The Washtenaw County Democratic Party hosted a forum yesterday at the Pittsfield Township Administration Building for Democratic candidates vying for the positions of state attorney general and secretary of state.

The panel of candidates included Genessee County’s prosecuting attorney David Leyton, who is vying for the Democratic nomination for attorney general and Mark Bernstein, who represented his brother and attorney general candidate Richard Bernstein — a Farmington Hills attorney and University lecturer — who was in Los Angeles for Passover.

Also present were Michigan secretary of state candidates Janice Winfrey, a Detroit city clerk, and Wayne State University Law Prof. Jocelyn Benson.

The town hall-style meeting was open to the general public and attendees were encouraged to question candidates about issues important to their respective offices. Before the question-and-answer session, each candidate opened with a brief introduction, highlighting his or her achievements and why he or she decided to run for the positions.

Benson said her lifelong career in voting advocacy makes her a solid candidate for secretary of state and that her biggest effort as secretary of state would be making sure that all votes are accounted for on election days.

“I’m running for secretary of state because, like many of you, I’m an advocate,” Benson said. “I’ve worked for my entire career as an advocate for justice, as an advocate for equality, but most importantly, as an advocate to ensure that every single vote counts in this county on Election Day.”

Benson said she is eager to use the knowledge she gained while traveling around the country visiting secretaries of state in 36 other states in preparation for her book, “Democracy and the State Secretary of State,” which was published this month.

“I’ve seen that there’s a lot to be done in Michigan to really take us to the next level as we embrace this new economic era that we’re in,” Benson said.

Winfrey, Benson’s opponent, noted that her work as Detroit city clerk, in addition to her status as a life-long Michigan resident, makes her the best candidate for the position.

“I grew up in this state, and I’ve been here all of my life,” Winfrey said. “I attended and graduated from Michigan schools, colleges and universities. I am Michigan, if you will, and who better than one who has invested a lifetime in the state to lead into recovery? I know and understand the people of this great state.”

As city clerk, Winfrey has worked toward making Detroit one of the first cities to provide full results of elections before the end of election nights — a success she said was “a great feat in election administration.”

As secretary of state, Winfrey also said she would extend her work toward ensuring quality election administration.

Mark Bernstein said his brother is qualified for the position of attorney general because he has worked extensively in the courtroom to fight for the rights of the disadvantaged and mentally challenged.

“What you have is a person who has a deep-seeded belief in the power of the law to transform this state to protect the most vulnerable citizens, the elderly, the young, people who don’t have a voice,” Bernstein said. “And that’s what he wants to do. That’s why he’s running for this office.”

Though his brother is blind, Bernstein said Richard Bernstein has never “shied away from tough battles.”

“He has fought, and he has won every time,” Bernstein said.

Leyton, Bernstein’s opponent, noted that when the citizens of Michigan go to the polls in November, they will be looking for someone with experience — something he feels that he possesses.

“They look for someone who’s battle tested, experienced and ready to do the job, and I’ve done the job,” Leyton said.

“A lot of people think a prosecutor is a lock ‘em up and throw away the key kind of guy, and that is not true in my case,” Leyton said.

Leyton said he’s established drug and mental health courts in Genessee County as well as an attendance court to ensure that high school students attend school. He added that he also runs a truancy program for elementary students.

After they introduced themselves, the candidates were asked a series of questions from the audience. Among the topics addressed were No Reason Absentee Voting, the Asian carp dilemma in the Great Lakes and a proposed 2010 Michigan Constitutional Convention.

Both Benson and Winfrey are strong advocates for No Reason Absentee Voting, which would allow Michigan citizens to apply to vote absentee without listing a reason, as is currently required by law.

Benson said No Reason Absentee Voting has been established in 30 states already and that, in order to get it passed in Michigan, it will require a secretary of state who works ardently to get legislation changed.

“The difference between our state and those 30 states that have No Reason Absentee Voting on the books is that those states had a secretary of state who didn’t just support it but worked tirelessly to advocate for it,” Benson said.

Winfrey echoed Benson’s sentiments, saying No Reason Absentee Voting is something that is actually a “very easy task to accomplish” and one that won’t require any changes in law — just a difference in the way it is administrated.

“We are absolutely ready for No Reason Absentee Voting in Michigan,” Winfrey said.

The Asian carp issue was a concern to all candidates present at the forum. They agreed that the carp are an immense threat to the Great Lakes ecosystem and Michigan’s economy.

Leyton said the carp are destructive to essential plants and nutrients that are important sources of food for other fish that live in the lakes.

“The downside to all that is the end of the fishing industry, the health of the lakes and ultimately, we would lose not only our wonderful fishing industry and all the jobs associated with that, but it would impact the tourism industry,” Leyton said. “It’s just bad for the environment and has to be stopped.”

Another topic of discussion was the Constitutional Convention, which would allow Michigan citizens to amend legislation included in the current state constitution that has been the same since 1963.

All the candidates, with the exception of Leyton, were in support of the convention. Winfrey said it would provide a chance for Michigan citizens to change the laws to better suit the times.

“I’m for it because it gives us the opportunity to revisit some of our laws,” Winfrey said. “I think a lot has changed in our society, and I think it’s good that we’re able to take a look at where we are today and the relevant changes that might need to occur.”

Leyton said he feels “the timing is not right” and that the large amount of funding it would take to hold a Constitutional Convention could be better allocated to issues that are more pressing at the moment, but he noted that the state would still be able to make changes by passing new legislation.

“Michigan has a lot of issues, many of them are resource related, and a (Constitutional Convention) would be very, very expensive and would divert the funds that I think the state needs to solve some other critical problems,” Leyton said.

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