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Posted on Sat, Oct 20, 2012 : 5:58 a.m.

Irwin vs. Spisak: Education a key issue for candidates in 53rd District race for state House

By Ryan J. Stanton

State Rep. Jeff Irwin spends much of his time on the campaign trail talking about education funding and decrying cuts Republicans have made to Michigan's public schools and universities.

"It's been incredibly frustrating to see $1.5 billion raided from our school aid fund — taxes that we paid that are supposed to go to schools taken away from our schools, driving class sizes up," he said.

Republican John Spisak, a stay-at-home dad and soccer referee, is challenging Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, for his 53rd District seat in the state House in the Nov. 6 election.

Spisak agreed making sure Michigan students can receive a quality public education is a top priority, and he said it's especially important to him since he plans on becoming a teacher.


State Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, is defending his seat against Republican challenger John Spisak in the Nov. 6 election.

Ryan J. Stanton |

He holds a bachelor's degree in finance from Eastern Michigan University and is working on a master's degree in education at the University of Michigan.

While Irwin wants to increase funding for education, Spisak said he isn't so sure simply throwing more money at schools is going to solve the underlying problems.

"He's looking to increase the funding, whereas I'm saying let's make sure we're funding it in the correct way," Spisak said. "I'm talking the whole system needs to be shaken up, and we need to do this in a way that makes more sense."

Spisak, who is student teaching right now, said he's witnessed the demands being placed on teachers as budgets have been cut back and class sizes grow larger. He said the state should be more cautious about future cuts and not simply look at it as a balance sheet to fix.

"How can we fix the problem without damaging the product?" he said. "Right now I don't think we're doing a good job of fixing the problem without damaging the product."

As a Republican on Democratic turf, Spisak knows the odds are against him on election day. Irwin defeated the last Republican who ran against him, Chase Ingersoll, by a 4-to-1 margin in 2010.

Spisak, a 47-year-old Virginia native who moved to Ann Arbor in 1989, is asking voters to overlook the "R" next to his name and look at his views instead.


John Spisak, a stay-at-home dad and soccer referee, is asking voters to overlook the R next to his name and look at his views instead.

Courtesy photo

He points to his wife of 20 years, Linda, as Exhibit A when making the case that he's open-minded. A third-generation Ann Arborite, she's a Democrat and a school social worker.

"Am I going in with the expectation that I'm the underdog and I'm going to pull this off? No," Spisak said of his chances of winning. "But I would like to do better than the expectation."

Irwin, a 35-year-old native of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, said it's been an honor to represent Ann Arbor in the Michigan House for the past two years.

Confident he'll beat Spisak, Irwin has been spending his time this election season trying to help other Democrats get elected, including Saline Mayor Gretchen Driskell, who is running against state Rep. Mark Ouimet, R-Scio Township.

As a member of the minority in the House, Irwin has had little luck working with the Republicans. He said he's working hard to elect Democrats across the state so they can help Republican Gov. Rick Snyder govern as more of a moderate.

"Gov. Snyder has really been dragged to the right by his party and by hard-line right-wingers in the Legislature who have slashed funding for schools, who have attacked a woman's right to choose, who have weakened environmental protections and who have shifted the burden of taxes from businesses and the wealthiest people in our state to low-income workers and seniors," Irwin said.

Spisak said he is hesitant to grade the work Snyder and the GOP have done to balance the state's budget and push through major tax reforms.

"There's good and bad in everything they've done," he said. "I think there's a lot of positive and some things I don't agree with. On a pass/fail, they're passing."

Irwin originally came to Ann Arbor in 1995 to study political science at U-M. While still a student, he ran for the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners and won. He served for more than a decade, including a stint as chairman, before running for the state House in 2010.

He previously worked as director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and as a legislative aide to former state Sen. Alma Wheeler Smith.

"There are so many things we can do to improve the way government works for people and that's why I came to U of M to study political science and to study American government," Irwin said. "I have a passion for public service. I have a passion for getting our government right."


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Spisak is making his first-ever run for public office and said it definitely has been a learning experience. He said he's enjoyed getting to know a lot of people, including Irwin.

"He and I met. We hit it off. I think he's a nice guy," Spisak said of his opponent.

Irwin said he continues to focus on the three E's: education funding, environmental protection and equal rights.

"Our environment in Michigan, particularly our Great Lakes, is a unique resource that brings economic prosperity and recreational enjoyment to our citizens," he said.

"We need to solve the problem of how do we power our lives and the way that we want to live our lifestyles without poisoning the planet, without hurting our neighbors and without bankrupting ourselves in the process. We have huge opportunities in Michigan with wind and solar."

Asked where the environment fits into his agenda, Spisak said: "It doesn't make sense for us to go out and trash where we live." At the same time, he said, it's important to strike a balance and make sure growth of communities and businesses isn't hindered by overdoing regulations.

Irwin, who is pro-choice, fought the passage of House Bill 5711, the controversial anti-abortion bill that Republicans passed through the state House back in June.

"The Republicans made it very, very clear that the point of these bills is to drive health clinics out of business," he said. "If there's a health clinic that performs abortion services in Michigan, they want to drive it out of business with additional regulations, with additional requirements for training and facility size. They even want to measure the size of the closets in these surgical facilities."

Irwin said that would create more unsafe conditions for women. He said state officials need to look at how they can work across party lines to reduce unwanted pregnancies, and that's why he has introduced legislation for comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education.

Spisak doesn't label himself pro-life or pro-choice.

"Either you're for abortion or against abortion," he said. "For me, personally, I'm against abortion. That being said, how can I tell a woman what to do with her body? When it comes to abortion, it's your body, you can do with it what you want to do with it."


The 53rd District includes most of Ann Arbor, though the lines were redrawn to exclude some of the northernmost portions of the city in the most recent redistricting process.

Irwin also fought the passage of the the state's new ban on domestic partner benefits for public employees.

"Michigan will be the best state it can be when we provide equal rights to all of our citizens regardless of where they come from," he said. "We need to open our arms to the world."

Spisak said he believes all people are equal, but he doesn't believe gay people should have the right to get married. That said, he doesn't see a problem with domestic partner benefits.

He points out his mother is a lesbian and has been in a relationship with the same partner for 27 years.

"I believe they should have the same benefits financially, but marriage is a religious institution to me," he said. "I believe marriage is an institution between a man and a woman."

Spisak said he's interested in getting "wild spending" under control. But asked where he'd cut the state's budget, he doesn't have any quick answers.

"I would have to really take a hard look at everything that's going on in the state," he said. "That comes back to what are our priorities in the state. I think we will have more money later, so let's not cut in places where it's going to hurt our long-term progress."

Irwin thinks the state could realize more savings in corrections. Even with a notable reduction in prison population, he said, Michigan still is spending nearly $2 billion per year on corrections.

Irwin said he's hoping there'll be a new state House come January that will be interested in restoring funding for education.

"We have some opportunities really to work across the aisle on improving funding for early childhood education, and also for our universities and our community colleges," he said. "That's a real opportunity we have in the next couple years to turn that around."

Irwin opposed legislation allowing for more charter schools and cyber schools in Michigan, fearing they'll take students and dollars away from traditional public schools.

"We've also created a best practice for school districts to privatize their custodians, their transportation workers, their clerical — everything except administration," he said, questioning the value in that.

Asked his opinion on expanding charters and cyber schools, Spisak said: "All they're doing is moving money from one place to another place."

Spisak said all three of his children are in traditional public schools in Ann Arbor. He said privatization works in some cases and charter schools can be the answer in some cases.

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's email newsletters.



Wed, Oct 24, 2012 : 12:52 p.m.

Let's see....a stay at home soccer dad who doesn't know which position on abortion he has. Versus a skilled incumbent. Such a tough decision!


Sat, Oct 20, 2012 : 7:13 p.m.

I have attended one of Jeff Irwin's monthly Saturday morning open forums for constituents at Cafe Royale on South Main Street. He listens well, is respectful of differing opinions and answers questions clearly. He appears knowledgeable about state issues and their effects on Ann Arbor citizens. Jeff Irwin supports women's rights unequivocally and is an advocate for improving education and providing funding where needed. He favors a Regional Transportation Authority and is for protecting Michigan's water supply. While not a spending hawk Jeff Irwin will not support wasteful spending nor reckless cutting of the state's budget when reduced funding will hurt municipal and school operations. On the other hand John Spisak has not stated that he would have voted against the anti-abortion bill HR 5711 as Jeff Irwin did. Spisak claims that state government is guilty of "wild spending" but did not identify the sources of waste nor did he specify what budget cuts he would recommend. Jeff Irwin has spoken forcefully for the Democratic majority in the 53rd District even though an entirely Republican state government would not listen to its Democratic members. Hopefully the upcoming election will produce a Democratic legislature with which Governor Snyder will compromise so that Michigan's economy and job opportunities will improve for everyone. In such an environment Jeff Irwin should function very well on behalf of all of us.

Ed Kimball

Sat, Oct 20, 2012 : 2:56 p.m.

No, John Spisak, you are not either "for abortion or against abortion". Very few people are "for" abortion. But many of us, especially those of us who remember what life was like before Roe v. Wade, are for leaving the choice up to the affected woman and her health care provider.

Dog Guy

Sat, Oct 20, 2012 : 3:08 p.m.

And don't forget the affected woman's parents and the guy who impregnated her and other interested parties who bring their interests to bear on her choice.

Dog Guy

Sat, Oct 20, 2012 : 2:45 p.m.

Irwin, a lifelong professional politician, has dedicated his time in Lansing to campaigning as the token progressive prophet decrying what's going on there. The Yooper seems to be Ann Arbor sympatico and might have some progressive influence among the R's. Two years of photo ops and no representation is enough. Spisak has my vote.

Chase Ingersoll

Sat, Oct 20, 2012 : 12:39 p.m.

.....yawn...... I don't what is more boring, the incumbent, the challenger or the same old platitudes that every two years are made to 60 percent of the the voters in this district who vote the same way they have for the last 30 years.....a straight "D" ballot. Sorry, Ryan but you just don't have a lot to work with this election cycle !-( Two bits of interesting information from two years ago. 1) even a week before the election, Jeff Irwin was claiming that "D" was going to take the house and the Senate. He was willing to concede on Snyder. 2) looking at the precinct numbers after the election, I was particularly offended that Rob Steele who I thought was a great candidate and who ran a fully financed campaign received the same percentage of support as I had in most Ann Arbor precincts - 20%. Conclusions: I spent zero $ and received a number of complimentary dinners at some of the nicest establishments in Ann Arbor = a very savvy candidate. Voters in Ann Arbor precincts can afford to be wrong. Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, cannot. Chase Ingersoll