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CANDIDATE FORUM: The Democratic State Senate Primary Race Between Garnet Lewis & Stacy Erwin Oakes

Posted In:Politics, State, Local, Candidates, Interviews | From Issue 792 | By: | 19th June, 2014 | 0

CANDIDATE FORUM:  The Democratic State Senate Primary Race Between  Garnet Lewis & Stacy Erwin Oakes
CANDIDATE FORUM:  The Democratic State Senate Primary Race Between  Garnet Lewis & Stacy Erwin Oakes

Of all the key primary races in the August 5th election one of the most important contests is happening in the 32nd State Senate race that pits Democratic candidates Garnet Lewis against incumbent State Representative Stacy Erwin Oakes, whom is abandoning her seat to further advance her career in the legislature.  The winner will take on Republican Ken Horn in the November general election.

The Review had hoped to present a Candidate Forum between Garnet & Oakes so that readers & voters could gauge the differences between the candidates in a detailed and in-depth forum, however after numerous e-mails and phone calls, Oakes failed to respond – apparently making the determination that it was of little importance or benefit to open herself to transparent scrutiny, nor address the issues that in turn creates a fully informed and intelligent electorate.

Because she opted not to take part in this forum, allow me to offer a brief synopsis of her tenure as State Representative of the 95th district, which she won back in 2010 despite allegations of not meeting legal residency requirements. Oakes listed her residency as 3309 Carter near Saginaw High, but records also showed Oakes and her husband owned property in Lansing, where she worked as an Assistant Attorney General.

When the Review first investigated these allegations back in 2010, Ken Silfven, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of State, told us: “Residency, or alleged lack of residency, is a frequent complaint that we hear about. If someone is registered to vote within the district, there is no law that says you must spend a certain amount of time at your stated residence.”

Four years ago when she first ran office we didn’t know much about Oakes and she wasn’t talking back then, either. So the Review did a little investigating:  We know that she was a schoolteacher for a time, and so a member of the Michigan Education Association. She became a lawyer working as an assistant attorney general in Lansing, hired by Gov. Jennifer Granholm 12 years ago. 

She seems largely self-funded, but according to her campaign finance records obtained from the state during the last campaign, she keeps some company worth exploring. A major early donor to her campaign was the WOODROW STANLEY LEADERSHIP PAC. Woodrow Stanley served in the Michigan legislature, but not long ago he was mayor of Flint.  In 2002, Flint voters recalled Mayor Stanley as he ran the city’s finances into the ground.

CURTIS & WILMA MCZEE also donated to the Erwin Oakes campaign. “Wilma” McZee is actually none other than Wilmer Ham, disgraced former mayor of the city of Saginaw. She retired from politics when convicted of insurance fraud relating to an arson scheme in 2007. 

Former city councilman WILLIE HAYNES also donated to the campaign. He also retired from politics in 2007 when he pleaded guilty in federal court after being caught with his hand in the UAW cookie jar.

Finally ALFREDIA HOLIDAY donated to the Erwin Oakes campaign. He was drummed out of the Saginaw Housing Commission’s (Commission) Public Housing Operating Fund program amid unproven allegations of misconduct, only to be reinstated by Joyce Seals in 1998. He served a sentence of house arrest in lieu of jail after pleading no contest to a charge of assaulting his wife in their home. The allegation was that he doused his spouse with gasoline and tried to set her on fire.

A person is judged by the company they keep. This is axiomatic in politics. Why Oakes accepted donations from these people is a mystery. If this is the crowd with whom she associates, then voters will need to reflect on whether she has the good judgment to represent us in Lansing as a State Senator.

In terms of her legislative record in Lansing, the docket is relatively sparse. She advanced House Bill 4186 out of the Michigan House Criminal Justice Committee, which expanded the opportunity to expunge a criminal record, making the record non-public, but still available to judges and law enforcement authorities. She also protested the hiring of out-of-state laborers at the Bancroft/Eddy renovation and joined a group of other female legislators to read The Vagina Monologues on the Capitol steps in protest to Republican moves to restrict abortion in Michigan.

As for Garnet Lewis, whom did respond to this Forum – we hope you find this following exchange enlightening, illuminating, and informative.

Review: Please discuss your background in terms of education, experience, and qualifications in terms of how you feel it will strengthen your ability to effectively serve as our next State Senator?

Lewis:  I was born in England and raised in Germany, which is where I graduated High School. My father retired from the Air Force in late 1978, so growing up in Europe had a significant influence on my life because I’ve experienced firsthand a European educational system, medical, and benefit system and been able to contrast the way we provide educational & medical services in this country. 

My mother was adamant and said, ‘Lewis – there is no better education than an American education and if I got my degree in the USA I could go anywhere to work. I came out to find she was very right about that.  I obtained my Bachelor of Science Degree in Animal Science at Truman State University in Missouri, my Master of Arts in Educational Administration at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, and my Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Higher Education Administration at the University of North Texas. 

I’ve been in the United States for over 30 years now, with 25 years in University Administration, which is one of the main reasons I am running for this office. In order to positively influence the way education is funded in this state and address the issues of quality involved with education you have to be sitting down in Lansing on the floor of the legislature.

Since leaving my former educational positions I’ve basically been an investor in the community and have several properties in Saginaw Township and Freeland and just sold one in St. Helen and own another property on Lake Isabella. I’ve been very fortunate and am a good saver. Real Estate is still one of the best investments and I believe in investing locally and supporting the local economy.

Review: What are your top three priorities and what specific policies and approaches would you take to advance key issues such as the economy, rebuilding our infrastructure, the environment, and insurance reform that would improve our region and state?

Lewis: My top priority is investing in education, which is also tied to my second priority, which is investing in small business development and expansion. Both of these are tied together because a strong educational system bolsters our economy and the two work together in a circle. A good education provides employment opportunities and enables one to work in a strong profession or start a small business. If people make good incomes they buy houses, start families, and reinvest in the economy. The two run hand-in-hand. My third top priority is re-investing in our infrastructure. We are way behind and have tried for many years to save money by not reinvesting in our roads and bridges and now we are paying the price for it. We have to find the money to deal with these issues.

How do we accomplish these goals? The key is getting down to Lansing and taking inventory of the landscape to determine whom I can partner with to make improvements in the areas mentioned. Without a full comprehension of the other players at the table, it would be shortsighted to talk policy specifics.

Candidates often say they will do this thing and take this different approach, but they have no idea or clue as to whom their colleagues will be sitting across the aisle. Regardless of party, we need to work hand-in-hand.  A good example is this: Jim Stamas out of Midland will most likely be the next State Senator from that District; and we know each other because we ran against each other six years for the State House seat; but we also have core interests that we share involving this region. I’m confident both our goals will be how we can partner together to invest in the local area.  And we also need to work closely with U.S. Representative Dan Kildee to develop policies that will the economy back to work in Michigan, whether that’s bringing funding together for blight reduction or funding for our roads.

Review: A strong argument can be made that money won’t solve the problems involved with our educational system because it doesn’t address issues of retention and competency, which is a broad problem that begins in the family with parents encouraging kids to read, write, and do arithmetic. There has been a steady erosion of competency standards, as opposed to Europe, where every child that advances to higher education actually belongs there – you can’t buy your way into a college the way you can here in the United States.

Lewis: The thing I’ve always valued with our American system and I saw this from friends in Germany is that at a young age in Europe kids are subjected to huge levels of stress regarding their academic future. Most kids have no idea what they want to do with their lives at the age of 12 or 18; and what I value about the American system is that it truly is an open system – everyone is given an opportunity, regardless of whether they are necessarily qualified.  At Northern University we consider ourselves an open university – anyone can apply – but it is up to you to prove that you can succeed. This is the key thing I fundamentally value about the American system.

The bigger issue in Michigan, and especially in this district, is declining population. The fact is we’ve lost a huge amount of residents and are trying to maintain the same number of school buildings and staff, which is fiscally impossible. A good example is the issue of Saginaw High and Arthur Hill high schools. We all have strong bonds to our schools, but at some point you have to decide is the quality of education important, or is the fact that the school is still there more important. Most people will opt for quality and what we need is high quality teachers in classrooms with a manageable size. In K-12 they are packing those kids in and that makes it harder for a teacher to manage the classroom. Teachers are in a difficult position and are trying to do the best they can with larger classes, but at some point a decision must be made that will not make everybody happy. We’ve got to shut down some of these schools and re-program the funding to address this dilemma of class size. I’m not saying we necessarily pay teachers more, but we definitely need to use the money saved from these reductions to reduce class size.

Review: What do you think of different proposals advanced that link teacher pay to student performance and recent moves in the legislature to reform teacher tenure and require annual evaluation of schools?

Lewis: What I think is fundamentally wrong is that we have people sitting in Lansing that have never been in a classroom attempting to teach trying to make policy changes on a concept of which they have no understanding. I would love to put some of these legislators in a classroom for a semester and complete all the paperwork they are now asking teachers to complete, on top of teaching students and handling a class on a daily basis.  I find it interesting they spend so much time dissecting teacher performance, yet do they as the same thing of the CEO at Dow Corning, or any other organization?  I would say if you are going to be critical about teachers, please spread that attention equally and if you intend to hold one group to a certain standard of performance then hold all groups equally accountable. In fact, it would be interesting to evaluate the folks in the legislature on the same scale.

Review: What about Charter Schools? For over 20-years now they’ve become an increasing force and focal point with increasing enrollments, so where do you see them fitting into the mix?

Lewis: For me personally I would prefer putting funding into public education, but Charter Schools are legal institutions and my experience at Northern University while sitting on the Board was that we went from 5 to 10 chartered institutions.

A good example for me is how Northern just acquired the Francis Rey Academy here in Saginaw. I went to visit there a couple weeks ago and what they are offering is quite honestly fantastic. People in public education cringe when I say this, but they started with 250 students and are now up to 480, so if those kids on the East Side of Saginaw are able to get an education that gives them an opportunity to graduate from High School, then I’m all for it.  I want to see opportunities. I wish I could do that solely through public education, but that is not happening now. People have choices now. As long as a Charter is performing and meeting its annual progress reports and having positive outcomes, I’m going to support it. I don’t want to add more charters and want to see funding go into public education; but I will encourage folks to take advantage of all opportunities available for their children. I don’t want to see kids walking the streets and sitting there at age 25 with no degree, unable to get a job.

Review: Let’s move to the issue of crumbling roads and infrastructure. Lansing just recessed without addressing this issue. Some are calling for a gas tax; others feel the burden should be placed on commercial trucks that do most of the damage to the roads. What is your take on this?

Lewis: A month or so ago Grand Rapids voted in a millage solely for their road repair, so people are willing to pull money out of their pocket to address this issue. If that’s the case perhaps the rest of the state feels the same way. Too often though, when the state gets involved, designated funding gets lost in the general fund and that’s where we go wrong. We rob one fund to pay for another and I hope we’ve gotten past that stage in this economic climate.

If we can quantify the cost of the repairs and establish a dedicated fund and process to finance it, then we need to look hard at doing that. I’m definitely not in favor of adding to the gas tax. I might be able to afford it, but can the young man working a new job at minimum wage be asked to pay as much as I do? Those that can least afford it get hit the hardest and most minimum wage workers need to drive further to their jobs, so raising the minimum wage but then adding a higher raise to the gas tax is not the answer.

If folks are willing support paying a millage for road repair then I thing that would be a good way to go, but we also need to find a way to spread the burden evenly – whether it’s a small increase at the tanks combined with additional fees for trucks and vehicles that cause damage in the first place. Rather than ask one constituency to cover the cost I would ask everybody to chip in. I think that’s possible and don’t know why it hasn’t happened already – most likely lobbying groups are to blame.

Review: The fresh water of the Great Lakes is one of our most valuable resources, but for several years now the State of Michigan has been selling mineral rights for hydraulic fracking for natural gas that has been linked to massive groundwater contamination in states ranging from Colorado to Kentucky. Are you in favor of legislation that would ban this practice, or impose a moratorium on it such as states like New York and Pennsylvania have recently done?

Lewis: I’m not a fan of fracking. That being said, a friend of mine works at Dow Corning and told me they’ve been under tight regulations for years that are higher than other states, which has caused me to step and back and question what are we doing different here than in Oklahoma, where fracking has been linked to earthquake tremors. Obviously, something we put into placed here years ago is preventing what is happening in other states; but I would also rather be safe than sorry, so a moratorium would be a good policy to pursue so that we can study what we’re doing here that seems to be working.

I have many friends in the Sierra Club and Conservation League and if we want to move to other forms of energy we have to be willing to entertain other alternatives. If we’re moving from coal to wind and solar and natural gas, we just don’t say “no”, but need to examine what the other options are. If we move to renewable and self-sustainable energy, we have to also be a little more pragmatic in terms of how we transition to these sources.

Review: What can be done to improve job creation in Michigan? Tax breaks have been tried, but that’s not a defining factor, as most corporations say a more important concern for them is what types of infrastructure are in place and what type of environment exists for a high quality of living for people and workers that move into the state.  Also, the Financial Crisis of 2008 resulted in taxpayer funded bailouts for Bank of America, Citicorp, and Goldman Sachs, which represented the greatest transfer of wealth in our nation’s history – a perverse type of reverse-socialism that caused irreparable harm to the foundation of America. Would you be in a favor of a .01 percent tax on all trades of stocks, bonds and derivatives that would generate enough revenue to pay for the bailouts and reduce government deficits?

Lewis: I see this in chunks & pieces and think it’s always remiss to generalize when it comes to business. Where I see the best potential for economic development and jobs is literally with Mom and Pop shops and the David Strouse’s and Paul Barerra’s and people truly committed to the community that are literally putting it all out there and sacrificing their income to invest in this community.  When it comes to incentives and Ren Zones, I want to see the money going to help local folks investing locally because they are going to stay here. I know that I am. I’m not going anywhere; so the key is to help those committed to the area expand what they are able to do.

I think the best way to bolster the economy is to aid small business. Big corporations – I’m sorry – but if they come here and have a commitment to stay here, the question becomes how long does it take to recoup what is invested? Show me the benefit not only to the corporation but also to the community. If the intention is to stick here for five years and pick up stakes and move, that’s not going to work for me. My practical experience at investing has taught me to look at the long-term picture, which doesn’t always happen in Lansing. Everybody wants a quick fix. I’m critical of my friends in the GOP on this issue, because they often speak out of both sides of their mouth. They’re out there trying to find the next Dow Corning to help, but not doing enough for small Mom & Pop businesses.

Review: What about the abortion issue? Michigan is making a big reputation nationally with their moves to restrict freedom of choice on this issue.

Lewis: I am fundamentally pro-choice because the issue of abortion is between a woman and her doctor and the government has no business sticking their noses in private lives. I’ve knocked on a few doors and hear people say how they vote based solely on this one issue, which I find truly amazing. But don’t tell me as a woman what to do with my body, or make the assumption that I’m using this as my only form of birth control. I’m smarter than that. The entire gestalt around this assumes women in the population are still the same women that existed back in the 1950s that couldn’t possibly make up their mind in an astute way, which I find offensive. If you don’t agree with abortion then don’t get one; but don’t assume everyone getting one is doing it because they want to.  Of all the issues out there, this is the most distracting one.

Review: Finally, how would you best distinguish your candidacy from that of your opponent in this primary, Stacy Erwin Oakes?

Lewis:  The biggest difference is that I’m not a career politician. That’s what is wrong with Lansing. There are too many elected officials interested only in advancing their own career. I’m 52 years old and this is it for me. I want to go to Lansing with a clear conscience that I can do something for every constituent as opposed to a select group. I’m tired of us electing people that tell us what we want to hear and then don’t do a thing about it, or don’t have the courage to stand up for things that need to be addressed because they are more concerned about losing the next election.  I’m not a career politician. That is the biggest difference, apart from the fact I’ve been a resident here for 14 years and have paid all my taxes here and spent all my money here.

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