Election year 2012 has started out well for Republicans now in control of the 110-seat Michigan House of Representatives. House Republicans managed to dispatch four Democratic incumbents without having to field a viable challenger, send a piece of mail or run a radio or TV ad.
As incumbent legislators are re-elected at a 90 percent-plus clip, that would seem a difficult feat. But one-party rule in Lansing gave the GOP latitude to rewrite the post-census legislative maps for the next decade in a way that pits eight lawmakers against each other in four heavily Democratic districts. Three are in Detroit and one is in Macomb County.
The problem for all of the candidates in the four Aug. 7 contests is that the natural advantages incumbents enjoy are ones shared by their opponents. They’ve knocked on doors before, have mailed out official literature to constituents back home, sponsored legislation and benefited from access to Lansing’s culture of easy money. At least now they know how challengers in legislative races feel.
Add in the personal component of opposing a fellow caucus member.
“It’s not because we’re nasty to each other, but it’s just a horrible situation to be in,” said Rep. Maureen Stapleton, a first-termer who currently represents Detroit’s 4th District, a big chunk of which was combined with the 12th District now held by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who's seeking a third and final term in the House. “Any time you have to go against a colleague and a friend is really unfortunate. This is a very tough race and it has been a very kind race.”
Stapleton represents more of the new 6th District that stretches along the Detroit River from the southern border of Ecorse to the bridge to Belle Isle. And she’s garnered the endorsements of the Detroit Regional Chamber and the Small Business Association of Michigan.
Stapleton sponsored House Bill 5866, approved June 7 and opposed by Tlaib, that would allow Detroit and other cities to establish independent authorities to run, finance and possibly contract out street lighting operations. Tlaib voted against the lighting bill because she said it could give an unelected panel the power to effectively decide which Detroit neighborhoods will remain viable through the provision, or withdrawal, of critical city services.
After a full day of canvassing in a new district likely to produce three likely voters from Stapleton’s old district for every one from hers, Tlaib agreed that the two have remained on friendly terms.
She reserves her ire for Republican lawmakers who split into two legislative districts cohesive southwest Detroit territory with common interests and needs. “I’ve had people say, 'Why are you running against her?’” Tlaib said, adding that some voters assume they’re running for separate offices. “There’s a lot of confusion. I’ve gone past houses where they have both of our signs on the lawn.”
The bulk of the union endorsements have gone to Tlaib, including the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, which objected to Stapleton’s support for a GOP-authored public act to allow school districts to consider teacher performance, as well as seniority, in making layoff decisions.
Both candidates started out the year with cash reserves, but Tlaib was better prepared, with $71,538 cash on hand. Stapleton reported $12,750. Pre-primary reports that will tell how much candidates have raised since then are due July 27.
Frayed nerves north of Eight Mile
Things are more testy north of Eight Mile Road in Warren, where Reps. Jon Switalski and Lesia Liss are vying for a third and final term in a new 28th District that takes in the west side of Warren and Center Line. Much of the Democratic establishment, including the MEA and UAW, has coalesced behind Switalski, who estimates he currently represents 40 percent of the voters likely to turn out next month. He also picked up the Detroit Regional Chamber’s nod.
Switalski called the Republican effort to pair incumbents against each other a “blatant power grab” that demands a new, nonpartisan system that takes map-making out of the hands of the Legislature.
Key issues in the Warren district, which includes loads of retired auto workers and public employees, is the imposition of the income tax on pension income. Another is the steady decline in state revenue sharing to local governments, coupled with declining home values, that have forced the city of Warren to seek special additional millage to pay for police and fire.
“The governor and Republicans talk about Michigan coming back and that jobs are aplenty. We’re not seeing that in Warren,” he said.
Liss, a registered nurse, is making health care and the establishment of a state-run insurance exchange called for in the federal Affordable Care Act a key priority. But less than two months out from the primary, Liss ran into trouble when she defended House Republican leadership after Democratic colleagues Lisa Brown and Barb Byrum were sanctioned during debate on a contentious package of abortion regulation bills.
Labor leaders, addressing rumors -- unfounded, says Liss -- that the she could switch parties after the November election a la Roy Schmidt of Grand Rapids, openly question her party loyalty. She's been endorsed by Small Business Association of Michigan and the County Road Association of Michigan.
Liss, co-chair of the House Bipartisan Caucus, said her willingness to talk to those on the other side of the aisle is a strength with voters, not a weakness. “They love my bipartisan efforts to provide leadership and not thoughtless partisanship,” she said. “They want us to work together and are tired of partisan bickering.”
Liss reported $40,923 cash on hand back in January, Switalski, $10,595.
Dems clash on Detroit's east side
South of Eight Mile Road, the current 7th and 5th Districts represented by Reps. Jimmy Womack and John Olumba respectively have been combined into one east-side district.
Womack, a physician, is focused on the commercial redevelopment along Eight Mile Road, which is seeing tens of millions in new retail investment. He was the House sponsor of legislation signed by Gov. Rick Snyder in April that transferred ownership of the 162-acre Michigan State Fairgrounds to the State Land Bank Fast Track Authority.
“In that community adjacent to the state fairgrounds, there are a lot of people moving in, non-Detroiters moving into that neighborhood,” said Womack, who has been endorsed by the Detroit Regional Chamber and American Federation of Teachers Michigan. “That speaks volumes about the comfort level that people believe we’re going to have a turnaround, not only in our state’s economy, but in Detroit’s economy.”
Womack’s own comfort level was shaken this month when he was held up by three gunmen in a McNichols Road convenience store parking lot after a Sunday of campaigning. He called it a vexing social problem in that he recognized one of the robbers from his neighborhood, assumed he had been recognized back and was robbed anyway.
Olumba, a first-term lawmaker and minister, has sponsored a 50-bill package to reinvent Detroit, in part through using its geography to establish more vibrant trade corridors.
“Detroit is in serious need of a turnaround plan, a vision that gives the citizens a view of where our city could be, in due time, if a specific course of legislative and executive action is taken to advance the city,” said Olumba on his state website. “Most of these advancements must be initiated from a legislative perspective. Yet, there is no comprehensive legislative plan that has been offered which gives the citizens something to embrace as a standard.”
Womack had $12,689 cash on hand in January, Olumba reported zero.
From Grosse Pointe to Detroit
Further east, Rep. Tim Bledsoe’s current district was stripped of Harper Woods, Grosse Pointe Woods and Grosse Pointe Shores. The new district adds more Detroit precincts currently represented by Rep. Alberta Tinsley-Talabi, a first-term lawmaker and 15-year member of the Detroit City Council.
About two-thirds of the likely turnout in the new 2nd District is likely to be current or former constituents of Tinsley-Talabi and one-third voters Bledsoe currently serves.
Bledsoe, a Wayne State University political scientist, has the endorsement of the Detroit Regional Chamber, the Michigan Association of Realtors and the Michigan Townships Association. A member of the House Agriculture Committee, Tinsley-Talabi is being backed by the Michigan Farm Bureau. This is one incumbents contest that organized labor, including AFT Michigan, has declined thus far to get involved in.
Tinsley-Talabi and Bledsoe say the dominant issues in the Detroit precincts are jobs and crime. In the Grosse Pointes that remain in the new district, it’s local control of schools and stagnant school funding from Lansing.
As in the 6th District, Bledsoe said voters are confused that two incumbents are facing each other and both make it clear that there is no ill will between the two.
“We’re not close, but we have a good relationship,” Bledsoe said.
Said Tinsley-Talabi: “At the end of the day, we’ll be well-represented either way.”
She started the year with $292 cash on hand. Bledsoe reported $16,821.
Rep. Peter Lund, R-Shelby Twp., chairman of the House Redistricting and Elections Committee, said voting rights laws required the retention of the same number of House districts in which minorities make up a majority of the population. Given Detroit’s quarter-million population drop since the last maps were drawn, he said there was little choice but to pair incumbents against each other. While the Legislative Black Caucus and the NAACP opposed the maps, they were accepted by the U.S. Justice Department and upheld in federal court.
Asked to handicap the four contests, Democrats and members of the lobbying corps say Switalski and Womack probably have the clearest advantage when you factor in endorsements, name recognition and campaign effort. Bledsoe and Tlaib are both working hard knocking doors, which will prove critical to succeeding in new precincts where they aren’t as well known.
Peter Luke was a Lansing correspondent for Booth Newspapers for nearly 25 years, writing a weekly column for most of that time with a concentration on budget, tax and economic development policy issues. He is a graduate of Central Michigan University.