Blue vs. Red
New districts recolor the state house
The Fifty-Second District turned from blue to red two years ago when Republican Mark Ouimet won the state house seat previously held by Democrat Pam Byrnes. Now Gretchen Driskell wants to change its color again.
Ouimet, a past Ann Arbor city councilmember and county commissioner, rode Rick Snyder's coattails to a narrow win two years ago. This year, Saline mayor Driskell could hitch a ride with President Obama: turnout should be about 50 percent higher this year, with most of the extra votes going to Democrats.
But this year, Ouimet has a friendlier constituency. After the 2010 census, the Republican-controlled legislature redrew the Fifty-Second District. Though still central in western Washtenaw County, the new Fifty-Second trades relatively liberal northeast Ann Arbor and Ann Arbor Township for more conservative Northfield and Salem townships.
The GOP attached those unwanted Ann Arbor voters to Pittsfield in a reconfigured Fifty-Fifth District--tipping it so strongly Democratic that Republican incumbent Rick Olson decided to retire. Though former Milan mayor Owen Diaz took the GOP nomination, Democrat Adam Zemke has the inside track in the new Fifty-Fifth.
In Ann Arbor's Fifty-Third District, Democrat Jeff Irwin faces only token opposition. And even Olson's sacrifice may not have bulletproofed Ouimet: Driskell is running hard, and both parties are pouring negative ads into the Fifty-Second.
Since only a GOP miracle will keep Zemke from replacing Olson in Lansing, Washtenaw County's state house delegation is sure to be bluer next year. The big unknown is whether Ouimet can hold onto his patch of red.
Mark Ouimet's career before the state house includes four years as chancellor of Northwood University, two years as president of University Bank, seven years on city council, and six years on the county board. A loyal Republican, he's proud of his party's accomplishments since it gained control of both houses in Lansing, plus the governorship.
"When Governor Snyder took over, we had a $1.5 billion deficit," says Ouimet, "and we balanced the budget five months
ahead of schedule so that schools and other governmental units can deal with it in plenty of time. And we've reduced long-term debt by seventeen billion"--almost all of it by reducing state employee retirement benefits.
Ouimet credits his party with "over a hundred thousand new jobs [that] have been created in our state since I took office. In 2009, unemployment was at 14.2 percent, and now we're at 9.4 percent." Personal income, he adds, "increased 5.2 percent in 2011," the biggest improvement in eleven years.
"I'm one of three freshman who chair committees--mine is the intergovernmental committee--and we passed more bipartisan [legislation] out of our committee than any other," the incumbent adds. "I was voted 'legislator of the year' by the nonpartisan Michigan Township Association for the way I chaired the committee."
Gretchen Driskell came to Saline from New York in 1988. Four years later she was on city council, and six years after that she was mayor, a job she's held ever since. Since it's not a full-time position, she's also worked as a commercial Realtor.
Like her opponent, Driskell touts her accomplishments. "In Saline, we have businesses that come to town because we're a place people want to live because of our excellent school system and infrastructure. We're recognized for working with businesses, and what we're doing here could be used as a model for what can be done elsewhere in the state."
Driskell blasts the Republican legislature's economic policies: "Their cuts to education and communities and infrastructure are not sustainable. We're going to have schools and communities that are going to go bankrupt. And this is not the time to be cutting revenues by cutting taxes on businesses and eliminating personal property taxes.
"My opponent's voted for cutting education and for cutting business taxes," Driskell concludes. "I'm running because we're going in the wrong direction, and we need to change."
Covering all but the north side of Ann Arbor, the Fifty-Third is so deeply blue that in his first campaign two years ago, Jeff Irwin won with 80 percent of the vote. But with Democrats in the minority in Lansing, he's been left to watch in frustration as the Republicans reshaped state government.
"Their greatest failure is cutting education funding," he says. "The Republicans raided the school fund to pay for tax cuts for businesses. If they keep [control of] the state house, we'll see higher taxes on working-class people and lower taxes on upper-income people. And they'll also continue their social agenda: they'll continue to go after gay rights and women's rights."
Still, Irwin sees hope. "If we take back the house, we can help Snyder be the governor he could be--a governor more concerned about jobs and economy than about who's sleeping with whom."
Irwin's opponent, John Spisak, moved to Ann Arbor in 1989 and says he's running because "I love it here and want to give back." He doesn't support his party's entire recent record in Lansing. "I disagree with much of what they did with education," he says, adding "if elected, I won't work for the party. I'll work for the people who put me there." But Spisak's race is so low-key that he's not even accepting political contributions: "Any money people want to donate, I tell them to give it to charity."
The Republican running in the reconfigured Fifty-Fifth, Owen Diaz, isn't afraid of bumping heads. As mayor of Milan, he says, "I fired the chief of police and the administrator. I told them we have to change, and they didn't, so I changed the locks on the police commissioner and the administrator."
Diaz says he's running as a Republican because "I don't believe in abortion, and I believe in one man-one woman marriage." But he also has "some plans on how to improve the economy," including a business relocation incentive program: "If a business comes here [to Michigan], the first year they pay no corporate income tax, the second year, 35 percent, third year, 50 percent, the fourth year, 75 percent, and the fifth year, the full load. The beauty is that the company will buy materials locally and hire people locally, and the people will pay income tax and they'll consume."
Adam Zemke ran for a seat on the county board in 2010, losing to Rob Turner in the heavily Republican first district. He says he's trying for the state house now because "we are on a perilous course economically in Michigan"--Zemke says he "can't think of one thing I've been happy about" that the state legislature has done. "They've passed multimillion-dollar tax cuts for business and raised taxes on the middle class. There needs to be a more equal distribution of the tax burden."
If the reshaped Fifty-Fifth proves to be as blue as expected, Zemke will soon have a chance to express those views in person. If elected, he says, he'll bring "Washtenaw County values to Lansing, believing in economic development, in a high quality of life, in equal opportunity, in human services. In Washtenaw County, people tend to be forward-thinking, and willing to do what we need to do to continue moving forward."
[Originally published in November, 2012.]