Trenton resident Cynthia Kallgren spends a lot of time knocking on doors, climbing porches and ringing doorbells — she is a congressional candidate on a mission.
Though she doesn’t have the seasoned experience of her opponent, U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D–Mich.), the Republican candidate hopes her background as a “Downriver girl” and small-business owner will resonate with voters on Election Day as she seeks to represent Michigan’s newly drawn 12th Congressional District.
However, for many voters in the district — which stretches from Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, south to Monroe County, and east to the downriver communities of Dearborn, Trenton and Southgate — Kallgren is not a familiar name.
Winning the race of name recognition is a tough feat in the face of a “dynasty,” Kallgren said, as Dingell has held office since 1955, after replacing his father who had served since 1932.
Despite her determination, victory for Kallgren will be challenging. Aaron Kall, the director of the University’s debate program, said winning 40 percent of the vote would be an admirable finish for Kallgren, noting that it is difficult to estimate election results since it’s not a particularly competitive race and outside firms usually only poll in contentious races.
Kall said much of Kallgren’s success depends on the level of competition in Michigan for the presidential race. If Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney increases campaign resources in the state, some of the results could trickle down to legislative races, he said.
In the 2010 midterm election, Dingell won by a 17 percent margin against Republican contender Rob Steele, a local cardiologist, though Kall noted the election was affected by factors such as the Republican wave that allowed the GOP to claim the House and the U.S. Senate and the lack of a presidential race.
Still, Dingell’s margins of victory have noticeably decreased in the last few elections as he ages and deals with redistricting that provides him differing constituents.
“I have never taken a campaign for granted,” Dingell said in a statement. “The people of southeastern Michigan rightly expect me to earn their votes. I intend to keep talking with voters about the accomplishments we’ve brought here together and about the challenges we face ahead.”
Dingell also emphasized job creation as the most important issue in the nation, adding that there is still extensive work to be done in establishing affordable health care policy and protecting Social Security and Medicare.
“I will continue to fight for the people of southeastern Michigan, because the fight for making sure their voices are heard in Washington never ends,” he said.
Kallgren said what sets her apart from Dingell is her ability to connect with her constituents as she did in the 27,000 canvass stops she says she’s made this season.
“It’s easy to see everything as statistics and not real people. Living in this community my whole life, I’m building real relationships with people in the district,” she said.
Wearing square-framed, wire glasses, Kallgren hopes voters see her as a neighbor and a peer, just like them, who can amplify their voices in Washington.
“They are ready for a change,” Kallgren said. “Some of them are rather taken aback that you are running for Congress and standing at their door. They’re not used to that.”
A native of Wyandotte, Kallgren has lived Downriver her whole life. Her husband works in customer care at a plastics factory in nearby Southgate, a city where pockets of automotive manufacturers sustained a challenging blow during the economic downturn.
As a consultant for the scrapbook retailer Creative Memories, Kallgren owns and runs her own leg of the company out of her Trenton home. During her time leading the business, she said she became cognizant of the vast challenges of business ownership amid a tough economic climate, and became inspired to set her sights for public office.
“You realize that there is no minimum wage for a business owner,” Kallgren said. “You can wake up at six in the morning and work until midnight and realize you made five cents an hour. That drives the building of your business: having built something on your own, surviving by your own wits, is part of the American dream.”
Kallgren said her experience in small business has helped her understand why many Republicans believe that President Barack Obama’s policies have hindered the growth of their companies.
“There was no politician sitting at their desk helping them along. It was their own sweat,” she said.
She said she believes government needs to “keep their hands off” businesses by no longer punishing them with excessive taxes and regulations.
Kallgren added that she prides herself on selling strictly American-made products, and when she found out one of her products was made in China, she wanted to transfer production to the United States.
However, after approaching officials at her husband’s plastic factory, she discovered an Environmental Protection Agency regulation prevented the plastic from being molded in the United States.
“Government can be heavy-handed and kill jobs,” Kallgren said. “They say they want to create jobs but they actually kill jobs if they don’t have a balanced approach.”
Kallgren said if elected, she will work to promote job growth in Michigan by decreasing the tax burden on businesses and cutting back on excessive regulation. As Kallgren continues her efforts, she said she hopes her message will ultimately win out at the polls.
“The current administration believes that if you throw money at a problem you will fix it,” she said. “I think you need to appeal to the best things in the American spirit: to help people to want on their own two feet. I think Americans want to work hard and that’s the spirit of being American: building your own American dream and your own pursuit of happiness.”