Saline's sister act wows voters
by Shelley Daily
From the November, 2010 issue
"I was crying in front of the county building--and nobody sees me cry," recalls Jessica Ping of the day she decided that her pregnancy trumped another term as District 3 county commissioner. "My shoulders are only so big, and it came down to putting my family first."
Fortunately, the family includes her sister Alicia Ping, the other half of a political tag team that has been stymieing local Democrats for years. Alicia ran unopposed in November for Jessica's seat, keeping the office in the family. And that's how it's been for a while for the two moderate Republican siblings, who help each other win political races and often are confused for one another.
"People think we're the same person," says Alicia, thirty-seven, who like thirty-five-year old Jessica has long black hair and brown eyes. Both are dynamic, hard-to-beat candidates. This fall, Alicia will vacate her seat on the Saline city council after six terms to take the county commission job Jessica has held for two terms.
Alicia is married with two fifteen-year-old stepchildren and works in Ann Arbor as a financial representative for Northwestern Mutual. But at the moment, her sister has even more on her plate--in late August, she gave birth to a girl, Sydney Ann Hausman. Recently remarried, Jessica also has a six-year-old son and works full time as a sales rep for Paychex.
The timing of Jessica's decision not to run--on the day of the filing deadline--drew criticism from some who felt it stifled potential primary opponents. Stu Dowty, county Democratic Party chairman, calls Jessica's late withdrawal from the race a "maneuver"--but District 3 has always been tough sledding for Dems.
The sisters insist there was no plot--just a last-minute realization from Jessica that she couldn't juggle it all. "I didn't want to leave my party hanging, and I was really struggling with my decision," she says. "I knew Alicia would do a great job. She understands the budget cycle, and she comes from a nonpartisan office, which
is going to help her work across party lines. We never let our party get in the way of what our constituents need. We share the same morals and work ethic."
Daughters of an Irish American mother from Royal Oak and a Chinese father, the Ping sisters say their parents taught them the value of hard work. Their paternal grandfather served as governor of a province in pre-communist China. Their father, D.S. Ping, immigrated to the United States on his own at age nine. He lived in six foster homes in the St. Louis area, practicing Motown tunes every night to perfect his English. At eighteen he joined the Marine Corps and was stationed in Japan, where on a train he met Julie Sullivan, an exchange student from EMU. They married just before he left for Vietnam.
After D.S., nicknamed "Doc," returned from the war, he and his wife both earned bachelor's and master's degrees at EMU. When the Pings and their four children moved from Ypsilanti to Saline in the mid-1980s, their family got involved in the community. Doc started an annual golf outing for charity that's raised $100,000 for area organizations.
The Pings divorced after twenty-nine years of marriage. Doc, a jujitsu master and owner of a sports agency that works with NFL players, still lives and works in Saline. His ex-wife, a former schoolteacher, is remarried and lives in Northville. Jessica lives in Lodi Township. Another brother and sister live out of state.
"I think all this drive filtered down to us," Alicia says. In 2004, Jessica managed Alicia's run for the state House of Representatives; she lost in a tight primary. In 2006, when Jessica was asked by party leaders to run for county commissioner, Alicia managed her campaign.
"We ran it like the state campaign--we knew what to cover and worked really well together," says Jessica. Two years later, Alicia again managed Jessica's successful bid for re-election.
Not that it was easy--sometimes the pressure on the campaign trail brought the sisters to a breaking point. "We'd scream at each other," Alicia says. "Then a few minutes later, one of us would be on the phone calling the other one like nothing had ever happened." When the rigors of door-to-door campaigning occasionally got to be too much, they'd trade roles from door-knocker to driver.
The sisters joke that the only downside of being local leaders is they have to dress up a bit when they go to the grocery store. "But at least we don't have to worry about ending up in Us magazine without any makeup," Jessica laughs.
The two also make light of their differences. Jessica, a self-described perfectionist, used masking tape to draw a line in their shared bedroom when they were growing up. "She's messy," Jessica says.
"I've learned to focus on my strengths," Alicia laughs. And colleagues, such as county Republican chairman Mark Boonstra, say each sister has many.
"They each are highly qualified people in their own right," he says, adding that if and when Jessica decides to return to politics, he's positive there will be a place for her. "I think they both can have as bright a future as they want."
Alicia says she's content working in local government and probably won't run for a statewide office again. Jessica is optimistic both sisters can continue their political careers, despite her hiatus. "The good thing is our name will still be out there politically," she says. "And I don't think I'm done yet."
[Originally published in November, 2010.]
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