When Michigan’s two U.S. senators stopped in Detroit on Monday with New Jersey’s junior Democratic senator in tow, they discussed everything from the fight over alleged gerrymandering in Michigan to how Democratic officeholders in Washington and Lansing can help the state when their party is not in power.
Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters escorted Sen. Cory Booker to TechTown, a business incubator, to talk to nearly 100 local entrepreneurs. Peters told the gathering Detroit should work on training a workforce that could, among other things, advance research on artificial intelligence and put the world into self-driving cars, while Stabenow stressed the importance of protecting farms and agriculture jobs in the state.
Booker, who said his grandfather was a Detroiter who owned a pool hall and gas station in the city, told the Detroit business owners that the country has been making a huge error in ignoring a majority of America - people who didn’t go to college. (The New Jersey senator is widely believed to be considering a presidential run in 2020).
In an interview afterward, Bridge Magazine and the Detroit Journalism Cooperative asked the lawmakers what they can do as members of the minority party to deliver on policies that benefit Michigan.
Bridge: You said ignoring people who didn’t go to college was a mistake. What policies can the Democratic party push specifically to win back Obama-Trump voters (those who voted for a Democrat for president in 2012, but then switched to the Republican candidate in 2016)?
Booker: In this last election, if you look at Hillary Clinton’s policies versus Donald Trump’s policies, we had the better policies, and we stand with the majority. A majority of Americans want a minimum wage raise, a majority of Americans don’t want to gut Medicaid, a majority of Americans want college affordability. All those issues, we’re already on board (with). I think the issue is, we’re not connecting to people’s hearts and we’re not getting people to understand that we’re fighting for them.
Bridge: The president has said he will spend $1 trillion on infrastructure, considering that Democrats are in the minority, how do you get what Michigan so badly needs out of that proposal without sitting on the sideline and letting this become a missed opportunity?
Peters: We’re not going to sit on the sidelines. If we can find some common ground, we’re willing to work together. When it comes to infrastructure, you’ll find I think unanimous support in the Democratic caucus that we need to invest in bridges, roads and locks like in the Soo Locks. In fact, at our visit last week, Sen. Stabenow and I were up in the Soo and in a bipartisan way we had a number of members of the Michigan (congressional) delegation, both Democrats and Republicans were there and understand the importance. We’re about moving an agenda forward and putting people back to work and if we can work with Republicans to do that we will.
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow told Detroit entrepreneurs the most important issue that is not being properly funded is education. The country needs to “double down” on education funding to create job opportunities, she said.
Stabenow: The president said he wanted to invest a trillion dollars, we said, “Sign us up, we want to work with you.” The problem is he wants to invest a portion with Wall Street and foreign companies and create Trump tolls. Imagine tolls on highways like I-94 while the rest of Michigan gets nothing. A trillion dollars. That’s 15 million jobs, good paying jobs. We said, “Here’s what we’d like to do,” and we put (legislation) on his desk in January. It said invest in roads and bridges and water and sewer systems and the Soo Locks. They’ve said nothing. All we’ve seen is an outline that will spend far, far less than a trillion.
Bridge: Can you give examples where you’ve moved Michigan’s agenda ahead from the minority (party) during this current administration?
Stabenow: Speaking as an author of the last farm bill, something that’s important to both small towns and Detroit is the efforts we’ve done with Eastern Market and the urban agriculture and the food economy. That’s something I’m working across the aisle on. It has to be written again next year to get something that’s good for Michigan. One out of four jobs in Michigan relate to agriculture and the food economy.
Bridge: Let’s talk about gerrymandering...In Michigan, Democrats won more votes overall for state House than Republicans, but the GOP won 63 of 110 seats. And in 2016, Republicans beat Democrats by just 1 percent in total votes for Congress yet won nine out 14 seats. Michigan is among the worst when it comes to gerrymandering (according to one analysis of state elections). Is this an issue for you and your party? What can be done in preparation for 2021 when district lines can be redrawn?
Stabenow: There’s a coalition of private citizens putting together a ballot proposal to create a bipartisan or nonpartisan state commission. I’ve not seen the specifics of it, but I sure think that’s a good idea. We need to get this out of politics and write these lines in a way that fits so cities are split up and we don’t have all these strange configurations (of voting districts) and create more opportunities for people to run a hard race and get elected.
There’s ongoing speculation that New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker wants to run for president in 2020, but the topic didn’t come up during his visit to TechTown in Detroit this week.
Peters: Everybody’s vote should count and we don’t see that in Michigan. Michigan is roughly 50/50 Democrat and Republican. Yet if you look at Congress, you see nine Republicans and five Democrats. That’s simply not a representation of a majority of people. We saw that that in the presidential election, Hillary Clinton received 3 million more votes than Donald Trump. The person who finished first in the voter count actually did not win. That disenfranchises people, makes people think their vote doesn’t matter. So we have to have an independent commission, we have to have it so politicians are not picking their voters and voters get a chance to pick who represents them. If we don’t change that, it makes it difficult to find that middle ground that helps everyone.
Bridge: So, what role are you going to play? How big an issue is redistricting and gerrymandering for you?
Stabenow: Fundamental is making sure that we have an election system that is fair, that everybody’s vote is counted and making sure we don’t have politics played with how these lines are drawn. The people of Michigan can change that by changing the rules.
Peters: This has got to be nonpartisan. That’s why groups like the League of Women Voters is going to be critical. This is just about good governance and that people know their vote counts and they will have the kind of representation they’re voting for.
Bridge: You two jointly recently announced more than $200,000 in federal funding for land and water conservation in Michigan. The current administration has proposed getting rid of the regional Environmental Protection Agency office in the Great Lakes area. What other environmental policies do you have in the works for Michigan and how will you get them accomplished?
Peters: Many of the hard-won victories over the last 40, 50 years like the Clean Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, all of that is at risk in the federal budget proposal. One issue that Sen. Stabenow and I have been passionate about is making sure we have money for the Great Lakes Restoration (Initiative) to make sure we can clean up toxic hot spots and invasive species that threaten our Great Lakes. To think the Trump Administration wants to zero (eliminate funding for) a program that’s absolutely critical to making sure we have clean water in this state is really unconscionable. We’re going to work bipartisan, across the aisle and in Congress. We’ve been able to do that and keep the (restoration) funding in the budget through September. It should be a no-brainer, but it’s a constant fight.
Stabenow: Great Lakes restoration funding is what we use to clean up beaches. There are beaches open today because we were able to bring in federal funds to clean up the algae and invasive species from zebra mussels to the ongoing fight against Asian carp. With the EPA, we’re talking about scientists who are telling us what we ought to be doing in order to clean up the water. We are 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. Forty million people get their drinking water from the Great Lakes. This is a national resource and so it is alarming to see that the Trump Administration want to eliminate all support to protect the Great Lakes. They also wanted to zero out a new conservation program that was in the Farm Bill to protect watersheds against algae blooms. The priorities of this administration don’t work for Michigan.
Bridge: I hate to belabor the point, but across the state and nation, the Democratic party is seen as fractured and in the minority. How do you get anything done in that atmosphere? How do you fix it?
Stabenow: Our Caucus is not fractured. We are 48 members strong, nobody is going to support an effort to take away health care and raise costs for people. We are laser focused and united in a way we have not been before. We are in the minority but we also have been using that strategically. When we negotiated the last six-month budget we were able to do things because we were united and they were fractured. We were able to stop cuts, stop the Great Lakes restoration cuts add $2 billion in medical research funding, and protect minors and retiree health care that were in great jeopardy.
Peters: From a citizen involvement perspective, I’ve never seen so much activism. People understand elections do matter and democracy is not a spectator sport. You have to roll up your sleeves. We saw that with the women’s march and protests on the travel ban. This is going to continue in a very strong way in 2018.
(This interview was edited and condensed for brevity and clarity)