In 2012, Gretchen Driskell did what few thought possible and what fewer Michigan Democrats were able to do: she beat a locally-popular Republican incumbent, Mark Ouimet, to take back a state House seat, beating him by by six points in the Republican-leaning 52nd District. Two years later, she was such a strong candidate that the Republicans put up a weak candidate that Driskell beat by over 12 points.
This past February, Driskell announced her candidacy for Michigan’s 7th Congressional District. The seat is currently held by Tim Walberg, an ultra-right conservative and former preacher who claims he “was a tea partier before there was a tea party.” Walberg was ousted from the seat by Mark Schauer in 2008 but took it back again in 2010 and has held it ever since. Much like the 52nd state House district, the 7th Congressional District is a mix of urban, suburban, and rural communities. It starts on the western side of Washtenaw County, goes west to Jackson, north to the outskirts of Lansing, and south to Hillsdale and Coldwater. Republican gerrymandering ensured that Democratic voters in Ann Arbor and Lansing were largely excluded making this a +3 Republican district.
Despite this slight advantage, the 7th CD is seen as winnable by the right Democrat and the race is being watched nationally. Emily’s list put Walberg on their “On Notice” list in June and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has been helping with Driskell’s campaign.
Early next year the DCCC will announce their Red-to-Blue candidates. These are candidates in races that are prioritized by the “D-Trip” and seen as opportunities to flip a seat from Republican to Democrat. A major criteria for being selected for the Red-to-Blue program is a candidate’s ability to raise money. Driskell outraised Walberg in the first quarter of this year despite her late entry half-way through the quarter. He outraised her in the second quarter, largely thanks to corporate tax money. In the third quarter, the two raised nearly the same amount. This fourth quarter is hugely important for Driskell as she heads into 2016. A strong fundraising result is very likely to earn her a spot in the DCCC’s Red-to-Blue, with all of the financial and other support that that entails.
If you’d like to make a contribution to Gretchen Driskell’s campaign during this crucial fundraising period before the end of the year, click HERE to make a donation. And, as a resident of the 7th District, I implore you to do so!
I sat down with Driskell this past Sunday to chat about what’s happening in the Michigan legislature and to see how her Congressional race is going.
It’s been awhile since we last talked so I thought it would be nice to sit down and talk about how things are going in the state legislature and about your Congressional race for the 7th District seat.
Well, the state legislature is miserable.
I’m the Minority Chair of Elections so it’s been particularly painful, trying to beat back the Republicans and trying to have something besides the terrible bills that are happening right now.
For example, the straight ticket voting ban that passed out of committee [and out of both the House and Senate after this interview was recorded], we actually introduced 20 amendments to that in committee and probably about 15 of those amendments were from bills that had already been introduced by Democratic legislators sometime this term but they never had a hearing. I call it “The Filing Cabinet”. We introduce these good bills that would actually help people in Michigan and they just get put into a filing cabinet by the Republicans and are never heard from again. Things like pay equity…
So they were introduced as amendments to S.B. 13?
Well, we tried to tie-bar them to S.B. 13. The only one that got tie-barred was Republican (surprise!) Lisa Lyons “no reason” absentee voting bill.
That was the one that would sort of expand absentee voting?
Actually, I call it “Fake No-Reason Absentee Voting”.
Hah! Why is that?
Because it’s basically just early voting. You have to go to City Hall and show your ID and then you say you want to be able to vote now.
But you have to go in person.
Right. And, when you think about it, it’s actually harder to go to City Hall from 9-5 than it is to go on Election Day when its open from 7-8 at night. So, it’s actually not making things easier. Jeff Irwin and Jon Hoadley and I met last week because I was so frustrated about how the Republicans have been able to own the message on no-reason absentee voting when it really isn’t. And I was trying to figure out a way to talk about it differently. So I went on Doug Spade’s show and Tony Trupiano’s show and talked a little bit about it but, at the end of the day, it’s not. But that’s what they’re calling it.
The thing is, the Republicans that were actually okay with it, I think that they actually think that it is…
That it’s actually what it’s being pitched as?
Yeah. What we really need to be doing saying, “Okay, I would like to have a ballot that I can vote for no reason” and continue to have that in a database; that I’m a registered voter, I have a right to vote, and do it like we do for people that 60 years old or older. It’s not rocket science.
Another thing is that all the technology is in place. Other states are doing this, other states are doing vote-by-mail, they’re doing online registration. All of that. And those were some of things that we were trying to push for. There were some amendments where tried to … Knollenberg said, “Well this is about the people, we don’t want it to be partisan.” So Jon Hoadley said, “Well, if it’s not partisan then let’s just take the party names off the ballot and do it that way.” And, of course, they didn’t want to do that!
Another amendment that Jeff [Irwin] had was taking the stuff that’s non-partisan and putting that at the front of the ballot so you don’t have to flip it over and so people do that part first. That was one of the amendments. So, we had a LOT of amendments to try to get them to think about things.
But, at the end of the day, we’re one of the top states in the country for lines at the polls. We’re one of the bottom states in the country for access to voting. And we’re doing nothing to solve those problems.
You probably heard about [Senate Elections and Government Reform Committee Chair Dave] Robertson’s bill to make it harder to process absentee ballots. Clerks can’t have satellite offices, they can’t have extra hours, except for the one weekend before the election which is already the law. It’s disgusting.
At the end of the day, straight ticket voting is a choice. This is about choice. It’s about a voter’s right to choose. Republicans are very good at talking about rights and freedoms and all of that and yet, here we go. And another thing that’s so offensive is that this issue has been on the ballot and voters overwhelmingly WANT the choice.
So, it’s hypocritical and wrong on so many levels. I’ve talked to people who are Republican and they’re just as pissed off as Democrats. They’re like, that’s ridiculous, this our right to choose. So, we’ll see what happens. All the clerks are opposed to it and they talked about in hearing. Some of the Republicans were from rural areas and they don’t have lines. But one clerk said in some rural areas, there’s just the Township hall for voting and they have lines out the door right now because the Township halls are very small. It’s even worse in presidential years and when there are a lot of ballot proposals and the ballots are really long.
And the $5 million appropriation isn’t enough for 100 precincts much less over four thousand…
Yeah. The clerks are saying they need at least $25 million to get the equipment up to speed.
I talked to [Ingham county Clerk] Barb Byrum and she said that she’s got a request in for $1.1 million to replace her equipment.
Right. And that’s been redlined out of appropriations in the past. That appropriation in S.B. 13 was totally a bypass to stop voters from overturning it.
So, it’s extremely frustrating right now. A lot of our legislators right now are, especially freshman, are very frustrated. I remember when that first year…
It’s got to be kind of demoralizing.
Yeah, because you really believe that you’re going to get up there and you’re going to contribute and you’re going to make a difference. So, that part is really, really hard. That’s why I am really focused on getting more Democrats elected because I wouldn’t feel good about leaving the House without a Democratic majority there. So, we’re dedicated to that and that’s a huge part of our campaign, helping out other Democrats in the 7th District.
Do you think that, because a lot of these Republican folks are coming up for reelection in 2016 that we’ll see less activity from them in the next 11 months prior to the election? That they”ll do all of their bad stuff early on and then in the six months before the election they’ll suddenly get quiet?
When I started my first term they always said if you don’t have your stuff in by March at the latest during an election year, it’s not going to go anywhere. But I don’t know what else they have out there. I know they have that method ban abortion bill that’s supposedly not coming until next year. There are a lot of thoughts swirling around but we’re not hearing about anything specific that’s happening this year. I think they only that’s left is the energy package and there are still a lot of loose ends of that.
Yeah, they don’t appear to be as unified on that issue as they are on other things.
Part of that is because the tea party people like Gary Glenn want “energy choice” and he’s got a coalition supporting him.
Last thing on the state legislature, do you think this lawsuit by Todd Courser’s and Cindy Gamrat’s staffers is going to be enough of a distraction to keep the Republicans busy for awhile or will that be swept under the rug?
Probably swept under the rug. You know, we haven’t heard back yet from the Michigan State Police and it’s been like four months so we’re going to try to open that up and see if there’s any movement there. But, did you read the report? I mean, they knew about it. Back in February or March, they had complaints way early that stuff was going on.
If what is in Graham and Alward’s suit is accurate, they totally did.
There were a whole bunch of emails that were going back and forth that showed that.
Let’s talk about your race. How are things going in the 7th District race?
Things are going great! We’ve been having a lot of coffee hours meet and greets and meeting a lot of people who are really unhappy with the current representation there in D.C. So I think there’s a lot of room for an active campaign and a lot of people who want to get engaged.
Recently you did a public forum on prescription drugs and opioid abuse. What prompted that and how did that go? What came out of it?
What prompted it is two parts. One, when I was mayor, I knew that it was a problem as far back as 2012. It’s been a challenge in our state and, actually, nationally for quite awhile and I knew that from being mayor because I talked to our judge and our public safety folks. It was largely a problem of prescription drug access and then people moving to heroin – especially for kids – and it’s deadly.
I also have friends in the recovery community who were telling me about how they’re losing a LOT of people. It’s deadly, the heroin is deadly. And it’s happening really fast, it’s like a wildfire. We talked about this at the Whitmore Lake forum.
The other piece was when, this past summer, I was in Salem for the Flag Day parade. There were a couple hundred people there, that’s their big event of the year. And there was a neighborhood parent group focused on the issue of heroin. I went to a parade in Adrian and there was a group in the parade. Monroe has a task force. So, in every community that went to there are groups right now.
So, after the summer I was already to do something. Then, coincidentally, the governor had actually reached out to some of the mayors around the state and asked about what the issues are in people’s communities and this was one of the things that bubbled up from the mayors so he put together a task force. I was going to try to do something earlier in the year but when I heard there was going to be a task force, we decided to wait to see what their recommendations were going to be.
A lot of this is listening to what’s going on in the communities and educating people. I think that’s the best way to move the needle is to show people that this IS happening next door, this IS in your community. This isn’t some back alley. It’s all over the place. One of the people on the panel said that they’ve heard that some people even go into real estate open houses and go through their medicine cabinets looking for prescription drugs. That’s how bad it is.
My feeling is that we’re not going to be able to solve the problem by just talking about it. We all have to work together – public safety, the recovery community, all the stakeholder – and a big part of it, especially for the young people, is educating their parents not to have their prescription drugs readily available, don’t share them with people. There are a lot of things where you don’t think about it. You think you’re helping but it’s not. One of the people on the panel said, “Your kids that are high school athletes shouldn’t be on opioids. Don’t prescribe them, use Tylenol, use other things.
We also had a roundtable on businesses and jobs in the spring and we’re probably going to be doing one on education and maybe one on clean water and the environment. Those are some of things that seem to be bubbling up as issues in the community that people want to know more about.
So, talk about the 7th District race a little bit. It seems like Tim Walberg has been very quiet. I have seen almost nothing from him other than few emails that I get because I’m on his mailing list.
I heard he had a coffee hour here in Dexter! One of the people at the fundraiser I was at earlier said that a lot of Dexter women showed up because of his effort to defund Planned Parenthood. But what I’m hearing is that he has coffees and other events where he invites certain people but not all of his constituents. Like one man told me that his neighbor got an invitation but he didn’t. Because he’s been getting a lot of push back on some of his positions and there are people trying to get him to change on some of these issues.
What is the response that you’re seeing out there? Are people showing up at events, are they making donations…?
Oh, yeah. We’re getting great support, for sure. We’re meeting all of our goals for fundraising.
You outraised him in the first quarter of 2015, right? And it’s going to be nearly a draw this fourth quarter?
Right. And we didn’t announce until halfway through the first quarter so that was big. There are clearly a lot of unhappy, frustrated people out there and we’re doing the work to have that win. But, yeah, a lot of that, especially early on, is about raising money. We have a strong team and I’m proud of what they have accomplished.
It’s a challenging district, for sure. The demographics are all over the place and it’s sprawling geographically on top of it.
Yes, there are a lot of different communities. We talked about that at one of our fundraisers today. We’ve got the Monroe community and the Adrian community and the Jackson community and the Washtenaw County and they’ve all got different issues.
Right, that’s what I was going to ask you. Do you find that you’re having to talk about different issues depending on where you are?
Yes, for sure. This year what I’m trying to do is to sit down at a table with people, I try not to preach but to listen. I prefer to have people sit around a table and introduce themselves so that we all know each other because I feel like the goal is to have people work together to solve problems. But we’ve been getting really great support and I have been listening to what some of the issues are rather than talking.
For example, when I was in Adrian, they talked about how the buses are privatized there and there not busing enough kids and they’re really frustrated about that. But, at the same time, they don’t have enough money to go back to a public bus system. In Monroe their issue is water because every year they have big algae blooms. Jobs are big deal in Jackson and jobs – good paying jobs – are, in general, an overarching concern. These are things that I’m learning and they aren’t always big federal issues. It’s important that I learn what’s going on in each community.
I would assume that, like any Congressional campaign, that you’re working with the DCCC.
Yes, we are. We work with them every day. I’ve been out there three times now. They have candidate training and met some of the other candidates from around the country. They have some women members of Congress who are very excited about my candidacy. We’ve also gotten some support and investment from Steny Hoyer and Nancy Pelosi so we’ve had some support at the national level which is great.
And when we’re fundraising, I talk to people all over the country about the race and I talk about down the ticket and how Michigan is in such a bad place and how things have gotten so bad. Last year I was trying to help individual candidates around the state and now I’m looking at a new way, a new angle – helping everyone on the ticket – and I see it as a huge opportunity.
What you’re talking about is that in the 7th District we have seats that can be flipped from Republican to Democrat?
Sure. Look at Theresa Abed. She lost by a couple hundred votes.
We need nine seats to get the state House back and something like three of them are in the 7th District, right?
Yes. So, an investment in our campaign is a good investment in terms of these other campaigns, as well. So, hopefully we can move the needle in a very positive way.
And I would imagine that early fundraising success now determines how much support you’ll get from groups like the DCCC next year?
Right. Their Red-to-Blue program is their premier endorsement and they’ve indicated that they’ll be deciding on that in the new year based on what we do this year as far as fundraising.
So early fundraising is crucial then.
Yeah. That’s what I’ve been trying to explain to people. A lot of people think, “Well, it’s the off year, I’m burned out, why do I need to engage now, it’s next year…” But if they see that we’re successful with fundraising now, people all over the country will see that Michiganders are on board, they believe in this race, they think it’s important not only to get Mr. Walberg out but also to get down ticket candidates elected and more grassroots people out to educate and get the vote out. So, when I talk to people I really talk about how early support is so important. Emily’s List, for example, says, “Early money is like yeast” because it makes things grow.
Emily’s List has also taken an interest in your race, too, correct?
Yes. In fact, they’ve actually put Tim in their Top 15 “On Record” category back in April which means they are targeting him.
It really seems like 2016 is shaping up to be the year of the woman. When I look around there are two women ruuning for your House seat, we’ve got you running in the 7th, there’s Melissa Gilbert in the 8th. Everywhere you look around the state there are a lot more Democratic women running and I think that’s a encouraging thing. Do you see this as a trend or is it an accident or coincidence? What’s your take?
For me personally, I have been very purposeful in trying to get more women elected. I was actually really engaged with the progressive women’s caucus that started, I believe, the cycle before I was first elected and they still have a PAC called MI Women Win. We’re trying very hard because typically women have a harder time raising money and also in getting the support. Women also tend to need to be asked more than once to run and they need to be asked by more than one person. So, there are a lot of different layers of keeping women engaged. You should talk to Vicki Barnett about Emerge Michigan. It’s part of a national group, Emerge America, that’s trying to get more women elected. It’s very targeted and the idea is to get people on city councils and school boards at the lower level to fill the pipeline and Vicki is heading that up in Michigan.
I think term limits have also made it extremely hard to keep the percentage of women in the legislature high. I think we saw really go down in the last election which is why the progress women’s caucus was started. We’ve been really trying to build the capacity of that because the problem with term limits is that there is an issue with continuity. Like when I was working on the equal pay bills, I found out that these were the same bills that had already been introduced something like seven times in different legislative sessions. Every term, the same package. But when we talked about the bills, there was no data to turn to and use. I had to do all my own research. And when I found out it had been introduced in the last term, I thought we should really be building on what was done before.
So, that’s the concept that the women’s caucus is working with now, that we’re going to have a database that we’re going to bring forward for future women. While before it was mainly focused on getting women elected, now it’s more geared to understanding that our capacity as legislators is very different from fundraising and responding to that. So we can work with women’s groups around specific issues along with providing candidate training and things like that.
But a big part of my focus is to make sure that we have people who can work on a specific issue from one term to the next so that it doesn’t just disappear because of term limits because that seems like what’s happening.
Right. You don’t have the institutional knowledge because of term limits. It’s almost like you need some other sort of infrastructure in place to make sure this information doesn’t get lost when legislators term out.
Exactly. And with technology we should have all sorts of ways to make that happen.
You had a poll done last spring that showed you up five points over Walberg so it sounds like there’s a lot of unhappiness in the 7th District. That suggests that you have a good chance to take this seat back for Democrats.
Absolutely. The Democrat that ran against him in 2012 lost by only ten points and he was pretty much unknown. Senator Gary Peters won in the 7th District last year. So we definitely have an opportunity. And, again, Mr. Walberg is so conservative and has such a bad track record and is on the wrong side on many of the issues that we’ll be talking about. He’s anti-government. He doesn’t support public education. He voted to cut Headstart. He doesn’t support Social Security or Medicare. In his opinion, government is in the way and takes advantage of all us.
If you can turn out the women in the 7th District, I think you can easily win this race. If women are engaged and aware of just how bad he is on the issues that are important to them. He voted against the equal pay bill…
Right, and against the Violence Against Women Act. But even though he doesn’t believe in government, he currently has a state pension and has lifetime healthcare through the state government. When he was in Lansing, he was one of three out of 110 House members that they called the “No Caucus”. He pretty much voted against everything. No productive conversations there. He’s carried that on in Congress and he hasn’t veered off his very conservative, “anti” nature. So we’ll definitely be talking to voters about that.
He’s also part of the RCCC’s “Patriot Program” which means you basically sign away your legislative agenda to your funders.
Photos by Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog