State Legislative Candidates Lining Up

Local Dems jockey for openings created by term limits
Rebekah Warren

Rebekah Warren, current state representative from Ann Arbor, plans to officially announce her candidacy for Liz Brater's state senate seat on Sept. 19.

The year was 1992. Hecklers in Hamtramck threw broccoli at George H.W. Bush. Ross Perot got almost 19% of the presidential vote. And Michigan voters enacted term limits.

Fast forward to the present: Perot and Bush 41’s broccoli problem are largely forgotten, but term limits now shape elections for state office. Except in districts evenly enough divided between Democrats or Republicans that they might swing either way, it’s rare for an incumbent to face a serious challenge. Instead, political hopefuls wait for term limits to open the right slot.

That’s happening this election cycle with districts representing the Ann Arbor area. And jockeying is under way.

Next weekend, state Rep. Rebekah Warren (D-53rd District) will launch a campaign to succeed fellow Ann Arbor Democrat Liz Brater (D-18th District) in the Michigan Senate. A former state rep and former Ann Arbor mayor, Brater is term-limited and ineligible to run again for that seat.

Warren’s move will, in turn, trigger announcements from the Democrats who’ve politely waited for the two-term lawmaker to make her plans public before lining up to try and take her spot in the state House of Representatives.

Jeff Irwin and Ned Staebler are expected to enter the race for the 53rd District, which covers most of Ann Arbor and parts of Scio and Pittsfield townships. Irwin is a Washtenaw County commissioner representing a portion of Ann Arbor. Staebler is vice president of program administration at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and an Ann Arbor resident.

In the heavily Democratic district representing the city of Ann Arbor, the candidate who wins in a primary can expect to sail through the general election in November.

Pam Byrnes

State Rep. Pam Byrnes, who represents part of Ann Arbor and a large section of western Washtenaw County, is also considering a run for the 18th District state Senate seat.

State Senate Race

Still eligible to run for another term as state rep, Warren’s bid for the Senate sets up a potential Democratic primary in the 18th District, which represents Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and the townships of Ann Arbor, Augusta, Dexter, Freedom, Lima, Lyndon, Northfield, Salem, Scio, Sharon, Superior, Sylvan, Webster and Ypsilanti.

Warren’s Washtenaw County colleague in the House – state Rep. Pam Byrnes of Lyndon Township – is serving her third and, under term limits, final term representing the 52nd District.

After rising to a leadership position as Speaker Pro Tempore, Byrnes says she’s seriously considering a run for the same 18th District Senate seat, but has yet to make a decision.

“Who knows what other opportunities might come up,” says Byrnes, who unexpectedly finds herself chairing a committee on a controversial plan for overhauling the health care system for public employees. “I’ll make a decision by the end of the year.”

Candidates have until May 2010 to file petitions to run for office.

For her part, Warren says the decision to seek the Senate seat stems from frustration over legislation that’s died in that chamber.

“I’ve had success getting legislation through the House and Senate and on to the governor’s desk,” says Warren, citing bills on Great Lakes water withdrawals and electronics-waste recycling. “But there’s been other legislation passed in the House that’s important to me – and to the county – that never even got a hearing in the Senate. We need different leadership there.

“I love what I do and think I’ve proven I can do a decent job for four or eight more years.”

Term limits enacted in 1992 set a cap of three two-year terms for state representatives and two four-year terms for the senate. Also limited to two four-year terms are the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and attorney general.

Previous term-limited local lawmakers have been temporarily sidelined when the end of their terms did not mesh neatly with the terms of other offices.

Brater, who Warren hopes to succeed, was out of government for several years after leaving the House in 2000. She returned as a senator in 2002 when former state Sen. Alma Wheeler Smith was term-limited after two four-year terms.

Smith, Warren’s mother-in-law, sat out two years until term limits opened the seat in the 54th House district, which covers the eastern part of Washtenaw County. Smith won that seat but is term limited again – she is now a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Ruth Ann Jamnick, a former state rep from the 54th District and former Ypsilanti Township supervisor, has been mentioned as another possible candidate for the Senate seat. She could not be reached for comment.

53rd House District

Warren’s decision not to seek a third term in the House leaves an open field for that seat, which represents most of the city of Ann Arbor.

Ned Staebler, a Harvard grad with a master’s from the London School of Economics and Political Science, has deep political roots. His great grandfather was mayor of Ann Arbor from 1927-31, and his grandfather was a congressman from Michigan, a candidate for governor and an active Democrat. His father is married to former University of Michigan Regent Rebecca McGowan, a Democrat.

Staebler joined the state economic development agency in 2004, after previously working in finance – including a stint as an associate director with Bear Stearns International Ltd. in London, England. He declined to discuss the race, pending Warren’s official announcement, but has created a campaign committee to raise money.

Jeff Irwin, a Democrat elected to the county board in 1999 when he was still a University of Michigan student, likewise comes from a political family.

His father served as a state senator from the Upper Peninsula in the ’80s and later in the Granholm administration. And Irwin remembers as a child seeing lawmakers debate. “I watched (former Democratic state Sen.) Lana Pollack go toe-to-toe with (former Republican governor) John Engler and I knew who I wanted for my role model.”

Irwin worked on statewide and Great Lakes issues for the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund for six years and later on state environmental policy with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters for two years. He’s served as chairman of the Board of Commissioners and devotes his attention to county government full time.

He says he’s likely to enter the race and will make a decision by the end of the month.

52nd House District

When Pam Byrnes first won election in 2004, she took the 52th District Democratic, and voters in outlying Washtenaw County have increasingly been ready to back Democrats. Still, Republicans like county commissioner Mark Ouimet think they have a reasonable chance of winning back the House seat.

While he’s not ready to say he’s in the race, Ouimet acknowledges that he’s considering a run and notes that in 2008 he polled about as well as President Obama in his county commission district.

Ouimet says he’s put the decision aside until after a county budget is in place, probably in November and no later than December. Other potential Republican candidates appear to be deferring to Ouimet.

However, he’s not the only county commissioner eyeing the House seat.

Democrat Ken Schwartz says he has “one foot in the water” and is meeting with voters across the district to try and gauge support. “It’s been pretty positive, but I won’t make a final decision for a couple months.”

Schwartz was elected to the county board in 2007 and represents the 2nd District, which covers the northeastern part of the county. Ouimet was first elected in 2004 and represents the 1st District, which covers northwest Washtenaw County.

If Schwartz decides to run, he’ll likely find himself in a Democratic primary. Saline Mayor Gretchen Driskell’s name regularly comes up in discussion about the seat. “I know it does and I have been thinking about it,” says Driskell. Former Byrnes primary opponent Dr. Philip Zazove, a family practitioner, is among other potential candidates.

What about Hieftje?

Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje says he’s been asked whether he was interested in either the Senate race or the chance to run for the House seat being vacated by Warren.

His answer: He’ll decide next month.

Although he said in 2008 that the mayoral race could be his last, Hieftje seems less ready to leave the job today. “Things are very difficult for local government in Michigan and I feel a responsibility,” he says.

Pursuing the Senate seat would presumably present a challenge for the five-term mayor, who would run up against out-county voters and their views of Ann Arbor liberalism.

In the city limits, it would mean facing Warren, who dispatched Hieftje ally and city councilmember Leigh Greden in the 2004 2006 primary for the 53rd District.

A three-way race for that House seat might favor the highest profile candidate, but Hieftje has had sufficient time in office to disappoint some city voters, and both Staebler and Irwin could be expected to run hard.

In any of the potential Democratic primaries for state office, candidates will need to differentiate themselves.

“Anyone who represents Ann Arbor is going to vote the same way,” says Irwin, “pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-human services. The question is what else do you bring to the table.”

Primaries will be held in August 2010.

Other Races

State House campaigns by Irwin, Ouimet or Schwartz would create open seats on the county board, where commissioners will be elected to each of the 11 seats for two-year terms in 2010. Any move by Hieftje or Driskell would similarly open the respective mayor’s races next year. Warren’s husband – county commissioner Conan Smith, who is also chair of the Ann Arbor Democratic Party – is among several Democrats who have previously expressed interest in running for mayor of Ann Arbor, should Hieftje decide not to run.

The House seats in the 54th and 55th districts, which take in portions of Washtenaw County, are held by term-limited Democrats as well – Rep. Alma Wheeler-Smith and Rep. Kathy Angerer. Stay tuned for a Chronicle report on those races in the near future.


  1. By Bob Martel
    September 13, 2009 at 9:11 am | permalink

    Looks like big changes coming. Let’s hope we can get a constitutional convention and clean up this term limit thing.

  2. By mr dairy
    September 13, 2009 at 12:26 pm | permalink

    Along with Conan Smith, her husband, Rebekah Warren is representative of the growing political class who use their family connections to claim a birthright to public office.

    She might want to keep some distance between her politics and some comments made by Mr Smith.

    Hieftje’s bread is amply buttered by the local Democratic party, his mayoral and UM gigs. He takes a big risk trying to move up to Lansing. Some local Dems suggest that he’d be eaten alive by State politics in Lansing, yet local voters will blindly support him for higher office.

  3. September 13, 2009 at 9:13 pm | permalink

    Term limits have been a disaster for Michigan, but they’re not going away. Indeed, it’s hard to see how a new constitution without term limits would be ratified. [Link]

    Political families have been with us since the beginning of the Republic. In the last few decades, entrepreneurship has offered greater rewards, and public service has become the object of disdain. No surprise that pool of potential candidates, at all levels, has dwindled. In this environment, the offspring of politicians are among the few who still appreciate the importance of taking on leadership roles. There is no “birthright” to it.

    Completely contrary to what was written above, John Hieftje is sui generis. He has been the best mayor Ann Arbor has seen in decades, in part because he is independent and makes his own way. He is respected for what he has done, but he is no more politically popular than I am.

    Washtenaw County is the tenth most highly educated county in the United States. Primary voters locally are very sophisticated, and the notion that they would “blindly” support anyone is ridiculous.

  4. By David Lewis
    September 13, 2009 at 9:52 pm | permalink

    Milk man – I guess I don’t really care that Ms. Warren is related to other people who are involved in politics. She has done some good work in Lansing and that is not easy up there.

    As for the mayor. I don’t agree with him on everything but he has accomplished a lot as mayor and I expect he would do the same in Lansing should he choose to run. The state wide awards he has won make him one of the better known environmental leaders. The Gov. appointed him to an important task force and he served as chair of a major Mayor’s organization. He would do fine in Lansing.

  5. By Pete Mooney
    September 14, 2009 at 12:13 am | permalink

    This article demonstrates the problem with term limits. The idea was that they would encourage new blood. The reality is that there are a limited pool of people with the interest, knowledge etc. to hold these positions, particularly at the state and local level. What terms limits appear to do is simply take that limited pool, and require them to shuffle among different offices rather than becoming expert in one.

  6. September 14, 2009 at 9:58 am | permalink

    Amen Pete! I consider term limits to be “mandatory inexperience laws,” and I think the lack of expertise is big part of the reason that the state budget is so messed up.

  7. By mr dairy
    September 14, 2009 at 10:27 am | permalink

    Hieftje is responsible for the first early retirement city employee buyout about 10 years ago and lowering the vesting requirement for employees from 10 years to 5 years (a terrible idea). This effort was backed by former city administrator Neal Berlin (and the short sighted unions) who retired after serving 6 years. This chicken is now coming home to roost to the long term detriment of the city budget and retiree pensions.

    His appointments and awards are based more on political loyalty than his so called green knowledge. Anyone who truly believes that knowledge of a subject is more highly valued than political loyalty is naive.

  8. September 14, 2009 at 11:21 am | permalink

    Hi Judy! Nice to see your work here at the Chronicle.

    A couple of editorial-related questions: any consideration given to putting Rebekah’s photo above the ‘fold’ and Pam’s below it? Any general policy on that for election/political articles?

  9. By David Lewis
    September 14, 2009 at 11:26 am | permalink

    Milk Man: I checked his bio. So you say the Environmental Leadership Award for 2008 from the Mich. League of Conservation Voters, a non-partisan state and national group, is due to party loyalty? How about the Local Elected Official of the year award from the Michigan Parks and Rec. Assoc. or the Conservation Award from the Greater Detroit Audubon Society? Party Loyalty?

    I am sorry but your statements on the above lead me to question the truthfulness of everything you say. I always thought the early retirement program was a huge success in clearing out the dead wood at the city and I just checked with someone who knows and the 5 year vestment was put in before he was mayor.

    In your criticisms of the State Representative and Mayor you sound like a true Republican, nothing wrong with that but truth in labeling would help. By the way, I found out the vote for the early retirement program was unanimous including the Republicans on council at the time.

  10. By mr dairy
    September 14, 2009 at 1:11 pm | permalink

    Yes, I’m saying that those accolades are political. What are Hieftje’s environmental bona fides? Degrees? Career? Any actual work in the field? Environmental resume? He became “green” because of political opportunism. If you’re doing the homework, please list them for us.

    The early retirement (an inducement bonus) and lowering the minimum vesting was a huge financial mistake that define the budget troubles the city is in today. Hieftje may not have been mayor, but he and the rest of council approved the early retirement at Berlin’s urging. Council was under political pressure to support the buyout or lose union votes. Five year vesting encourages employees to leave earlier and get off the payroll, on the pension fund and the VEBA health care fund. But the city still has to pay those costs that are now off budget. (A little Fraser budgetary legerdemain.) The loss of experienced front line public workers costs the city money in the long (hiring and training) new workers and is bad for continuing operations.

    The cost of the pension program is off budget. The long term costs are unsustainable. The early retirement will continue to add to those costs until the city (taxpayers via a millage) can no longer make their required payments. Retirees will eventually suffer and it will cost the city to fight the lawsuit when it comes.

    As long as we’re slinging labels around, you sound like a city hall/staus quo/Hieftje apologist and I don’t care if you believe what I have to say or not. I was there and saw it happen.

    The growing class of career politicians who feel entitled to hold office because of their family connections is a tumor on our political system.

    Republican? meh.

  11. By David Lewis
    September 14, 2009 at 3:02 pm | permalink

    Mr. Milk:

    If you are bashing Rebbecca Warren for being part of a politically active family (Did she marry Conan just to gain political advantage?) then you must have really not liked Ted Kennedy.

    Regarding environmental awards: I guess if you insist then it must be right. The Mich. League of Conservation Voters, the Greater Detroit Audubon Society and the Michigan Parks and Rec. Assoc. all make their awards based on party loyalty rather than the work a person does. Maybe you should tell them.

    The mayor was green before you knew what it meant. Check his resume yourself. Way back in the 80′s he was on the board of directors of Recycle A2 and served as the Chair. He was active with the Huron River Watershed Council and served on their board, before he was ever elected to council.

    I have been around for awhile too although I am not a disgruntled former employee. I completely disagree about the long ago retirement program. It did clear out the dead wood, it set the stage for the city being able to survive in the worst decade since the depression. And as I recall someone else writing here, the city millage is lower now than it was in 2000.

    In case you don’t get out around the state much A2 city govt. is doing a whole lot better than other cities or maybe just look at the county. Their budget problems are 3 times as bad. But I don’t blame county leadership, the state budget has melted down and the state has been cutting the locals for a long time. Now with property tax revenue going down too what should anyone expect.

  12. September 14, 2009 at 11:27 pm | permalink

    My comment #3, above, was accidentally marked as spam and hidden; it only just now became visible.

    John Hieftje was only on the city council for a year or two before he was elected mayor. He might have been around for some of those pension votes, but if so, he was a newbie at the time.

    As I recall, he was elected to city council by defeating someone who was favored with just about every party endorsement. Not exactly the profile of someone who was promoted into office as a loyal party man!

  13. September 15, 2009 at 6:38 am | permalink

    Re #10 and #12, a review of the record:

    John Hieftje was elected to City Council (1st Ward) in 1999. In the Democratic primary, he defeated Simone Lightfoot with 69.91% of the vote. As I recall, the then chair of the Ann Arbor Democratic Party supported him, but this is not a matter of official record. In the general election (1999) he was opposed by Charles Goodman (Libertarian) and won by 87.62%.

    In 2000 Hieftje ran for Mayor and was opposed by Stephen Rapundalo (who ran as a Republican); Hieftje took 68.34% of the vote.

    On May 7, 2001, the council first considered an “early retirement window”. Mayor Hieftje is quoted in the minutes as having “urged eligible employees to take advantage of the early retirement window to eliminate the need for layoffs”.

    On May 21, 2001, the council passed a change to the retirement rules by voice vote. R-201-5-01 passed Ordinance 24-01 (the text of which was not included in minutes but available only in printed form) that established a “special retirement window”. Mayor Hieftje declared it passed by a voice vote (apparently there was no dissent).

    On July 2, 2001, the council approved hiring an executive search firm to search for a new city administrator.(R-265-7-01)

    On August 24, 2001 the council met in special session to extend the date by which Neal Berlin would retire. Jean Carlberg presided as Acting Mayor because Hieftje was away. Berlin had been scheduled to retire on August 24 but was still involved in discussions with the Retirement Board. The council granted him a recission of his retirement date. Ron Olson was to become interim administrator as soon as Berlin’s retirement was finalized.

  14. September 15, 2009 at 6:59 am | permalink

    Thanks, Vivienne, that is helpful.

    As I recall, Simone had a ton of endorsers, who were embarrassed to see her end up with only about 30% of the vote. I’m not positive, but I may have been one of them.