Yesterday, February 6, three Democratic candidates for statewide office appeared on a panel to discuss their candidacy and to answer questions from the audience. The event was sponsored by People of Diversity United for Equality (PODUE) and was held at the Brown Chapel AME in Ypsilanti. In attendance were Alma Wheeler-Smith — candidate for governor, Jocelyn Benson — candidate for Secretary of State, and Richard Bernstein — candidate for Attorney General. The forum was moderated by Rep. Rebekah Warren — with opening and closing remarks by House Speaker Pro Tempore Pam Byrnes, both candidates for State Senate.
From L-R, Rebekah Warren, Alma Wheeler-Smith, Jocelyn Benson, Richard Bernstein, Pam Byrnes, Pastor Jerry Hatter
Rep. Alma Wheeler-Smith expressed her continued interest in improving the budget situation in Michigan as well as promoting strong support for education, schools and teachers. Asked how, as someone who has been critical of Governor Granholm’s leadership, she would have done things differently, Wheeler-Smith had several points to make:
- The governor has failed to use her remarkable charisma to due more to influence the political process in Lansing.
- The governor has tendency to not weigh in with a position on specific legislation until far too late in the legislative process. This often kept Democrats from knowing if they had her support until right before a vote.
- The governor herself has admitted to not fully understanding the legislative process, according to Rep. Wheeler-Smith, and that she brings a long history of experience in the State House to the table.
- The governor tended to negotiate from a position she believed her opponents would agree upon rather than from where she wanted to be. This weakened her position.
- She believes the governor should have been a much stronger advocate for defeating anti-choice legislation.
Unlike her two co-panelists, Rep. Wheeler-Smith is NOT in support of a Constitutional Convention. She believes “the GOP is resurgent” right now and that a Constitutional Convention at this time would benefit them and not Democrats and their positions.
Asked about term limits, she said she believes they “create dysfunction” in Congress. They create a situation where there is no institutional memory and “silence the voice of the people.”
Asked how she would convince Independent voters to support her and stay with a Democrat at the helm of the state, Rep. Wheeler-Smith said that her polling shows that she “does very well with Independents” and also does surprisingly well with GOP men although she has no idea why!
Jocelyn Benson spoke of her interest in increasing transparency in how auto licensing fees are calculated/assessed. “How many people know how they calculate your auto fee?” she asked the crowd of about 25 people. “Nobody? Well, I don’t either and that’s not right.”
Ms. Benson also talked about how little innovation has been done with regard to the Secretary of State’s office. Not since Richard Austin made Michigan the first state to open Secretary of State office to voter registration has there been any significant innovation and she would like to lead this type of innovation if elected. She specifically talked about no-reason absentee voting, making it possible for new Michigan voters to vote absentee and other ways of increasing voter turnout without compromising the voting process. Additionally, she decried the closing of some Secretary of State branch offices.
One of the questions asked was in regard to a Constitutional Convention in Michigan. Benson is generally in support of this and sees it as an opportunity to overturn some of the more unfortunate amendments related to things like same-sex marriage and affirmative action.
Finally, answering a question about the recent SCOTUS decision in Citizens United, she reminded the audience that corporations have long had the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money to run issue ads that are thinly disguised political ads in support of one candidate or issue. She pointed out that Michigan has no laws restricting this type of expenditure and voiced her interest in helping to change that.
Richard Bernstein (no campaign website yet online) is an attorney for the Sam Bernstein Law Firm. In his remarks he referred repeatedly to his lifelong desire to be an advocate for those without a voice in the judicial system. “The Attorney General can protect the people of Michigan,” he said. He would like to see better enforcement of MIOSHA and environmental laws and spoke of how the role of the Attorney General is to “litigate, not legislate” which protects the separation of powers.
Mr. Bernstein supports a Constitutional Convention and reminded the audience that during the last Michigan Constitution Convention in 1963 the state’s Civil Rights Commission was created. On term limits he asked “isn’t every election a term limit?”
Mr. Bernstein was most passionate when asked about charter schools. As a blind man, he said that “anytime you do anything to harm the public schools, you are saying that people like me don’t matter, that the 250,000 special needs kids in Michigan don’t matter.” He spoke on the topic for about ten minutes telling his own story, that of one of clients whose Down Syndrome child was rejected from a public school attended by three siblings and ending with a rant against standardized testing that discriminates against special needs students.
I’m just sayin’…