Incumbent Jeff Irwin was the only candidate for the Michigan House of Representatives 53rd District to appear at an Oct. 11 forum organized by the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area. The Ann Arbor Democrat was first elected to that office in 2010.
Republican candidate John Spizak, who will also be on the Nov. 6 ballot, did not participate. The 53rd District covers most of Ann Arbor, and the winner of the election will serve a two-year term.
At the forum, Irwin fielded questions on basic biographical background, voter registration laws, partisanship, the state retirement system, and women’s reproductive health. He stressed three areas of focus: education, environment, and equal rights. He’d continue to work on those areas, he said, even if Democrats remain in the minority in the house after the Nov. 6 election. He’s working to shift that balance, however, “so we can help Governor Snyder govern as the moderate he ran as.”
Irwin’s responses to three other questions are included on the league’s Vote411.org website.
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. The forum included candidates for the 55th District – Republican Owen Diaz, Green David McMahon and Democrat Adam Zemke – whose responses 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.
The candidate was given the opportunity to make a one-minute opening statement. Irwin said that if he is re-elected to the Michigan legislature, there are three issues he would continue to work on – education, environmental protection, and equal rights.
We need to make sure that the money we pay into the school aid fund goes to support K-12 schools, Irwin said. And we need to make sure that our colleges and universities are well-funded.
Michigan has some unique and special assets that need to be protected – for the long-term and also for our current needs, he said. Additionally, the Great Lakes are a unique resource that bring economic prosperity as well as recreation and enjoyment to our citizens here today.
Michigan will be the best state it can be, when we provide equal rights to all of our citizens – regardless of where they come from, he said. We need to open arms to the world and welcome the economic growth and development that can come from folks who come from other cultures and ways of life, he concluded.
What in your experience and education makes you the best-qualified candidate for this position?
It’s challenging in a community like Ann Arbor where there are so many qualified people, Irwin said, so it’s a tremendous honor to be able to represent this community in the legislature. Other candidates who are running for the 55th District [and who participated in the same forum], told their stories about growing up here in the area, Irwin noted. But his own story does not start in Ann Arbor – he’s not Washtenaw County born. He’s from the Upper Peninsula, he said.
He came down to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan, precisely because he has a passion for public service and a passion for getting our government running, he said. There are so many things we can do to improve how the government works for people, he said, and that’s why he had come to the University of Michigan – to study political science and American government.
After studying those subjects deeply for a number of years, he realized he had some ideas to offer at the local level. So he ran for local office and served 11 years on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners – including a stint as chair of the board. He was proud of the board’s accomplishments during the period he served. He’s also served as a legislative aide, and as an advocate for clean air and clean water with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. So he has a number of different areas of experience in public work, and he hopes to bring that back to Lansing, he concluded.
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?
Alluding to the election campaign, Irwin said his number one goal for the next month is to try to change the partisan divide. He has served as a minority in the legislature, he pointed out, and he is working hard with fellow Democrats across the state, “so we can help Governor Snyder govern as the moderate he ran as.” Gov. Snyder has been dragged to the right by his party and hard-line right-wingers in the legislature, Irwin said.
Republicans have slashed funding for schools, attacked a woman’s right to choose, Irwin said, and have shifted the burden of taxes from businesses and the wealthiest people in our state to low-income workers and seniors. So he’s working to change the partisan divide, in order to make the biggest difference possible. After Nov. 6, however, if he finds himself in the minority again, he will be eager to work across the aisle – as he has for the last two years. He said he’ll try to build alliances to try to sell ideas and specific amendments within particular bills to improve those bills and make them better for our citizens.
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?
Irwin has a very low opinion of efforts in the legislature to suppress voting and to make it more difficult to vote. Numerous studies have been done on the issue, he said, and despite the Secretary of State’s protestations, voter fraud is not an issue in Michigan. If we are concerned about fraud in elections then we need to be concerned about election fraud that is engineered by politicians, not by voters, he said.
The issue dovetails into what can be done to expand the franchise and to expand the opportunity for voting, he said. One of the issues he’d taken up early in his service in Lansing was an attempt to eliminate some partisanship and expand the opportunities for absentee voting. In most states, he said, it’s possible to vote absentee if you simply request an absentee ballot. In Michigan you have to have a “reason” – like saying that you’re incapacitated, or ill, or expect to be gone on election day. He’s introduced a no-reason absentee voting bill. He’s proud to be working with the League of Women Voters on it because it’s good policy, 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?
Irwin opposes the bill and he has been opposing it in all kinds of ways, he said. He spoke against it on the floor of the House, and he even danced on the capitol steps to try to bring some attention to the issue. He’s willing to do anything to try to stop these bills – because they’re really damaging, he said.
Republicans have made very clear that the point of these bills is to drive health clinics out of business, he said. If there is a health clinic that performs abortions in Michigan, Republicans want to drive it out of business – with additional regulations and requirements for training. They even want to measure the size of the closets in the surgical facilities. It’s a problem in Michigan, he said, and it’s going to create more unsafe conditions for Michigan women. That is why we need to work together to reduce unwanted pregnancies, Irwin said. He has introduced a bill supporting comprehensive age-appropriate sex education, he said. If we want to reduce abortions in Michigan, the best way to do it is by providing healthcare, by providing counseling, and by providing sex education.
Retirement System Costs
What ideas you have to control retirement costs in the state of Michigan?
It’s a big topic that can’t be covered in a minute, Irwin said. But he did want to talk about something the legislature has done over the last two years that has exacerbated the problem. One thing that’s happened in a very aggressive way is the privatization of public education, he said. The cap has been lifted on charter schools, and new charter schools are opening all over Michigan, he said. That takes life out of the system, by removing payers and leaving payees in the system.
The state has also created a “best practice” for school districts to privatize – their custodians, their transportation workers, clerical staff, everything except for administration. Now, there’s new legislation for cyber schools that the Republicans have passed, he said, where children attend school via computer. And school aid fund money will go to the companies that run the computer-based schools. We need to make the system healthier, by putting the legs back underneath it, he concluded.
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?
“Redistricting is a pretty wild process,” Irwin began. And as a result of the most recent process, he had lost the opportunity to represent a bunch of people on the north side of Ann Arbor, he said. He would miss representing them, but said that they could still call his office and he would do his best for them. He thinks we need to strike now, as soon as the election is over. We need to start a community conversation about the issue. If we wait until eight or 10 years from now, partisanship will necessarily be all wrapped up in it. But if we start a discussion now about how we can have a reasonable, nonpartisan process for redistricting – separated by enough time from the political process – hopefully the two parties can let go enough to have a reasonable, nonpartisan process for redistricting that keeps communities together in logical ways.
Irwin was given an opportunity to give a two-minute closing statement. He thanked voters for sending him to Lansing for the last two years to focus on what he thinks are the community’s top priorities. He reviewed those priorities – education funding, environmental protection, and equal rights.
It’s been frustrating to Irwin to see $1.5 billion raided from the public schools – taxes that we pay that are supposed to go to schools. That drives class sizes up and frustrates people left to serve on school boards, and who teach in our schools, and children who attend the schools. He’s hoping to get back to work to put that back on track, he said, to make sure that all of the school money goes to schools. He feels there are some opportunities to work across the aisle to improve opportunities for early childhood education and also for universities and community colleges. There’s a real opportunity to turn that around in the next couple of years and make education a priority again in Michigan, he said.
Irwin is also excited about working on environmental issues. We have tremendous opportunities in Michigan to leverage the Great Lakes, he said – both as recreation and as economic opportunities. But he also wants to continue his work on clean energy. We need to solve the problem of how we power our lives – without poisoning the planet and without hurting our neighbors, and without bankrupting ourselves in the process. We have unique opportunities in Michigan with wind and solar energy, he said. And for everybody who doesn’t think the sun shines enough in Michigan to support solar energy, Michigan is one of the leading manufacturers in the world of solar panels, he said. So there are huge opportunities in the clean energy sector, he maintained.
Irwin also wants get back to work on equal rights and civil rights, and civil liberties. That’s fundamental to our politics here in America, and we need to keep our focus on our rights, he concluded.
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