Warren and Byrnes currently represent the 53rd and 52nd districts of the House, respectively. Partridge may be familiar to Chronicle readers as a frequent speaker during public commentary at the meetings of various public bodies. Partridge’s remarks are recorded in more than 50 Chronicle meeting reports since the publication’s launch in September 2008.
Each of the three candidates sought to differentiate themselves. Byrnes stressed the fact that her entire work career before being elected to the House had been in Washtenaw County, where she’d gotten to know the specific concerns related to the area, thus contrasting herself with Warren, whose whole career has been in Lansing. For her part, Warren cast her work in Lansing as a positive, saying that it allowed her to actually get things done.
Partridge, who laid claim to being the most senior of the candidates, staked out a position as a reform candidate, and reflected back on the 1960s when he’d financed his college education at Michigan State University – by selling a prize-winning Angus steer.
Audience questions written on cards were administered to the candidates by Jim Leonard of The Ann Arbor Observer. The order of the remarks as presented here reflects the same relative order as they were made at the candidate forum.
Each candidate was given the opportunity to make introductory remarks.
Thomas Partridge’s Opening Statement
Thomas Partridge introduced himself as a proud father of two University of Michigan alumni, and a grandfather. He called himself a reform candidate.
He asked the audience to support his platform for reform of the Michigan legislature and of the attitudes of people in Washtenaw County. He said he “rejected out of hand” the attitudes of people who come to public meetings with divisiveness on their minds.
We need to reach a consensus behind a reform agenda, he said, to rewrite the constitution. He called for a Michigan Senate based not on geography and land area, but on population.
He called for affordable, countywide public transportation, affordable health care, job creation, and access to education.
Pam Byrnes’ Opening Statement
Byrnes began her opening statement by asking people in the audience to vote for her. She said she believes she’s the most qualified candidate, with the experience, accessibility and ability to get things done in Lansing.
She pointed out that she has lived and worked in Washtenaw County for more than 35 years – working her way through law school at the University of Michigan as a single mom, running a law practice as an advocate for children, families and victims of domestic violence, teaching at Eastern Michigan University and being appointed as the county’s first female road commissioner, among other things.
She said she’s been involved in a variety of community groups, serving on boards and in other leadership roles. She also founded the Western Washtenaw Democratic Club, and was its first chair.
Her daughter was born and raised here, she noted, and her grandsons were born here. [The two boys attended the forum and sat in the audience with Byrnes' husband, Kent Brown.]
Her entire work experience, before being elected as state representative for District 54 in 2004, had been in Washtenaw County, she said. In contrast, she added, Warren’s entire career has been in Lansing. [Prior to being elected as state representative for District 53, Warren served as chief of staff to Democratic state representatives Mary Schroer and Hubert Price, and later was executive director of MARAL Pro-Choice Michigan.]
This race is about who can best serve the interests of all of Washtenaw County, she said – who can move Michigan onto sound financial footing, and who can advocate for efficient, effective and responsible government. “I am that candidate,” she said, “and my record proves it.”
Rebekah Warren’s Opening Statement
Warren introduced herself as the District 53 state House representative since January 2007. By way of biography, Warren said she’d come to Ann Arbor 20 years ago to attend the University of Michigan, had met her husband [Conan Smith, chair of the Ann Arbor Democratic Party and a county commissioner] and bought a home in Ann Arbor.
She’d been working for the last 20 years to make the community a good place to work and live. She’d spent seven years “in the trenches” in the pro-choice movement, she said, as the executive director of MARAL, a pro-choice nonprofit. She also cited 10 years of experience in Lansing working as a staff member and legislator, working alongside legislators like Lana Pollack, Alma Wheeler Smith, and Mary Schroer, all of whom endorse her candidacy for the Senate, she said.
She’s represented Ann Arbor in the state House for four years and had worked on a number of issues critical to Ann Arbor’s future. She’s served as chair of the Great Lakes and Environment Committee, co-chair of the Legislative Biotechnology caucus. As chair of the Great Lakes committee, she said, she’d worked on legislation like the Great Lakes Compact – legislation that regulates diversion of water from the Great Lakes. She also reported she’d worked on a bi-partisan plan to maintain the Wetlands Protection Act – a 30-year old piece of legislation – which keeps responsibility for Michigan’s wetland in the state of Michigan. There’d been an effort to shift responsibility for wetlands to the federal government, which she’d worked against.
She’d also worked on legislation to increase funding for the state parks system, by creating a new funding mechanism, she said. She also said she was working on legislation to enact a ban on all drilling in Lake Michigan.
It’s been a challenging budget environment during her time in the House, she said, and she is proud to have worked on policies that will move the state towards a brighter and strong future – diversifying our economy, protecting our natural resources, and strengthening our schools.
She cited her service to the local community through her chairship of Ann Arbor’s community development executive committee, the SOS Community Services board and a member of the St. Andrews Episcopal Church.
Question: How would you help Michigan transition to the new economy, and what legislation have you supported to reach that goal?
Pam Byrnes on the Economy
To move Michigan forward, Byrnes said, the state needs jobs to diversity the economy. There were warning signs in the 1960s that the state needed to diversify away from its reliance on the auto industry, she said, but that didn’t happen. Now, Michigan is facing serious hardships, and needs to focus on creating jobs.
Byrnes then cited a raft of legislation that she has supported aimed at spurring economic growth:
- Enabling the Michigan Dept. of Transportation to pursue partnerships to build a second bridge across the Detroit River, connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. A second span would improve trade routes into Canada, she said.
- Collaborating on legislation that would support the Detroit Region Aerotropolis, by putting Renaissance Zones around Willow Run and Detroit Metro airports.
- Introducing legislation to expand the 21st Century Jobs Fund to include funding for information technology jobs.
- Introducing the Cottage Food Bill, which will exempt small businesses in the food industry from certain licensing and inspection requirements. Gov. Jennifer Granholm is planning to sign the bill on Monday at an event in Ypsilanti.
- Working to increase the state’s renewable portfolio standard. [Act 295 of 2008]
Thomas Partridge on the Economy
Partridge called on the leaders of Michigan companies, like William Clay Ford of the Ford Motor Co., to reverse the downward trend of the Michigan economy by reversing his company’s operating strategy of downsizing and eliminating jobs. Ford should use his experience and his company’s resources to help create jobs and help create new businesses, Partridge said.
As an economic stimulus for the entire state, Partridge called on legislators to act out of fairness and to improve statewide public transportation, particularly in Washtenaw County. Alluding to Warren’s remarks about her work in the legislature, Partridge said that any legislator concerned about the environment and wetlands should also have as a priority to develop a countywide transportation system that would become a regional transportation system for southeast Michigan.
Partridge called it “unconscionable” that in 2010 it was not possible to get on the bus and travel easily from Ann Arbor to Detroit and from Detroit throughout the state of Michigan.
Rebekah Warren on the Economy
Warren said that one of the best things we can do is to diversify our economy. That could be done by using Michigan’s existing strength, she said, which is manufacturing. Michigan has talented workers who are accustomed to working hard, she said, and we need to bring manufacturing into the 21st century.
As an example of that, she pointed to the renewable portfolio standard [Act 295 of 2008], which she’d worked on and help get signed into law – it requires a set percentage of the energy in the state to be generated a renewable way. Because that market for renewable energy had been created, she said, two automobile manufacturing plants had been converted to facilities for building wind turbine gearboxes.
She pointed to agriculture as one of the three largest segments of the Michigan economy, but Michigan had never been active in cranberry bogs. The wetland legislation that Warren said she has helped pass has a provision that requires identification of acreage suitable for construction of such bogs. She said it would create 383 permanent jobs as well as 1,000 construction jobs, generating $30 million annually.
Warren allowed that the idea to build a second bridge across the Detroit River and the aerotropolis that Byrnes had mentioned would help development, but Warren said they had not yet become law. The bills she had worked on, said Warren, had been signed into law and people had been put back to work because of the work she’d done.
Funding for Stadium Bridges
Question: If elected, when can Ann Arbor expect to get state funding to replace the Stadium bridges?
Thomas Partridge on Funding for Stadium Bridges
Partridge said that the Stadium bridges situation epitomizes the situation in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and the entire 18th District of the state Senate – we put off funding needs, like repairing roads and bridges. He suggested that the Ann Arbor city council should sell bonds to rebuild the Stadium bridges immediately.
The University of Michigan football stadium expansion should have never been a priority, Partridge said, while Michigan is in a deep recession. He called for putting people and family first, as well as creating jobs for them. Referring to Warren’s mention of cranberry bogs, he said that cranberry bogs were fine, but dairy farmers, beef farmers, and grain farmers needed support as well.
We need safe roads and bridges throughout the state, he concluded.
Rebekah Warren on Funding for Stadium Bridges
Warren began by saying that the state has committed some funding – there are three different pots of money available to help the city, she said. The simple answer is that the state will be able to help some, but the state no longer has the kind of resources it once did when, for example, it had helped fund the Broadway bridges reconstruction.
She also noted that the budget that the state legislature had passed this year had included a significant decrease in revenue sharing – though she noted she had not supported that budget. That means that the city of Ann Arbor had less money available to spend locally.
One of Warren’s biggest concerns is the old formula that is used, which does not meet the transportation needs of local communities. The state formula says that the most you can spend on public transit is 10%. We need to align that with the needs of local communities, she said, and figure out how to put more resources into our infrastructure, because that’s an integral part of the state’s economy.
Pam Byrnes on Funding for Stadium Bridges
The state needs to raise its gas tax and vehicle registration fees, said Byrnes, who chairs the House Transportation Committee. She sponsored legislation that would raise those fees, she said, providing more revenue for the transportation fund. That’s the only way that Ann Arbor has a chance of getting money for the bridges, she said. [Legislation that Byrnes co-sponsored earlier this year, but which has not been enacted, would raise the gas tax from 19 cents to 23 cents per gallon this year, and then to 27 cents in 2013. ]
Byrnes pointed out that Warren had voted to “plug a hole in the general fund” by transferring money out of the transportation fund – a move which Byrnes voted against, she said.
Safe roads and transportation infrastructure are key to a strong economy, Byrnes said. Without it, tourists won’t be able to get to Michigan’s beaches, and businesses won’t want to locate here.
Question: What have you done or will you do to fix the state’s educational system?
Rebekah Warren on Education
Warren noted that the three basic duties that the legislature are required to address are: public health, public safety, and public education. Of those, she said, public education is the most important because it is “the great equalizer.”
One of the challenges in Michigan, she said, is the lack of a good pre-kindergarten program. So she’s been working with her House colleagues, she said, on legislation that calls for universal pre-kindergarten and early-childhood education that would be supported by the School Aid Fund.
She stated that as a State rep she’d never once voted for a cut to education at any level, from early childhood through higher education. In the ’70s and ’80s, Warren explained, the state paid 70% of the cost of public universities and colleges. Now, the state pays only 30%, which she said is pricing out a whole group of potential students. The state needs to figure out a way to fund higher education, because it takes more than a high school education to succeed.
Pam Byrnes on Education
Michigan needs to provide more funding for education, Byrnes said, and she supports expanding the sales tax, which is the main revenue source for the School Aid Fund. She acknowledged that some people in the audience were shaking their heads, and it wasn’t an easy decision. But the tax structure is antiquated, she said, shaped more for a manufacturing economy than a service economy. Expanding the sales tax on services would provide additional revenue for schools.
Unfortunately, she said, Republicans have taken a “no tax” approach without providing viable alternative solutions. “Somebody has to play the grownup,” she said and make sure we keep the state going – we can’t just vote no on the budget. [She was was apparently alluding to Warren's no vote on the state's budget.]
Another educational issue that Byrnes cited was the significant unfunded liabilities that the state faces in the future – referring to underfunded programs of the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System. MPSERS manages a pension fund and retirement benefits fund for the state’s public school employees.
Thomas Partridge on Education
Partridge stated that he was a member of the Michigan State University student government back in 1964, and had addressed the Senate appropriations committee, calling on that committee to reverse the plan of the Senate under George W. Romney to reduce funding for higher education. He’d called on the legislature to put education first.
Even after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Partridge said, we have a discriminatory education system, without equal opportunity. We need constitutional amendments to overhaul the tax structure and to restore education funding to what it should be.
Question: Do you favor a constitutional convention? What would you want to change in the constitution, and why?
Rebekah Warren on a Constitutional Convention
Warren acknowledged that there are different sides to the issue. In her view, she said, Michigan has seen some “pretty awful” changes to the constitution, citing the ballot initiative on same-sex marriage, term-limit laws, and an affirmative action ballot proposal. Those are issues that might be addressed at a convention, she said. There are tax changes – like a graduated income tax – that can only be addressed through constitutional changes.
However, Warren said she was not for holding a convention, pointing out that the experience in other states had shown that things could be made even worse. She said there was the risk of the influence of money from outside the state affecting the outcome, which she said had been the case with the campaign led by Ward Connerly [from California] for the constitutional amendment that disallowed affirmative action in college admissions. She said she was “a little nervous” about the idea of opening up the constitution.
Thomas Partridge on a Constitutional Convention
Partridge began by saying that leaders need courage. He’s been a leader since being elected president of the student body of his high school, he said. He’s been an advocate for higher education since 1964, the same year that Lyndon Johnson addressed the University of Michigan graduates that year, announcing the Great Society program.
There’s no doubt that we need constitutional amendments on the ballot, Partridge said. We need accessible, affordable equal rights reforms for students, families, seniors, the disabled and the unemployed.
Pam Byrnes on a Constitutional Convention
Byrnes said she had concerns about opening the constitution. Noting that she had chaired the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education, Byrnes said that the state’s 15 public universities are constitutionally protected, with their own governing boards – and that needs to remain the case.
She supports repealing the ban on same-sex marriage, and looking at a graduated income tax. But Byrnes said she fears that extreme corporate spending would influence delegates at a constitutional convention and the outcome wouldn’t reflect the true wishes of the state. As an alternative, Byrnes said she’d prefer to deal with these issues directly, rather than opening a “Pandora’s Box.”
Fixing the Dysfunctional Legislature
Question: The Michigan legislature is ranked as the most dysfunctional in the nation, outside of California. What do you propose to fix that?
Pam Byrnes on Fixing the Dysfunctional Legislature
Byrnes said she considers herself to be a problem solver, bringing all parties to the table to find common ground and solutions. As an example, she cited the “Complete Street” legislation she sponsored, which requires that the Michigan Dept. of Transportation (MDOT) consider all user groups – including bicyclists, pedestrians and the disabled – when planning road improvement projects. Stakeholders, including road agencies and the townships association – were opposed to making it a mandated part of the master planning process, she said. A compromise was reached to require consideration, she said.
Other examples of her efforts to work toward effective solutions were the East Delhi bridge – convincing the state to fund a restoration, rather than a replacement – and working to deal with the water levels at Four Mile Lake, in the Chelsea State Game Area.
Thomas Partridge on Fixing the Dysfunctional Legislature
There’s a gridlock in the legislature, Partridge said, and to fix that we need to elect new people, with new ideas and new concepts. He said he is the candidate who can provide leadership on those ideas which he has voiced and then seen other politicians take up. Unfortunately, he said, his ideas had not been taken up by the mayor of Ann Arbor and its city council, or by Byrnes and Warren.
Partridge described himself as a product of the higher education system of the 1960s and said that he rejects out of hand the idea that we can’t do things because other states had been unsuccessful.
Rebekah Warren on Fixing the Dysfunctional Legislature
Warren said that serving in the House starting in 2007 had been a fascinating experience. She said that she was one of two first-term women who’d “got a gavel” [chaired a committee] – on the Great Lakes and Environment Committee. She noted that relationships were important with people on the other side. When you get legislation through the House, you need somebody on the Senate side who can take it up and get the Senate to pass it.
Warren said it had been humbling to hear Phil Power say that some of the work she had done was some of the most important environmental initiatives that had been accomplished in several years.
Her experience leading a pro-choice nonprofit [MARAL] had given her experience dealing with one of the most contentious issues in politics today, she said. When she was named chair of the House Great Lakes and Environment Committee, she said that she though “Everyone loves parks, everyone loves the Great Lakes, we’re going to hold hands and sing Kumbaya … I had no idea how challenging it would be.”
But she said that she’d brought together the leaders of the major environmental protection organizations with the chambers of commerce, the manufacturers associations, and the farm bureaus to put together deals to protect inland lakes and streams and the Great Lakes and groundwater. She would continue in the Senate, she said, to work the same way she has done in the House – to negotiate with people and to hammer out the best compromise we can get, without compromising values.
Why You Should Vote for Me
Question: Why you, and not them?
Pam Byrnes on “Why Me?”
Byrnes reiterated many of the points made during her opening statement, noting that she has lived and worked in Washtenaw County for 25 years: “I know Washtenaw County.” She said she knows what it’s like to run a small business – to meet payroll and deal with the other issues that business owners face.
She’s worked with many groups in the county, from farmers and gravel pit owners to the large Asian community here, she said. She mentioned her law practice in Ypsilanti for 16 years, and noted that she helped facilitate extra funding for the Ypsilanti Freighthouse renovation.
Byrnes also cited her accessibility, saying she has held coffee hours and town halls on the budget for constituents.
Rebekah Warren on “Why Me?”
Warren began by saying that she was born and raised in Michigan – never lived anywhere else. She’s lived in Ann Arbor for 20 years and worked in Lansing for 17 years. She’s proud of that 17 years, she said, working for the people in this community and the people of the state. She said she works hard, takes her responsibility seriously and does not do it just for a job.
As the daughter of a minister and a nurse, she said, she always new that her work life would be about something bigger than her. She was not interested in going into the rat race to make someone else’s shareholders rich.
She said she was “no shrinking violet” and – apparently responding to Byrnes’ earlier remark that it was not enough to just vote no on a budget – said she was willing to be the lone no vote who will say, “this is not the right direction for the state.” That’s an important role, she said even if the vote does not prevail. She was proud to be able to come back to her district and say, “I’m representing your values.”
She concluded by saying she’s proud of the initiatives she’s worked on that have actually become law in the four years she’s served in the House and was looking forward putting her “hands in the dirt” over at the Senate.
Thomas Partridge on “Why Me?”
Partridge stated that we need new leadership in the Michigan legislature that can’t be provided by those currently serving there. He called on members of the Democratic party in the state to stand up and “be Democrats” the way that students in the 1960s did. He recalled how he’d stood up at public meetings in 2008 calling for the nomination of Barack Obama as the Democratic candidate, and had later called for his election.
He would go to the legislature and be forthright, he said. We need Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature, he said.
Each candidate gave a closing statement.
Thomas Partridge Sums Up
Partridge began by saying that we need reform and a new approach to society. Considering the meeting that day, he asked why it was not a meeting of the united Democratic Party of Washtenaw County in a venue that was wired for transmission in a variety of media. He asked why there were not more minorities who felt welcome at the meeting, and why there were no people there in wheelchairs or using walkers. He’d raised those questions starting in high school and college, he said.
He contended that the Washtenaw County board of commissioners and the Ann Arbor city council do not have democratic attitudes, even though they had Democratic majorities. We need a democratic-minded reformer, he said, and he is that candidate.
He told the audience that he’d financed most of his higher education through his earnings as a 4-H Club member. Specifically, it had been funded by the sale at statewide auction of a grand champion Angus steer in 1969. He’d received favorable press from that in a newspaper now owned by Advance Publications, an out-of-state company that now owns AnnArbor.com, he said. The newspaper account had described him as a student who’d overcome muscular dystrophy to become a high school leader, an college leader and an adult leader. He asked for voters’ support to become a state legislator.
Pam Byrnes Sums Up
In her closing remarks, Byrnes reiterated many of the points she made in her opening statement. The No. 1 priority for the state is to grow the economy, and to do that they need to generate jobs. She ticked through several ways that she’s already working to do that: legislation to support the Aerotropolis, “Complete Streets,” the cottage foods business, state roads and transportation, the second bridge across the Detroit River, expanding the 21st Century Jobs grants to include the IT industry, among other efforts.
Leaders must lead by example, she said. That’s why she voted to reduce pay for legislators by 10%, she said, and to dock their pay if they don’t show up for work.
Byrnes noted that she’s been endorsed by small business groups, tradespeople, and public safety organizations, among others. She encouraged the audience to visit her website, and wrapped up by saying she’d appreciate their vote on Aug. 3.
Rebekah Warren Sums Up
Warren began by thanking the Ann Arbor Democratic Party for hosting the event and the audience for listening.
It’s no secret, Warren said, that times are tough in Michigan– people are losing their homes, their jobs and their hope. But she said that Michigan is still a great place to live and we can get back on a path to prosperity. She called “reform” a buzz word of the day up in Lansing. In the current economic climate, we need to get the most out of every dollar we spend, but we also enact the right kind of reform. The wrong kind of reforms, she said, were those that are targeted for a 5 p.m. news headline but that have no structural effect on the budget. We need long-term solutions, she said.
She cited her record of strong bi-partisanship and shared solutions. She told the audience that they could count on her to find compromise solutions that do not compromise their values. She’s successfully negotiated legislation that has been signed into law by the governor, she said, with significant bi-partisan support. She’s encouraged by the progress that’s been made.
She said she’d continue to fight for health families, a clean environment and strong schools. She then ticked off a number of endorsements from educational and labor organizations and pointed people to her website.
Ann Arbor Chronicle publisher Mary Morgan contributed to this report.