Voters in the 55th District of the Michigan house of representatives will have a choice of a Republican, a Green or a Democrat in the Nov. 6 general election: Owen Diaz, David McMahon and Adam Zemke. All three participated in an Oct. 11 candidate forum organized by the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area.
Questions from the LWV moderator covered basic biographical background, voter registration laws, partisanship, the state retirement system, and women’s reproductive health.
Diaz is former mayor of Milan, and stressed as a theme his plan to bring good jobs to Michigan and to retain recent graduates from Michigan schools. He was clear that he opposes abortion and favors one-man-one-woman marriage – but said those were the only issues that led him to identify more strongly with the Republican Party. He described political parties as useful for campaigning, but stated, ”My loyalty to the party ends where my loyalty to the voters of the people begins.”
McMahon currently serves on the board of the Lincoln Consolidated Schools district, and offered that perspective on the state’s reduction to education funding. The main difference between him and the other two candidates, he said, is not that his goals are somehow fundamentally different – but rather that he’ll bring a fire to his work as a legislator, based on his own experience, which includes having a home foreclosed on: ”I’m on steroids!”
Zemke stressed his ties to the area as a fifth generation Washtenaw County resident, saying he would take Washtenaw County values to Lansing. He contrasted himself with the other two candidates as a fresh face, and a member of a generation that has seen jobs leave the state – which has led many of his generation also to leave the state. He called the economy the most important issue we face and stressed how other issues are related to the economy – like adequate funding for education at all levels.
Zemke and Diaz have also given responses to three questions that are included on the league’s Vote411.org website.
There are no incumbents in this race for a two-year term. The current District 55 representative, Republican Rick Olson, decided not to seek re-election after redistricting altered the district’s political composition. District 55 covers parts of northern Ann Arbor, the townships of Ann Arbor, Augusta, Pittsfield and York, and a northern part of the city of Milan.
The Oct. 11 candidate forum was held at the studios of Community Television Network in Ann Arbor, and is available online via CTN’s video-on-demand service. Candidates for the 53rd District – Jeff Irwin and John Spizak – were also invited to participate, but Irwin was the only one who attended. His responses to LWV questions are reported in a separate Chronicle write-up.
Information on local elections 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. The league’s Vote411.org website also includes a range of information on national, state and local candidates and ballot issues, and a “build my ballot” feature.
Each candidate was given the opportunity to make a one-minute opening statement.
Owen Diaz: Diaz introduced himself as an immigrant from the Philippines. He immigrated here in 1972 and has lived in Washtenaw County since 1974. He has served as mayor in the city of Milan, where he said he had turned a budget deficit into a surplus and reduced property taxes. He had worked to make the city government people-friendly. He always reminded employees that it’s the people who pay their salary.
Diaz said he is running because he has plans to bring businesses to Michigan. Details of that plan are included on his website, he said. He also wants to retain highly-educated graduates in Michigan.
David McMahon: He is from Augusta Township, although he noted that he has lived in other locations in the district. He was born in the state of Michigan, he said, and moved to the district in 1960. Other than a brief period at the University of Toledo, he has pretty much lived his life in this part of southeast Michigan.
McMahon is running because he believes he’s the best candidate who can actually empathize with voters – and he stressed empathy as contrasted with sympathy. “I have lived your situation,” he said. He has been a United Auto Workers union member, he’s been publicly educated, and he serves currently on a school board [Lincoln Consolidated Schools] that has actually balanced a budget under conditions imposed by the current state legislature. He feels he understands what voters have been subjected to in the last few years.
Adam Zemke: Zemke described himself as a fifth-generation Washtenaw County resident – he grew up here. He attended Ann Arbor public schools – Haisley Elementary, Forsythe Middle School, and Pioneer High School, he said. He has an undergraduate and masters degree – both in mechanical engineering. He also has some previous experience in the state legislature working with former 55th District state Rep. Kathy Angerer.
The reason he is running is simple, Zemke said: We need to promote an agenda that attracts and retains talent in Michigan. We have a tremendous brain drain problem, he contended, but we can address that in variety of ways, he continued. That includes adequately funding early childhood and K-12 schools, working on urban revitalization, transportation connectivity, and more affordable higher education.
What in your experience and education makes you the best-qualified candidate for this position?
Owen Diaz: Diaz said he was an orphan and had supported himself to go to school. So he believes that education is the one thing that brings opportunity to people. Education can help make people productive members of our society, he said, and education is really important. When he lived in the Philippines he took courses in electronic engineering, and he was an instructor in electronics technology. He also attended Eastern Michigan University, taking courses in economics with a minor in finance. He’s currently a certified financial planner, he concluded.
David McMahon: McMahon agreed with Diaz that education is probably the biggest tool that we have to help all citizens of the district. His educational background includes a master’s degree in science. He’s a degreed geologist and has been working in the health and safety field for about 30 years. He has direct interaction with the state of Michigan and the equivalent of Michigan’s Dept. of Environmental Quality and Dept. of Natural Resources in several other states. As an active school board member, he sees every day what the state legislature has to offer, and what can be done to change it. We’ve created segregation in schools by class and by income, he said. Schools have been undeservedly labeled as failing, he said. His goal is to bring a quality education for all back to the district.
Adam Zemke: He feels that his background as a fresh face allows him a unique perspective on the position of state legislator. He’s a member of a younger generation, he said, that has experienced an economic downturn that has caused many of them to leave the state – because the jobs they might have been qualified for don’t exist anymore. He’s experienced that firsthand more than the other two candidates, he said. Being a local resident and having strong Washtenaw County ties will allow him to bring Washtenaw County values to the legislature.
If elected to the House, name one or two goals that you hope to achieve. How would you work to accomplish these goals, given the current partisan divide?
David McMahon: The first thing we need to do, he said, is to end partisanship. As a new fresh face and Green Party member, he’s neutral to both sides, he said. The Green Party is known for the fact that it does not accept any PAC [political action committee] money, he said. Greens don’t belong to any specific group – they belong to the citizens at large. His first goal would be to intensify education and address the educational disparity issues that exist now.
It’s not a matter of just throwing money at education, McMahon said. One of the biggest challenges he faces serving on the Lincoln Consolidated Schools board is the fact that they have not been given a single unified curriculum. What is the purpose of a public school? If charter schools are considered successful, why are public schools not allowed to use the same rules that charter schools do? We need to have equity in funding, and equity in guidance, he concluded.
Adam Zemke: He said he would work across the aisle. He characterized the current situation in Lansing as “interesting at best.” What he wants to see is solid proposals for education and curriculum funding and transportation infrastructure building. He feels the legislature can make good decisions and achieve good growth in those areas. The makeup of the legislature after the November election would determine how he would approach that.
Owen Diaz: When people ask him what party he belongs to, he says that “there’s something good in the Democrats, and there’s something good in the Republicans.” But he leans more towards the Republican Party, for two main reasons: He does not support abortion, and he believes in one-man-one-woman marriage. Those are the only reasons why he is a Republican, he said. If elected, his goal is to bring competitive businesses to Michigan. Some states are doing that, and Michigan is competing with those other states. He believes his plan will attract more businesses. There are numbers and figures on his website that explain his business attraction plan in detail, he said. He also has plans to retain highly-educated graduates.
Access to Voting
What is your opinion of recent House legislation attempting to create tighter controls on voter registration? What changes would you like to see in Michigan voting laws?
Adam Zemke: He would like to see more accessibility to voting and encouragement of people to vote. Proposals that have been promoted in the legislature restrict access, particularly for seniors and younger folks. “I think that’s ridiculous,” he said. He wants to see more people participating in the electoral process. It’s one of the most important processes we have in the United States, he said. We should be encouraging people, not discouraging people from participating. He supports getting more people involved in the process. And in concert with that, he supports getting people more educated about the issues.
Owen Diaz: It’s a right of every citizen to vote on the question of who will lead them – that’s a vital right in our system of government, Diaz said. He supports access for everyone to vote – but he wants to make sure that they are legitimate registered citizens who can vote. That’s what he would work on – to make sure that the process is not tainted with illegal voters. He would work to make sure that everybody has information first before they vote. He told the League of Women Voters members that he felt like that is what they are doing, so they get his support.
David McMahon: He personally believes that we already have adequate voting registration laws in place. We came out of the 1960s when efforts were made to prevent people from voting. The current trend back toward that should be avoided, he said. He believes it might be reasonable to require that a picture ID be provided – or some documents that link a person to their address. But the voter registration process is already in place at the level of local jurisdictions. When you show up at the polls, you’ve already proved that you’re a U.S. citizen, and have proven residency. To say otherwise is to police the polls in a way that drives people away, he concluded.
Women’s Reproductive Health
Do you support recently proposed House legislation related to women’s reproductive health, such as House Bill 5711, which would severely limit Michigan women’s access to safe abortions as well as birth control services?
Owen Diaz: He reiterated that he does not support abortion. However, he leaves it to the woman and her doctor to decide. It’s up to them, and he cannot tell them not to do it if that’s what they want to do, he said. He would not support funding for abortion, but he would work to make sure that adoption is easier. Right now it is easier to abort a baby than to adopt, he contended. So that’s what he would be working on – to make adoption easier.
David McMahon: He characterized it as one of the classic “red herring” bills that has been offered in order to divide the legislature on an emotional issue. Roe v. Wade has long since been decided in the Supreme Court, and we have to move on, he said. As a Green Party member and as an individual, he agrees with Diaz that the government has no role in regulating a woman’s reproductive health or people’s own personal lives at that level. It’s a matter of their personal conviction and it’s between them and their God and their partner, he said. He believes in the idea that we could always try to save a child. But he also recognizes that this is simply a red herring bill. We don’t have legislation that will support a child who is born – and that needs to improve, he concluded.
Adam Zemke: He’s opposed to the bill. He stated that it’s not an issue that the state legislature should be taking on – because it’s a medical issue between a woman and her doctor.
Retirement System Costs
What ideas do you have to control retirement costs in the state of Michigan?
David McMahon: He said we need to look at how we’re actually investing our money. What mechanisms are we actually using to invest? He thinks there has been a lot of propaganda about how bad the system is – looking at the fact that different investments did poorly over a short period of time. But will they also do poorly over a longer period of time? he wondered. Are investments controlled through a political process, or by professional money managers?
We have to make sure that pension funds are intact, McMahon said. We shouldn’t panic and run to one side. He gave as an example the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System (MPSERS). He said the state has been trying to dump MPSERS retirement funding back onto the local school districts. We need to look at a more sustainable approach, he said.
Adam Zemke: Sustainability is the bottom line, he said. For the last 20 years, people have passed the buck, he said. The system that we have has become unsustainable, because we have been pulling money out of it when we shouldn’t have been, he contended, and that was wrong. He supports making the system more sustainable, because otherwise it becomes a burden on the rest of the taxpayers. He doesn’t think there’s a simple solution to it – it’s a very complex problem. We need to work together to develop a solution over a period of time that is beneficial to everyone, he said.
Owen Diaz: there are two kinds of people he said – current pensioners and future pensioners. With current pensioners we have a contract that we will provide them with income. Those retirees have already planned for that income, and we should not reduce it, he said. But in the future, we should let them know ahead of time, so that they can plan for their retirement. That’s just fair, he said.
The League of Women Voters is very concerned about the highly politicized process for redistricting legislative districts, which takes place every 10 years after the U.S. census. What ideas do you have to make redistricting a more open democratic process, which would benefit the citizens and not the political parties?
Adam Zemke: He supports nonpartisan redistricting. The 55th District is a perfect example of gerrymandering in a partisan political manner, he said. The process of drawing the line should not be done in a partisan political manner, he said. It can be done by a nonpartisan committee. He allowed that he did not have a solution for how to establish that committee so that it can be effective. He is hoping to participate in that process if he’s elected.
Owen Diaz: He allowed that he does not know much about redistricting. But if he had to decide these questions, it would be a fair and equally-balanced process with members from each party. He believes that parties are useful for election campaigns, but after that the focus of elected officials should be on the people, on citizens, not the party. “My loyalty to the party ends where my loyalty to the voters of the people begins,” he said.
David McMahon: He believes there’s been plenty of gerrymandering in the past that has served the two-party system. One of the Green Party’s goals is to see greater opportunity for individual input. Rather than the parties controlling a district, it should be done on a socio-economic basis. We already have census data, he said, and a district should represent a “good bite” of what that area includes. That way a representative’s voice in the legislature can be based on an understanding of what our true needs are based on a unified cause.
Each candidate was given an opportunity to give a two-minute closing statement.
Owen Diaz: He began by saying that he is “running,” but then stopped himself and said he shouldn’t say that he is “running.” Instead he said he is “volunteering” to bring a plan to bring competitive jobs to Michigan. He also wants to retain highly-educated graduates in the state. He wants to enhance the education of young people – to become innovators and productive members of society. If elected, his actions will be based on the U.S. Constitution and common sense with wisdom, he said, not special interests or lobbyists. He’s not asking for any funding from special-interest groups or lobbyists. He is self-funded, he said. He allowed that he does not have a lot of advertising for his campaign – but it is up to the people. If they decide to elect him, he will also work to make Medicaid efficient, he concluded.
David McMahon: He added his thanks from the other candidates to the League of Women Voters for hosting the forum. But he said as a Green Party candidate he was especially appreciative of the opportunity to participate, because it was not often that voters get to hear from a third-party voice. He felt that his goals in general would be very similar to those of his opponents – with some differences in some of the minor points. The difference between him and his opponents, he said is “I’m on steroids!” He can empathize with voters, he said, because he’s the only candidate who’s lost a home foreclosure in the last four years. He knows people who live in shelters in Washtenaw County who used to work at Borders or for Pfizer. He can understand what people feel because he’s lived it, he said. He will be going to the legislature with that fire, he said, to make sure that those people are heard.
Adam Zemke: He had been asked the other day what he thought the top three issues are in Michigan. His answer had been: the economy, the economy and the economy. He said we sometimes forget about all the issues that tie into economic growth. Education is the number one form of economic development, he said. It’s been tossed off to the side by the state. Early childhood education, K-12, and higher education are very critical for economic success, he said. Road funding is also important, he said. Fixing the brain drain through urban revitalization – not just through programs, but making people want to stay here. Detroit needs to attract young people in the same way that Chicago does. Those are things that the state legislature needs to work on that he feels are nonpartisan issues – and education is a nonpartisan issue, in his opinion. Quality of life is something that attracts people to Washtenaw County, he said. He knows that because his campaign has talked to thousands of voters who have emphasized that.
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