Interview, Michigan, Michigan Democrats — October 22, 2012 at 6:57 am

Betsy Coffia: Working to get money out of politics in Michigan’s 104th State House district race (INTERVIEW)


“I’m doing it the hard way but I’m doing it the RIGHT way…”

I first met Democratic candidate Betsy Coffia at the Vagina Monologues rally at the state Capitol last summer. Even in the cacophony of hundreds of fired up women dressed in bright pink, Coffia stood out with her energy and fire. It’s a passion for making positive change that she’s bringing to her unique campaign in Michigan’s 104th State House district, a traditionally Republican area that includes Traverse City that she’s trying to turn blue.

Coffia is running her campaign, as she did her primary, without taking any money from PACs, Super PACs or from out of state. It is an approach that served her well in the primary and, in the general election, it’s putting the the issue of campaign finance reform and money in politics front and center. In a recent candidates interview with Interlochen Public Radio, this was readily apparent as her opponent Wayne Schmidt was forced to answer questions on this issue repeatedly, allowing Coffia’s message to shine through brightly.

You’ll be able to see that in action at a candidates forum at 7:00 p.m. this Thursday at the Traverse City Public Library. Details of the forum are HERE.

I recently spoke to Betsy Coffia to talk to her about her campaign.

“So, how is your campaign going?” I asked.

“You know, it’s going really, really great. We just had a great fundraiser at the InsideOut Art Gallery, the same one where the Occupalooza event happened in last winter, and we had a great turnout for that. Bridget McCormack [candidate for the Michigan Supreme Court] stopped in. She’s fantastic so I, of course, invited her up to speak. In my speech, I had made sure to mention the Supreme Court race because that’s just crucial that we’re paying attention to those three seats.”

“One of the things that I’ve been profoundly taken by this last year is how effectively the Republicans have put guards around all of the gates of our state government,” I said. “Everything from the legislature to the Executive branch positions, but also things like the Board of State Canvassers. So, no matter what happens, if a decision has to be made on something, they have somebody there to make that decision.”

“If you look at the last Supreme Court race in Michigan, it was the most expensive Supreme Court race in the country,” Coffia replied. “Of the $9 million that was spent, $7 million wasn’t even from Michigan. If you think about it like that, you ask ‘why are there so many outside interests SO interested in the high court of Michigan?'”

“You’re right about that,” I agreed. “It’s probably, in large part, because we’re such a strong union state and they want to be sure they keep pushing us toward a “Right to Work” state and preventing the unions from having any power.”

“Exactly, and I mentioned that in my speech, too,” she said. “We have a proud history of workers’ rights in our state and, further, we’re the home to 20% of the world’s fresh water which, of course, is becoming more and more important. Michigan has a lot of really amazing resources and tradition so I can see why other groups would be interested in coming in and getting their hands on that.”

“We’re also stewards of all those resources,” I said.

“Absolutely. We really have to act like that at the state level. We’ve got to live up to that responsibility. The average citizen in Michigan, they want to trust that, just as they see Michigan as being a really special place with all of these wonderful natural resources, they want to trust that their public servants see it that way, too. It’s really on us to live up to that. We don’t have the best track record on that. We’re rolling back things like [former Republican Governor William] Milliken’s environmental protections as we speak, you know? It’s something we have got to focus on and push back.”

“You’ve made campaign finance reform a pretty major part of your campaign,” I said. “Are you feeling like you’re able to compete without taking PAC money and out of state money?”

“Absolutely!” Coffia replied enthusiastically. “We had such an encouraging result taking that stand during our primary race and, of course, winning that — taking no PAC money and winning that race with less than $4,000 spent. But let me tell you, what doesn’t show up on that tally sheet is the amount of real people, real energy, volunteerism, getting out there, knocking on doors, and talking to people.

“I’ve got a woman, Chris, named Peggy Pierson, who has literally spent every Saturday since May down at our farmers market with her clipboard and a smile and information. She’s just been a stalwart out there. And, when I go to doors as a candidate, I have many experiences of people saying, ‘Oh, I met your volunteer down at the farmers market! She’s so positive and she’s so excited about your campaign, she’s there every week!’ That’s the kind of thing, you can’t make that happen with money.”

“She probably wouldn’t be working any harder if you paid her,” I said.

“No, probably not! And we’re all doing this. We have over 150 volunteers who have been involved in various capacities and we’re all doing this because we all share, and many more people share this idea that we can’t wait for change to come from the top down. People just like us, from the top down, have to commit to the idea that it’s up to make change and that means you get busy. You do something that you feel is worth doing. It’s really exciting.”

“What’s the geographical area of your district?” I asked.

“The district now is the boundaries of Grand Traverse County. It was just redistricted in 2011, down from two counties. At that time it was Kalkaska County, which is where I actually grew up, and Grand Traverse County. We’ve got about 88,000 residents and, last I checked, about 66,000 were registered to vote.”

“So, just going back to how your campaign is financed, do you feel you’re able to run a competitive campaign against your Republican opponent without taking PAC money and outside money?” I asked Coffia.

“I do. I do. Again, I think that our key element is to reach out to people and empower people who live in this community to get involved and spend the time and effort on this. What I tell the volunteers, and what I said last night at the fundraiser, is that you all have a sphere of influence. We all do. We have people who we know that respect us and love us and we need to be talking to the people within that sphere and letting them know that they have a choice. That has been really effective. I took that approach during the primary and I’m taking it even more so in the general election. Aside from our efforts getting things hung on people’s door handles and people canvassing, people are talking to the people in their sphere.

“On Friday, I was on a door out in Acme in the east side of the county and this young woman, she was about 25, she said, ‘Oh, yeah, I work in a local styling salon and we were all just talking about you!’. She said one of the girls who works there is a supporter and has been talking to the rest of them. Well, those girls talk to everybody! They see so many people in the community. You definitely want to create a buzz in these different gathering places. I think that’s something this campaign has done really well.

“We’ve also spent smart with our smaller budget and gotten a billboard and gotten 700 yard signs, just really having a presence in the community. We’re getting great feedback like ‘Hey, we see even more of your signs than your opponent!’. We’re really working very hard to be visible.”

“You seem to be using social media very effectively in terms of Facebook and email,” I said. “That seems to be an important component of your campaign.”

“Yes, absolutely,” Coffia replied. “I am really lucky to have some media-savvy volunteers who understand Facebook to a deeper degree than most people and they’ve been able to really share and target our message. For a relatively small expense, you can create Facebook ads that target just for zip codes so that only people within your voting area see them. It’s even more targeted than, say, local radio advertising which is a wider area. We see that as a really effective strategy.”

“It ties into the whole person-to-person idea, too, right?” I asked. “Which is really ironic because we’re not sitting in the same rooms yet we’re having more intimate conversations, in some respects, in terms of local stuff.”

“That’s right. Facebook has been a fantastic resource, especially last year during the Public Act 4 [the Emergency Manager Law] referendum efforts, galvanizing over 200,000 people from all over the state. For me, Facebook has been wonderful because people can go there, they “Like” our page, and they can ask questions, we get dialog going… I’ve been very diligent about responding and making sure that I keep that open line of communication. People really appreciate that because a lot of us are used to getting form letters and we’re used to maybe not even being responded to at all when we take the time to reach out. That responsiveness backs up what I believe in, which is that I’m asking for a great responsibility — public service — so you’re the boss, the voter is the boss. So, I should be looking to you and talking to you.”

“Yeah, with my state Representative, Mark Ouimet, I haven’t heard a thing from him for the past two years and then, last week, out of the blue, he sent me a hunters guide!” I said.

“Oh, charming,” she said. “But, that’s the other thing, Chris. One of the aspects of this campaign, and certainly what I was responding to when I chose to step up and run, is that the feeling of most people, most Michiganders, is that we’re often left out of the political process. We’re not being treated as key elements of the campaign, we’re not being treated like it’s taxpayer dollars that are that actually send these folks to Lansing and Washington, D.C. They work for US yet we feel sort of shut out and drowned out by these massive special interests that are manipulating the dialog. So, I think, running a campaign like this, where I can look a voter in the eye and say, ‘Look, I want to make sure that, if you send me to Lansing, that I know who I work for and that I keep a straight line between you and me.’ Obviously, for me, I am able to do that because, having a single county, I can stay touch with my constituents in a way that maybe a national figure couldn’t. I think that really hits a nerve with people when they are feeling shut out of the process.

“When people see me responding to their messages and responding to their phone calls, they see that I’m doing it the hard way but I’m doing it the RIGHT way.”

“Your opponent is an incumbent, correct?” I asked.

“Yeah, he’s finishing up his second term and he’s really just been… Well, he’s voted with his party all along the way with very rare exceptions. I think he voted against the helmet law repeal. Other than that, he’s voted with the party. One example that really distressed me when I was looking at his voting record was right after the Wall Street crash of 2008. In early 2009 there was a bill that would have assisted people who were facing potential foreclosure on their homes by requiring written notification that they were being foreclosed upon and also some modification assistance. And he voted against that right in the wake of the worst crash since the Great Depression. These are the kinds of votes that he has gone along with.

“One of his other claims to fame,” Coffia said, “Is his statement that Lisa Brown and Barb Byrum needed a ‘time out’ after they spoke out for women. Those are some of the things that stand out with regards to his record. He’s voted along party lines on pieces of legislation that have placed additional tax burden on our seniors with a fixed income in this kind of economy and cut funding to our school kids when Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS), his school district, and Kingsley, also his school district, received the lowest foundation grant in the state. We are among the districts where our kids get the lowest amount of funding. He’s voted to cut funding for our working poor families in a county where one in seven kids is living in poverty.

“These are some of things that he has gone along with that I really object to as a constituent.”

“Where’s he getting support?” I asked. “Are you able to make any inroads into the kinds of people that would traditionally support a Republican candidate in your district?”

“I’m really focusing my energy canvassing especially on folks considered to be ‘undecided’, people who are not considered to be ‘hard right’ or ‘hard left’. They’re just average, every day citizens and they really do want to feel like they are being represented in the political process. I’m going to their doors, talking to them and explaining to them who I am, what my background is, and how I am running this race in a way that has integrity. It’s not about a special interest group getting me there. It’s about them as voters and taxpayers.

“That’s really been powerful. I’ve seen a lot of positive feedback. People get this look like, ‘Really?! You’re doing it that way?!’

“So, we’re talking to people that might be Republican but they are more of a Bill Milliken-style Republican, not the brand that we have today.”

“Are you getting the sense that people who might have traditionally leaned Republican are maybe having second thoughts about that given what the Republicans have done over the past two years?” I asked.

“Given that they are voting against their own interests at this point?!” she asked with a laugh. “Yes. Yes. I do. And, again, I think I am able to present to them the idea that this isn’t ultimately, to me, about a party affiliation. This is about my desire, as a voter, to have real representation by someone who holds themselves accountable for what’s best for their community, their voters, what’s good for this district, who keeps it so that they are responsive to what matters to this county.

“One of the things that I focus on is my background in journalism. I have six years of experience in journalism at a newspaper where I did award-winning work. So I have a deep knowledge and awareness of the fact that most issues are complex. They’re not simple. So, it’s really important to have a public servant who will take the time to talk to the various stakeholders and really come to an informed conclusion instead of just voting however the party says you should vote or voting how they think is politically expedient. That’s my commitment.”

Visit Betsy Coffia’s campaign website HERE and her Facebook page HERE. You can follow her on Twitter HERE.