A Saturday, Jan. 14 meeting of Ann Arbor Democrats drew a total of four candidates for judgeships on two different Michigan courts – the 22nd circuit court of Washtenaw County and Michigan’s supreme court. Although positions on both courts are elected on non-partisan ballots, election outcomes are generally acknowledged to be decided at least to some extent along party lines.
Appearing at the meeting of the Ann Arbor City Democratic Party to establish that they’d be asking for support in the upcoming August primary, for election to the 22nd circuit court, were local attorneys Carol Kuhnke, Doug McClure and Erane Washington.
The non-partisan Aug. 7, 2012 primary will winnow the field down to two candidates for the one position that will be open on the 22nd circuit court – currently held by Melinda Morris, who is retiring. Candidates have until May 1 to file their nominating petitions.
For the position on the Michigan supreme court, the partisan connection is overt. One mechanism for ballot access is for candidates to be nominated through the convention of a political party. Three nominations can be made this year to the seven-member court. And Democrats will make their selection of nominees at a March 10, 2012 endorsement convention to be held at Detroit’s Cobo Center.
So last Saturday, Bridget Mary McCormack introduced herself to Ann Arbor Democrats as a candidate for one of the three Democratic Party endorsements for supreme court justice. She’s a professor of law at the University of Michigan, and co-director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic.
Also related to state-level party politics at the Saturday morning gathering was some measure of frustration expressed by Debbie Dingell. The wife of U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-District 15) told the local Ann Arbor Democratic Party group that the state’s party leadership needs to give clearer direction to party members about the presidential primary to be held on Feb. 28.
The need for any direction stems from the appearance on the primary ballot of President Barack Obama’s name, despite the fact that he is not opposed in the primary, and that state party leaders did not want Obama’s name to appear. Michigan Democrats plan to select Obama as their nominee at a May 5 caucus. As it currently stands, national and state party rules don’t allow voters to participate both events – primary and caucus.
For his part, John Dingell quipped from his seat in the audience, “I’ve never voted in a Republican primary, and I ain’t about to start!” Earlier in the meeting, Dingell had dished out a well-polished series of pokes at the Republican Party, which included a lampooning of the field in the GOP presidential primary. Of the candidates, Newt Gingrich probably got the sharpest end of Dingell’s humor, when the Michigan congressman quipped, “As my old daddy used to say, even a blind hog can find an acorn.” Dingell also ticked through a number of achievements of Democrats in the last two years – including support for the auto industry and securing food safety.
Among the various volunteer sign-up sheets circulated at Saturday’s meeting was one to indicate willingness to help with the presidential campaign locally. In connection with that, David Cahill explained that the local party organization is now using the voter activation network (VAN) as its database.
The meeting was also an occasion for local candidates for office to introduce themselves. On the state level, Adam Zemke and Bob Davidow introduced themselves as candidates for District 55 of the Michigan house of representatives.
Incumbent county commissioners Conan Smith (new District 9) and Yousef Rabhi (new District 8) are both seeking re-election in the newly-configured nine districts – the board currently reflects representation of 11 districts. And Andy LaBarre told the gathering that he’s seeking election in the new District 7.
Also on the county level, Kathy Wyatt, executive assistant from the sheriff’s office, announced that sheriff Jerry Clayton would be seeking re-election this year. The sheriff’s presence was required at a job fair that morning – new dispatchers were being hired in connection with retirements and the consolidation of dispatch operations at the county and the city of Ann Arbor.
Incumbent city councilmember Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) announced to meeting attendees that he’s running for re-election. Sabra Briere (Ward 1) also attended the meeting, but her council seat is not up for election this time around. She was re-elected last year – unopposed in both the primary and the general election.
Michigan Supreme Court
The string of candidate introductions was led off by McCormack, who began, “My name is Bridget Mary McCormack and I’m running for the Michigan supreme court.” That was met with cheers and applause. She continued by saying she’s from Ann Arbor, and serves as associate dean for clinical affairs at the University of Michigan law school – which means she runs all of the practical legal education programs.
In the audience McCormack recognized Tony Derezinski, who was there to announce he is running for re-election to his Ward 2 seat on the Ann Arbor city council. She said, “Tony, you’re looking at me. You met me years ago, I’m married to Steve Croley.” She explained that Croley is also a professor of law at UM, but is currently on leave, serving as special assistant to the president and senior counsel to the president in the office of White House counsel. Derezinski, who has taught courses at UM law school and is a UM law school alum, responded with, “Good seeing you again!”
McCormack identified the Michigan supreme court election as a critical one for Democrats. She said Democrats have an opportunity to win the court. There are three seats in play, she said, and on March 10, the state party will endorse three candidates. By way of background, the two justices whose terms are expiring are Marilyn Kelly and Stephen Markman. A third justice, Brian Zahra, was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to the post in early 2011, and must therefore stand for election this year.
McCormack allowed that it’s not clear who will be endorsed at the party convention, but said she felt very strongly that voters have a voice in who the Democrats endorse.
McCormack continued with her self-introduction by describing her work as co-director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic – her students had exonerated five people in the first two years of that clinic. She also reported that she’d been working as a lawyer in the state courts for 20 years and is familiar with the ways in which the state courts do not work equally well for all people. If we elect good candidates to the supreme court, she said, we can fix that.
She said she’s been working hard and has been all over the state, trying to talk to as many people as possible. She hoped to have support on March 10 to gain the party’s endorsement so that she could work even harder over the following five months to win the race.
Because the supreme court contest is a “name-recognition race,” from the audience came the invitation to say her name again. She obliged. And the enthusiastic gathering eventually wound up in a group recitation of her name: “Bridget Mary McCormack.” Asked if she had set up a campaign website, she cautioned that election laws prohibit that kind of activity at this point and quipped that in her husband’s current absence during the week, her kids needed her to stay out of prison so they could be driven to and fro.
Also from the audience came what McCormack called a softball question: How many years in prison had been served by the wrongfully-convicted prisoners that her students had exonerated? All told, they’d spent over 128 years in prison, she said. That’s 128 years of prison that taxpayers had unnecessarily paid for. What’s worse, she continued, is that while the wrong person was in prison, the guilty person was still out there committing more crimes. She said she’d identified six additional homicides that had been committed while the guilty person had been free. The justice system can do better in all sorts of ways, she said.
From the audience also came a suggestion. “You have such a pleasantly youthful look. Be sure in every speech to mention 20 years of experience!” McCormack responded good-naturedly: “I’m actually super-old – ask my kids.” Asked how people could contribute to her campaign, she said the most important way is to tell people her name. And the most immediate way is to show up and have a voice at the endorsement convention on March 10.
After that, she said, she’d need “boots on the ground.” It’s a name-recognition race. The secret of the race, she said, is that the race can be won if every Democrat who shows up and votes for the president also knows who to vote for among the supreme court candidates. Saying her name everywhere you go is the most important thing you can do, she said.
Some among the gathering will be organizing a sign-making meeting, so that people can wave signs at the March 10 nominating convention.
When she was introduced as a candidate for the 22nd circuit court judgeship, Carol Kuhnke first addressed the importance of McCormack’s race. She said McCormack was right in identifying that name recognition is the key factor. Kuhnke said she’d worked at the polls for candidates for the supreme court for the past three election cycles, and there’s nothing more rewarding than doing that work. Working for supreme court candidates is easy, she said.
When people are on their way in to the polls, you can approach them and talk to them about the supreme court and they will stop immediately – because they realize they don’t know who they’re going to vote for and they don’t know who their candidates are, Kuhnke said. It’s much easier than working for a partisan candidate, she said. So she encouraged those who aren’t doing something else on election day to spend some time working for the supreme court candidates.
Erane Washington likewise talked strategy for the supreme court race, before discussing her own candidacy for the 22nd circuit court judgeship. She focused on the importance of absentee ballots in elections and the need to get a candidate’s name in front of the electorate before those ballots are sent out.
22nd Circuit Court
The circuit court is a trial court of general jurisdiction, including criminal cases like felonies and certain serious misdemeanors, as well as civil cases involving amounts greater than $25,000.
When Carol Kuhnke finished with her encouragement to attendees of the Saturday morning gathering to help work the polls for the supreme court race, she turned to her own race – for the position being vacated by Melinda Morris on the 22nd circuit court.
She introduced herself as a lawyer and a resident of the city of Ann Arbor for 15 years. She was excited about the opportunity to elect a new judge for the Washtenaw County circuit court, she said – it’s been almost 30 years since there’s been an open seat.
Kuhnke told the gathering she’d appreciate their support. She said she’s been a courtroom lawyer for 18 years, representing everyday people, helping them with their issues and problems. She’s spent her entire career in the court, and was now ready to do some work from the other side.
[Chronicle readers may be familiar with Kuhnke's name from her service as chair of the city of Ann Arbor's zoning board of appeals, which recently heard an appeal on the controversial City Place project on Fifth Avenue, south of William Street.]
Erane Washington introduced herself as a candidate for the Washtenaw County circuit court position. She said she’s been practicing law as a courtroom attorney for the past 18 years, and is a graduate of the UM law school.
Washington said she’d been a public servant for about 13 of those years, including working for the Washtenaw County public defender’s office for seven years. After that she worked as a judicial attorney for another six years. Most people in the legal field are familiar with her in her role as a judicial attorney.
Washington’s current work is also in the courtroom, she said. She has a contract with the county for some defense work. She also has a separate practice in which she handles business, real estate and probate. She’s been appointed by the governor to several positions, she said, and knows a lot about the election process – one of those was to the state board of canvassers. She felt fortunate that in that capacity she’d had the opportunity to certify the election of Barack Obama as president.
Washington said she previously served as the Washtenaw Democratic Party vice chair. She’s very excited about the opportunity to have an election for the circuit court position. It’s been at least 25 years since there’s been an open seat, she said. Although it’s a non-partisan seat, it’s important to achieve an end result of electing a Democrat. She’s looking for people’s support.
She passed around her nominating petition, quipping that “Unlike Yousef, we need more than 50 signatures!” Earlier Yousef Rabhi had joked about the difficulty of gathering 50 signatures for his re-election to the county board of commissioners. Washington went on to explain that she’d need at least 1,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Doug McClure told the audience that he, too, like his friends Carol and Erane, is a candidate for the judgeship on the 22nd circuit court. He noted that the current open seat will be followed in two years by at least one more opportunity for the public to elect a judge with a real choice. By that he meant that once a judge achieves the bench, when they stand for re-election, their incumbent designation appears on the ballot – which gives them a large enough advantage that sitting judges are rarely challenged.
Of the three candidates in the room, he joked, he is the oldest, which people could see from the way he looks. He’s been practicing for 25 years – his area of practice is environmental law. He’s lived in Washtenaw County since 1991, he said, and is very involved in the Washtenaw County Bar Association. Some of the work the association is doing in the county shows how much need there is for justice, he said. McClure was co-chair of that group’s judiciary committee for the last two years.
The first year, he had co-chaired it with Bob Carbeck. Their program had been on the indigent defense crisis. In Washtenaw County, McClure said, we are lucky because of “the great Lloyd Carr” but he quickly corrected himself – he’d meant to name Lloyd Powell, the Washtenaw County public defender. But in a lot of places in the state, poor criminal defendants don’t get adequate constitutional representation, he said.
Last year, the judiciary committee focused on access to justice. He’s trying to encourage lawyers to donate their time and do pro bono work. For a lot of family law cases, people are in court trying to represent themselves without a lawyer. Lawyers are duty bound to donate some of their time to work pro bono or at a reduced rate, he said.
McClure said that what we need as a judge is someone who is willing to work hard. He said he felt citizens would get that work ethic from him or Kuhnke or Washington – someone who would really pay attention and respect both sides and make a decision based on the facts.
District 55 State House
Two candidates for the Democratic nomination in the new District 55 of the Michigan house of representatives gave the meeting of Ann Arbor Democrats a chance to discuss Rick Olson, a Republican who has indicated he may switch parties in order to run for re-election in the newly-configured district.
District 55 wraps around the city of Ann Arbor like a phagocyte. The district was described at the meeting as “gerrymandered” – but the Republican legislature actually engineered it to be heavily Democratic.
That is taken by some observers to be a measure of Olson’s standing within his own current party.
Adam Zemke introduced himself as a candidate for the 55th District seat.
He described himself as a “numbers geek” – an engineer who likes to see how things are broken down to understand how things work. On Rick Olson, he drew a distinction between Olson’s desire to become a Democrat compared to Olson’s desire to have a “D” next to his name. Zemke described his favorite quote as one in which Olson said he did not change his philosophy with the same frequency that he changed his underwear.
Prompted then by Sabra Briere, Zemke went on to describe what his own philosophy is.
Zemke described how he felt that education is the No. 1 form of economic development in Michigan. Right now we’ve had cuts in state funding for K-12 education and cuts in higher education, he said. It’s a big problem – it’s not encouraging kids to go to college. He saw that as detrimental to Michigan’s future.
Zemke said he’s pro-civil liberties – he wants to make Michigan more attractive to people no matter who you are. He’s pro-choice and pro-LGBT rights, he said. He thinks stem cell research is a great thing. Those are all things that Olson would not agree with him on, he said.
Zemke continued by saying he wanted to make sure that Michigan remains clean and free from invasive species. In Washtenaw County, he said, we’re smart enough to see through what the current administration is trying to do with respect to the environment.
Zemke said he’s interested in hearing from people.
An audience member ventured that if she was previously in District 53, now represented by Democrat Jeff Irwin, that Zemke wouldn’t be a bad replacement. Zemke said he would like to think that’s true. The resident’s precinct – that’s flipping from District 53 to District 55, due to redistricting – is Ward 5, Precinct 11.
Asked by Mike Henry, co-chair of the Ann Arbor City Democrats, to comment on his experience, Zemke allowed that he is younger – 28 years old. And he said he’s been told he looks younger than that.
But he noted that he was just appointed to the Ann Arbor housing and human services advisory board. He reported that he’s served on the Washtenaw County community action board (CAB) and has been active in the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Foundation to promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. His introduction to politics came through former District 55 representative Kathy Angerer – he interned for her for a year, he said.
Bob Davidow noted that he’d arrived late to the meeting, and he hadn’t actually planned to speak. But because he’s running for the same position as Zemke, he figured he’d introduce himself. He said that he and Zemke presented an interesting contrast – Zemke is 28 and Davidow is 73.
Davidow said he thought he had a lot of relevant experience. He felt he agreed with everything that Zemke had said.
To Zemke’s remarks, Davidow said he’d add that he thinks we need an additional source of revenue to support education. To that end, he’d support a graduated state income tax – though he allowed that would take a constitutional amendment to accomplish. We need revenue to support education, he said.
The economy can’t be revived by firing state employees and teachers, Davidow said. That has an impact on our ability to create a skilled and well-educated work force.
His experience is as a lawyer, Davidow said. He’s studied, practiced and taught law. He’s also a strong supporter of civil liberties.
County Board of Commissioners
In May of 2011, the reapportionment commission of Washtenaw County reduced the number of districts for the county board of commissioners from 11 to 9.
The new districts for Ann Arbor, from west to east, are Districts 9, 8 and 7. Democratic candidates for each of those three districts, two of which are incumbents, attended Saturday’s meeting.
Conan Smith, current chair of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, is running for re-election in the new District 9. He confined his remarks to a simple, “Happy New Year!”
Yousef Rabhi, who also currently serves on the county board, told the group he’d brought his nominating petitions for re-election in the new District 8. It’s a little different from the district he currently represents, he said.
If you live downtown, south of the Huron River and east of the railroad tracks, or if you live on the south side of town in the Burns Park neighborhood or the Georgetown neighborhood, or south of the highway all the way to Ellsworth, then you’re in his district, Rabhi explained. He called it a “very weird district.” He said he would be passing around the petition – he needed “50 whole signatures.” It could be quite a challenge getting those, he quipped.
[The Chronicle encountered Rabhi in early October 2011, when he'd already pulled the petitions.]
Rabhi concluded by saying he was glad to see everyone’s shining face and that he was happy it finally snowed.
Andy LaBarre was the only non-incumbent candidate at the meeting. The current commissioner whose old district is most similar to the new District 7 is Barbara Bergman – who has announced that she’s not running for re-election.
LaBarre introduced himself as running to represent the new District 7 on the county board. Following up on Rabhi’s description of District 8 as “weird,” LaBarre contended that District 7 was also weirdly shaped. It’s the northern and eastern part of Ann Arbor. If you’re in Ward 1, 2 or 3 of city council, he said, he’d like to talk to you, because he needed signatures on his petition. He said he’d strategically placed his information cards by the cookies on a table near the entrance.
The first kick-off fundraiser he’s doing will be on Feb. 27, LaBarre said. He’d be sending out invitations to that. He also wanted to hear from people and chat with them about the campaign he’s running. He described the board of commissioners as “an exciting unit of government, if you love units of government” – a remark that elicited a big laugh from the crowd. He noted that he needs 50 signatures, but he’d like to turn in 100 – to guard against some of them not being valid or to cause people to say, “Hey, look how popular Andy is!” A question from the audience elicited LaBarre’s clarification that May 15 is the filing deadline.
LaBarre acknowledged that the primary election is on Aug. 7, which might not be an issue for Rabhi or Smith, but certainly would be for him. He was alluding to Christina Montague, who is also running for the Democratic nomination for the new District 7 county board of commissioners seat.
Ann Arbor City Council
Sabra Briere, who represents Ward 1 on the city council and won re-election to her third two-year term last November, offered a Happy New Year, but told the gathering there were more important people to hear from than her.
Tony Derezinski reminded the co-chair of the Ann Arbor City Democrats, Mike Henry, that they’d seen each other the previous Saturday night – at the Elk’s club. Derezinski said they’ve got great bands there, and great food. He said he wanted to tell people he’s definitely running again for Ward 2 Ann Arbor city council. He said, “I’m a Democrat. For me, it’s not by convenience.” He noted that he was a Democrat when he previously ran for state senate and has consistently been a Democrat.
Derezinski’s remarks were most obviously connected to the previous discussion at the meeting of Republican Rick Olson’s possible decision to change parties in order to have a better chance of winning re-election in District 55. However, they could apply equally well to his former wardmate, Stephen Rapundalo, who lost his seat last November to Jane Lumm. Both Rapundalo and Lumm had originally won office as Republicans. Rapundalo later switched his party affiliation to Democrat, and Lumm won her most recent election as an independent.
Derezinski said there is a lot of work to do – it’s a great community, but we can make it better, he said. He said he’d been working with county commissioners Yousef Rabhi and Conan Smith on a lot of issues. “We have to be together,” he said.
As the Republican candidates tear each other apart, he said, Democrats would still have their work cut out for them. Derezinski offered his assistance to other candidates in their campaigns.
Derezinski said he felt that this election would be a tough one for President Barack Obama. He said he felt that Obama could win and would win, but it would take a lot of the same effort as the last presidential campaign. Derezinski said he felt the enthusiasm is beginning to be generated.
2012 Presidential Campaign
The 2012 presidential campaign figured prominently in the Saturday meeting for two reasons. Michigan Democrats are uncertain how to handle the fact that Barack Obama’s name will appear on the Feb. 28 primary election ballot, given that Obama will be chosen as the party’s nominee at a May 5 caucus. Also, local Democrats will be using the voter activation network (VAN) database, which is also used by the state and national level organizations.
2012 Presidential Campaign: Primary Versus Caucus
Although it’s a foregone conclusion that Obama will be the nominee put forward by Michigan, the level of turnout for Michigan’s nomination process will likely be analyzed by the popular media as an indicator of support across Michigan for Obama. And because Michigan could be a key battleground state in the November election, Democrats want the nominating process to be a show of Obama’s strength.
Michigan’s secretary of state, Republican Ruth Johnson, placed Obama’s name on the Feb. 28 primary ballot – despite the fact that state Democratic Party chair Mark Brewer had asked Johnson to leave Obama’s name off the ballot.
In 2011, the Republican legislature had revised Michigan’s election law so that Johnson appears to have had no choice but to print Obama’s name on the ballot.
The language of the election law does allow for the secretary of state to leave a name off the ballot: “A presidential candidate notified by the secretary of state under section 614a may file an affidavit with the secretary of state specifically stating that ‘(candidate’s name) is not a presidential candidate,’ and the secretary of state shall not have that presidential candidate’s name printed on a presidential primary ballot.” However, the language of the affidavit does not appear designed to fit the circumstance of someone who wishes to be a presidential candidate, but nonetheless does not want their name to appear on the ballot.
Michigan Democrats will select their nominee at a May 5 caucus. Democratic Party rules don’t allow participation in both the primary and the caucus. With Obama’s name on the ballot, it might seem reasonable for the Democratic Party leadership to encourage people to vote in the primary in order to show Obama’s strength. But that would preclude participation in the caucus.
At Saturday’s meeting, there was no definitive advice. Among the possibilities discussed was the possibility that the Democratic Party would waive or simply not enforce its rule on dual participation, and encourage people to participate in both events.
It was a point of irritation for Debbie Dingell, who took the podium briefly and laid out her frustration with the lack of clear direction from the state’s Democratic Party leadership. She did not espouse a particular solution, but called on a clear directive so that Democrats statewide would have a coherent strategy.
2012 Presidential Campaign: Primary Versus Caucus
From the local Obama campaign office, Ann Arbor attorney David Cahill addressed the gathering on the general topic of being strategic and methodical on the local level. He circulated a sign-up sheet for people to volunteer locally for the Obama campaign.
Cahill asked how many people had visited the new Obama office on Eisenhower Parkway – not many raised their hands. So Cahill gave the address (455 E. Eisenhower Parkway) and more detailed instructions on how to get there – it’s non-trivial, he said. You look for the Olive Garden, he said, and you take the Olive Garden’s driveway and go up to the big parking lot behind the restaurant. The Obama office is inside the Concord Center. Go in the main door, he said, and down the stairs, turn to the right and go along the hallway – it’s Suite 65 on the left.
What’s going on over the next couple of months, Cahill continued, is that they’re putting together the local organization. VAN stands for voter activation network, he explained – the nationwide Democratic computer database. It’s been operational since 2004. So the local organization is doing two things. First, they’re trying to locate “our own people.” So they’re phone-banking principally anybody who did anything for Obama in 2008, plus lists from other campaigns’ workers. In Washtenaw County, he said, there’s a large number of bad phone numbers. The work has been episodic during December, but it’s going to start up again in a week or so. So it’s not “cold canvassing,” he said. “We’re calling our own people!”
And once we get this “lovely pile of new information,” Cahill said, the data will need to be entered – that’s what he’s working on. Obama’s headquarters has said that every piece of data is supposed to be entered into VAN within 24 hours of collection. So Cahill is working on getting the data entered. VAN has some unusual features – if you’re idle for more than 10 minutes, it logs you out, he cautioned.
Cahill concluded by asking people to sign up if they were interested in helping on the Obama campaign locally.
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