“A lot of state representatives are running for senate,” says Fifty-Second District state rep Pam Byrnes. Byrnes is one of them. So is Fifty-Third District representative Rebekah Warren. Both want to succeed state senator Liz Brater–so they’re headed for a showdown in the August 3 Democratic primary.
Welcome to Michigan’s version of musical chairs. In 1992, voters set term limits for state offices–three terms (six years) in the house, two terms (eight years) in the senate. The change brought in new blood but exacted a price in lost political experience. Warren has embraced her role as chair of the Great Lakes and Environmental Committee–but remembers incredulously that when she was appointed, she had no expertise in the area.
The learning curve is so steep, says Brater–herself a former state rep and mayor of Ann Arbor–that it’s tough for “people across the aisle to develop good working relationships.”
Former state house staffer David Cahill says the constant turnover has weakened the legislature while strengthening Lansing’s unelected constituencies: without long-term legislators, he complains, “we have government by lobbyists” and bureaucrats.
Brater’s senate district is so heavily Democratic that the winner of the Byrnes-Warren primary is all but guaranteed victory in November (though that hasn’t stopped two Republicans from running–see below). Democrats also have a lock on Warren’s house seat, where county commissioner Jeff Irwin and political newcomer Ned Staebler are battling to succeed her.
In Byrnes’ district, attorney and Scio Township trustee Christine Green is a strong favorite in a three-way primary against Jeff Lee, a former government relations rep for the American Association of University Professors, and Manchester businessman Robert Wozniak. In November, the Democratic winner meets Republican Mark Ouimet.
For Byrnes, Warren, Irwin, and Staebler, the August 3 outcome is political life or death. Though all share a distinctly blue Ann Arbor hue–pro-choice, strong on the environment and on human services, not afraid to mention the word “tax”–only two will go forward to November and Lansing.
Byrnes, an attorney who lives in Lyndon Township, is term limited: the only way she can stay in the legislature is to run for senate. Warren, who previously worked for state rep Mary Schroer and ran an abortion rights advocacy group, could run for one last house term–but gave it up to gamble on a once-in-eight-years shot at an open senate seat.
Warren is proud of two environmental initiatives she helped shepherd through the legislature: the Great Lakes Compact, which affirmed that the states, not the feds, would continue to have oversight over the Great Lakes, and the PACE Act, which allows local governments to make loans to property owners to improve energy efficiency.
Byrnes describes herself as both a social progressive and a pragmatist. The house speaker pro tem, she joined with the Republicans, after the two parties fought for months, to get a budget passed. A former county road commissioner and chair of the house transportation committee, she is especially interested in improving mass transit and roads. “Everyone is looking for quick fixes,” Byrnes says, but “those roads don’t fix themselves.” She supports a phased-in gas tax increase of 8 cents a gallon, saying it would enable the state to claim federal matching funds while costing the average taxpayer “just forty dollars a year–less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week.” (Warren opposes the increase.)
Calling this race is difficult. Warren would seem to have the edge because of her popularity among Ann Arbor progressives who turn out strong at the primary polls. She’s married into the city’s venerable Wheeler political network: her husband, Washtenaw County commissioner Conan Smith, is the son of state senator Alma Wheeler Smith. The powerful Michigan Education Association (MEA) and the AFL-CIO, among others, have endorsed her. However, Byrnes enjoys a stronger following in the outlying areas, and groups sympathetic to business and the police, including the Ann Arbor Board of Realtors and the Michigan State Troopers Association, have lined up behind her.
(A third candidate, Tom Partridge, is known for his frequent lectures at county commission meetings–but with no apparent organization, he’s not given a ghost of a chance.)
Both contestants for Warren’s house seat have politics in their blood. Jeff Irwin’s dad, Mitch, was a state senator, and Ned Staebler’s grandfather, Neil, was a congressman and party activist known affectionately as “Mr. Democrat.”
Irwin has served on the county commission for ten years. He’s got a special passion for social issues, having helped to launch the Delonis Center homeless shelter and a program that serves the homeless mentally ill. He says his years working on the county budget–including combining some city and county functions–will help him master the state’s financial complexities.
Despite Ned Staebler’s lengthy political pedigree–his great-grandfather was mayor of Ann Arbor–this is his first run for office. He worked as a finance trader in Boston and London for Bear Stearns before leaving to pursue a master’s at the London School of Economics. Since 2005, he’s been a vice president of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, a publicly funded entity that provides loans and tax breaks to businesses.
Irwin has made Staebler’s job an issue in the race. Noting that “organizations as diverse as the MEA and the Mackinac Center agree that the programs at MEDC are costly and failing,” he charges that “Staebler has thrown in with the trickle-down theory that if we give money to certain businesses that the benefits will eventually be felt by the people.”
Staebler responds by pointing out that the MEA endorsed him–the union’s objection, he says, was to a tax-credit program he does not administer. He says the MEDC’s $2 billion 21st Century Jobs Fund, which he leads, has helped almost 1,400 businesses create more than 24,000 jobs.
As the Observer was going to press, Staebler was clearly on a roll. Although he grew up in Detroit and lived out of state for many years, his dad, attorney Michael Staebler, is a wellconnected Ann Arbor lawyer who’s been working behind the scenes for his son. Staebler has the endorsement of the state’s Democratic heavyweights, the UAW and the AFL-CIO, along with smaller groups ranging from the Ann Arbor Area Board of Realtors to the Michigan League of Conservation Voters–where, he points out, Irwin once worked. (Staebler has his own in with the group–he’s a former board member.) He’s also built an impressive organization that claims to have knocked on the door of every prospective primary voter.
Irwin’s only institutional endorsements are from the Sierra Club and the Michigan chapter of the National Organization for Women. But he has the valuable support of the incumbent, Warren, and many other longtime local Dems–including some who disparage Staebler as an interloper with no proven record in government.
Although Staebler said that he and Irwin agreed beforehand to a gentlemanly campaign, both guys are now throwing punches. Staebler told the Observer he was unhappy that Irwin claims to be the financial underdog, pointing out that according to the first public filing, Irwin had spent almost $1,000 of his own money while Staebler had contributed less than $300 (both candidates say they’ve made no additional personal contributions). Irwin responds that Staebler “simply has a great Rolodex for fund-raising–from his days trading for Bear Stearns to his appointment at MEDC, he is connected to money in ways I am not.”