Dems gear up for state rep primary

BY ANDREW GROSSMAN

Published March 30, 2006

When it comes to the issues, the differences between the two candidates in August's Democratic primary for state representative from Ann Arbor's 53rd District are few.

City Council member Leigh Greden (D-Ward 3) and abortion-rights activist Rebekah Warren are on the same side of most of today's divisive debates.

Both oppose the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, which aims to outlaw some affirmative action programs in Michigan. Both support abortion rights. And both support more education funding.

But Greden and Warren differ greatly when it comes to political style and their sources of support.

Their race hints at an increasingly common national division within the Democratic Party pitting the party's establishment, like Greden, against progressive upstarts, like Warren.

Greden is a lifelong Ann Arbor resident and a firm member of the city's Democratic establishment. He is serving his second term on City Council, which is composed entirely of Democrats, and has earned the endorsements of Mayor John Hieftje and six of his 10 colleagues on the Council.

Warren first came to Ann Arbor as a student 15 years ago and has remained ever since. She has strong ties to the activist community and is especially popular among advocates of abortion rights. She currently serves as executive director of Pro-Choice Michigan.

Greden and Warren compete for the seat Rep. Chris Kolb (D-Ann Arbor) has held for the last six years. Term limits prevent him from running again. Because the 53rd district, which includes downtown Ann Arbor and Central Campus, is predominantly Democratic, the winner of the primary will be heavily favored in November's election.

The primary will likely be decided by whichever group - the activists or the establishment - has greater numbers and produces greater turnout.

Perhaps it's telling that Greden names former President Bill Clinton - known for his centrism - as his political role model, even though he positions himself to Clinton's left. Clinton is the father of the so-called "New Democrats," a centrist faction of the Democratic Party that has become the party's most powerful force.

Warren seems to have forged strong ties with the party's progressive wing that made its mark during the Democratic presidential primaries for the 2004 election season with

the surprisingly strong showing of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. The Washtenaw County chapter of the Dean campaign's offshoot, Democracy for America, has endorsed Warren.

Like Dean, Warren has drawn heavily on student activists and other young people, courting students with a new campus group, Students for Warren - the product of a Facebook.com group of the same name.

She's earned the endorsements of Students for Choice, an abortion-rights group, and the Stonewall Democrats, an arm of the College Democrats that advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues.

Warren's campaign is conducting an absentee ballot drive to ensure that supporters who leave Ann Arbor this summer will still vote for her in the August primary. The campaign aims to sign up 500 students to receive absentee ballots wherever they may be in August, said RC senior Claire Schreiber, an executive board member of Students for Choice, which is working to collect names and addresses for Warren.

This doesn't mean that Greden has ignored the student demographic.

After drawing the ire of many students two years ago with his support of a couch ban ordinance, which would have prevented students from having couches on porches, Greden has reached out to them.

He now calls the handling of the couch ban his biggest mistake during his tenure on the council and holds a seat on the Council's new Student Relations Committee. He worked closely with the Michigan Student Assembly to pass an ordinance delaying the signing of new leases on a property until 90 days into the previous lease period over the objections of many local landlords.

Greden also plans to conduct an absentee ballot campaign. His campaign will send likely primary voters that will include an absentee ballot application.

Will student support make a difference?

Most students will be out of town during the primary, and neither campaign seems to be experiencing a groundswell of student support.

Still, if the Warren campaign can garner even half of the 500 student votes it hopes to pick up from its absentee ballot drive, it might.

Past Democratic state representative primaries in Ann Arbor have seen relatively low turnout - usually somewhere around 5,000. In a close election with so few voters, 250 votes could be crucial.

Ann Arbor political observers are split over which faction will prevail.

Dale Winling, a Rackham student and founder of the New West Side Association, a group borne out of the Ann Arbor blogging community to represent the concerns of renters and students, said Greden's establishment credentials will give him an edge.

"Greden's got more name recognition," he said. "Greden's got strong ties in the city."

Washtenaw County Clerk and Register of Deeds Lawrence Kestenbaum disagreed.

"In the primary, it's primarily activists, it's primarily people who are plugged in," he said. "Name I.D. is great in a general election - in a primary it doesn't matter."

He speculated the makeup of the primary electorate will lead to a Warren victory.

Of course, elections depend on a lot more than who's ahead long before any votes are cast - something to which Howard Dean can attest.

Dems primary

Leigh Greden

City Council member, attorney

Education: Albion College (bachelor's degree), Case Western Reserve University (law degree)

Endorsements: Mayor John Hieftje, 6 of 10 City Council members

Top priority: Increase state education funding

Rebekah Warren

Executive director of Michigan Abortion Rights Action League

Education: University of Michigan (bachelor's degree)

Endorsements: Former State Rep. Mary Schoer (D-Ann Arbor), City Council member Wendy Woods

Top priority: Abortion rights