Around 100 local residents gathered outside the Ann Arbor Distilling Company Thursday night to help show support, fundraise and organize for state Rep. Yousef Rabhi (D–Ann Arbor), as he campaigns for re-election in the 2018 election.
In an interview, Rabhi said after the 2016 election, people became more interested in politics.
“In the last election, we saw a lot of people that, after the election, got really involved in politics — really wanted to try and fight back against some of the things that were happening,” he said. “Really, what we’re trying to do here is say, ‘People are active, they want to help, they want to try and change the direction that the government is going in. How can they do that?’ ”
Rabhi said the event served as an opportunity to build the foundation for him and other Democrats to win Michigan House of Representatives seats in 2018.
“This is about building momentum for us to take back the House in 2018,” he said. “This is about raising money, this is about getting volunteers to sign up and this is about making sure we have sort of the base, the infrastructure, in place to make sure that we can do that.”
Rabhi said the event would help to prepare his campaign for 2018, but he was also interested in learning how to better connect with voters and encourage a broader turnout.
“What I wanted to try and do with this was sort of look beyond myself and look at how I could — as one of the Ann Arbor representatives — really serve this broader purpose of, ‘how do we turnout voters throughout the state? How do we engage new voters throughout the state?’ ” he said. “The work I do — I’m one of 110 representatives — and I don’t operate in a vacuum, and so I want to make sure that good people get elected across our state, and that’s what this is all about.”
During the event, Rabhi addressed attendees. He reflected on his time as a state representative in the last six months, saying it has been amazing experience. He said it has been opportunity to see how the state government works — and doesn’t work.
“It’s been an opportunity to see how difficult it is to work in the context of Republican-dominated control of everything — the House, the Senate, the governor’s office,” he said. “It’s been difficult to see so many times, good ideas — common-sense ideas from the state of Michigan — getting shot down, not because necessarily other people on the other side of the aisle think they’re bad ideas, but because they are so partisan, so hyper-partisan, that they don’t want any Democrats to get a victory. They would rather a good idea go to waste than to see a Democrat walk away with a bill.”
He said the Republican Speaker of the Michigan House routinely shuts people down and has control over the process: what bills come to a vote and what legislators get to see before they do — something Rabhi said is noticeable by way of poor gun legislation and massive income tax breaks, for example. Rabhi said elections are a way to change this issue.
He said in the 2016 election, Democrats were struck down, but not for lack of trying.
“This time, we’re starting earlier,” he said. “This time we have more of us involved, this time we have the momentum behind us and we’re feeling really good. Also, what we have this year is we have an opportunity to change the governor’s seat, we have an opportunity to change the Senate, we have an opportunity to change the House — all three chambers, all three branches of state government are up for a vote of the people in 2018.”
Rabhi said though a lot of successful campaigns are backed with generous donations and funding, money alone won’t win the election.
“We also have to get out there on the doors and make sure that we are knocking, to make sure that progressive candidates around Michigan can either return to the legislature or get elected and flip red seats to blue,” he said.
Rabhi encouraged attendees to sign up to knock on doors in support of state Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D–Brownstown Township) at an event on August 26. Rabhi explained the 53rd District, which he represents, is usually safe; it has a 75 to 80 percent Democratic voting base. However, he noted between August and November 2016, local residents raised and donated $16,000 to the Michigan House Democratic caucus and knocked on over 2,000 doors spanning 10 different House seats; they successfully managed to hold state Rep. Donna Lasinski (D–Scio Township) and gain Camilleri a seat — the only representative that turned a red seat to blue in Michigan.
Rabhi said he thinks Michigan Democrats have an amazing opportunity in 2018 to organize, to see a vision for what they want the state to look like and to not make the same mistakes in 2018.
State Rep. Kristy Pagan (D–Canton) also spoke at the event. She is helping lead the House Democratic Caucus’s effort to regain a Democratic majority.
Pagan said the state needs to flip nine seats from red to blue to do so.
“This is our chance,” she said. “This is our opportunity to elect strong Democratic candidates up and down the ballot and make a real different in the lives of people we care about.”
Pagan said Democrats in Michigan have a plan — aggressively recruiting and training progressive candidates for state representative. She called on the attendees — activists and community members — to knock on doors, make phone calls and get out the vote so that Democratic voices can be heard again in Lansing. Pagan introduced Camilleri as a success story that came about as a result of such efforts and won his seat by 323 votes.
Camilleri represents the 23rd District of Michigan, an area he said has a white majority.
“I represent what many people are writing about in the national media — the white working class,” he said. “We have a lot of manufacturer workers. My dad is an auto worker, my grandfather is too. These are the type of people that we need to win back in order to make sure that we are restoring our Democratic majorities all across the Midwest, across the country.”
Camilleri said his family story was important to the style of campaign he wanted to run, based on hard work and values. He said it came down to advocating for things he cared about, that his voters could relate to. He said it wasn’t just about good-paying jobs, but about good-paying union jobs and workers’ rights.
Camilleri, who identified himself as a Latino and the son of an immigrant, is — at 25 — the youngest Latino legislator in the country.
“In my district, House District 23 … we won by 323,” he said. “Donald Trump won my district by 14 points. It was incredible. I mean, my district voted for Barack Obama both times, by big margins, yet these are the voters that flipped and voted for President Trump. But at the same time, they voted for me — someone who … ran as a progressive candidate — and Donald Trump. I don’t quite understand what happened there, but the only thing I can infer from that situation is that it’s … our hard work.”
Camilleri noted the importance, in his campaign, of knocking on doors and talking to voters — something he said should continue in campaigning for 2018.
Bill Worzel, vice-chair of fundraising for the Washtenaw County Democratic Party, was also among the speakers. Worzel noted in the 2016 election Washtenaw County was the only county in Michigan that got more votes — both on a percentage basis and and in absolute terms — than it did for former President Barack Obama in 2012.
He said everyone knows Michigan did not go blue in 2016, but what people don’t know is the state lost its blue majority by only a little more than 2.2 votes per precinct for the presidential race.
“We missed an opportunity, we’re not going to miss it again,” he said. “Washtenaw County Democratic Party has been working since almost the day after the election to reach out to the other counties in the state — not only to share what we did, but to learn from them, because we all work better together.”
The organization is working to get Democratic candidates the foundational support they need.
Ben Ratner, who is originally from Ann Arbor and is a student at Bowdoin College, now works as an intern for Rabhi in Lansing.
Ratner said he first became aware of Rabhi and his plans for the state when he was campaigning in the 2016 election — the first Ratner was eligible to vote in.
“What I’ve liked about Yousef, and why I’ve chosen to work for him, is he cares about things that benefit everyone — things like clean government, things like a clean environment and things like public education,” he said. “Those are issues I care a lot about, I identify with him on those issues. Overall, I think he’s a guy who has his heart in the right place.”
Ratner noted Rabhi went to school in Ann Arbor and has been around people in the area for a long time.
“He cares about the community,” Ratner said. “I want to be around someone who cares about Ann Arbor, who cares about Washtenaw County and is also willing to work in the best interest of Michigan.”
At the event, Ratner said he and others helping with the campaign were trying to raise money and get people involved. He said so far, they’ve done a lot of work in the district and in Lansing.
Phil Bianco, a co-chair of Huron Valley Democratic Socialists of America, was among the attendees.
“I want to support Yousef, he’s a progressive legislator, he’s been fighting the good fight in Lansing,” he said.
On Monday HVDSA co-organized a march for Medicare for all in Lansing, which Rabhi attended and at which introduced a bill he is drafting for Medicare for all in Michigan. An advocate of single-payer health care, Bianco said he appreciated Rabhi’s support and wanted to reciprocally support him.
Bianco noted there are several other aspects of Rabhi’s work he supports as well.
“He’s been really good on unions,” Bianco said. “He’s been really fighting hard to protect teachers’ pensions, which republicans in Lansing are really going after — so that’s a key one. He’s been great on the environment. All around, he’s one of the most progressive legislators out there.”