 2002. The Republican incumbent won about 53% of the vote that year. Byrnes then prevailed over Republican Joe Yekulis when term limits created a race without an incumbent in 2004. She won with 55% of the vote that year and has twice been re-elected. Republican challengers got a little less than a third of the vote in 2006 and 2008.
Following the Money: 52th District
On the Republican side, Mark Ouimet is the only candidate in the race so far.
Now serving on the 11-member county board, Ouimet raised almost $74,000 for his campaign before the first of the year. That topped the combined total of the next two richest local state House campaigns – between the 53rd District Democratic candidates Ned Staebler and Jeff Irwin, who’s also a county commissioner. The most recent campaign-finance reports cover contributions and spending through Dec. 31, 2009.
“It appears Republicans are trying to buy the seat,” fellow county commissioner Ken Schwartz says, referring to campaign funds that the Scio Township Republican is amassing.
Ouimet’s donor list through Dec. 31 includes some 60 county residents ready and able to donate the maximum allowable $500 per person. Ouimet has loaned his campaign about $16,000. Excluding that loan, the average gift to Ouimet’s campaign has been about $280 per person. [Link to the Michigan Secretary of State's searchable campaign finance database. All campaign finance reports for these races are filed with the Secretary of State.]
The single political-action committee contribution to Ouimet in his most recent campaign-finance report was $1,000 from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce PAC.
In fundraising for the Democratic primary, Green – a lawyer elected to Scio board in 2008 – had raised $13,550 through Dec. 31. Contributions to her campaign have averaged about $300 per person.
There’s precedent for a high-priced race in the 52th District. When term limits last led to an open seat, the Byrnes-Yekulis campaigns combined to spend almost $400,000.
Other State Race Updates
For more coverage on all state races, see previous Chronicle articles: “More Candidates Vie for State House, Senate“; “State Races in Districts 54, 55 Take Shape” and “State Legislative Candidates Lining Up.”
53rd District House
The 53rd House district covers most of the city of Ann Arbor, and is being contested in the Democratic primary by county commissioner Jeff Irwin and Ned Staebler, vice president of program administration at the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
First-time candidate Staebler says he continues to introduce himself to voters at regular Saturday coffees and at gatherings in private homes. He’ll begin a leave of absence from his job at the MEDC two months before the Aug. 3 primary.
Irwin’s campaign is also using house parties to connect with voters. He’s completing work on a website, which hasn’t yet been launched. He does have a page on the Facebook social networking site, as does Staebler.
As of Dec. 31, Staebler and Irwin had raised $40,850 and $24,300 respectively.
55th District House
The 55th, considered a swing district, includes Pittsfield, Saline and York townships in Washtenaw County, along with communities in Monroe County. Democrats and Republican have fought hard over the seat, represented by Democrat Kathy Angerer since 2004.
But fundraising has been relatively slow among the candidates hoping to take the term-limited lawmaker’s job. (Enacted in 1992, the state’s term-limits law 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.)
By Dec. 31, Republican Joe Zurawski, York Township supervisor, reported contributions of more than $11,000 – including about $8,000 of his own money.
His opponents in the Republican primary in the 55th – Rick Olson of Saline Township and Mary Kay Thayer, a former Monroe County commissioner – trailed. Olson had loaned his campaign more than $6,000 and had only one other contribution. Thayer raised about $1,200.
Democrat Mike Smith, a Bedford school board member who’s worked as the AFL-CIO community services liaison to the United Way of Monroe County, had raised about $3,900 by Dec. 31.
It’s expected that Angerer will work to help her party hold the seat.
18th District Senate
The current 53rd District rep, Rebekah Warren, started the year with more than $62,500 toward her campaign for the state Senate’s 18th District. That campaign fund included $10,000 rolled over from Warren’s state representative campaign fund.
She faces fellow Democrat Pam Byrnes of Lyndon Township, who entered the Senate race several months later than Warren. Byrnes’s Senate campaign had just $7,100 as of Dec. 31. But she had yet to tap her state representative campaign fund, which held $104,000.
Now represented by state Sen. Liz Brater (D-Ann Arbor), the district includes Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and the townships of Ann Arbor, Augusta, Dexter, Freedom, Lima, Lyndon, Northfield, Salem, Scio, Sharon, Superior, Sylvan, Webster and Ypsilanti. Brater is term-limited from further service in the legislature.
Democrat Ruth Ann Jamnick, a former state rep and former Ypsilanti Township supervisor, had considered joining the primary field but says she won’t enter the race.
On the Republican side, Salem Township treasurer David Trent says he will soon decide whether to seek his party’s nomination for the Senate seat.
There’s another wrinkle in this race: Byrnes is thought to be a potential candidate for lieutenant governor with Redford Township Democrat Andy Dillon, now Speaker of the House of Representatives, who officially announced his candidacy for governor on Sunday.
Byrnes and Dillon have worked closely as leaders of the Democratic-controlled House. Byrnes’ support of abortion rights would presumably help Dillon with voters at odds with him on that issue. He’s among the Michigan Democrats who oppose abortion.
Despite the persistent speculation, Byrnes says she’s never discussed the lieutenant governor’s post with Dillon.
“Even if I had, I’m not sure I’d accept,” she says. “I’m running for state Senate.”