Gretchen Driskell on her Congressional bid and why it will be different this time
by Julie Halpert
From the April, 2018 issue
When Gretchen Driskell lost her 2016 bid for Congress--winning only 40 percent of the vote to incumbent Tim Walberg's 55 percent--she didn't spend much time licking her wounds. The former state rep, fifty-nine, returned to school, pursuing a master's at the U-M Ford School of Public Policy, where she started in 2014 as a part-time student. She began rebuilding the client base at the commercial real estate business where she had worked before heading to Lansing. And she travelled around the Seventh Congressional District, "listening and seeing what people were feeling ... People are really frustrated with Washington, D.C., which is the reason I ran last time. They're still frustrated. They don't feel they have a voice that represents our values," she says.
Last July, Driskell declared that she would take on Walberg again. Having more time to connect with those in areas who voted against her, and invigorated by a new wave of activism that followed the election of President Trump, she's more optimistic about her prospects this time. But to earn a second round with Walberg, she'll first have to win a Democratic Party primary.
Driskell's campaign headquarters are located in an office building on the outskirts of downtown Saline. The large, open room is sparsely furnished; a giant "Gretchen Driskell for Congress" sign is one of the few decorations. As a couple of campaign workers filter in and out of the room, Driskell, dressed casually in jeans, reflects on the political moment while eating her lunch.
"People are frustrated and feeling like government is not working," she says. "It's too partisan. It's always finger-pointing. I want to go and get the job done and be part of a bipartisan effort to make sure government works in the district."
In 2016, her weakest showing was in rural areas--which also went for Trump. She hopes to win those voters over by emphasizing her commitment to well-paying jobs and making sure there are opportunities for businesses to
"Small businesses are really key to a small successful town," says Driskell, a former mayor of Saline. "I think we can support small businesses by bringing in some new business ideas, like clean energy or renewable energy ... I know what it means to be a partner and provide opportunities for everyone."
She takes aim at Walberg's vote against the Affordable Care Act, pointing out that 49,000 people in the district benefited from the ACA's Medicaid expansion. The ACA also improved insurance coverage for people grappling with opioid and heroin addiction.
"We need government to help with services," Driskell says. "That's our role." She herself went ten years without health insurance, "literally wondering how I was going to be able to pay my bills. I know what it's like to live on the edge." She contrasts that to Walberg, who after sixteen years in the statehouse and a dozen in congress has "lifetime health care, lifetime pension from the state, and he's just really out of touch with people that are struggling economically."
She thinks her 2016 campaign suffered from her lack of name recognition outside Washtenaw County. Without her state legislature responsibilities, she says she has more time now to cover the entire district, especially Monroe, where she recently visited a homeless shelter and addiction recovery center.
Driskell criticizes Walberg for not being accessible to his constituents, pointing to an instance where members of the activist group Indivisible Dexter stood out in the cold trying to meet with him when he was speaking at a men's prayer breakfast. She acknowledges that he's been holding more town halls since then, but says it's been a very restrictive forum, not a dialogue. "I believe 100 percent in as much communication with voters as possible," she says. "We can't have good governance without that."
Walberg communications director Dan Kotman emails that it's "premature" to talk about a rematch. "Gretchen Driskell spent millions of dollars and lost by 15 points in the last election," he writes. "Her campaign was entirely negative and she offered no new ideas to the challenges we face as a country. No wonder she failed to pass a single bill as a state legislator in Lansing. If I were Gretchen Driskell, I'd be worried about her fellow Democrats abandoning her retread campaign." He includes a link about Dexter social worker Steve Friday's January kickoff of his own campaign for the Seventh District's Democratic nomination.
Driskell has been buoyed by the rise of the "Indivisible" groups that sprung up after the 2016 election. The activism is translating to financial support, Driskell says. By February, she'd already raised $533,125 from more than 2,700 contributors.
Friday emails that he was encouraged to run by Indivisible members, and notes that the group has yet to make an endorsement. He's also active in Michigan for Revolution, which grew out of Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign. Like Sanders' platform, Friday's calls for a $15 minimum wage, free college education, and universal health care--along with addressing "systemic and institutional racism," legalizing marijuana, and more funding for public schools, addiction treatment, and women's health care.
Friday emails that he's "providing an alternative to both Republicans and corporate Democrats, who long ago abandoned the poor and marginalized in favor of the wealthy." Though only 21 percent of Driskell's donations last time came from political action committees--versus 47 percent for Walberg--Friday faults her for taking PAC money at all.
Asked about Friday's challenge, Driskell campaign manager Jaden Slagle instead turns the spotlight back on Walberg. "We're looking forward to voters making a choice this fall between Gretchen--who is fighting for better paying jobs, more affordable healthcare, and government that works for everyday Michiganders--and Tim Walberg, who is not standing up for our values and is part of the problem in Washington," he emails.
She believes that the new level of activism--and having a popular Democratic candidate, Senator Debbie Stabenow, at the top of the ticket--will yield greater voter turnout and help propel her toward victory this time around.
Jack Lessenberry, head of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University and a senior news analyst for Michigan Radio, doubts that anti-Trump activism is widespread in areas where Driskell lost. And he says that banking on greater turnout is naive. Michigan Secretary of State voter records indicate that roughly a million fewer voters turn out for midterm elections, and with Stabenow predicted to win by a large margin, he says, she's unlikely to bring more Democratic voters to the polls.
Lessenberry predicted the race would be close in 2016, but he didn't foresee a win for Driskell then. He says the district is gerrymandered to benefit Republicans. To win, he says, she's got to make the case that she's going to be better than Walberg. "She needs to have a signature issue," he says, and give her constituents a reason for voting out an incumbent--for example, by more aggressively attacking Walberg's refusal to stand up to President Trump, who's called for massive budget cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative: "She should be vigorously denouncing him and saying how she would fight for it."
Lessenberry says it's not clear whether constituents are so tired of Walberg--or Trump, who shares many of his positions--that they would be willing to vote him out. The race may be closer this time around, he says, but as of now, "it's a stretch to see her win."
But Driskell remains optimistic. "I wouldn't be running if I wasn't confident I could win," she says. "I'm not thinking about what's going to happen if I don't."
[Originally published in April, 2018.]
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