Steven Kwasny, a 28-year-old Eastern Michigan University student, has announced he will run for Michigan’s 53rd District’s House seat, which includes parts of Ann Arbor.
Kwasny’s platform focuses mainly on campaign finance reform — including a refusal to accept donations or endorsements of any kind. He is running against Washtenaw County Commissioner Yousef Rabhi, who announced his campaign last September. The current holder of the seat, state Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor), cannot run again due to term limits.
Because of his refusal to accept donations, Kwasny said in an interview he plans to run a low-cost campaign, relying largely on volunteers and social media to spread his message. He said his staff all know they are working on a volunteer basis, but they believe in his message and value that over a paid salary.
Emphasizing his belief that money in politics is the root cause of many issues in government, he said he hopes his campaign will help change the system.
“I feel a lot of our common ground issues are being neglected,” he said. “And I believe the root cause is campaign contributions. It is prohibiting the kind of good from the very beginning. I want to do my part to advocate and shed some light on this, so we can have a freer thinking legislature.”
LSA sophomore Nick Kolenda, president of Students for Sanders, said he was happy to hear about Kwasny’s campaign and will support any candidate who aims to dampen the influence of money in politics. U.S. Sen Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) has made reducing the impact of money in politics a cornerstone of his campaign.
“We are delighted to hear that he is running,” Kolenda said. “We hope that we can help in the future and work with his campaign. Whether or not Sanders gets the nomination we are very determined to continue supporting candidates around the state, locally and around the country who wish to get money out of politics.”
Kwansy also noted that another central part of his campaign is his pledge to run paper-free, meaning he will not make use of any form of traditional campaign materials like pamphlets or yard signs.
“I feel like paper communication is obsolete,” he said. “I feel like whenever a canvasser comes to advocate for a candidate, that piece of paper finds its way in the trash. I feel a lot of those resources just aren’t necessary.”
In response to Kwasny’s announcement, Rabhi said his focus is on the people he is running to represent, adding that the funds he has raised come from a variety of small donors. Currently, Rabhi has raised several thousand dollars in donations and has garnered the endorsements of multiple local politicians, including Irwin.
“I’ve always focused my campaigns on being people-powered and people-centered,” he said. “When it comes to everything from contributions to endorsements to volunteers to anyone who’s supporting my campaign includes a broad coalition of people. I believe the broadest coalition possible is the best coalition of people.”
Rabhi compared his efforts to those of Sanders, who has raised a total of $139.8 million almost entirely from individual donors according to The New York Times.
He also noted that as a student, Kwasny has considerably less experience working in government — Rabhi has served as county commissioner since January 2011.
“I think it’s crucial to have experience representing the people,” he said. “It is a certain skillset that you have to learn. Being in elected office, as someone who’s currently representing people, I think that gives me experience in working with people moving forward, and frankly, I know how the system works. I know its flaws. I know its strengths.”
Kwasny said he recognizes his lack of experience and potential criticisms that could stem from it, but added that no one running for the position has any real experience in the state legislature, so there is not much basis for comparison.
“In reality of it, it’s a completely separate entity of government,” he said. “No one has experience in the state legislature. If they want to criticize me there, that’s their choice to make. It’s not like I don’t pay attention on the county level. I understand what the issues are and the processes and procedures. It’s really a trifle different.”
Both candidates said they plan to make campus issues a part of their campaign, given that the University of Michigan is in the district.
“There’s more students in the district than there are actual residents,” Kwansy said. “Obviously, (higher education) funding is a priority. Another priority I have — outside of funding — is how sexual assault cases are handled. I feel the University is doing a good job handling a tough situation, but there could be a few tweaks made.”
Rabhi said in terms of higher education issues, he plans to fight to increase college affordability.
“Education is one of the central components of my platform,” he said. “We have an affordability crisis, and we need to do everything we can to make college more affordable for everyone. Funding in general for public universities has been on the chopping block for years and it’s unacceptable.”