Money and Authenticity
Strong contrasts mark Ann Arbor's Democratic state rep primaries.
From the July, 2016 issue
Two of Ann Arbor's three seats in the state house are up for grabs this year. In the deep-blue Fifty-Third District, Jeff Irwin is term-limited out. In the swing Fifty-Second, Democrat Gretchen Driskell replaced a Republican in 2013; she's now running for Congress, putting that seat up for grabs.
In each district, two Democrats are pursuing their party's nomination. The winners of the August 2 primary will face Republicans in November, as will incumbent Fifty-Fifth District rep Adam Zemke. But only Driskell's Fifty-Second has any real chance of turning red.
In Driskell's district which wraps around the city to the north and west, the candidates are talking about infrastructure, education, and authenticity. In Irwin's district, the town's core, two very different candidates are running very different races: one is a political veteran focused on issues like the environment and education, the other a newcomer whose issues are transparency and campaign finance.
"There's too much money in our political system," explains the newcomer, Steve Kwasny. "It hinders any productive legislative change." Though the twenty-eight-year-old hasn't run for public office before, he's starting with state rep because "my passions are in Michigan, and sometimes you have to push yourself."
An EMU political science major, Kwasny says his biggest issues are "transparency and money. We rank last in transparency as a state. If elected, we'll create a mobile app so people can communicate with me in Lansing. And we're trying to reduce money's influence on politics. We're running the race to prove that money isn't everything."
That's why Kwasny refuses campaign donations. "You don't need it. I've been involved with various campaigns--Bernie Sanders, Debbie Dingell, Sabra Briere--and a lot of good time is wasted fundraising."
Though he says Jeff Irwin "has done the best he can," Kwasny thinks he'd be better at forging relationships with the Republican majority. "Everyone who's ever known me my whole life sees me as someone who's willing to collaborate. Not everyone says no forever."
While he doesn't "have anything ill" to
say about Yousef Rabhi, Kwasny thinks voters should pick him because "there will never be the argument that I'm for sale." Is Rabhi? "I don't know. You'd have to ask Yousef. There's no question that I am not."
With eighteen friends helping him, a budget of less than $300, and no big-name endorsements, Kwasny's campaign couldn't be more different from his opponent's. Three-term county commissioner Rabhi has "not quite a dozen" on his campaign staff plus "ten to twenty volunteers so far" as well as endorsements from state reps Irwin and Zemke, six current and five former county commissioners, and the entire Ann Arbor city council--plus six former councilmembers and a host of school board members and other area leaders and community activists.
Taking no campaign donations "is fine for [Kwasny] to try," Rabhi says. His own approach, he says, is "to try to reach the broadest coalition possible." He'd raised nearly $40,000 by the end of May, with two months to go before the primary--which means he'll outspend Kwasny about 100:1.
Rabhi's two biggest issues are "environmental unsustainability and public education. Our current legislature is not prioritizing the people. Too often corporate interests are taking primacy. We're seeing it with the Gelman [dioxane] plume. The state kept saying that they had to run it past their corporate stakeholders. The [Department of Environmental Quality] is too often going to the polluters and asking them what they think."
Rabhi has nothing but praise for Irwin. "I want to carry on the great work he's doing. He's been a consistent advocate of Ann Arbor values. And I've always been inspired by Jeff. I followed in his footsteps [on the county board] when he moved up."
Like Kwasny, Rabhi doesn't have anything negative to say about his opponent. "Steve's got a good heart. But I've got the experience to start on day one."
In the Fifty-Second District both Democratic candidates have plenty of experience, though of very different kinds. "I've never been the candidate before," says Barb Fuller. "I've run other people's races, like Lana Pollack and Lynn Rivers, and I've been the local Democratic Party treasurer. When this seat became open, I decided I was the most viable candidate.
"I've got a broad and deep network in the county," Fuller continues. "I felt that I could raise the money, which is a major consideration, and that I'm an authentic voice of the district. These are my people."
Like Fuller, Donna Lasinski says she "decided to run when I learned that Gretchen Driskell was running for Congress. As a member of the Ann Arbor school board, I've been deeply engaged in school financing for years, and it seemed like the right next step.
"I live in Scio. I work near Dexter. My family's faith community is in Dexter, and we have a lake cottage north of Chelsea. The Fifty-Second is looking for people who have been authentically involved." And, she says, "I've been successful in a large campaign. I earned 17,000 votes [for school board], and there'll only be 5,000 people voting in the [district's] August primary."
Fuller is vice chair of the Washtenaw County Road Commission, and her biggest issue is infrastructure. "Our roads are not in good shape, and then there's the Flint water crisis. [Governor Rick Snyder's] legacy is Flint and the emergency managers."
Fuller says it's not just the governor. "I don't see any effort of the Republican majority to reach out to Democrats. There's a Tea Party element agenda in Lansing. It's gotten really mean. You can't force somebody to collaborate, but I would go to [Republicans'] districts and get to know them as people."
Lasinski's biggest issue is "stable, sustainable public education. The strong public school system is the backbone of our community, and there isn't universal support for public education. Lansing is not supporting education to the degree communities demand." Asked what she thinks of the current state House's work on education, she replies "give me a moment to find polite words."
Fuller says voters should choose her because "I'm of the district. I've lived here thirty years, and I've proved my ability to get things done." Asked the same question, Lasinski has almost the same answer. "Over the last twenty years, I've shown strong commitment to western Washtenaw County, and I'm a passionate problem solver."
[Originally published in July, 2016.]
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