Q&A: Jeff Irwin offers his take on Washtenaw County's prospects with 4 Democrats in the Michigan House
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
All four of the county's representatives in the state House are now Democrats after Saline Mayor Gretchen Driskell ousted Rep. Mark Ouimet, R-Scio Township, in the 52nd District and Adam Zemke won the 55th District seat being vacated by Rep. Rick Olson, R-York Township.
Meanwhile, state Reps. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, and David Rutledge, D-Superior Township, easily defeated their Republican opponents to stay in office another two years.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
"Democrats made big gains and it was a really positive night for us," Irwin said. "In most of the seats where there was a real competition and a real opportunity for either a Democrat or a Republican to win, Democrats were winning and we saw that in Washtenaw County."
The Democrats picked up five seats statewide, but Republicans still hold a 59-51 advantage in the House. The GOP also controls the Senate and the governor's office.
AnnArbor.com: What do you think is the significance of this election and what does it mean now that Washtenaw County will be represented by all Democrats in the state House?
Irwin: Obviously I'm elated that Democrats were able to sweep Washtenaw County, and I'm going to have more colleagues to work with who share my values of making education a top priority in our state and getting back to a focus on growing our economy, rather than wallowing in the social issues that the Republicans have been wallowing in for the last two years.
It's also very positive that we picked up a number of seats. We made pretty strong gains in the Legislature, narrowing the Republican advantage considerably. Hopefully that's going to create a new spirit of working together when we get back to Lansing and encourage the Republicans to focus more on those issues that we agree on. I have some hope that we're going to be able to strike some compromise, particularly on issues like energy efficiency.
Our top priority as Democrats is making education the top priority of the state. And with five new Democrats in the House and five less Republicans, I think we have a much greater chance of realizing that goal and getting the state back into a position where we're investing in our universities, where we're investing in innovation, and we're investing in our K-12 schools, and that's going to be a gratifying result for me if that's the spot we can get to as a result of this election.
AnnArbor.com: Do you think it will hurt Washtenaw County to not have a member of the majority party representing it in the state House? Will it be well served by all minority party representatives when the Republicans still call the shots in Lansing for the next two years?
Irwin: Well, we have a Republican governor who represents the whole state and also lives here in Washtenaw County, and hopefully that's going to be helpful to our community. I'm hopeful with Gov. Snyder's pronouncements that the major cuts they made to K-12 and higher ed in 2011 was the end of the budget pain for our schools, but you never know what's going to happen in the next legislative session. We're all going to be working hard to communicate with our Republican colleagues about the importance of public education and try to strike as much bipartisan compromise as possible.
AnnArbor.com: The 52nd District race was viewed by some as a referendum on actions taken by the GOP-controlled Legislature in the last session. Is that what happened in that race?
Irwin: I think so. I think the main issue there that was the subject of the referendum was really education. I think education is a bipartisan value in Washtenaw County. People believe in higher ed as an engine of economic growth. People understand that our communities thrive because of U of M and EMU and Washtenaw Community College. People believe in their neighborhood schools and feel strongly that their neighborhood schools need to be top-notch in order for not just our own children to be successful, but also for our property values to be high and for Washtenaw County to continue to be an attractive place to live and to invest. So I think investments in education are very broadly popular in Washtenaw County and I don't think a legislator in Washtenaw County can survive a voting record that stands against K-12 and higher ed. That's a hard record to carry to the voters in Washtenaw County and I think that was one of the big pieces that hurt Rep. Ouimet in his re-election.
AnnArbor.com: Do you think the GOP is watching and taking notes?
Irwin: I really hope so. The major cuts they made to K-12 schools and higher ed hurt Republicans all over the state and that's the main reason why we made big gains. It's not just in Ann Arbor that people understand the value of public education. It's really statewide.
AnnArbor.com: Do you expect yourself or any of the other Democrats from Washtenaw County to land in any key leadership positions or committees at the start of the next session?
Irwin: We had a leadership vote and the Democratic leader is Tim Greimel from Auburn Hills and Pontiac, and the floor leader is Rudy Hobbs from Southfield, so those are the two main leadership positions. Everything else, as far as who are going to be the ranking members on various committees and those types of issues, is going to be settled later. I think we've got a couple of real rising stars in both Adam Zemke and Gretchen Driskell, and I think Rep. Rutledge and I are going to be right there at the table when we're talking about what kind of issues we're going to focus on.
AnnArbor.com: Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer issued a call right after the election for a number of election reforms, including establishing early voting and no-reason absentee voting in Michigan, eliminating the position of Secretary of State as a partisan elected official, and exploring options for online and mobile voting. Are those ideas you're supporting?
Irwin: I do think it's the right time to be discussing election reform, and I do think Michigan needs to take steps to make voting as easy as possible. One of the reforms the senator was suggesting is no-reason absentee voting. That was one of the first bills I introduced and it's something the League of Women Voters is very supportive of and it has a lot of bipartisan support, so I certainly support that one. In fact, I've been trying to encourage my Republican colleagues to move that legislation forward.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
Irwin: Usually the argument that gets laid out there against no-reason absentee voting is that it's somehow going to increase fraud. And that's just a terrible argument, because we already have a situation where you can vote absentee if you check a little box saying, 'I intend to be absent on the day of the election.' And anyone who's willing to engage in voter fraud is certainly going to be willing to check that little box.
The only folks who are unwilling to check that little box when they want to vote absentee are the folks who are very, very honest, and those are the ones we need to make an allowance for.
So an idea like early voting to try to reduce lines and give people more opportunities to vote, it's a good idea. And the idea of trying to make sure we have more voting machines for high-turnout elections so we don't have lines that stretch for hours, that's a good idea. And I can't imagine how anyone could oppose that kind of good idea, but I suspect as usual we're going to have a struggle getting these issues heard because there's a partisan advantage for Republicans in suppressing the number of votes. More voters is good for Democrats and less voters is good for Republicans.
AnnArbor.com: Aren't the Democrats shooting themselves in the foot to link some of these election reforms to very partisan attacks on Republicans, though?
Irwin: This has unfortunately become a partisan issue over the years. And the Republicans have not only opposed efforts to make voting easier and to reduce lines at polls, but they've actually introduced legislation to try to make voting harder and to try to make lines longer at the polls.
AnnArbor.com: I hear you saying 'I hope the Republicans see our way and compromise a little.' Is it also possible they'll say, 'Hey, we've got two more years where we control every corner of Michigan's government. Let's take advantage of this and push our agenda while we still can'?
Irwin: It's certainly possible and that's going to be a decision they're going to have to make. There's been a lot of talk about whether the Republicans are going to rush to eliminate no-fault insurance coverage or enact right-to-work laws or make some other decisions that are very partisan in the early moments of the next session or even during lame duck. I can't say that I know that they won't.
I can only say that I've communicated with my Republican colleagues about how now the election is over and we know what we're looking at going forward, and we as Democrats are ready to work with them and try to find some solutions we agree on and can move forward together on. At this point, I'm still hopeful the Republicans will choose that path, because the repudiation that they met at the polls is certainly a strong incentive for them to start thinking about how they can be less partisan and less extreme in their views and more willing to find common ground.