More Candidates Vie for State House, Senate

Four open seats possible on county board next year
The capitol building in Lansing. (Photo by Mary Morgan, taken in obviously warmer weather.)

The capitol building in Lansing. (Photo by Mary Morgan, taken back when the weather was warmer.)

Local candidates for the Michigan legislature are jumping into races for both the state House and Senate, making for a potentially crowded primary season next summer – and creating openings in elected offices closer to home.

Most notably, as many as four Washtenaw County commissioners could leave the 11-member board to seek state office in 2010.

In this report, we’ll give an update on the 18th District state Senate race, as well as House races in the 52nd, 53rd, 54th and 55th districts. You’ll find out who’s running as the “hot dog man,” which political rumor is described by an elected official as “funny,” how many candidates have Facebook groups, and who expects to spend more than $65,000 on his campaign.

All of this and more, after the jump.

Washtenaw County Commissioners

Ypsilanti Township Democrat Rolland Sizemore Jr., current chairman of the county board, says he may enter the Democratic primary election to succeed veteran local lawmaker Alma Wheeler Smith as the 54th District representative in the state House of Representatives.

“I’ll decide by the first of the year,” says Sizemore, who was first elected as commissioner in 2000. “I have name recognition and feel I’ve done a pretty good job.”

Should he run, Sizemore would join an exodus that now includes county commissioners Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and Mark Ouimet (R-Scio Township). Irwin is running for the 53rd District House seat; Ouimet for the 52nd District seat.

A fourth commissioner, Ken Schwartz (D-Scio Township), expects to run in the 52nd District as well. “I won’t have a final decision and formal announcement until after the first of the year, but it would be a surprise if I wasn’t running for the state Legislature,” he says.

Assuming he enters the race, Schwartz will face a primary – Democrat and Scio Township trustee Christine Green has already declared her candidacy. Irwin is also running in a primary that will almost certainly decide who represents the heavily Democratic 53rd District, which includes most of Ann Arbor.

State Senate: 18th District

There are no incumbents in any of the local races for state office: most current representatives are ineligible to run under the state’s term-limits law. State Rep. Rebekah Warren, representing the 53rd District, isn’t term-limited, but she’s running for the 18th District state Senate seat now held by state Sen. Liz Brater (D-Ann Arbor), who’s ineligible to seek re-election. (Enacted in 1992, Michigan’s term-limits law caps service in the House to three two-year terms and service in the Senate and executive branch to two, four-year terms.)

While the House races are interesting because of the numerous people queuing up, the 18th Senate District is notable for the absence – thus far – of state Rep. Pam Byrnes, who represents the 52nd District.

A Democrat from Lyndon Township, Byrnes is term-limited and has been expected to run for Brater’s seat. However, Byrnes opted to stand pat when Warren entered the race in September, saying only that she was giving a Senate campaign serious consideration and would decide by the end of the year.

That’s fueled speculation that she might be a candidate for lieutenant governor if House Speaker Andy Dillon of Redford Township runs for governor. Speaker pro tempore of the House, Byrnes is a member of Dillon’s leadership team and has served as chairwoman of the committee examining Dillon’s controversial proposal for reorganizing public employee health care.

Byrnes says she’s aware of the rumor. “I think it’s funny. Andy has not said a thing to me. As far as I know, he hasn’t made up his mind about running.”

If Dillon enters the race, he would challenge Lt. Gov. John Cherry in the Democratic primary. Term-limited out of the House and the Senate, Washtenaw County’s Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith, representing the 54th District, is also campaigning for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Byrnes’ fundraising power would likely help her overcome any delay in launching a primary campaign. In the last election cycle, she had a six-figure war chest that included $15,900 in contributions from various political action committees. Warren’s 2008 contributions similarly included some $14,500 in gifts from PACs.

Byrnes continues to hold fundraisers. She, Warren and other candidates seeking offices with larger geographic areas than those they now hold can transfer existing funds to new campaigns.

Former state Rep. Ruth Ann Jamnick, an Ypsilanti Township Democrat, is also a potential candidate for the senate seat. The 18th District takes in the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti and the townships of Ann Arbor, Augusta, Dexter, Freedom, Lima, Lyndon, Northfield, Salem, Scio, Sharon, Superior, Sylvan, Webster and Ypsilanti.

State House: 53rd District

After a soft launch last month via the Facebook group “Jeff Irwin for State Representative,” county commissioner Irwin held a formal campaign kickoff in his bid to represent the 53rd District Tuesday evening at Arbor Brewing Company.

His primary opponent, Ann Arbor resident Ned Staebler, launched his campaign in October and has begun holding fundraisers. A recent Staebler gathering at the home of philanthropist Judy Dow Rumelhart and her husband, Don, was hosted by a group that included University of Michigan regents Kathy White and Julia Donovan Darlow, IT pioneer Herb Amster, philanthropist Peter Heydon, former Clinton administration economic adviser Paul Dimond and other community members able to lend financial and political support.

“That was my dad’s generation,” says Staebler, 36, a vice president at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. His father, lawyer Michael Staebler, was also among the hosts.

Smaller events, again at friends’ homes, are in the works, says Staebler, who’s also holding bi-weekly coffee hours Saturday mornings at Sweetwaters on Washington Street. The holidays may interrupt the alternating Saturday schedule, he says. The Ohio State game will not. The 9 a.m.-noon gathering is on. Game time is at noon.

Like Irwin, Staebler has a Facebook presence. The website is a bit behind schedule, he says.

Irwin’s supporters include several of his fellow county commissioners and Ann Arbor city councilmembers, plus the current state rep in that district, Rebekah Warren, whose husband, Conan Smith, is a colleague of Irwin’s on the county board of commissioners. Warren’s support is an especially big deal, says Irwin. Elected officials don’t necessarily take sides in primaries. “I’m very happy to have the endorsement of the sitting representative,” he says.

Other elected officials who’ve signed on to the Irwin campaign include fellow Ann Arbor representatives to the county board of commissioners Leah Gunn and Barbara Bergman, as well as Smith.

State Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith, Conan Smith’s mother and Warren’s mother-in-law, is also backing Irwin, a 32-year-old who worked in nonprofit environmental advocacy for eight years before turning his attention to the county board full time.

His supporters also include past and present Ann Arbor Democratic party officials like Susan Greenberg and Tim Colenback, along with community volunteers like Jennifer Santi Hall, Rene Greff, Nick Roumel and Martin Contreras.

In the last primary election for the seat, back in 2006, Warren spent some $62,000 in defeating her opponent Leigh Greden, who at that time served on the Ann Arbor city council. (Warren ran unopposed in the 2008 Democratic primary.) Staebler says he expects his budget to top $65,000.

Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje, who’d been a potential candidate for the House seat or the 18th Senate District, says he won’t seek either.

State House: 54th District

In addition to county commissioner Rolland Sizemore Jr., there are other new names in the race for the 54th House District, which includes the eastern Washtenaw County communities of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township, and Augusta, Salem and Superior townships.

Activist Bill Riney of Ypsilanti Township says he’ll be a candidate in the Democratic primary in August. And political newcomer Michael Mashif White of Ypsilanti says he’s ready to file with the Secretary of State’s office to create a campaign committee.

A trainer for AT&T, White talks about applying his experience as a single parent and member of a family that struggled financially. He promises more information as his campaign gets under way.

A much more familiar figure, Riney battled Ypsilanti Township officials over a waste incinerator and has previously been a candidate for the county board of commissioners, the Washtenaw Community College board of trustees, and the 54th District seat.

Recently the subject of news stories for perching in a tree in a failed attempt to prevent utility company contractors from cutting it down, Riney campaigns as “the hot dog man,” pulling a trailer of free franks and soft drinks through neighborhoods. It was free carnations on Mother’s Day, says Riney, who runs a landscape business. He says his primary issue will be job creation.

There are other potential candidates, too: Ypsilanti resident Allen Francois, a former staffer for Wheeler Smith and U.S. Rep. John Dingell; Ypsilanti Township trustee Mike Martin; and Superior Township resident David Rutledge, a member of the WCC board of trustees and the Washtenaw County Road Commission, and twice a candidate in the 54th.

Current Wheeler Smith aide Lonnie Scott is also committed to running. A 2005 Central Michigan grad who grew up in the Lincoln Consolidated School District, Scott recently launched an education challenge to raise money for scholarships for each the 54th’s three school districts – Lincoln, Willow Run and Ypsilanti.

“I’ve gotten some response but haven’t pushed it too hard,” he says. That will change this week when he returns to Lincoln High School to play a role in the high school musical.

“I’m playing the Grinch,” he says. A table set up in the lobby area will ask for support on the scholarship effort and ask patrons to tell Lansing officials not to “be a Grinch” on education funding.

State House: 55th District

There are likewise some new entries into the race to succeed term-limited state Rep. Kathy Angerer in the district that takes in Pittsfield, Saline and York townships in Washtenaw County, along with communities in Monroe County.

Saline Township resident Rick Olson and former Monroe County commissioner Mary Kay Thayer, both Republicans, say they want to be their party’s nominee.

York Township supervisor Joe Zurawski, also a Republican, had previous announced his candidacy.

Raised in the Upper Peninsula, Olson worked in state government in Washington State in the 1980s and returned to Michigan in 1989. He’s worked in the private sector and had been the business manager for Adrian and Harper Woods public schools. He now works in mortgage banking.

A member of the Monroe Community College board of trustees, Thayer served two terms on the county board of commissioners and, previously, on the Lambertville Township board. “I have a record,” she says. “And I’ve never lost an election.”

Thayer left the county board when her multiple sclerosis limited her mobility. But, she says, she’s rebounded, feels well and has ample energy. She and her husband Jack have two adult daughters. They run an engineering consulting firm. Her campaign website is still being developed.

While the Republicans face a primary, prospective Democratic candidate Michael J. Smith, a Temperance resident and member of the Bedford board of education, is still weighing his decision. Smith, who works as the Monroe County United Way’s AFL-CIO community services liaison, says an announcement will come shortly.

State House: 52nd District

Back in the 52nd District, county commissioner Mark Ouimet got his campaign started earlier than expected. His website launched ahead of the timeline Ouimet had originally set for announcing whether or not he’d run.

“The idea was to avoid any distractions before we passed the county budget,” he says. “I was sincere about that and don’t think it created a problem when the website went up.”

Thus far, Ouimet – whose campaign also has a Facebook presence – is the only Republican in the race.

Whatever Democrat appears on the November ballot is likely to be primary-tested. While county commissioner Ken Schwartz is in the “probably” category, Scio Township trustee Christine Green is a full-fledged candidate.

For now, that’s meant balancing a law practice and township responsibilities with opportunities to meet 52nd District residents, Green says. “I see a lot of people in the course of regular business, too, and I’m getting good feedback.”

Saline Mayor Gretchen Driskell is also a potential candidate for that district, which includes northeast Ann Arbor, the cities of Chelsea and Saline, and the townships of Ann Arbor, Bridgewater, Dexter, Freedom, Lima, Lodi, Lyndon, Manchester, Northfield, Pittsfield, Scio, Sharon, Sylvan and Webster.

[Previous Chronicle coverage: "State Legislative Candidates Lining Up" and "State Races in Districts 54, 55 Take Shape"]

About the writer: Judy McGovern lives in Ann Arbor. She has worked as a journalist here, and in Ohio, New York and several other states.


  1. November 18, 2009 at 3:43 pm | permalink

    I’m looking forward to hearing what is said at Pam Byrnes’ public forum tonight (Nov. 18) at WISD, 6:30 p.m.

  2. By yet another
    November 18, 2009 at 11:15 pm | permalink

    Photo caption at top:
    The capitol building in Lansing. (Photo by Mary Morgan, taken back when the weather was warmer.)

    Thank you for adopting a style of journalism which demonstrates clear integrity regarding coverage of weather-based details in the news. In so doing, your high standard draws a sharp, positive distinction between this site and Sean Hannity’s news program on the telly.