Three Democratic candidates for the Michigan House of Representatives fielded questions on Monday evening that covered a mix of topics – from education and public transit to term limits, failing infrastructure, environmental quality and retirement benefits for public employees.
In District 53, covering most of Ann Arbor, incumbent Jeff Irwin faces Thomas Partridge in the Aug. 7 primary. Irwin, a former Washtenaw County commissioner, was first elected to the House in 2010 and is seeking a second two-year term. Partridge, a frequent speaker during public commentary at various local government meetings, most recently ran an unsuccessful campaign for state Senate (District 18) in 2010. Both candidates are residents of Ann Arbor. In the Nov. 6 general election, the winner of the Democratic primary will compete against Republican John Spisak, who is unopposed in the Republican primary.
In the new District 55 – created during the state’s reapportionment process after the 2010 Census – Democrats Adam Zemke of Ann Arbor and Andrea Brown-Harrison of Ypsilanti are competing in the Aug. 7 primary. The winner will face Republican Owen Diaz, the former mayor of Milan, in November. Diaz is unopposed in the Republican primary. The district covers parts of northern Ann Arbor, the townships of Ann Arbor, Augusta, Pittsfield and York, and a northern part of the city of Milan.
Brown-Harrison did not attend the July 9 candidate forum, which was moderated by the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area. League member Judy Mich reported that Brown-Harrison did not respond to repeated requests made by phone, email and regular mail to attend the forum. Zemke answered the same set of questions that were posed to Irwin and Partridge.
The forum was held at the studios of Community Television Network, and will be available online via CTN’s video-on-demand service. The format included opening statements, seven questions, and closing statements. Though the format did not promote interaction between candidates, each candidate was given an optional one-minute rebuttal to use once during the forum.
League moderators noted that July 9 was the last day to register for the Tuesday, Aug. 7 primary. The last day to register to vote for the Tuesday, Nov. 6 general election is Oct. 9. Information on voter registration can be found on the Washtenaw County clerk’s elections division website. To see a sample ballot for your precinct, visit the Secretary of State’s website.
Each candidate was given one minute for an opening statement.
Opening Statements: Thomas Partridge (District 53)
Partridge said he was at this forum, as he’s been at numerous public meetings over the past decade, to stand up for the most vulnerable residents of the 53rd District, Washtenaw County and the state. He was there to pose a question: Why hasn’t more been accomplished since the 2010 election that brought the current incumbents – both Republicans and Democrats – to the state legislature. Why hasn’t more been accomplished under the administration of Gov. Richard Snyder, who came into office making all kinds of promises?
Opening Statements: Jeff Irwin (District 53)
Irwin thanked the league for hosting the forum, and thanked the voters of Ann Arbor for sending him to Lansing two years ago. It’s been a couple of difficult years, he said, with big cuts to public education. There was a major shift in tax policy, shifting from businesses to individuals. It’s been an honor to be in Lansing and represent the interests of this community, he said. His goal for the next two years is to refocus the state’s priorities, to put education back on a pedestal and increase educational funding. He’s also interested in environmental protection, looking at the areas of clean energy and energy efficiency to improve the environment and provide jobs. Irwin also said he wants to continue his work on equal rights. Michigan should be a welcoming place for folks of any lifestyle or background, he said.
Opening Statements: Adam Zemke (District 55)
Zemke said the 55th District is his home, and has been his family’s home for five generations. He grew up in Washtenaw County, and attended Ann Arbor public schools – Haisley Elementary, Forsythe Middle School and Pioneer High School. He has undergraduate and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering. Zemke said he worked for former 55th District state Rep. Kathy Angerer in Lansing. He’s running because he’s sick of seeing the state’s brain drain, and watching the current legislature not do anything about it.
Purpose and Qualifications
Why have you chosen to run for state representative, and what makes you the better qualified candidate?
Partridge (District 53): He’s running because he’s dedicated to serving the most vulnerable residents of the district and state, Partridge said. In today’s economy, with a slow-to-recover recession, the middle class and senior citizens, the disabled, and homeless people who’ve recently been evicted by the Michigan Dept. of Transportation from Camp Take Notice in Scio Township – all these people need representation.
Irwin (District 53): He loves Michigan – it’s a beautiful state, Irwin said. He grew up in northern Michigan, and said he can’t say enough about the Great Lakes, which the state has an obligation to protect. He’s also running to give back to the state, he said. He’s had tremendous opportunities through the public education he received, including the University of Michigan. “I want to be a positive force for change in Michigan.” As far as experience, he said he spent several years lobbying the state legislature on clean air and clean water policy for the League of Conservation Voters. He spent just over a decade on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, he said, working on issues that addressed the most vulnerable residents, in areas of affordable housing, mental health care and public health. Having the opportunity to watch the impact of state funding at the local level has given him a lot of tools for his work in Lansing, Irwin said. When funding decisions are made in Lansing, he understands how it affects the local level.
Partridge (District 53) (using his one-time, one-minute opportunity for rebuttal): He said he attended the same Washtenaw County board of commissioners meetings over the last decade when Irwin was a commissioner. Partridge described himself as the lead-off speaker during public commentary at numerous meetings for the county board, Ann Arbor city council, township boards, and Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board. He said he was the person leading the effort to protect and serve the most vulnerable residents of the county, to end homelessness and provide affordable housing. “That was not achieved under Jeff Irwin’s leadership on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners or in the Michigan legislature,” he said.
Zemke (District 55): He said he’s running for the state legislature because he wants to take Washtenaw County values up to Lansing and work with the Democratic delegation from the county – Jeff Irwin and David Rutledge. [Rutledge was first elected in 2010 to District 54, which covers eastern Washtenaw County. He is unopposed in the Democratic primary, and faces Republican Bill Emmerich in November.] Local experience is important, Zemke said. He noted that he’s sat on several boards for the county, the city of Ann Arbor, and Dexter Township. He grew up in Ann Arbor – where his family lived on Spring Street. He again cited his work for former state Rep. Kathy Angerer, saying she supported good policy that he hasn’t seen much of in the last two years.
Public Pension & Benefits
Efforts to balance the state budget often look to reducing retirement benefits for public employees. Should retirement benefits for state legislators be the same as for other state employees? What should be the term required for legislators in order to get that benefit? Other public employees, like teachers and police officers, are getting lower retirement benefits and are threatened with further cuts. How far should this go?
Irwin (District 53): Over the past two years, state legislators have voted to completely eliminate retirement health care benefits for legislators, he noted. As far as other retirement benefits, legislators can participate in a 401(k)-style plan, but it’s no different than other public employees – and in fact, he said, the retirement plan for legislators can fairly be described as worse than for other public employees. More important are the changes that legislators have been discussing for public employees across the board, he said. A month ago, they debated Senate Bill 1040, which would drastically change the retirement and retirement health care benefits for teachers. If this bill becomes law, any new teachers hired in Michigan would not have any retirement health care benefit, he said. In the past, there’s been a social contract with public sector employees – they’re generally paid a little less, but their long-term benefits and security are greater. Now, not only are they being paid less, but their long-term security is worse as well, he said.
Partridge (District 53): The attention given to retirement benefits for state legislators is a red herring, Partridge said. The truth is that Gov. Snyder came into office with a multimillion-dollar fortune and has made a frontal attack on public employees, including legislators. Partridge contended that it’s turned the attention away from Snyder’s failure and the failure of Republicans and of too many Democrats in the legislature – including Irwin – to address the issues of ending homelessness, building affordable housing, affordable and accessible transportation, education, and health care for the most vulnerable residents. He said he’s stood up meeting after meeting and called for the recall of Snyder.
Zemke (District 55): State legislators should be treated like all other public employees, Zemke said. He agreed with the description that Irwin had given of the current situation for public employees. Public employees shouldn’t be vilified, he said, and he’s seen that happening over the past two years. He comes from a family with teachers and they’re upset by it – they work hard, yet people look at them as not being hard workers and as getting paid too much. He said he knows for a fact that teachers don’t make much money. He’s very supportive of public employees.
Great Lakes & Water Quality
The Great Lakes are perhaps the state’s greatest natural asset. Who watches water quality and quantity, and pushes for continued improvement? Does Michigan do this on its own, or is there federal support and partnerships?
Partridge (District 53): The Great Lakes are certainly a renowned resource for Michigan, Partridge said, but the real important factor in all environmental concerns are the residents, especially the most vulnerable residents and families. All are suffering the consequences of lax policies under the current administration and legislature, in neglecting to improve the environment in the Great Lakes, in air and water quality, in protecting inland lakes – even in the 53rd District, he said.
Irwin (District 53): There are partnerships with the federal government in several areas, including in efforts to get rid of Asian carp – though not enough is being done in that regard, Irwin said. But most of the environmental protection and enforcement is meted out at the state level. Michigan has taken control of its water quality issues, and that’s managed by the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality. One reason why Michigan is struggling to protect water quality is that the MDEQ has been on a 10- or 20-year slide in terms of funding, Irwin said. The number of inspectors and enforcement officers the department has – to determine if requirements for a particular permit are being met, for example – is very low, he said. The state has very poor enforcement. Another emerging issue is with fracking, Irwin said. It’s not just water pollution that’s a concern, but also water quantity. He said he’s introduced legislation that would require all oil and gas drillers to disclose how much water they’re using, and to get a permit for that use.
Zemke (District 55): As with most things, there are definitely partnerships available, Zemke said. The Great Lakes aren’t just “perhaps” the state’s greatest natural resource, he said – he’d argue that they are the greatest natural resource. The state needs to ensure that the Great Lakes are protected. That includes water extraction and invasive species in particular. One area that he doesn’t think the state and federal governments are working on hard enough is getting the Asian carp out of Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes should be kept clean and protected from drilling, Zemke added, and they need to make sure that invasive species don’t continue to be a problem.
Currently, state elected officials in Michigan are term-limited. Do you favor abolishing term limits, changing the limits, or continuing the policy of two terms only for state legislators?
Partridge (District 53): Term limits should be increased, but not abolished entirely, he said. The downside of eliminating term limits is that political machines develop in districts around the state. Those become “safe” districts and homes for lifelong careers for certain legislators, he said – both Republicans and Democrats. He’d like to see term limits kept in place but increased for both the Michigan House and Senate. And “we need to term-limit Gov. Richard Snyder right out of office as of the next election,” Partridge said.
Irwin (District 53): Irwin said he voted against term limits – it’s anti-democratic. However, he said he’s not investing a lot of his time or political capital working on this issue. He’d rather spend time working on education or environmental policy. However, it’s important to understand the political environment in which term limits were foisted upon the state, he said. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce had lobbied for it at a time when Democrats had a stranglehold on the state House, he said. Term limits and the public’s general irritation with public officials were used to break loose that stranglehold. And it worked, he said – now Republicans have control of both the House and Senate.
Zemke (District 55): He’s opposed to term limits, and at a minimum supports extending them. It’s been a revolving door in Lansing over the past several years, he said. A lot of new faces come in who aren’t educated on the issues. They’re constantly running for re-election and by the time they get educated on the issues, they are term-limited out of office. “That doesn’t do any of us citizens of the state of Michigan any good at all,” Zemke said. But he agreed with Irwin that this isn’t a major priority now – there are more important issues to be tackled, such as education, the environment, and Michigan’s economy.
The state’s infrastructure is getting old. Is there a strategic plan for replacing dilapidated roads, bridges and other infrastructure? What’s needed to guarantee implementation of the plan? Who ensures that competitive bidding occurs, and how does the state eliminate fraud and favoritism? Who monitors the final product?
Irwin (District 53): He began by noting that the question covered a lot of different topics to answer in one minute, but he’d do his best. Michigan does have a plan for its road infrastructure, he said. The Transportation Asset Management Council goes around the state, assessing the quality of pavement and bridges. There’s an inventory of all that information and a plan for spending the limited funds available to meet the need. But there are billions of dollars of unmet needs over the next decade, Irwin noted. When he served on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, he was a representative on the executive committee at SEMCOG (the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments). “I can tell you there are tremendous unmet needs for bridges and roads across our community,” he said. But the one unmet need throughout all of Michigan is public transit, he said. It’s a particularly acute need in southeast Michigan. This community is fortunate to have the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, he said, which does a very good job for a community this size. But if Michigan wants to take the next step and become the state it wants and needs to be, Irwin said, “we need to solve transit in southeast Michigan.” There needs to be a way to get people from Point A to Point B that’s convenient, safe and accessible.
Partridge (District 53): Failing infrastructure is certainly a problem, Partridge said. The current governor has given all his attention to building a new bridge to Canada, he added, and is not telling the public how many jobs will go across the bridge if it is built – from Michigan factories and businesses, to lower-paying jobs in Canada. That needs to be addressed. The state needs a new revenue base for funding infrastructure, he said. A constitutional amendment is needed to provide a progressive income tax to pay for needed improvements. He said he supports countywide public transportation and region-wide public transportation.
Irwin (using his one-time, one-minute rebuttal): Irwin said it wasn’t a rebuttal, but he wanted the extra time because it’s an important issue to him and one he’s worked on a lot. Transit is really the missing piece that’s key to making southeast Michigan the kind of attractive community we want it to be. He said he agreed with Partridge about the need for a progressive income tax. The very first resolution Irwin introduced in the House was to create a constitutional amendment for a graduated income tax in Michigan. Thirty-seven other states have that kind of progressive taxation policy, he said. It would level the playing field for Michigan. He also mentioned that in Washtenaw County, there’s been a long-range planning process that the AATA has been leading to create a broader public transit system. He encouraged everyone to participate in that. If this area waits until the federal government or the state government solves the transit problems locally, “I think we might be waiting too long. We don’t want to hold our breath. Let’s seize our own destiny. Let’s make sure the AATA is the best agency it can be.”
Zemke (District 55): He noted that in his opening statement, he had mentioned the state’s brain drain – the need to keep younger people in Michigan. Young people love urban environments, he said. Mass transit is a critical component to getting people into the urban areas of southeast Michigan, especially Detroit, which he hoped would continue to be revitalized. Mass transit is also critical in Washtenaw County, he said. There are a number of roads and bridges that are crumbling, and those are “killing us from an economic development perspective.” It’s important to invest in the redevelopment of that infrastructure. That’s being done in Ann Arbor [likely an allusion to the rebuilding of the East Stadium bridges], but it needs to expand at the state level too, he said.
Besides reducing money into the state’s School Aid Fund, more is being tapped for for-profit charter schools and online education. Do you see a movement toward privatization of K-12 education? What action would you support?
Partridge (District 53): Under the state’s current conservative leadership, he said, vital money is being taken away from public education and health care for children, adults and senior citizens. “We need to keep a strong public education system and resist the effort to privatize and charter-tize our public schools.” Public schools need to be turned into places of education, starting with pre-school but extending to at least the first two years of university education, he said.
Irwin (District 53): One of the most troubling things during the last two years in Lansing has been the aggressive move to privatize education, Irwin said. “It’s been heartbreaking, frankly.” The legislature has vastly increased charter schools, including a major increase in cyber-charters – virtual online schools. Irwin said the Republican leadership rebuffed all attempts by himself and other Democrats to amend those bills and require the new charter schools to be of high quality, or to require that new charter schools only go into areas where the public schools were already failing. Those attempts were rebuffed because there’s a full-court press to privatize education in Michigan, he said. It’s not just the charter schools – it’s also an attempt to privatize within the public schools, he said.
When Republicans set the budget last year, they put in a provision that said in order for a school system to receive the full allotment of state money, it had to follow what the Republicans called best practices – and that meant privatizing or attempting to privatize all non-instructional services. So custodians, bus drivers, clerical staff are all being aggressively privatized across Michigan, he said, and that’s one reason why the pension system is so under-funded.
Zemke (District 55): With the current legislature, Zemke said he definitely sees a move toward privatization of K-12 education. He doesn’t support that. He’s a big believer in public education. Curriculum needs to be strengthened, and class sizes should be drastically reduced. The state needs to ensure that students are given then best opportunities in K-12. Michigan also needs to refocus on early childhood development – studies show that if you lose students by the time they’re in sixth grade, “you’ve lost them forever,” he said. Going beyond K-12, Zemke said that college tuition is a real problem – it’s far too expensive. It’s become unaffordable, and for public universities, that’s a major problem. The full range of education – from K-12 through college – is a collective package, and should be approached that way, he concluded.
Support for Detroit
No city is an island. In many ways, Detroit is a symbol of the state of Michigan. What’s being done in Lansing to improve the image and to aid the people of Detroit? Also, please enlighten us about the bridge controversy. Whose ad is lying? [The last part of this question refers to Gov. Rick Snyder's efforts to build a second bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. The existing Ambassador Bridge is owned by Manuel "Matty" Moroun's Detroit International Bridge Company. Moroun opposes building a second bridge.]
Partridge (District 53): Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan, Concordia University, Eastern Michigan University – all of the institutions of higher learning in Washtenaw County are linked with Detroit, he said. Education, ending homelessness, providing affordable housing, access to public transportation, affordable health care – these are the civil rights issues of the 21st century. In meeting after meeting when Irwin was on the county board of commissioners and since Irwin has been in Lansing, Partridge has been the voice standing up for those causes, he said, and he’ll continue to do that.
Irwin (District 53): The most important thing for Detroit, to make it the kind of livable city that people want to move to and contribute to, is improving the schools, Irwin said. Nothing is going to happen in Detroit until the public schools are the kind of schools where you’d want to send your kids, he said. That’s the bottom line. But there are some other things that can be done that are also important. Transit is an important missing link – connecting people and places. Also, legislation was recently passed for the Detroit Public Lighting Authority, to help get more streetlights back on in the city, he said. The state could also help Detroit clear title on abandoned properties. So there are things that can be done at the state level to help the city, he said, but education is the most important. Regarding the bridge, Irwin said the state needs a second span. There are tremendous opportunities for the Michigan economy and the Canadian economy, and building a second bridge is a good idea. Obviously, he added, the person who owns the current bridge doesn’t want that to happen.
Zemke (District 55): The bridge is an excellent economic development opportunity for Michigan, Zemke said. It’s key to help push the economy forward. Regarding Detroit, Zemke said he agreed 100% with Irwin that education is critical for attracting families to any city, and Detroit is no different. Public safety is another critical component – the state needs to work with Detroit to make sure people feel safe walking down the street, no matter if it’s in daylight or darkness. The state also needs to continue to work with private investors to revitalize the downtown Detroit area, he said, and grow the city’s populace.
Each candidate had two minutes for a closing statement.
Closing Statement: Thomas Partridge (District 53)
Partridge said he’s dedicated to improving the living conditions and opportunities for residents of the 53rd District, Washtenaw County, the southeast Michigan region and entire state. That impetus under Gov. Snyder, the Republicans and even too many Democrats – including Irwin – just isn’t there, he said. Instead, there is an impetus to make backroom deals for reapportionment of the new state legislative districts, which happened during Irwin’s term, he said.
There is still the specter of backroom deals “and even corruption” that could have saved the residents of the 53rd District millions of dollars, he contended. That would have happened if the city of Ann Arbor and the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, while Irwin led the board, had come together to build a common building to hold meetings in, for offices and community events, and for the 14th and 15th District Courts. But it did not happen. Partridge said that lies were told to the public during Irwin’s leadership on the county board – lies stating that representatives from these groups [the city and county] would not speak to each other – and that resulted in a loss of opportunities and millions of dollars. He concluded by saying that the county and region needs public transportation to bring about economic revival.
Closing Statement: Jeff Irwin (District 53)
Irwin thanked the league again for holding the forum, and thanked voters for sending him to Lansing to represent them for the last two years. He said he loves his job and works very hard at it. He hopes to have the opportunity again. The issues he’ll focus on are education, environmental protection and equal rights.
Irwin said he was surprised that one question wasn’t asked during the forum – about voting. About a week ago, Gov. Snyder vetoed the “voter suppression bills,” Irwin said, which had been passed by the state legislature. Those bills would have made it more difficult to register to vote, which is something that’s anathema to the mission of the League of Women Voters, he said, and he was proud of the league’s work to oppose those bills. The next step is to expand voting opportunities in Michigan, he said, and that’s why he introduced a bill that would provide for “no reason” absentee voting. He said he was proud to stand with the LWV on that. It’s been a priority of the organization for years, and it was one of the early bills he introduced when he got to Lansing. The work that the LWV does in promoting voting is important, he said, because the citizens need to be involved at every level of government. Sometimes people don’t have a good appreciation for what’s done in Lansing, and “it’s our job to redouble our efforts,” he said, to educate people about what legislators do and why it’s important.
Education funding needs to be the state’s No. 1 priority, Irwin continued. He’d like to approach the budget by first setting aside whatever it takes to provide quality education in Michigan. He noted that no one has ever done an assessment about how much it costs to provide quality education to our children. The tendency is to appropriate whatever is left over, but “we should be taking care of that first,” he said. Irwin also said there are a lot of opportunities for bipartisan compromise regarding environmental protection and economic development.
Closing Statement: Adam Zemke (District 55)
Zemke thanked the league and the people who were watching the forum on CTN. He explained that District 55 is new, and includes the northern portion of the city of Ann Arbor as well four townships – Ann Arbor, York, August and Pittsfield – and the northern portion of the city of Milan. He’s proud to be a long-time resident of this area.
His legislative priorities would be to focus on the economy and education. Education is the No. 1 form of economic development. Protecting and preserving the environment, and ensuring equality for all are very important as well, he said. In terms of voting, he highlighted the need to find ways for students who are attending college to register to vote in the area where they attend school, not in their permanent address in their home district. It’s important to expand younger people’s participation in the democratic process, he said, and making that change is a critical way to do it.
He noted that a lot of people call him the young candidate, and say that he looks about 13 years old. However, he said he wanted to note that he’s the candidate of choice for a lot of working folks. He then cited several groups and individuals who have endorsed him: the UAW, IBEW, the carpenters’ and nurses’ unions, Congressman John Dingell, former Congressman Mark Schauer, state Reps. Jeff Irwin and David Rutledge, several members of the Ann Arbor city council and Washtenaw County board of commissioners, members of the Pittsfield Township board and leadership team, and Ann Arbor Township supervisor Mark Moran.
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