This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Michigan Daily: What are you running for and where are you from?
Carrie Rheingans: My name is Carrie Rheingans, and my current title is Democratic nominee for the 47th State House of Representatives District. I’m also a lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Social Work. The 47th House District goes from the western quarter of Ann Arbor to western Washtenaw County and into southeast Jackson County. I am originally from Linden, Mich., which is at the border of Genesee and Livingston Counties, but my great-grandpa Rheingans was the minister at the Presbyterian church in Brooklyn, Mich., which is in this district. So I live on the eastern edge of the district, and he was the minister at the church in the western end of the district, so I feel like I’m a good fit for the district.
TMD: Why are you interested in running for this position?
CR: I believe that every policy issue is a health issue, and I am running to make sure that we have the conditions for healthy people, healthy families and healthy communities. There’s a lot of things that impact our health that aren’t just clinical, medical care — things like our environment, not just our air and our water, but also our family environment, our relationships and the environment in which we work. All of these things play a role in our health: our education level and quality and our access to healthy foods. There’s a lot of things that really impact our health, and I think that having such preventable disparities in health outcomes is unfair. I think that there are policy changes that we can make that can reduce those disparities and make sure that everybody has the chance to have the healthiest life that they can have.
TMD: How have your previous experiences prepared you for this position?
CR: I am currently a member of the Washtenaw County Board of Health, and I’m the chairperson of the Washtenaw Emergency Medical Services Commission. Those are both voluntary appointed positions where I’m learning a lot about some of the systems and data at the local county level. I also teach at the U of M School of Social Work in health policy and teach community organizing and policy advocacy classes, and I am able to do that work because I worked previously in two different very heavy health policy settings.
For the last two and a half years, I worked for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services trying to increase provider capacity for substance use disorder treatment and recovery services, and I worked on Medicaid policy and financing for those services, so I have a really strong knowledge of what happens within one of the largest departments in our state and the largest budget area for our state budget. Before that, I worked at the Center for Health and Research Transformation (CHRT), and that is a health policy center based at U of M that I worked at during the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. I managed a community-wide coalition to bring together social service, mental health and behavioral health, and physical health providers to try to find ways that we could get the organizations to work together on behalf of common patients and clients, ways that we could help the hospitals find areas they could invest in community health and help do some prevention and equity work outside the walls of the hospital.
Then before that I worked in the world of HIV and AIDS for about a decade. I did HIV testing, outreach, education, some fundraising events, a lot of policy advocacy — and that’s where I really started having a good understanding of health disparities and how there are systems and cultural things in our country that contribute to the creation of health disparities. For example, treating LGBTQ+ residents of our state and our country as second-class citizens can have an impact on people’s mental health and health behaviors, and that can be reflected in some health outcomes, like the risk for HIV infection. It’s hard to be able to measure what those health outcomes are if we’re not even collecting data about certain things. For example, we don’t systematically collect data about sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. If we could collect that data in a systematic way across state programs, then we would be able to monitor whether there are disparities, and if there are disparities discovered based on those factors, then we might be able to find ways to address them. We know anecdotally and by some other data sources that there are disparities, but that’s an example of the kind of thing that I am interested in working on if elected because we need to make sure that we have good data available upon which we can make decisions as policy makers.
TMD: Tell me about your platform. What are the most important points?
CR: Obviously I’m running as a health policy expert. That’s in part because it’s my background, but it’s in part because so many things that are under the purview of the state government really do impact our health. It’s not just from services within the Department of Health and Human Services, but it’s also our education system from birth to post-secondary training. There’s a lot of impact that our state government can have on that. As far as top priorities for me, I really am interested in securing basic rights — voting rights, LGBTQ+ protections in our state’s civil rights laws and the right to abortion and reproductive health care. Those are very important things that I am wanting to work on. I know that if Proposal 2 and Proposal 3 pass, in November the state legislature will have some work to do to make sure that we get through the nuances of some of those constitutional amendments. So that’s something that’s very important to me.
In addition, I think that some of my other priorities might depend a little bit on whether the Democratic Party has control of the State House and the Senate or not. So I think if we do have control, I am very interested in starting the conversation about a universal single-payer healthcare system, Medicare For All, but at the state level because it’s not really moving at the federal level. I know this might take a couple of terms, so I want to get the conversation going if we have Democratic control in Lansing. I think it would be something that would be interesting for the people of the state of Michigan to hear the debate about. If we don’t have control, I think that other things that cause death are things that we need to focus on. We have so many guns that are not securely stored and are used in many ways such that people die. Of course, the most sensationalized ways are mass school shootings, the largest of which here in Michigan is the Oxford shooting a little over a year ago. But more than 50% of gun deaths in Michigan, far more than 50%, are suicides. We know that if there were safe storage requirements and those requirements were enforced, then it may put up a few small barriers in the way of someone who is feeling impulsive in a moment of distress, and it might be able to save lives. We have seen this in public health data. Safe gun storage packages have been introduced time and again in our legislature. I think there are pieces of those that even if the Republicans control Lansing, we can still pass.
I’m also really interested in labor protections. There’s a lot of policies that our state could enact or even repeal that could help protect workers and make sure that our middle-class remains strong and gets stronger, such as repealing Right to Work, restoring prevailing wage and having universal parental leave, minimum parental leave requirements, paid sick leave. We’ve noticed that in the pandemic, this is a really big factor in the workforce and it’s causing issues in our workforce. I also think that rearranging our child-care system in our state would be a very strong way to help workers and help working families like mine. My husband and I both work. He’s a therapist at a local hospital and we have a daughter in kindergarten, and we’re a working family. We know how hard it is to try to balance when your kid has a sick day, which parent is going to be able to take time off work? Are you paid? Those are some of the top priorities that I have.
TMD: Is there anything you want to say to college students?
CR: Yes. Not only am I a lecturer at U of M, I’ve been a lecturer for seven years now. I was a student at U of M for eight years between my undergraduate and graduate degrees, and things have changed over the years, of course. But I think that students on campus sometimes don’t see the connection in their day-to-day life and how their vote matters and how their civic engagement matters. I’m kind of middle-aged, I’m 41, and I remember when I was in my 20s thinking, “Why are all these elected officials so old?” Now that I’m older, but I’m still not in my 50s or 60s, I can see that it takes a lot of work to be able to do the campaigning, and it’s harder with kids, depending on what level you’re going for and how old your kids are. And so I think for students, just knowing that you can be involved in many ways, even if you can’t vote or even if you’re not voting here in Michigan. The decisions that are made at the state level impact how much state funding the University gets and therefore how much tuition they charge for students. The decisions that are made at the City Council table are decisions that affect how much housing is available in our city and how expensive it is for students to be able to live here. So those are decisions that are made by elected officials, and they use boards and commissions as ways to learn about specific information and make preliminary decisions, and students can serve on those. Students can serve on those boards and commissions. If people think that they’re not qualified for office because they’ve never been elected, they don’t yet have their college degree, I just want to remind everybody that Donald Trump got elected to President of the United States. He had never run for office before. If he can do it for that office, you can do it to be on a board or a commission, or to run for a local office.
TMD: Why should students vote for you?
CR: Students should vote for me if their values align with me because I think there are probably some students who do have more Republican-leaning values, and, of course, they should be voting for the Republican candidate. But even students who are more middle of the road or are looking for somebody with some similar experience, I have an understanding of what it’s like to be a student at the University of Michigan. And I know that there can be some rough cultural issues on campus as far as how expensive things are and who can afford to do what. I didn’t have any immediate family that had gone to college. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, so it can be pretty hard. If you want to know that your elected official has some similar life experience, that might help students feel more comfortable voting for me. And I, even as a 41-year-old full-time worker with my husband as a full-time worker; we still can’t afford to buy a house in Ann Arbor, so we’re still renting. More than half of the residents of the city are renters, and there’re very few state legislators who are renters. So if students want to know that there’s somebody who understands what it’s like to deal with landlords and what it’s like to constantly worry — I mean, I have a five-year-old who sometimes draws on the walls — I think students might feel a little bit like they can relate to me. The other thing is I, as a teacher at U of M, I very much want to have my office be a place of learning for students and plan on having multiple kinds of interns and multiple kinds of student projects. So I think that I’ll be a state representative that’s responsive to students and bringing students along to help make sure that you get the experience, so that you can be the one to run for office.
Daily Staff Reporter Alexandra Vena can be reached at email@example.com.
Bednarski-Lynch did not respond to a Michigan Daily request for an interview.