Interview, Michigan Democrats — October 22, 2014 at 7:07 am

INTERVIEW: Betsy Coffia – “I’m just incredibly proud of how much this campaign has been so people-powered”


This past Saturday afternoon, Betsy Coffia and a car full of her staff members drove all the way from Traverse City to Ann Arbor for a fundraising shindig super-activist Rochelle Noel and I and a bunch of other folks held for her 104th state House district campaign. The host committee consisted of the two of us, Anne Savage, Tony Trupiano, Rep. Jeff Irwin, education activists Steven Norton and Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, and Rep. Ellen Cogen-Lipton.

The event was very well attended and the speeches by the host committee members were truly inspiring, having been inspired by such a terrific candidate.

But the star of the show gave one of the more powerful speeches I’ve seen this election cycle. Betsy talked about her passion for making positive change in the lives of our state’s citizens, in our state government, and in the political system we use to select our leaders.

I wasn’t the only one wiping away tears of emotion during Betsy’s speech and was definitely not the only one moved by her words. The event was held at Arbor Brewing Company in Ann Arbor and our bartender for the evening, Alex, who said he’s seen a million of these sorts of speeches in that room, came up afterwards with a donation for Betsy’s campaign because she had struck a chord with him.

She really is that good.

After her speech, I ran to the front of the room and gave Betsy a five dollar bill. “I’ve got five more bucks for Betsy! Who will join me?” Many did.

Betsy Coffia shows how she has raised over $60,000: one five dollar bill at a time

Before the event started, I sat down with Betsy to talk about her race and her campaign.

Last time we talked, two years ago, you had decided not to take any PAC money or money from out of state groups. Did you learn your lesson? Are you finally taking PAC money, Betsy?

No, Chris! In fact, we’re just about to hit $60,000 with individual Michigan residents contributions. I just had an 80-year old woman, she saw the blast we had put out saying we were raising $1,800 for a Record-Eagle newspaper ad and she brought in five bucks. She wanted to chip in. I mean, I’m just incredibly proud of how much this campaign has been so people-powered.

How’s that compare your last race, fundraising-wise? Is that better or the same or…?

Oh, we’re going to be at least triple of what we raised in 2012 by November. We hit $30,000 by the primary this year. At that point during the last cycle we were $4,000.

That’s gotta feel good.


Certainly running more than once gives you more name recognition so that’s got to be helping.

Yeah, for sure. We’ve had maybe eight or nine people max out at the $1,000 limit but, for the most part, it’s all much smaller donors. I had a young man who I knew when I was a teaching assistant at his school, he was in sixth grade, he is now studying abroad in Italy, he’s 20 years old. He made a $50 contribution, took time off of strolling the Piazza or whatever, because he was excited. It’s just so cool.

What’s changed between the last time you ran and this time in terms of the lay of the land of the race. This is an open seat now, right?

It’s an open seat which is obviously a huge change. Running against an incumbent is always an uphill battle. Certainly name recognition is much better now. What hasn’t changed is that I know exactly why I’m doing this and I’m even more motivated and determined and we’ve just grown. We’ve tripled our volunteer force. I feel like I’ve been able to get to thousands more doors than I was able to in 2012 and I’m just talking about a message that matters to all of us, regardless of political affiliation. We want our Reps to work for us, not the highest bidder.

What have you done in the meantime, between the last time you ran and this time. You’re a writer, right?

I am a writer, I’ve been writing professionally. I’ve worked in the service industry, a seasonal job during the summer.

And being an activist…

Being an activist, yeah. And learning, too. I took a local leadership course through our local Chamber of Commerce which is actually a very community-oriented entity and learned a lot there. So, I’ve just continued to invest in the community. I’m a member of the Chamber of Commerce, I graduated from their program. I volunteer in the schools, I’m just active in my community.

What’s your opponent’s story, where’s he from? The name is not familiar to me.

Nor was it really, to anyone. He’s local politician. He’s been in local office for 20+ years, a retired banker. I can’t tell his story, he’d have to tell his story. I’ve been really working hard to get out who I am and why I’m running.

In what ways do you differ in terms of your positions? How would you contrast yourself?

I would contrast myself by saying that our district has a long standing tradition of same old, business as usual. They go to Lansing and they do what the Republican Party tells them, regardless. I have seen nothing to believe that that would change without a radical change of scenery and thinking differently, doing things differently in my campaign.

What are the demographics of the 104th district, politically speaking?

It’s maybe a 55% Republican district. But, something to remember about the Republican demographic of my district that we are the home district of Gov. Bill Milliken. That is a different kind of Republican than what we currently have in Lansing and, frankly, a lot of the rank and file would consider themselves Milliken Republicans. They want fiscal responsibility, which I’m all about, but they also want somebody who gets things done; works on roads and jobs and doesn’t see working together in a bipartisan manner as poison. They see that as good public service.

We also have a lot of independents, people who just sort of say, “I don’t really necessarily affiliate, I just want results. I want roads fixed, my kids’ education is important, my kid’s college tuition is too high, I want results.”

You said the reason that you’re running is the same this time as it was two years ago. Tell us what that is.

I think we have a growing, burgeoning crisis in the entire democratic process in our country with Citizens United and then the McCutcheons decisions, it has just blown the lid off of how much money is pouring, flooding, gushing into our political process. And it’s destroying something that is really precious to me personally and that’s vital in order for us to have anything that closely resembles representation. So, I think that, unless some of us are willing to kinda take a different path and do things differently, I don’t see that changing. I don’t think it’s going to self correct, I think it needs some good old grassroots pulling things in that direction. I’m passionate about that.

I agree with you because the people that need to do it are the ones who most benefit from the status quo.

Right. So some of us just have to be willing to say, “Well, I want different results so I’m going to do things differently and then they army grows, an army of everyday people that just want it to work for us.

Is anyone else in the state running a campaign like yours without taking PAC money or outside money?

There’s one gentleman that I know for sure, his name’s Robert Kennedy and he’s over, literally, directly across the 45th parallel in Tawas City area in the 106th district. He’s a retired teacher and he’s also refusing to take any PAC or special interest money. He won his primary but I don’t know much more than that.

You said you’re almost at $60,000. Is that pretty reasonable for a race like this based on this history of the district?

Well, keep in mind, Chris, this is a district that’s been pretty comfortable with one party advantage. Wayne Schmidt in 2012 had a $100,000 war chest. I don’t know what he spent it on but, you know, they get their usual PAC money coming through and they do their thing. I just know that when I started out I wanted to work hard and at least double what I raised in 2012, to give my team the tools to do mailers, to do flyers, to do the full page ads. We just recorded radio ads yesterday and had a lot of fun, a bunch of us in the studio. So, I am really pleased to be where we are.

Frankly I don’t want politics to be something where, for a two-year race, you’re throwing down a hundred thousand bucks, I mean, come on! We have kids who are packed into classrooms of 30 at age five, that’s not right. I want money to be going into those causes. So, I want to work smart with what we have but, sure, I think we’re very competitive for up north.

You say you’ve tripled your volunteer base?

Oh, yeah. We had a little over 100 last time and we’ve got over 350 folks this year.

And they’re doing what?

They’re knocking doors with me, making calls… we had a little girl whose dad is a teacher in Kingsley schools, she’s nine-years old, she went and charmed all the people in Garfield Township, knocking on their doors, and just telling them, you know, “My classroom has too many kids. I want you to vote on my behalf for school funding. My dad is making less money than he was 2 or 3 years ago as a teacher for your kids.”

High school students, we have a young lady from Benzie Central, she’s not even in my district. She’s 17. She meets up with us at the border of our district, comes across, and has been knocking doors with us on Sundays. She wants to be a physicist.

We have people in their 80s. We have moms who work their job all day and then stop in and do a couple of hours of clerical work before they head home for the night, putting in our data and making our work smarter.

Do you have an office or are you doing it out of your house?

We have a headquarters, we’re sharing headquarters with a couple of other campaigns up north. So, we do all sorts of things, phone calls. YOU know how it works!

I feel like Traverse City is a changing demographic in some ways. I don’t think it’s as conservative as it used to be.

No, I don’t think so either. And I think it’s full of people who understand that we want our share of the pie, we want to make sure that our kids get good quality education, that there’s proper funding, we need good jobs in our area. The Great Lakes are a big part of our lives and the environment piece in integral to our economy.We understand that we need wise Milliken-type leadership that’s actually going to be good for our region.

Are your schools still getting the short end of the stick with regards to state funding?

Oh, they’re at the lowest per-pupil funding and, in fact, we’re at 2009 levels of classroom funding. Our school superintendent, Paul Soma, I was reading some projects from him that said that, if things do not change with school funding, we will be bankrupt in two years. Traverse City Schools is facing deficit district status. It is just…

Are people aware of that in general in the district?

Well, not enough people. But they know that there’s been a long-standing equity issue and they know that there’s all of this “took a billion dollars OUT of the schools, put a billion IN to the schools” arguments back and forth. People are confused about that.

But I just talk to people about what I know: the classrooms are getting less funding than they were. And are you seeing your student’s classroom grow or shrink? Are you seeing programs expanded or cut? People know something’s wrong.

I think that’s true generally. I think that’s the big hole in Snyder’s argument.

Talk to anyone in the schools you want. Talk to any teacher in the state. I spoke to a PTO group the other night, it’s the elementary school in my neighborhood where I volunteer, and they’re looking forward to not even being able to have a book fair this year because funding is so low. A book fair! And this is a lower income area of our city where kids aren’t necessarily accessing as much enrichment as they should as it is. It’s just unacceptable.

So, campaign finance reform, education. Are there others that are on your priority list?

Well, the economy, of course. We need good jobs in our area. We are, as you know, heavily in service industry jobs, so I want to really work on that. And, for me, advocating for our natural resources and the Great Lakes is so important because it’s so integral to our economy. It’s our economic life’s blood is the beauty of our region. So we need somebody who will actually go to bat for the Great Lakes. That pipeline, fracking, all of these issues need to be dealt with.

Anything else you’d like to tell us about your race?

I am just so proud of how the people in my district have worked to make this campaign just as phenomenal as it has been. We’re really excited.