Michigan Dems Primary: House 53rd District

Dems will decide on Aug. 3: Jeff Irwin or Ned Staebler

On Saturday, June 12, the Ann Arbor city Democratic Party hosted a candidate forum for the primary races for the seats in both the 52nd and 53rd districts for state representative. Although the forum, held at the Ann Arbor Community Center on North Main Street, was a joint affair for all four candidates in both districts, The Chronicle has split its coverage of the one event into two articles, one for each district’s candidates.


Democratic candidates for the 53rd District state House seat at the June 12 Ann Arbor city Democratic Party forum: Jeff Irwin, left; and Ned Staebler, right. (Photos by the writer.)

The Democratic primary in the 53nd District of the Michigan House of Representatives is contested by Jeff Irwin and Ned Staebler. The 53nd House District covers the majority of the city of Ann Arbor, and parts of Scio and Pittsfield townships.

The seat is currently held by Rebekah Warren, who was elected to that position in 2006, and is eligible to seek re-election – but has chosen instead to run for the 18th District state Senate seat, currently held by term-limited Liz Brater. In Michigan, state senators are limited to two four-year terms, and state representatives are limited to three two-year terms.

This coverage of the June 12 candidate forum consists of the questions that candidates were asked, with answers given by the candidates in paraphrased form.

The order of the remarks as presented here reflects the same relative order as they were made at the candidate forum. For each question, the order was randomly chosen among all four candidates. The remarks of 52rd District candidates are presented separately: “Michigan Dems Primary: House 52nd District

There were two questions asked that received answers with no elaboration: Both Irwin and Staebler are against term limits; Staebler is endorsed by the United Auto Workers.

Opening Remarks

Each candidate was given the opportunity to make some introductory remarks.

Jeff Irwin’s Introductory Remarks

Irwin began by citing his experience serving on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners for just over 10 years. [He currently represents District 11, covering parts of central and eastern Ann Arbor.] He said that experience has given him experience dealing with state programs on the local level – mental health, human services, public health, senior services, disability services. The county government, he noted, is responsible for managing and maintaining those state-level programs. Irwin stated that he is proud to have been an advocate for human services in Washtenaw County.

Jeff Irwin

Jeff Irwin at the Ann Arbor city Democratic Party candidate forum on June 12, 2010.

As a county commissioner, he said he’s had to do the exact kind of work he is now asking voters to do for them on the state level going forward – balance a budget during tough economic times.

Overcoming the projected deficit in the Washtenaw County budget – $30 million over the course of this year and next – had been handled “without a tremendous amount of drama,” he said. The way they did it, he explained, was by focusing on the most important priorities first and by reducing cost in administration and overhead.

They’d worked with the unions to reduce costs throughout the organization, he said. They’d been able to preserve services and reduce the budget in a way that was responsible and still allowed the county to maintain its community priorities. That, he said, is exactly the kind of experience required up in Lansing, and that’s why he decided to run for Rebekah Warren’s seat when she announced that she would be seeking a state Senate seat.

He said he’s been honored to be a public servant in the community over the last 10 years and that he hopes he is able to continue to do the work that he loves.

He noted that in addition to his experience as a county commissioner, he spent a number of years working in Lansing as a legislative aide for Alma Wheeler Smith, who was a state senator at the time. He’d also worked with the League of Conservation Voters in various capacities, he said. When he first started out with the league, he said, his job was to go around the state meeting with environmental groups, helping them to organize more effectively to protect Michigan’s environment – air, water, “the beauty that is Michigan.”

He then became executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters – his job was to evaluate the state legislators, producing an annual environmental scorecard, and to advocate for better protection of Michigan’s environment.

He concluded by saying he has the right experience to serve during these tough times and hopes that he can continue to have the honor of serving the community up in Lansing.

Ned Staebler’s Introductory Remarks

Staebler began by telling the audience a bit about his background and why he was running for office. He described himself as coming from a family very deeply rooted in the community and in public service – his family had moved to Ann Arbor in 1831 and his great-grandfather was the mayor of Ann Arbor through the 1920s and 1930s. His grandfather and a handful of others, he said, had founded what is now known as the Michigan Democratic Party. His grandfather chaired that organization for a decade and served as a congressman.

Ned Staebler

Ned Staebler at the Ann Arbor city Democratic Party candidate forum on June 12, 2010.

Staebler said he has involved himself in politics since he was “knee-high” stuffing envelopes for Jimmy Carter and others. He said he did public service as a “family business” – spending every Wednesday when he was in high school at a halfway house in Detroit’s Cass Corridor tutoring reading and math skills with learning-disabled people. He said he’s been involved with numerous other public organizations throughout his life.

Staebler told the audience he went off to Harvard thinking that he would continue that tradition of family public service, studying American government there. But it was the early 1990s and it was Bush One versus Clinton – he said he remembered thinking, “Here are two guys who are totally out of touch.” Bush One didn’t know how much a gallon of milk cost and didn’t know about supermarket checkout scanners. Staebler said he wished he didn’t have to go the supermarket and allowed that his wife might say that he didn’t go often enough. And Clinton had very little real-world experience before being elected Arkansas attorney general.

Public service was a high calling, Staebler contended, and if you’re going into it, you ought to have an idea of how the impact of public policy affects real people. That was why he’d made a decision to go off and see the world and experience the world, get a job, pay some taxes, and try to figure out how government interacts with real people. So he went into the world of banking and finance, he said, spending a decade in Chicago and London learning how businesses work, why they grow and why they don’t grow. He woke up one morning 8-9 years later and said, “What am I doing? This was supposed to be a two-year gig where you learned how the world works, then go into public service.”

So he left his job and earned a master’s degree at the London School of Economics in comparative politics while teaching at a high school and coaching three sports. He moved back to Michigan and took a job at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. He noted that his wife is a veterinarian in town.

At the MEDC, Staebler said he runs programs designed for small businesses and entrepreneurs to have access to capital they needed in order to grow. He stated that he’s been very active in the community, chairing the city’s Housing and Human Services Advisory Board. He was on the board of the League of Conservation Voters, was on the distribution committee of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, and started his own nonprofit. Staebler said he was running for state rep for one simple reason: He wanted to make sure that for his three-year-old son, Michigan was the kind of place where his son’s generation could get a world-class education, find a job, raise a family and settle down.


Question: What specific bills would you introduce in the legislature to create jobs?

Ned Staebler on Jobs

Staebler said it is something he has spent a lot of time working on as vice president of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. He has spent a lot of time working with businesses, he said, and he understands a lot of the challenges they have trying to grow.

The number one challenge they have, he said, is access to capital. In a lot of ways, he said, Michigan is fortunate. Although many people say that it’s been a real problem to be so heavily concentrated in the automotive industry, it meant that Michigan knew how to manufacture things – extrude plastic, bend metal, lay fiberglass. Unfortunately, he said, the things they make – like cars, boats, and furniture – have not been growth industries.

The good news, he said, is that there are a lot of industries that require the same core competencies that are growth industries: wind turbines, solar panels, advanced batteries, medical devices. All of those items require thousands and thousands of parts, he said, and the kind of advanced manufacturing capability that Michigan has. Michigan has 330 advanced research and development centers, a workforce that is incredibly well-trained, a university system that turns out mechanical and chemical engineers, and a community college system that is incredibly flexible at training.

So, how do we get businesses the capital that businesses need? Staebler asked. One of the problems is that they can’t go to a bank, because the collateral value has decreased so much – financing is usually accomplished through the property, plant, and equipment. If your property, plant and equipment are in Michigan and have been used for manufacturing, he said, then it’s been decreasing in value by up to 80% over the last five years. That’s why he helped create a program called the Michigan Supplier Diversification Fund, he said. That fund allows businesses to get loans and transition their businesses to growth industries. He worked with businesses and banks and realized that it was a $1-1.5 billion problem in Michigan alone. But he’d come up with $13 million in his budget, he said. That money has been used to create 4,500 jobs, he contended. He’d then gone through and found another $13 million, and they are now using that funding now.

The good news, said Staebler, is that the Obama administration has just sent to Capitol Hill legislation to create a $2 billion national program based on the model of transitioning to growth industries.

Jeff Irwin on Jobs

Irwin began by identifying different philosophies about how government can be involved in creating jobs. One of those philosophies, he said, is to invest directly in companies and corporations and hope that the benefit trickles down to “all us little people.” The other method, he said, is to invest in a broad foundation, to invest in people and places, to provide infrastructure and education and grow jobs in that way. From a philosophical perspective, Irwin said, he was in the second camp.

Giving a specific example, Irwin said he’d sat down with the CEO of a company that had come to Ann Arbor, Liebherr Aerospace in Pittsfield Township. Irwin said he asked, “Why are you looking at Ann Arbor?” Irwin reported that the reply was that the number one thing they were looking for was top quality talent. Liebherr had been attracted to the area because of the University of Michigan.

Irwin said that’s what Michigan needs to focus on. Michigan is one of only five states in the country that spends more on prisons than on higher education, he noted. And that is emblematic, he continued, of the wrong direction the state is headed. Michigan needs to re-invest in universities, it needs to be a place that produces top talent – that is how to bring meaningful jobs to the area, the kind of jobs people want.

But there are also other areas they could work on, Irwin said: green energy, clean energy, clean tech – everything from supporting green chemistry to supporting new energy projects like wind turbines. One specific thing is to increase the green portfolio standard.

Another thing he’s been working on lately is PACE legislation – Property Assessed Clean Energy. He reported that state Rep. Rebekah Warren has helped get the bill passed in the House and now he is working on getting it passed in the Senate. The bill would provide citizens with tools to invest in their homes to increase energy efficiency and to increase weatherization opportunities. It would save people money, reduce pollution and put people to work right away.

Tax Reform

Question: What is your position on tax reform to reduce or eliminate reliance on property and flat taxes and replace them with a graduated income tax? Will you please raise taxes for schools and human services?

Jeff Irwin on Taxes

Irwin said he would support a graduated or progressive income tax – it’s a great idea. Unfortunately, he said, that would require a revision to the constitution. So what he would work on immediately and directly, he said, is trying to structure the current flat tax in a way that benefits very low-income people. An earned income tax credit is an idea he thought could be explored.

On the question of schools and human service needs, Irwin said the state needs to find a way to raise the revenue to fund those areas. Revenue levels in Michigan, he said, have dropped to the levels we had at the early part of the decade – the general fund has dropped from $9 billion to $7 billion. That is crippling the state’s ability to invest in people and places. This has a cyclical effect, he continued – as the educational system’s quality is eroded, the state has less of an ability to attract businesses and jobs. Generally the approach should be to “broaden the base and lower the rate.” Ultimately the goal would be to implement a graduated income tax, so that people who earn more pay a greater percentage. There also needs to be a progressive approach to cutting within the state budget, he said. To ask employees making $30,000 a year to take the same kind of cut as someone making $100,000 a year is wrong and unfair, he said.

Ned Staebler on Taxes

Staebler also agreed with a graduated income tax – there are 38 states around the country that have one. So he didn’t think a good argument against it is that somehow rich people who live in the state would flee to a state without such a tax. They could already go to a state with no income tax at all, like Florida, he observed.

The Michigan League for Human Services, Staebler said, had a proposal that would cut taxes for 90% of people, but raise $600 million in much-needed revenue to pay for the type of investments in our future that we need. That makes a lot of sense from a progressive perspective, he said.

Staebler was less excited about expanding a sales tax to services, because generally speaking sales taxes are regressive, he said – people with lesser incomes need services, too. There was a shift in the economy from one that is 70% goods-based and 30% services-based to one that is 70% services-based and 30% goods-based. Given that shift, it might be necessary to begin thinking about taxing services. If that happened, he said, he would make sure that it was as fair as possible. A few years ago, when there was a sales tax on services for “about 20 minutes or so,” if your lobbyist was in the room at the time, then your service wasn’t taxed. It needs to be simple and fair, he said.

It’s also a question of what kind of investments we want to make – long-term investments in our future. If you cut $67 million out of your mental health budget, you just saved $67 million … until those people show up in emergency rooms and jails and shelter systems. You might spend $167 million taking care of them, Staebler cautioned.

Closing tax loopholes on businesses is another thing that needed to happen, Staebler said.


Question: With many local school districts struggling to keep their doors open, do you favor legislation that would require multiple districts to consolidate, both through consolidating services and consolidating districts?

Ned Staebler on Consolidation in Education

As sales tax revenues have started to see a little bounce, the state is actually projecting that there’s going to be a little more in the School Aid Fund than originally anticipated, Staebler said. So he predicted that there would be a fight in the course of the next year – are people going to try to steal money from the schools in order to try to cover the overall budget? Education is a top priority for him, he said, and he is proud to have the endorsement of the Michigan Education Association and the Ann Arbor Education Association. He said he would not support raiding the School Aid Fund to balance the general fund budget.

To the question of consolidation, generally speaking Staebler thinks it makes sense that districts are made the “correct” size – sometimes that means consolidation and sometimes that means breaking them up. The academic literature, he said, shows that there is a “sweet spot” for district size before administration gets to be more burdensome than it needs to be. In the state of Michigan, he said, about 3% more than the national average is spent on school administration and that, for Staebler, is a real concern. With limited dollars it is important to make sure they are getting into the classroom instead of being used in administration.

As to privatization, Staebler characterized it as a “false choice” – almost every case where it has been tried, no savings have been found. Instead, what is found is lower wages and lower service levels, and less protection of workers. So he is not in favor of privatization, he said.

Jeff Irwin on Consolidation in Education

Irwin began by distinguishing between vision and outcome. The vision should be focusing dollars on students in classrooms. The desired outcome, he said, is graduation of smart, capable young people in the state of Michigan so that they can go on to be successful in their individual lives.

He suggested there is broad agreement that too much money is spent on administration, and there is an opportunity there. He said he tends to agree with the views of the other candidates with respect to privatization – he isn’t for it.

Irwin said that it is important to focus on the specific examples in Washtenaw County. Here in the Ann Arbor school system, there were 25-26,000 students. Over in Manchester, he said, they had 3,000 students. That seemed too small, he suggested. If you look at Lincoln, Willow Run and Ypsilanti school districts, they’re all struggling, he said. And  if you added them all up, together they’d have fewer students than Ann Arbor has in its district. So he supports the idea of trying to find out what the right number of students is to justify the administration and overhead – we do need to find that sweet spot. The state legislature’s role, then, is to incentivize decisions at the local level, he said.

Local districts need to be assisted when they made tangible efforts to consolidate, he said. The state should be in the business of helping school districts work together on busing, human resources, facilities management. That’s something that has been done at the county level, he said – working together with the county, the townships and the cities to say, Okay, nobody really cares which entity is monitoring the buildings and buying the technology.

Budget Experience

Question: What experience do you have managing and balancing budgets and closing budget deficits?

Jeff Irwin on Budgets

Irwin cited his more than 10 years of experience on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners balancing budgets. The general fund a few years ago was around $107 million and that had to be reduced to just under $100 million. In an environment where costs are rising – especially in the area of health care, costs for materials, pension costs – you have to find a way to fund the most important priorities first.

The county board had balanced Washtenaw County’s budget that way, Irwin said. He told the audience that they probably had not heard a lot of drama about it, because they did it the way they should do it at the state level – they’d led from the top. They started by working together with the cities and townships to reduce duplication and to eliminate waste between organizations. There are collaborations on community development, information technology, 911 dispatch – all of which are productive partnerships.

They’d also looked to administrative staff and asked them to reduce compensation, and they also reduced the board’s own budget by 15%, he explained. Then they’d gone to their labor unions and asked them to join in the effort. What happened, he said, was: It worked. The employees stepped up and said they didn’t want to see their brothers and sisters lose their jobs. When you lead from the top, and when you eliminate waste and invest in communication, then you can solve these problems with little drama, Irwin concluded.

Ned Staebler on Budgets

Staebler began by saying that he had a great deal of experience in balancing a budget and dealing with financial statements – he’d spent 10 years in the private sector, and the first couple of those years was balancing trading accounts every day. He is very familiar with balance sheets, he said. He’s been on the governing boards of numerous organizations, he said, and especially during these times of declining contributions, he understood there is a need to find a way to make cuts and become leaner and still provide services.

The last four years, Staebler said, he’s been running a number of programs at the state of Michigan, so he has a great deal of understanding of the types of challenges he would face. For one of those programs, in 2006 the budget was $400 million. This year, he reported, it was $28.5 million. So he understood, he said, how to shave things out of a budget and still accomplish the goals you have.

There were about $35-36 billion in tax credits that have been given out, and there is a misperception that all the credits are going to business, Staebler said. Most of that is actually going to citizens, he said – around $10 billion goes to the homestead credit, and around $10 billion is due to the fact that we don’t tax food, and about $9 billion is going to earned income tax credits and personal income tax exemption.

The part that goes to business, Staebler said, is about $1.9 billion. In that $1.9 billion there are certainly places they could look for savings, he said. For example, $37 million goes to the sellers of satellite dishes. He described how it was a credit that went back to 1974-75. Back then maybe you needed to do that to help get the satellite dish business going, but now there’s a DirectTV on every third house – that’s $37 million that we could spend on schools or human services, he suggested.

Michigan businesses are not taxed when they make phone calls overseas, but they are taxed when they call other Michigan businesses – that didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense, and that was another $23 million. There was $12 million for companies that drill for oil in Michigan – when the price of gas was $1/gallon that might be okay, but at $4/gallon, Staebler didn’t think so.


Question: The proposed sulfide mines in the UP are threatening some of the most pristine areas of our state. What should be done to protect our state’s natural environment from this threat? What should be done to protect funding for the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE)?

Ned Staebler on the Environment

Staebler indicated that he certainly supports fully funding the Department of Natural Resources and Environment and that the review process needs to be more stringent. He does not favor a policy whereby if you submit an application and there is no action within a certain amount of time, then you are automatically approved.

He also supports the idea that studies should be done to establish a need for power plants. There is not only a moral obligation to protect the natural bounty we been given, he said, there is also from a pragmatic perspective a need in the next 50-100 years to power our energy and our economy. Michigan is home to much of the world’s fresh water, he said, and it is therefore no surprise that the biggest industries in Michigan – manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism – are incredibly water intensive industries. That’s why the state needs to make sure we protect our water and make sure it stays clean.

Jeff Irwin on the Environment

Irwin said the environment is an issue he is passionate about and that he’s worked on for many years. He said that he’s actually fought the sulfide ore mining and he is very much against any authorization for spoiling the Upper Peninsula. He said that he is actually from the UP – there is nothing like what we have here in Michigan in all of the rest of the world, he said.

One hundred years ago, Irwin said, when the government was looking at the national park system, they had identified four possible national parks in Michigan – the three that we have, plus something called the Huron Mountain National Park. It was eventually squelched, but he said he would like to bring that idea back.

That national park would be right in the middle of the area where they were talking about doing sulfide mining, Irwin said. Everywhere else that sulfide mining has been done in the world, it has polluted the water table with sulfuric acid, Irwin told the audience. It would totally destroy an area that was once slated to become a national park. As a state legislator, he said, one of the things that he would do is to bring that idea back and establish the fourth national park in Michigan – the Huron Mountain National Park. It’s one of the most beautiful pristine wild areas in the United States, and a park would save it forever.

Another thing that we need to do, he said, is to get serious about pollution permits. We don’t do enough inspecting of polluters in Michigan, he said. The reason for that is, he said, that we generate the money to do the inspections off of the permits. We need to get serious about protecting our air and water in the state, which is critical to our economy, he concluded.

Right to Bear Arms

Question: How do you feel about legislating greater freedoms to bear arms in public, such as at the malls and at schools?

Ned Staebler on Gun Rights

Staebler began by saying that he is not a hunter and that he does not own a gun, but and he has not shot a lot of guns. He recognizes, however, that a lot of people do like to hunt, and they do it responsibly. He said that he is not advocating against their ability to do that. But he agreed that it is not appropriate to have guns in schools. He alluded to his three-year-old, who was running around in the back of the room, as the thing that was most important with respect to guns, namely, keeping them away from kids.

Jeff Irwin on Gun Rights

Irwin began by saying that he hunts with a camera. So while he does not have a lot of personal experience with guns, generally speaking he feels that it is not necessary to legislate an expansion of gun rights in Michigan.

Irwin said that when he was up working in the legislature and the CCW (concealed-carry weapons) law was passed, lawmakers had included an exemption for the legislature and for the courts. So the legislators who passed a very aggressive CCW law did not think it was a good idea for those folks to be able to have the right to carry those weapons in a concealed fashion in the legislative chambers or the courts. So if it’s not good enough for their workplace, Irwin said he doesn’t see why it’s good for our workplaces.

Campaign Finance

Question: Michigan law does not require corporations to publicly disclose contributions to political candidates and organizations or officials. Do you support that kind of disclosure?

Jeff Irwin on Campaign Finance

Irwin stated that transparency is the goal that he works on in the county government, and it is something that needs to be worked on with the state government. Who is supporting who needs to be disclosed aggressively, he stated.

Irwin said he is a big supporter of sunshine laws, the Freedom of Information Act, and the Open Meetings Act – all of those need to be strengthened. He said there are also other opportunities in election law to make some changes that would be productive for Michigan. He is a big believer in absentee voting on demand. It should be possible to vote early in person, he said.

Irwin also suggested that we should explore the idea of making election day a holiday in Michigan, so that the day can be focused on government and making important decisions.

When the term limit laws were implemented a few years ago, he said it meant that a lot of inexperienced people were put at the steering wheel of the state government. The problem is not that there were people who had been in office too long – it was voters who were not kicking out people who needed to be kicked out.

Irwin stressed the need to have a public that has all the tools possible to get involved and get informed and make their voting decisions with full consideration of the record, and who supported who. And part of that is transparency and opening up election laws, he said. He also suggested same-day registration as an idea worth exploring.

Staebler on Campaign Finance

Staebler began by stating that he is not a big fan of the influence of money in politics. He described it as a huge divisive factor in our polity and in our community, which erodes the equality for which we have fought for so long.

But money is a part of the “rules of the game” and he does not feel like candidates would unilaterally disarm. So candidates have to do what they have to do, he concluded. He does not feel like, however, that the First Amendment extended to corporations being able to give money to political candidates and advocate in that way. Corporations already have so many advantages that they do not need additional advantages. He felt like corporate dollars should be removed from the political process.

He agreed with the kinds of voting reforms that Irwin had discussed.

Constitutional Convention

Question: Do you think we should have a constitutional convention and why?

Ned Staebler on a Constitutional Convention

Staebler said there are a lot of things that are problematic about the state’s constitution. He said he would love to open up the constitution and talk about our income tax system. That would be fairly easy to do at a constitutional convention, he said.

But given the lack of leadership that he sees at the state level right now, and given the huge amount of division that we have right now, and considering the way that elections are trending for this year, and given term limits and the turnover of highly qualified people, he is concerned that a potential constitutional convention would not go very well.

It would cost a lot and we would end up with a document that would potentially be much worse. He concluded that he is not in favor of having a constitutional convention.

Jeff Irwin on a Constitutional Convention

Irwin allowed that it is a tough question because there are some significant opportunities and significant risks associated with a constitutional convention.

Irwin said that he is personally in favor of having a convention. There is a constitutional provision, he said, that stipulates that no more than 10% of gas tax revenues can be spent on public transportation. With that provision in the constitution, he said, Michigan will never be able to invest in transit the way that it’s necessary to revive our urban centers like Detroit. The state is way behind in mass transit, he said, and Michigan would be a much better state if we had rail and bus all working together. We would never have that as long as the constitution is written the way it is, he said.

There’s a possibility of a graduated income tax – Irwin stated that we need such a tax. There are things written into the constitution, he said, that are totally bigoted – Proposal B, for example, that limits the rights of gay people. He characterized it as a horrible thing that needs to be changed and something that can be changed at the constitutional convention.

He allowed that there could be some crackpot who comes along and says, Yes, let’s have a death penalty, let’s make it even more difficult for gay and lesbian couples. But he said that Michigan is already one of the more backward states with respect to gay and lesbian issues – it really couldn’t get much worse. With respect to abortion, he said, Michigan was a pre-Roe state, which means that if Roe v. Wade were overturned, abortion would be illegal in Michigan. Michigan couldn’t really get much more anti-choice or anti-gay, he said. And those are the big threats that he sees in any constitutional convention. He called for doing something bold to overturn some of the institutional barriers.

Funeral Regulations

Question: In Michigan, a death certificate must have a signature from a funeral director to be legal. This greatly increases the cost of funerals. Is this something that you would work against?

Jeff Irwin on Funeral Regulations

Philosophically speaking, Irwin said, he is a huge believer in individual rights – we should be letting people choose how they live and how they die and make their own decisions about how that’s handled. It’s not a decision that government should be making for people. The government should not be funneling people to certain services. So he concluded that the state should change that law.

Irwin said it should be made easier for people to choose various options – green burial, for example, or cremation. Government should be about empowering people to make their own decisions about their lives and their deaths. It should not stipulate what industry they should go to after they’re done, he concluded.

Ned Staebler on Funeral Regulations

Staebler stated that it is generally speaking important for individuals to be the ones who make their own decisions about those things. It’s unfortunate if cost becomes a pressing concern, when in that circumstance costs should not be a concern of a family who has lost a loved one.

But he said he also recognizes that there are some practical concerns there as well. He said he is willing to talk about the issue, but working on it would probably not be particularly high on his priority list, given some of the other issues that are going on in the state right now.

Crossing the Aisle

Question: What’s your perspective on how to work with the opposite party?

Jeff Irwin on Working with Republicans

Irwin stated that he’d had opportunity to work with the opposite party on any number of occasions. As a legislative aide, he learned that if you want to get something done, you have to know how to work with the opposite party.

At the local level, he said, he had worked very well with members of the opposite party on the county board of commissioners. You need to have an attitude when you go into it that you’re not trying to score points for your team, you’re trying to get something done for the state.

Irwin said that he would reach out his Republican colleagues and find out what things they agree on, then focus on those things. There are ideas that can be accomplished that are not necessarily partisan ideas, he suggested. An example of that, he said, was the PACE legislation. He thinks there is a good opportunity to get that bill passed – it is an environmental idea, an idea that is good for the economy, an idea that would save people money. It does not touch on any of the Republican hot button issues, he said. It is a way to help save energy, and at the same time put people in the trades to work, he said. It is not going to hurt any particular industry that was a big investor in the Republican Party.

Another area Irwin felt he might be able to work on with Republicans is the local food movement. If we want more local food that’s fresher and healthier, the Republicans happen to represent people who grow the food – let’s find opportunities to get that food into our schools, into our universities, into our prisons, and into our farmers markets, he concluded.

Staebler on Working with Republicans

Staebler described it as a question that he hears when knocking on doors all the time: How are you going to get this done? He allowed that it is a challenge, given that there is a Republican-controlled Senate.

Term limits he pointed to as an additional obstacle. But he stated that he is an optimist and things are getting better and they will continue to get better. The plus side to term limits, he said, is that some of the most ideological folks are termed out.

A lot of folks in the Senate will be coming over from the House and they will have had a chance to work together already. He pointed to a bipartisan freshman caucus that has been started, focused on outcomes. He characterized the first effort of that caucus as marginally successful, but it has gotten some conversations started. Because of term limits, those participants in the bipartisan freshmen caucus will, in many cases, be in leadership positions for the next term.

He allowed that it is important to focus on outcomes – everyone could agree that we want good schools, and healthy kids, and a good economy – but focus on process is very important, because that’s how you get those outcomes. A good model, he suggested, is what President Obama did with health care. After Massachusetts, when everybody said it was dead, Obama said it’s not dead, and this is the process we’re going to use: We’re going to get everybody in the room – Republicans and Democrats – and let’s work on the 200 things we all agree on. And they had gotten something done. It’s not perfect, but it’s something, Staebler concluded.

Right-to-Life and Pro-Choice

Question: Do you favor right-to-life or choice?

Ned Staebler on Abortion

Staebler began by stating that he is pro-choice. He said he’d always been a big supporter of Planned Parenthood, not only for their reproductive rights activity but also for all the other things they did.

Jeff Irwin on Abortion

Irwin stated that he is definitely pro-choice, and has a record of supporting Planned Parenthood through the county government. The county supports the prenatal care program, which is very important at the local level.

Up in Lansing, he said, a lot of the challenges are around access to choice. In many parts of the state, the situation is different from here – there is not access to choice. There are folks in Lansing who are trying to deny access to choice, passing more aggressive consent laws, instituting waiting periods and the like, Irwin cautioned.

He told the audience they can count on him when efforts are made in Lansing to restrict access to choice and make it more difficult to get the kind of medical care they are seeking – he would stand against those efforts.

The Senior Vote

Question: Research has shown that voters in primaries are 70% senior citizens. How are you planning for this?

Ned Staebler on Senior Voters

Staebler said that his campaign’s analysis confirms the trend of seniors voting. The average age in the voter file is 61, he said. But he said he has not changed his campaign or tailored things remarkably different. He still knocks on every door and asks people what issues ae important to them. He finds that many of the same issues that are important for younger families are also important to seniors. His door-to-door campaign is simply about explaining who he is, and what he is about, and why he is running.

Jeff Irwin on Senior Voters

One of the issues he hears frequently, Irwin said, is access to health care, and home care, and the ability to age in place. There are opportunities to keep someone in their home and provide care to someone in their home, he said, that are actually less expensive than going into a hospital or a nursing home-type facility.

The opportunities need to be expanded, Irwin said. It is also important, he said, to make sure that seniors have access to the community – it is important to have countywide transit. Seniors need to have demand-response transit available so that they can get to their doctors, he said, or come downtown and take advantage of the various cultural opportunities.

Consumer protection is also an important facet of the issue, Irwin said. Something he had learned as a county commissioner for 10 years, is that public officials don’t know everything and there are people out in the community who do have knowledge about the serious issues, and it is important to listen to them. Most of what he knows about senior issues, he said, came from working with his colleague on the county board, Barbara Bergman, and working with seniors themselves.

Followup question: Concerns are not the same across all age groups. There will soon be more seniors than elementary school kids. How does that affect what you plan to do about the budget?

Ned Staebler on Impact of Seniors on the Budget

As he has been knocking on doors, Staebler said he has certainly heard about the health care issue. He said that there is a perception that when the federal health care bill passed, everyone would have a federal health care plan. The reality is, he said, that there are now 50 health care plans, and every state will have to make a whole host of decisions over the next couple of years about what that will look like.

Especially for Medicaid will be the question of what is covered and how much is covered, Staebler said. There are a couple of different ways we could set up health care exchanges. Option one would look something like Medicare Part C, he explained, where if your plan meets certain standards, then it can get listed. As a result, you get 12,000 plans and you have to hire a consultant to walk you through which one is right for you.

Option two on the health care exchanges is more along the lines of what a corporation or the University of Michigan has, which is to go out to insurance companies and say, Okay, here are the criteria for the apples-to-apples comparisons that I want – show me what you’ve got. And then, for example, three plans would be chosen and offered to members. That’s something that a lot of time needs to be put into debating over the next couple of years, Staebler said.

Jeff Irwin on Impact of Seniors on the Budget

Based on his previous experience working for the legislature, Irwin said, there is no single industry that has more lobbying power than the insurance industry. They are tremendously powerful in the process in the legislature, he warned.

If he were given the opportunity to represent the community, Irwin said, they could count on him to look out for the public interest – not the corporate interests – as the debate on the health care exchanges unfolds. Insurance companies are very happy to collect premium payments, he said, but when it comes time for someone be paid on a legitimate claim, they make all sorts of excuses. It is one of the reasons he was motivated to get into politics, he said.

He stressed that it is important to realize the promise of the federal health care reform. He said he had wanted a single-payer system with the public option – that was not what we got. What we got was an opportunity to try to get it right in Michigan – to try to make sure that the options covered on the exchange have the widest range and the lowest cost possible.

Summary Statements

Each candidate gave a summary statement.

Jeff Irwin Sums Up

Irwin began his summary statement by saying that the choice of public servants is very important. He said he has been honored to serve the community for 10 years on the county board of commissioners and wants to use that experience to focus on Michigan’s most important priorities.

Education funding is a critical need right now, Irwin said. We’re currently underfunding a variety of educational programs and cutting support for universities and colleges, he warned. It’s a recipe for economic disaster, he said. The number one economic development priority that we have in the state is focusing on education funding – getting back on track with education.

The education issue should be addressed on the front end of the model instead of on the back end. In Washtenaw County there is an aggressive program to get people who were nonviolent offenders and not a threat to society back into the community. It’s been found that it is less expensive and more productive.

We also need to focus on the natural environment, Irwin said. Do we have clean air? Do we have clean water? People need to be able to get out into nature and enjoy the natural splendor at Michigan has, Irwin said.

Those are his top two priorities, Irwin said: education funding and environmental protection. He concluded by saying that he has the experience to get the job done up in Lansing.

Ned Staebler Sums Up

Michigan faces a lot of challenges right now and the audience asked a lot of good questions, Staebler said. There’s 14% unemployment and the budget situation is not looking so strong.

We’re underfunding our education system, and we’re not funding the DNRE the way we need to, Staebler continued. But, he stated, we can meet these challenges. We don’t have any other choice but to meet these challenges, he said.

At this stage in Michigan’s history, Staebler continued, we don’t need just more good representation. Good representation is reactive, he said. It’s about showing up and voting the right way, advocating for things and supporting things. What we need right now is proactive leadership, he said.

Leaders find a problem, figure out what is causing it, design a solution to solve it, and then get the resources they need to bring the solution to fruition, Staebler said. He stated that he has a 15-year track record in the private sector, the public sector, and the nonprofit sector of solving real problems. At this point in its history, Michigan needs more leaders, he concluded.


  1. By ScratchingmyHead
    June 19, 2010 at 8:07 am | permalink

    It’s good to see both of these candidates list education as a priority in their bid to become the next state representative for the 53rd district. However, education linked to economic development will not be successful unless our inflated prison system is addressed. We cannot continue to spend on average $30,000 a year to incarcerate individuals, many of whom are non-violent offenders, and with the proper intervention will do well in society. There needs to be a method of throughly evaluating them with the prospect of allowing these individuals to live, work, pay taxes and raise families in their community. While no politicians want to appear “soft” on crime, what I’m looking for in a candidate is someone who has the courage to provide leadership in this area. It doesn’t appear that neither Irwin or Staebler exhibits such.

  2. By jcp2
    June 19, 2010 at 10:13 am | permalink

    Politicians will be “soft” on crime when the electorate becomes “soft” on crime. They are a reflection of who we are.

  3. By Ken Schwartz
    June 20, 2010 at 10:13 am | permalink

    I read this article with interest and both candidates sound competent and capable. However, Jeff Irwin made one point that bears emphasis. He wants to establish a new national park in Michigan to complement Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Isle Royale is Michigan’s only national park and it’s a 55 mile boat trip to get there. There’s limited opportunities for seniors or the disabled to enjoy the park as it is maintained as an undeveloped park. The preservation of the Huron Mountain area will be accessible, and if successfully developed will be enjoyed by all Americans forever.

    The positive economic impact of a national park will last generations and Marquette and Baraga will see greatly improved economies. In 1957 the Huron Mountains were selected as the best site along the Great Lakes Shoreline to preserve, but the political elite who are members of the Huron Mountain club decided to keep this treasure for themselves, and prevented the legislation from going forward denying the People of Michigan some of the most beautiful land east of the Mississippi.

    The nickel sulfide mining project in this area will denude and pollute this great part of wild Michigan and will not provide the People of Michigan the economic growth promised and will lose the great cultural and recreational asset of a national park. A few years ago Conde Nast magazine rated the upper peninsula as one of the top ten tourist destinations in the world and last year Liane Hansen of NPR raved about the beauty and food of the U.P. as she toured this vast and unspoiled land.

    Jeff Irwin…this is the first original idea in many years about saving and preserving our Michigan environment. If elected I hope you pursue this development which should attract thousands each year from Chicago and Minneapolis to spend their money in Michigan admiring this unique world asset.

  4. By annarborvoter
    June 20, 2010 at 10:23 am | permalink

    @scratchingmyhead, actually Mr. Irwin has been speaking about Michigan’s inflated prison system on the campaign trail. It’s even mentioned in some of his campaign literature. I’ve heard him say that addressing the problem is a necessary component of tackling Michigan’s structural budget problems. I’ve known Mr. Irwin for many years, and one thing you can count on is that he is not afraid to speak his mind about the issues – no matter the political consequences.

  5. By pat
    June 20, 2010 at 12:51 pm | permalink

    After reading this story I felt excited about Jeff Irwin’s proposal to create a National Park in the U.P.

    After the BP disaster I am positive that the mining companies in Michigan are telling us and their lobbyist and their paid for legislators exactly want we want to hear about sulfide mining. As the Gulf of Mexico is now under attack by the recklessness of BP, let’s preserve our nickel and copper until the technology exists to extract it without polluting lake Superior, which takes 200 years to flush out.

    The Smokey Mountain National Park and the towns on both sides of the range are faring very well. Yellowstone can’t keep up with the demand. Americans love the natural beauty of their country and will come to this new national park in droves for the scenery alone. I’ve been there and Lake Superior is a blue jewel extending to infinity while gazing upon it from a 1,000 foot mountain. From that height it looks like the Caribbean Sea.

    The promise of high paying jobs from mining interests is seductive, but the costs of one mishap could scar the lands and waters for over 200 years. I live in the 54th District and I hope the candidates there get behind the Irwin idea and save these mountains, waterfalls, forests and views. These are the ideas that can call us to action and make Michigan the leader and best in the environment and a wonderful place to live.

  6. June 20, 2010 at 9:32 pm | permalink

    HD – thanks for coming to the debate and for your voluminous coverage.

    Scratching, I agree that our out-of-control prison spending is a sapping our strength as a state and that we need to address the thorny issues that accompany any serious discussion of criminal justice. One specific program that I will advance as a State Rep. is an expansion of mental health diversion programs like J-PORT.

    I have been putting my head in this vice since I was Chair of the Board and worked to improve the information on our jail demographics. I knew we had problems, but the details are alarming. I would urge you to check out the Chronicle coverage from Feb. 20, 2010: [link].

    Here’s an excerpt (sorry about the length):

    Jeff Irwin praised Clayton for his professionalism and hands-on approach and for his emphasis on gathering data and metrics to use as a basis for decision-making. He raised the question of recidivism, noting that 70% of people released from jail in the county are returned there within two years. What can the community do, he asked, to make an impact on changing that?

    Clayton said it was important to accurately assess the risk of people coming through the criminal justice system, to determine who is really a serious threat to the community. For those who aren’t, there need to be alternatives, such as tethering and work release programs. These need to be programs in which the courts have confidence, he said.

    But equally important, Clayton said, was the need to address root causes. Some folks are bad, he said, but a lot of people in jail have other issues – a lack of education, substance abuse or mental health problems. It’s a community issue, Clayton argued, and both ends of the spectrum need to be addressed: human services as well as public safety. Law enforcement officers can be an important partner, he said, working with human service agencies to help people in the community who might otherwise end up in jail. Irwin noted that the program known as JPORT (Justice Project Outreach Team) was an excellent example of that kind of collaboration.

    Irwin then brought up the issue of race, noting that two-thirds of the jail population is African-American, while the overall population in the county is less than 20%. He told Clayton he was hoping to hear some “big ideas” about how to address this problem.

    Clayton said that, again, it was a challenge for the entire criminal justice system – that kind of disparity was seen throughout the continuum. You start addressing it by having frank conversations, some that make people uncomfortable, he said. They’re uncomfortable for fear of saying the wrong thing and being accused of racism. Is it because African-Americans are more prone to crime? Clayton said he’d argue no. Are socio-economic factors at play? That’s part of it, he said. There are some very tough questions that need to be asked, Clayton said, and it’s a conversation they all need to have at some point.

  7. By ScratchingmyHead
    June 21, 2010 at 8:43 am | permalink

    Thank you Mr. Irwin for bringing this article to my attention. I am a strong supporter of Sheriff Clayton and I believe he is the closest thing to a good county wide law enforcement officials that we’ve had in a long time. It is good to see that he is recommending some alternatives to incarceration. However, if you examine these alternative programs, you will find that many of them are ineffective in diverting these individuals from jail or prison simply because there is too much at stake financially for the system and those individuals whose financial livelihood is dependent on the status quo. Furthermore, efforts at alternative incarceration are often inconsistent from one political administration to another making the issue of accountability and effectiveness difficult to ascertain. Those individuals who are charged with administering these programs are insensitive to the population they are suppose to help and consequently they become co-conspirators of the law and order implementers. Although JPORT is a collaboration of services,it still remains that Blacks are less likely to be referred to substance abuse treatment, receive mental health services, given alternative sentences to jail and once sentence, are less likely to be able to find employment in the community in which they live making it difficult for them to avoid re-offending. However, my biggest concern is the lack of effective community involvement. When attempts are made to engaged the community, it usually involves identifying the same old “community leaders” who basically go along with whatever initiatives are proposed, they ask very few questions and are not accountable to the community they are suppose to represent. The fact that two thirds of the county jail population are African American with blacks only comprising less than 20% of the general county population has not been raised as an issue by these community leaders is indicative of their commitment to addressing this problem. Again, I applaud Mr. Irwin concern about this problem. Please work with the African American Community on this issue.

    There are no accountability to the public as to the effectiveness of these programs and to keep from incarceration. H

  8. By Mark Koroi
    June 21, 2010 at 1:25 pm | permalink

    I think Jeff Irwin has shown character when he chaired the Board of Commissioners and opposed a couple of heavy hitters in county politics.

    He stood firm in the Monroe Circuit Court and beat Sheriff Minzey after a protracted legal battle. Minzey later took a job with Wackenhut Security.

    He went toe-to-toe with the circuit court judiciary when they whined about not having luxurious enough quarters and stood firm when they threatened legal action to enforce the statutory duty of a county to provide adequatequarters for its circuit judges; the judiciary backed down. Jeff Irwin also stepped in and reminded then-Chief Judge Archie Brown that the BOC, not Brown, controlled the county building when District Court Judge Ann Mattson had her courtroom taken over by Brown.

    Jeff Irwin has shown the toughness and leadership necessary to be an effective elected official. He has cut some big shooters down to size in Washtenaw County.

    Ann Arborites need his firebrand type of leadership in Lansing.