Goaded by the election of Donald Trump and enticed by open seats in both the state senate and state house, nine candidates are competing in the August 7 Democratic and Republican primaries. It’s the largest field in at least ten years–and women outnumber men five to four.
In the hot contest for the senate seat soon to be vacated by term-limited Rebekah Warren, county commissioner Michelle Deatrick and fitness entrepreneur Anuja Rajendra vie with WCC student Matt Miller and former state rep Jeff Irwin for the Democratic nomination.
Warren hopes to return to the state house: She served two terms there before moving to the senate, and now is running for term-limited Adam Zemke’s seat in District Fifty-Five. She’s forty-seven and could serve one more house term–but only if she beats Ypsilanti Township park commissioner Shauna McNally in the Democratic primary.
Though it’s a safe Democratic seat, on the Republican side, pharmacist Miha Todd, retired accountant Bob Baird, and handyman Bill Boring all want their party’s nomination.
All the Democrats more or less share the same policies of taxing the rich and corporations to boost spending on education, social services, and roads. They similarly share a disdain for the policies of the Republican majorities in Lansing and Washington. What separates them is how they identify themselves.
With four Democratic candidates, the race in Senate District Eighteen–Ann Arbor plus the eastern half of the county including Milan, Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township–is the most competitive. It’s also easily the most expensive–they hope to raise about $400,000 between them–and the most heavily staffed–they have more than 300 folks helping them.
Irwin was term-limited in the state house in 2016. While waiting for Warren’s seat to open up, he ran a communications firm working with a coalition supporting marijuana legalization–that initiative will be on the November ballot. “I like helping people,” he says, “whether it’s ten million across the state with legislation or helping just one person to find the right [health] care. I find it important, exciting, and interesting work.” He says his campaign strategy is “to get folks to focus on the candidates, on the records, on what we’ve done and what we can do.”
The other candidates also want to serve but their motivations differ.
For Miller, a WCC sophomore, it started when “I met Michelle [Deatrick]. I asked her, ‘What if I wanted to run for office? She knew I was twenty-two. She said ‘You’re young. Take a few years and get your education.’
“I felt ashamed. I felt embarrassed. I started researching what it would take to run for office. I dove head first into this shit and said fuck it! Let’s do it! What do I have to lose?”
“That’s not how I remember any conversation with Matthew,” Deatrick responds by email. “I’ve done more than any candidate in this race to encourage people of all ages, but especially younger people, to get involved in politics.” She says she decided to run for the seat herself because “we need a new approach. What Democrats have done over the last twenty years in Lansing by and large is not working.”
Rajendra dates her desire to run from “the election of 2016. I saw the anger and the outrage and the confusion [after Trump’s election]. I was astounded to learn of the tremendous gaps in representation in government. We currently have one female Democratic [state] senator, zero Democratic mothers … Zero black or brown women. I’m the child of immigrants. My parents came from India.”
Miller isn’t impressed. “Anuja always says ‘I’m the daughter of immigrants. I’m a mother. I’m a woman of color,'” he says. “Great. We need this perspective. But whatever the question was, the answer was: my identity.”
That slights the upbeat intensity Rajendra has brought to the campaign: her themes touch everything from single-payer health care (for) to concealed weapons (against). A June mailer put emphasized education. Asked what she’d do about the state’s chronically underfunded schools, she emails, “I think we should just raise taxes, both on business and on higher income individuals. They benefit from a workforce with more education. They should pay for it.” To do that, she says, “we need a graduated income tax.”
Irwin already tried that. “The first bill I proposed when I got to Lansing [in 2010] was to change to a graduated income tax,” he says. “Nineteen out of twenty taxpayers would pay a little bit less, but we would raise an additional $600 to $700 million every year for schools and roads.” With Republicans controlling the legislature the idea died, but tax reform remains an Irwin issue. Befitting a legislative veteran, it’s one of a dozen themes featured on his website, from single-payer health care to criminal justice reform.
Deatrick also wants a progressive income tax and single-payer. Her website, like Rajendra’s and Irwin’s, features her endorsement as a “Moms Demand Action: Gun Sense Candidate.” She says she’d “transition away” from funding charter schools, arguing that they have an unfair advantage over pension-burdened public schools.
Like the others, Miller backs a graduated income tax and single-payer health care. He supports legalizing marijuana and lifting the state ban on local rent-control ordinances. And he has a simple plan for public education. “Tear the system apart. It doesn’t work. States like New York and New Jersey create a general fund and then distribute it in a more equitable fashion.”
Miller likewise has a simple plan to win against the other three candidates: let them divide Ann Arbor voters while he focuses on the rest of the county. And he’s playing up his outsider status: “I live in a two-bedroom apartment with my brother and my girlfriend for $1,200 a month. I had to cash out 100 percent of my retirement [account], $4,300, to be able to get on this campaign.”
All the senate candidates plan to knock doors, with goals ranging from Irwin’s 40,000 to Rajendra’s 25,000. Irwin’s hoping to raise $150,000, Deatrick and Rajendra say they’re aiming for somewhere above $100,000, and Miller for $28,000.
Whichever Democrat wins the August primary election will surely win the November general against unknown Republican Martin Church. Of course, replacing one Democratic state senator with another won’t dent Republican control in Lansing. “It’s very unlikely the Democrats will take the state senate,” Irwin says. But he believes “we have a good chance to take back the state house.”
The Democratic house candidate will also surely win the general election in District Fifty-Five, representing north and northeast Ann Arbor and parts of Pittsfield, York, and Augusta townships. That means the contest that matters is the Democratic primary between Rebekah Warren and Shauna McNally.
Warren says she decided to run for the house again “because I jumped two years early to run for the senate in 2010, and I’ve always had one term in the house in my pocket. I never thought I would use [it], and then 2016 happened, and it felt like somebody with my experience and knowledge of the process and ability to work in this crazy divided atmosphere is needed more than ever.”
Like Irwin, Warren believes Democrats “can flip the house.” She figures to win by raising $125,000, fielding a crew of fifty people, and knocking on what she reckons are the 6,500 primary voters’ doors “and then some. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve never felt anything like this. People are energized!”
One of them is her opponent. McNally decided to run “because it’s time for change. All these problems in Michigan, these are happening right now while [Warren is] in office. So all we’re going to get [if she’s elected] is two more years of the same thing. I know Democrats have been in the minority, but you can only fall back on that for so long.”
She hopes to raise $100,000, and says she has “fifty to seventy in my organization” plus more people coming. Altogether, she hopes they’ll “knock more than ten thousand doors.”
Republican Bob Baird, eighty, will also be out walking. The state Republican party asked him to run two years ago, and he put up a surprisingly vigorous fight, slightly denting Zemke’s margin of victory. He’s back this year, he emails, because “I didn’t have time to go door-to-door last year, and I want to this time.”
Miha Todd says her priority is to change the property tax system: “I want to get rid of annual assessments, and no tax on home improvements.” She wants to stay within a self-funded budget of $1,000, but plans to knock on at least that many doors.
Bill Boring, sixty, emails that “his number one issue is the roads.” While his campaign is “just getting organized,” he says that in the three-way GOP race, he’s “clearly the best choice. I’ve got a wide variety of backgrounds.”
Why would three people compete for the right to lose a general election? Warren has a possible explanation: “For the Republicans, whoever wins that primary is a delegate to their convention. They only get to vote at the convention if they win that primary.”
Even running just to vote at your party’s convention shows enthusiasm–and that’s the hallmark of the first post-2016 election. “Right now more people are engaged than I have ever seen in my political lifetime,” says Warren. “Meetings I’ve gone to every month for twelve years that used to have twenty people at them now have 100 or 150 people.”
The question now is: will they vote in the normally somnolent August primary? And if they do, whom will they support?
A County Board Challenge
In a sign of the political times, Conan Smith, the Washtenaw County commissioner from District Nine who’s been on the board since 2004, faces first-time challenger Katie Scott in the August 7 Democratic primary. The district covers the western third of Ann Arbor, and the winner is all but guaranteed victory over Republican Stuart Berry in the November general election.
Scott, a nurse in the U-M’s cardiovascular ICU, isn’t taking on the fourteen-year incumbent because she differs with Smith on policy. “There are a lot of similarities in our positions,” she admits. She’s running because of what she calls “the need for more transparency and ethics on the county board”–especially from Smith.
Scott specifically cites Smith’s 2016 failed bid for the job heading the county’s Office of Community and Economic Development. After being called out by former AnnArborChronicle.com publisher Mary Morgan, Smith resigned from the board–but Scott contends that due to the potential conflict of interest he “should have resigned from the board before applying.” During the ensuing controversy, Smith withdrew from consideration for the job; he was later reelected to the board.
Although she doesn’t know if the controversy will hurt Smith, Scott argues that “it’s time for a new voice, fresh eyes. I have a plan to knock about 6,000 doors and raise about $15,000. My core team is about eight people, and I have a larger volunteer group.”
If dollars raised and doors knocked decide the race, Smith could be in trouble. The incumbent says he typically spends between $5,000 and $7,000 and knocks about 3,000 doors with his team of three.
He seems unperturbed. “I love elections,” he says. “I like getting out there. I like talking to people. I like being challenged on my ideas. I’m expecting a vigorous but nice and polite campaign. It’s gonna be fun, because we both like to talk about issues.
“I’m going to campaign on experience,” Smith says. “I hope Ann Arbor residents realize that institutional knowledge and experience in managing government are really important.”