On Saturday, June 12, the Ann Arbor city Democratic Party hosted a candidate forum for the primary races for the state representative seats in both the 52nd and 53rd districts. Although the forum, held at the Ann Arbor Community Center on North Main Street, was a joint affair for all four candidates in both districts, The Chronicle has split its coverage of the one event into two articles, one for each district’s candidates.
The Democratic primary in the 52nd House District is contested by Christine Green and Jeff Lee. The district covers the better portion of western Washtenaw County and small parts of the city of Ann Arbor.
The 52nd District seat is currently held by Pam Byrnes, who was elected to that position in 2004 and is term-limited. She is running for state senate in District 18, a seat now held by Liz Brater, who is also term-limited. In Michigan, state senators are limited to two four-year terms, and state representatives are limited to three two-year terms.
This coverage of the June 12 candidate forum consists of the questions that candidates were asked, with answers given by the candidates in paraphrased form.
The order of the remarks as presented here reflects the same relative order as they were made at the candidate forum. For each question, the order was randomly chosen among all four candidates. The remarks of 53rd District candidates Jeff Irwin and Ned Staebler, which are occasionally referenced by Lee and Green, are presented separately: “Michigan Dems Primary: House 53rd District“
Two questions were asked that received answers with no elaboration: Both Lee and Green are against term limits; Green is endorsed by the United Auto Workers.
Each candidate was given the opportunity to make some introductory remarks.
Jeff Lee’s Introductory Remarks
Lee began by asking if he could be seen if he didn’t stand. As Lee began his remarks from a seated position, Eunice Burns – who was seated in the audience – told him he’d have to talk louder if he was going to sit.
Lee re-started by telling the audience he’d lived in the area for about 20 years, had attended the University of Michigan, and earned two degrees there. The last four years, he said, he’d spent working for the American Association of University Professors, working on higher education issues across the state.
Lee said Jeff Irwin had made a great point about the budget issues and how they need to approach it. The budget is the beginning of what the legislature does, not the end of it, Lee said. There are a lot of things that need to be done to fix the state, he said – too many people in the state are not working. The job of the legislature is to get things moving in the right direction, but Michigan seems to be “stuck in the mud.” He described the educational system as “good, but could be better.” The taxation system is “not good and needs to be better.” A lot of issues don’t get addressed because we’re worried about how to spend the money that we collect, he said.
Lee said he wants to go to Lansing because Michigan needs direction, needs to move forward. Instead of being last in economic growth year after year, when compared with other states, Michigan needs to set the groundwork so that it could be first in growth. Michigan should not be the state that people look at with a little bit of pity.
Lee allowed that he did not have the same experience that other people had – but it’s not about experience, it’s about ideas, he contended. It’s about what we can do moving forward, not what we’ve done in the past.
Christine Green’s Introductory Remarks
Green introduced herself by saying that she’d been practicing law in Ann Arbor for 25 years, working in the area of civil rights and employment. She said she often sees people who have lost their jobs or who are underemployed. There has been a really “ugly turn” in the last few years, she said. People are not getting replacement employment, they are losing their insurance and unemployment benefits, they’re losing their homes – they’re really suffering. Another thing she’s noticed is that while people are in this disadvantaged position, insurance companies are denying legitimate claims – she is seeing more and more of that and has heard more talk of that as she’s been door-to-door campaigning.
She is also seeing more people laboring under non-compete clauses – it is something common in this geographic area, because the high-tech industry is very big on non-compete clauses, she said. She sees people who are not able to make a living for two or three years because of those clauses.
Legislation is needed, she said, to address some of these problems. Her first priority is to create good-paying jobs for people of this area. She said she’d look everywhere for jobs – new industries need to be brought to the state like wind energy, biotechnology, and the life sciences. She said she’d be an advocate for embryonic stem cell research, for higher education, and for small business. She noted that her own law firm is a small business and is thus very tuned in to the problems that small businesspeople have. The state could do more for them – like tax credits that would allow them to provide health insurance for their employees.
We need to be better stewards of public money, and of our natural resources, she said. She noted that she serves on the Scio Township board, but that really she is a political outsider. People can tell what her values are from the things that she’s done – the kind of law she practices, her work with Planned Parenthood for many years, her work with the Michigan Environmental Council. She said she would incorporate those values in her work in Lansing.
Question: What specific bills would you introduce in the legislature to create jobs?
Christine Green on Jobs
Green picked up on the ending remarks of Jeff Irwin, who had talked about PACE legislation (Property Assessed Clean Energy) as a way to put people to work on energy improvements to their homes, using a voluntary property assessment.
Green suggested amendments to the building code stipulating that buildings need to be more energy-efficient. That would stimulate the production of new products like new drywall and roofing, and create jobs. She said she is very much in favor of those kinds of policies – they have no direct cost but would stimulate growth and create jobs.
Another suggestion from Green was a low-carbon fuel standard – that would encourage fledgling industries in the creation of advanced batteries for hybrid and electric cars.
Investment in infrastructure is also important, Green said. Some businesses feel like it’s expensive to do business in Michigan because they have to frequently repair their equipment due to the poor quality roads. Infrastructure investment creates jobs, Green said, and makes the state more attractive to businesses. Incentives need to be a part of the equation, but should be evaluated in the context of the total amount of the state’s revenue. The incentives should also be evaluated by the standard of whether they really create jobs – if not, then they shouldn’t be continued.
Education needs to be supported as well, said Green. If education is cut and that causes a cut in people power, then that means those people are not working and putting money into the economy. Investing in education would create jobs, because it’s very labor intensive, she concluded.
Jeff Lee on Jobs
Lee said it is absolutely important to have a great educational system. If we’re going to attract and keep talent, it’s because people want to go to great schools. We also absolutely have to have great roads, he said. He cited a study out of Michigan State University that reported Michigan companies have to invest more in packing because our roads are so bad that products get damaged when shipped over the roads.
In terms of jobs, he said, the tax structure is set up in a way that people feel like they’re getting “nickeled and dimed to death.” What’s needed, he said, is stability, so that if someone wants to invest in Michigan they’d know what the tax burden is going to be in the next 3-5 years. He also called for greater transparency in the tax structure.
More specifically, he said that small businesses need to be helped through the regulatory maze so that they can get started or expand. Such businesses need to be able to focus on their business. They should not have to become experts in regulation and permitting – they should be able to focus on things like getting funding, developing customers and getting their business up and running.
Question: What is your position on tax reform to reduce or eliminate reliance on property and flat taxes and replace them with a graduated income tax? Will you please raise taxes for schools and human services?
Christine Green on Taxes
Green agreed with other candidates that we should head towards a graduated income tax. Michigan is in the minority of states that do not have one, she said. She is more in favor of a sales tax on services, because she thinks there is a way to implement it while “blunting the regressive effect.” Instead of having a sales tax on services with certain exceptions, she suggested a sales tax on certain services, but leave everything else out. That would have to be done very carefully, she allowed, but there were ways to do it to blunt the regressive effect and generate additional revenue.
She said the state needs to look at the corporate tax – the 22% surtax. Regardless of how you feel about it, she said, there is a perception that it’s unfair and overly complicated. So that needs to be addressed. We have to bear in mind, she said, that the state is below the average in the taxes that we pay. Our taxes and our expenditures, she stressed, should reflect our values and she was not sure that is currently the case.
Jeff Lee on Taxes
Lee agreed with the remarks that other candidates had made. In the long term, going to a graduated income tax is the right move, he said. It would require a constitutional amendment or a constitutional convention to change. He said we need a broader and a simpler tax system, something that grows with the economy.
He also said that it’s important to prioritize our investments. It is important to be proactive in spending money – you can keep people from needing services by being proactive on the front end. We need to invest in the things that will grow Michigan, he said, not invest in things just because we’ve already been spending money on them. That means spending more money on education, more money on human services and helping people find jobs, instead of spending money just because that’s how it’s allotted.
Question: With many local school districts struggling to keep their doors open, do you favor legislation that would require multiple districts to consolidate both through consolidating services and consolidating districts?
Christine Green on Consolidation in Education
Generally speaking, Green said, she does not favor consolidation of districts. However, she said, for services, she feels there are some services that can be provided regionally. School districts could get together, for example, and provide bus service. Generally, she thinks that voters want their schools to reflect their own concerns and that is best done on a very local level. People want their own school board, she said. They want access to their own school board and they want to say how their schools are run. And that is a good thing, she said.
Consolidation of services is a good thing, she said, but she does not necessarily think that privatization of those services is desirable.
Jeff Lee on Consolidation in Education
Lee noted that in some counties there is consolidation of food services and purchasing at the intermediate school district level. So there are some examples of school districts saving money by working together, he said. That could be improved. A lot of it, however, is up to the districts, he said.
Districts need to be able to make decisions that are in their best interests. Consolidation could work, but if the state forces school districts to merge, it might not be a natural fit, and it might not be in the best interests of the community. He said that the state should try to help schools consolidate if they decide it’s in their best interests. He is against privatizing, saying all that does is take the same people and give them jobs with lower wages and lower benefits.
Lee also stressed that it’s important for students to have the opportunity to take classes in a variety of different subjects.
Question: What experience do you have managing and balancing budgets and closing budget deficits?
Christine Green on Budgets
Green began by noting that she’s run her own business for 25 years. She also noted that she is a Scio Township trustee, and balancing the budget is part of that responsibility. She has also been on the governing boards of several organizations in that capacity of managing budgets, she said. She has not had experience with deficits – due to good planning, she said.
There are a lot of places where money can be saved, she suggested. We are spending money keeping people in prison who are not a danger to society, such as sick people, and people who haven’t committed violent crimes but who can’t be paroled under current laws until they’ve served their minimum sentence, due to truth-in-sentencing laws. They could be cared for better in a different facility.
Another thing the state should do is continue with the plan to reduce legislative salaries by 5% and go even further – it is a small part of the budget, she said, but still important, given everyone’s suffering.
Jeff Lee on Budgets
Lee indicated that he agreed with Irwin’s remarks. He said he is on several nonprofit boards and that giving is down while the need is up. The group he works for cut the budget by about one-third and actually managed to provide more services, just by being efficient and making sure they aren’t doing anything they don’t need to do, and making sure the things they do, they do well. He said that could be translated to the state level.
The state needs to make sure they are getting their money’s worth out of the contracts they award, Lee said. They need to make sure that tax credits that are awarded are actually having the desired effect. He also called for simplification of the tax code. He said there are many areas that could be cut, and he stressed the need to be proactive – we can’t just throw people in prison and think that when they’re released they won’t rely on the government to provide for them. It’s important to make them functional members of society. More than anything else, we need to prioritize, he said, and put our money in the areas that will help us grow and not just do what we’ve been doing in the past.
Question: The proposed sulfide mines in the UP are threatening some of the most pristine areas of our state. What should be done to protect our state’s natural environment from this threat? What should be done to protect funding for the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE)?
Christine Green on the Environment
Funding for the DNR, Green said, is extremely important. She didn’t think she could find anyone in the room who would be against protecting Michigan’s natural resources – that’s what makes Michigan what it is, she said. She supports full funding for the DNRE. She also supports strong review processes.
Green said that she knows there is some activity in Lansing trying to limit the review of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment for activities like drilling and mining. The state’s public service commission should be involved in some of the review processes as well. What can be done immediately, she said, is to make sure that the review process is very strong. With respect to new power plants, there needs to be a determination that there is actually a need for such plants. A good review process needs to be in place for all activities that could potentially harm our natural resources, she concluded.
Jeff Lee on the Environment
Lee indicated that he felt Christine Green was exactly right. He characterized it as a “no-brainer.” Michigan had unique natural resources in the Great Lakes and should protect them – it is not a political issue, but rather a quality of life issue, he said. We don’t want to throw our quality of life away just because we can make more money on a copper mine.
There needs to be a public review process, he said, and that process needs to reflect the values of the community. On the subject of green energy, he said that if you are interested in creating more green energy and sustainable energy – it doesn’t mean that if he said it was fine with him to have a wind turbine in his own backyard that it was okay to have one in your backyard. The decision-making process needs to be public, he said.
Right to Bear Arms
Question: How do you feel about legislating greater freedoms to bear arms in public, such as at the malls and at schools?
Jeff Lee on Gun Rights
Lee stated that he is not in favor of having more guns in schools – which he said should not be a surprise to anyone. He respects everyone’s right to carry a weapon, but if you are in a classroom and a student disagrees with a grade that you gave them, that’s not going to be a very fair discussion if someone has a sidearm. He also worries about the possibility that class discussions would not be as free and open if one of the participants has a sidearm. Lee said he is not in favor of guns in schools and that includes universities as well.
Christine Green on Gun Rights
Green stated that she is not in favor of a broadening of gun rights. She noted that it is important to recognize that there is always some restriction on all of our rights. She also stated that it’s important to respect people who do exercise their right to bear arms and to do so respectfully. It is an important part of the Michigan economy, she said. However, she allowed that guns frighten her and handguns frighten her even more.
Question: Michigan law does not require corporations to publicly disclose contributions to political candidates and organizations or officials. Do you support that kind of disclosure?
Jeff Lee on Campaign Finance
Lee stated that we need transparency – we need to know who is supporting candidates.
Christine Green on Campaign Finance
Christine Green stated that she would like to increase access to the voting process – she is in favor of full disclosure, she said. On the Scio Township board, she said she is one of a couple of people who have really pushed for putting their meeting packets online. The material is always available under the Freedom of Information Act, she said, but why not have the material available to the public on the day of the meeting? She is in favor of legislation that would buffer the effects of the recent Supreme Court decision that changed the way corporations can make contributions to political campaigns.
Question: Do you think we should have a constitutional convention, and why?
Jeff Lee on a Constitutional Convention
Lee began by saying that he agreed with comments of Ned Staebler, who had concluded that he was not in favor of having a constitutional convention because the potential for getting a worse document out of that process is too great.
Lee said someone told him that we shouldn’t have a constitutional convention because every “nut job” will try to put some kind of crazy clause in there and we will be worse off than we are today. He characterized that as a valid argument. On the other hand, he said that Michigan has a lot of problems and is no longer a 1960s state. Michigan really needs to look at how it’s going to be a state in the 21st century, he said. If there is a constitutional convention, he said, its success in turning out a better document than we have now will depend on voters sending representatives to the convention who can get the job done.
Christine Green on a Constitutional Convention
Tactically, Green said it is a pretty easy question. Addressing Jeff Irwin’s suggestion that things couldn’t get much worse with respect to gay and lesbian rights and abortion rights, she said that she thinks it could actually get much worse.
Philosophically, Green felt like there are good reasons for having a convention and good reasons against it as well. Cost is a main reason she cited as being against it. A convention would also be very time-consuming. What we need to do right now, she said, is to roll up our sleeves in Michigan and get to work and figure out how to deal with some of these issues that are pressing right now. Some of the things that people would like to accomplish with a constitutional convention, she said, could be accomplished by other means – through a constitutional amendment, for example.
Question: In Michigan, a death certificate must have a signature from a funeral director to be legal. This greatly increases the cost of funerals. Is this something that you would work against?
Christine Green on Funeral Regulations
Green said she doesn’t think she would actively work in favor of removing the requirement – there are reasons why rules like that are in place. She said that right now she would not be in favor of sponsoring legislation that would lift that requirement. A lot of the cost comes from other services that funeral directors provide, she said. Saying she’s sensitive to the issue of cost, she added that she’s also mindful of the fact that the regulation is there for a purpose.
Jeff Lee on Funeral Regulations
Lee said there is always room for exceptions – you want people to have the right to choose in as many areas as possible. We don’t want to burden somebody with costs during the grieving process, he said, but usually such regulations are in place for a reason. To be honest, he said, he did not know the reasons why the regulations are there. And that is perhaps a reason to have a conversation – if someone feels that it’s an onerous cost.
Crossing the Aisle
Question: What’s your perspective on how to work with the opposite party?
Christine Green on Working with Republicans
As a lawyer for 25 years, Green noted that you have to be good at negotiation – most cases do not go to trial, they settle. So she has developed some very good negotiating skills and she planns to use the skills in Lansing, she said. It involves give-and-take and compromise, she said.
It also involves not giving up your principles, staying true to your principles and pushing that issue but deciding what you can give up. What’s the most important part of the package the client really has to have before she or he can walk away from the case? On the Scio Township board, she said, she figured that perhaps not everyone on the board is a Democrat, even though they all had been elected as Democrats. They are still able to work together despite differences in opinion – they listen to each other and are respectful of each other. The same concept could work at the state level, she suggested. She described her work at Planned Parenthood – the organization works with right-to-life people on a variety of different projects, she said. You find an issue that you agree on, for example: Let’s prevent unintended pregnancies. It is important to go down to a specific level on a point of agreement and build from there, she said.
Jeff Lee on Working with Republicans
Lee said that it’s important to find common ground and it’s important to focus on outcomes. He said that there is a lot of focus on process and on whether points can be won for introducing an amendment, for example. There is a lot of emphasis on whether somebody can get credit for something, so that they can come back to voters and say, “Hey look what I did!” Instead, they should be able to say both parties worked together to produce a bill that is good for Michigan. Instead of focusing on who gets credit for something, he said, it is more important to figure out how everybody can succeed.
Right-to-Life and Pro-Choice
Question: Do you favor right-to-life or choice?
Christine Green on Abortion
Green stated that she is absolutely pro-choice. For her, medical privacy is the issue – it is something that a woman has to discuss with her doctor. In no other place do we invade that relationship, she said, and we should not in this case either.
Jeff Lee on Abortion
Lee stated that he is also pro-choice. He also said he is a supporter of comprehensive sexual education and access to family planning information.
The Senior Vote
Question: Research has shown that voters in primaries are 70% senior citizens. How are you planning for this?
Jeff Lee on Senior Voters
The first thing you have to do, Lee said, is to reach out to everybody. Many seniors, he suggested, have lived in the state all their lives and they are interested in leaving a legacy, something that is better than it was when they were young. It is important to listen to them because they have experience, he said.
Christine Green on Senior Voters
Green said she has not changed her strategy based on the prevalence of older voters. She is trying to knock on every door she possibly can – regardless of age or any other factor. Regardless of age group, a lot of the concerns, she said, seem to be the same.
A lot of senior citizens tell her that they are retired and don’t need to worry about a job for themselves, but the economy will affect them just as much or more than the rest of us. They care about all the issues that the rest of us care about, she concluded. Some of the seniors, she said, are potentially sensitive to some of the unfairness that goes on, some of the ways that individuals are being taken advantage of – insurance money that is being denied for legitimate claims, for example.
Followup question: Concerns are not the same across all age groups. There will soon be more seniors than elementary school kids. How does that affect what you plan to do about the budget?
Christine Green on Impact of Seniors on the Budget
Green began by saying, “We cannot let our seniors down.” Seniors are people who have worked their whole lives – they helped raise us in one way or another, whether parents or teachers.
We’re going to have to address revenue, though, because we do have a number of seniors who are not generating income, she cautioned. That has to be taken into consideration, she said, when the state makes revenue decisions. They have to take it into account when planning for services. She is in favor of making the delivery of services more efficient rather than cutting them. She concluded by saying that we owed a special debt to all the people who helped raise us.
Green warned that there would probably be some unintended consequences of the new federal health care bill – she had learned from her work with Planned Parenthood that the state has a lot to do with delivery of health care.
Jeff Lee on Impact of Seniors on the Budget
Health care is going to be an issue, he said – that would be a no-brainer. He said he’d heard from older voters with worries about how they are going to pay for all the prescriptions that they have. They also have housing issues – not just mortgage issues, but issues also with utility bills.
He noted that some of the seniors he talked to reported that their children have moved out of state, because they could not find jobs here in Michigan. They could not afford to travel to California or Florida to visit their children and their children could not afford to fly back to Michigan. That is a shame, he said.
Each candidate gave a summary statement.
Jeff Lee Sums Up
We need to be proactive and we need to fix problems, Lee began. It’s not just the problems that we have, it’s the problems that we are going to have.
We need to find a way to build the Michigan that we want to have and not just take the Michigan that we’ve inherited. He related a conversation that he’d had with an older couple who told him that they do not have very much time left in this world and they want to see the kind of Michigan that they grew up in – a place they were proud of. We can do that, he said.
It will take leadership and vision, though. We can have a world-class education system and we can have a globally competitive job market – we can do that, Lee said, but it would take hard work. Business as usual would not be acceptable.
Christine Green Sums Up
Green said that as she goes door-to-door, an evening when somebody at the door does not break down and cry is the exception, not the rule.
People are underwater on their homes, they’re losing their jobs, they’re not getting their disability payments when they are disabled, they are laboring under noncompete agreements in some fields, they are truly suffering. She said that she doesn’t think the government is really working for them right now, and we need to turn that around.
We need to make sure that the government works for the people, she said. We’ve got to create jobs, and if we do that the economy will be healthier. But we also have to be mindful of the fact that Michigan is a beautiful state, that it is unique among all the states, and we need to be able to preserve that. And we need to capitalize on that in order to create jobs – our environment is an asset that we should invest in and protect like any other asset.
We need to rebalance the power so that individuals are not so much at the mercy of large corporations, Green said. She would be an advocate for individual rights, an advocate for the environment, an advocate for education, and for small businesses that want to make Michigan part of their future.