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Often overshadowed, hotly contested state legislature races have consequences for students

BY LINDY STEVENS
Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 28, 2008

Young voters could exert their influence on more than the presidential race this Tuesday. In Macomb, Oakland, Jackson and Wayne counties, which many University students call home, Tuesday's ballot contains highly contested races for the state House of Representatives.

All 110 seats in the Michigan House of Representatives are up for grabs on Nov. 4, and while often overshadowed by national campaigns, the outcomes of state House races often have more influence on students’ everyday lives than they realize.

"A lot of students are very excited about the presidential race, but when it comes to issues that impact students and their pocketbooks, legislative races are probably more important," said John Bebow, executive director of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-tank. "The actions of the legislature help determine things like tuition rates, program offerings at universities and economic policies that help determine the job market when students graduate from college."

Down from $363 million in 2002, the University received $326 million from the state this year — a decision approved by the state House in June. Before the 5.6 percent tuition hike approved by the Board of Regents earlier this year, University administrators cited declines in state funding as a reason for the increase.

And with spending beginning to outpace revenue and the state in an economic downturn, Bebow said the future decisions of state legislators will be some of the most important in recent history.

"For all residents of the state right now, the student vote is more important than ever," Bebow said. "We need CEO-quality legislators to navigate some of the tough times we face in the state, and it will help immensely in getting those quality legislators if we have as many challenging questions posed as possible."

Heading into Election Day, with a six-seat advantage, Democrats hold 58 seats to the Republicans 52 in the House. And some of the tightest local races in the state are in six districts, where many students will travel home to vote.

Representatives Edward Gaffney (R–Grosse Pointe Farms), Jack Brandenburg (R–Harrison Twp.) and Aldo Vagnozzi (D–Farmington/Farmington Hills) have all served the maximum six years. Without an incumbent candidate, the open seats have become some of the most highly contested in the state.

In Michigan's 1st District, one that has not seen a Democratic representative since 1992, Gaffney's absence has sparked a race between accountant Mary Treder Lang, a Republican, and Timothy Bledsoe, a Democrat and political science professor at Wayne State University. The two candidates are competing for the chance to represent the Grosse Pointe Farms area of Wayne County. Republican Andrew Richner, a member of the University of Michigan Board of Regents, held the seat before Gaffney, from 1998 to 2002.

Bryan Brandenburg, Republican Jack Brandenburg's son, is running against Democratic Macomb County Commissioner Sarah Roberts for control of his father's 24th District seat. The seat, which represents the St. Claire Shores and Harrison Township areas of Macomb County, had been a Democratic stronghold until Brandenburg won the first of his three consecutive terms in 2002.

In the 37th District, which covers the Farmington and Farmington Hills area, Aldo Vagnozzi could see his term-limited seat go to Republican Paul Welday, a former chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Joe Knollenberg on Tuesday. Welday is running against Democrat Vicki Barnett, a former Farmington Hills mayor. Prior to Vagnozzi, Republicans controlled the seat from 1992 to 2002.

In Michigan's 20th, 39th and 65th districts, upsets and narrow victories defined the House races of 2006. With a group of first-year incumbent candidates now up for re-election, this year's races appear to be just as competitive.

Out of 39,191 votes cast, Democrat Marc Corriveau ousted Republican incumbent Mark Abbo by 911 votes during his first run in Michigan's 20th District in 2006.

Seeking re-election in the Northville and Plymouth Township areas this year, Corriveau is running against Republican Jerry Vorva, who previously served one term in the seat from 1992 to 1994. Prior to Corriveau's upset, the district had been held by Republicans since 1992.

Edging out a 181-vote victory over Democrat Lisa Brown in 2006, Republican David Law won't seek re-election in the 39th District this term. Law is foregoing his chance to run as an incumbent for a seat that represents West Bloomfield Township area, to run for Oakland County prosecutor in a different election. In her second campaign for the House seat, Brown, a real estate agent and mother of three will face Republican opponent Amy Peterman. Republicans representatives have held the seat for the past 16 years.

In the 65th District, Democratic incumbent Mike Simpson broke a 14-year GOP stronghold when he beat Republican incumbent Leslie Mortimer by 1,600 votes in 2006. Mortimer and Simpson squared off in an equally-competitive race in 2004, when Mortimer claimed her victory by just 1,099 votes. This year, Simpson is running against Blackman Township Supervisor Ray Snell in a district that includes large portions of Jackson County.

Though the campaigns of these candidates haven't received the same level of attention or funding, Bebow said he's seen a higher level of student awareness compared to earlier elections.

"Students want to know what the future holds when they get out of school, they want to know what the job options are, they want to know why things are the way they are," Bebow said. "And we're hearing tough questions from students that maybe we wouldn't have heard in the boom times of the late 1990s."