Taxes, health care, the Great Lakes & more: Candidates running to represent Muskegon debate at Hackley Park
Affordable health care. Trade. Social Security. The environment. School funding. The Great Lakes. Taxes. The breadth of topics broached during “Politics in the Park,” a candidates forum held Saturday, Oct. 13 at Hackley Park in downtown Muskegon, was vast: it was an afternoon filled with conversation meant to be more than sound bites.
Organized by Muskegon Community College’s Center for Experiential Learning, the three-hour event drew candidates, and a crowd, from across the political spectrum. Those who attended the event billed as “Lincoln-Douglas style debates” (a series of seven debates between challenger Abraham Lincoln and incumbent Stephen Douglas, the two candidates in a campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois in 1858) included: Rob Davidson, a Democrat running for the Second U.S. Congressional District; 34th state Senate District candidates Max Riekse, a Libertarian, and Poppy Sias-Hernandez, a Democrat; 91st state House District candidates Tanya Cabala, a Democrat, and Greg VanWoerkom, a Republican; and state Rep. Terry Sabo, the Democratic incumbent for the 92nd state House District. Each of these districts includes Muskegon, or a portion of the city, within its boundaries.
U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland), who’s being challenged by Davidson; former Republican state Rep. Jon Bumstead, who is running against Riekse and Sias-Hernandez for the 34th state Senate District; and Gail Eichorst, a Republican challenging Sabo for the 92nd state House District, were invited to the forum but did not attend the event.
MCC staff provided the candidates with the topics that could be addressed at the forum ahead of time. The moderator, Muskegon Community College Professor George Maniates, drew the final list of topics from a pool of sealed envelopes at the forum. Each candidate had three minutes to discuss each topic.
Maniates emphasized the afternoon was meant to promote respectful debate and dialogue. In a world that can often feel overwhelmingly divided, this event aimed to address candidates’ political platforms and differences not through shouting or the limited context that can accompany news clips, but rather through thoughtful discourse. Maniates too encouraged audience members to engage in the political process during the upcoming national election.
“In the spirit of good democracy, please go to the polls on Nov. 6 and do your part,” Maniates said.
In this article, instead of doing a piece summarizing the three-hour forum, we have decided to take a deeper dive into what the candidates said, as well as some background surrounding the issues they addressed.
Second Congressional District
Michigan’s Second Congressional District includes all of Muskegon, Lake, Oceana, Newaygo, and Ottawa counties, as well as portions of Allegan, Kent, and Mason counties. Huizenga, of Zeeland, has represented the district since 2011.
Davidson, the Democratic candidate who is challenging Huizenga, is an emergency physician in Fremont, Michigan. He resides in Spring Lake.
Affordable health care and insurance
Davidson, who entered the Congressional race because of differences with Huizenga over health care, emphasized that “too many” of the approximately 50,000 patients he has seen throughout his career “make their health care decisions based on cost.”
“I saw a 30-year-old woman making $30,000 a year with a $13,000 deductible,” Davidson said. “We had a debate if she should have a potentially life saving test because she thought she couldn’t afford it.”
The candidate said a health care system dominated by private health insurance and pharmaceutical companies are at the root of patients being unable to access affordable care. Davidson argues a single payer plan—specifically a Medicare for All initiative—would eliminate high deductibles and large out-of-pocket prescription drug costs by reducing overhead costs in the health care field and allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies.
He supports a plan modeled after U.S. House Resolution 676, the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act, which would provide health care for all Americans by folding the general public into the Medicare program—a single-payer national health insurance program administered by the federal government. Currently, Medicare provides health care for seniors and some younger individuals with disabilities. Supporters of the Medicare for All Act argue that incorporating healthier, less expensive patients into the Medicare program would drive down Medicare costs and make the program more financially secure while ensuring health care for everyone.
“[Medicare is] a health care system that takes care of people with fairly high health care costs,” Davidson said. “And yet it is a system that’s run the most efficiently of any health care system in this country.”
Private insurance companies spend between 12 and 18 percent on administration costs, while Medicare spends about 2 percent, confirmed Politifact, a fact-checking organization run by Poynter, a nonprofit journalism school.
According to an August 2018 poll from Reuters, an international news agency headquartered in London, about 70 percent of Americans support a Medicare for All plan—including 84.5 percent of Democrats and 51.9 percent of Republicans. In March, the Kaiser Family Foundation, a national nonprofit focused on major health care issues, released a survey that reported 59 percent of Americans supported Medicare for All. That number, however, went up when Kaiser asked poll respondents if they supported a national health insurance plan that is “open to anyone who wants it but people who currently have other coverage could keep what they have.” Seventy-five percent of respondents endorsed that proposal, including 64 percent of Republicans.
Davidson said one of his biggest concerns with federal trade deals involves workers being left out of negotiations.
“We need to have workers and labor at the table, being part of the discussion negotiating these deals so we can ensure worker protections in other countries and in our country,” Davidson said. “If we had better worker protections in Mexico, there would be less incentive for companies to move” out of the U.S. and into Mexico.
“My concern is Republicans who are in charge right now are so opposed to labor and to them having a seat at any table,” Davidson said. “…They want to shut them out of any deals, any negotiations.”
The candidate added that, “Congress needs to take back its Constitutional authority to review and approve all tariffs.”
Following President Donald Trump’s decision to impose $250 billion in tariffs on products that are brought into the U.S. from China, both right- and left-leaning analysts and publications have criticized the tariffs.
The conservative National Review, for example, questions in this March 2018 piece why the president, and not Congress, is levying tariffs, when the Constitution granted Congress the power to do so. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution vests Congress, not the president, with the power to levy tariffs.
“It is not just that the president has the power to level tariffs unilaterally,” Jay Cost writes in the March National Review article. “It is not just that Congress handed it over. It is that Congress, the branch of the people, handed it over because it screwed it up, again and again, A republic requires a legislature that can handle such tasks, and we simply do not have one.”
Davidson too criticized Trump’s tariffs and said he has spoken to voters in the Second Congressional District who have been hurt by the Trump administration imposing a 25 percent tariff on steel imports, and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports, from Europe, Canada and Mexico. These tariffs will remain despite the recent trade deal between the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
The president “has not protected farmers or manufacturers or consumers in this country,” Davidson said.
The Congressional candidate outlined the economic plan he unrolled at a press conference last week, which includes support for a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour, reducing the gender wage gap, requiring companies with more than $500 million in revenue to have a board consisting of at least 40 percent workers, financial rewards for companies that provide six months of paid maternity and family leave, and more.
This plan, Davidson said, is meant to help transform a nation where wages for the average worker have essentially remained stagnant in recent decades, while the top 1 percent of income earners have seen significant growth. Since the early 1970s, workers’ average hourly inflation-adjusted wages have grown by just 0.2 percent per year. Meanwhile, income inequality has risen. Over the past 40 years, the income share of the top 0.1 percent has more than quadrupled, and the top 1 percent has nearly doubled. During that same time, wages for the bottom 90 percent has declined. According to a July 2018 report from the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank, the top 1 percent of families took home an average of 26.3 times as much income as the bottom 99 percent in 2015. Income inequality has risen in nearly every state, according to the same report.
“Since 1979, the purchasing power of individuals has barely kept up with inflation,” Davidson said.
Still, all of this isn’t to say that Americans aren’t optimistic about the economy—a Gallup poll released Wednesday, Oct. 17, reported that American confidence in the U.S. economy is at its highest level since 2004.
According to the poll, 54 percent of survey respondents said the country’s economic conditions were “excellent” or “good,” and 12 percent said they were “poor.” Fifty-seven percent of respondents said the economy is getting better, while 34 percent said it’s getting worse. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Of course, that means that one-third of the country believes the economy is getting worse. And, it’s well documented that perception of the economy does not always square with economic data—the way we view the economy is often intertwined with whether or not we like the country’s political leadership, how we’re faring personally, and so forth. The economy is complex, as is our relationship with it. Which means that while there may be low unemployment, there can also be stagnant, and low, wages. That’s why, Davidson said, “at the centerpiece of economic development needs to be protection for workers.”
“As part of that, I do support a $15 minimum wage,” he continued.
Currently, the minimum wage in Michigan is $9.25. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “living wage calculator,” a single adult with no children needs to make at least $10.46 an hour to support themselves in Muskegon County. Meanwhile, an adult with one child needs to earn at least $22.12 to be able to support their family. You can see a further breakdown of living wage calculations in the county here.
Higher education funding
Citing student debt as one of the major barriers to accessing higher education, or an individual being able to pursue the job they want, Davidson said he supports a zero-interest loan program for students—and free education at public colleges and universities for pupils who meet certain criteria, including income eligibility.
The average Michigan student graduated with about $31,289 in debt in 2017—the 11th highest in the United States, according to the annual report on student debt from the Institute for College Access and Success.
Davidson also stressed the need for more skilled trades programs.
“We have to make it affordable for kids who want to go to college, but some kids will do better pursuing the skilled trades,” he said.
“Without Social Security, 40 million seniors would be living in poverty right now,” Davidson said. “We need to protect Social Security.”
The idea of ‘protection’ comes in light of the Congressional Budget Office’s 2018 Long-Term Budget Outlook document, which reports that, without action, Social Security will be insolvent by 2032.
“We need to expand Social Security; we need to do everything we can to make Social Security solvent,” the Congressional candidate said.
“We have to set as our goal, at some point down the line, renewable energy as being the major source of energy in this country,” Davidson said.
“We need a budget that sets priorities for investment in renewable energy,” he continued.
The candidate said he would encourage solar and wind power through public-private partnerships in West Michigan and promote sustainable energy initiatives in rural areas, including wind energy.
“We have farmers and environmental groups working together” on current energy projects, Davidson noted.
“We have to move past our reliance on fossil fuels,” he said. “I do believe in global climate change; it is real. It is science. I believe the science, and I believe man has contributed to global climate change and global warming. We have to put the skids on rising temperatures, and the way we do that is moving away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy.”
Davidson slammed the Trump administration’s decision to separate migrant children from their families after they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, and the candidate called for reuniting still separated families and using alternatives to detention for immigrants awaiting court hearings on whether or not they can remain in the country.
According to data released by the federal government Monday, 2,363 of the 2,654 separated migrant children have been “discharged.” This means the children were reunified with their parents or released to a sponsor within the United States. There are still 66 children who remain in government custody, and the parents of 50 of those children have been deported.
“The next crisis brewing is the permanent detention of children,” Davidson said, noting that, even if children are kept together with their parents, “indefinitely detaining these kids even with their families creates similar scars.”
“We need to have a policy that we’re not detaining these children indefinitely,” he said.
The candidate too called for “a clean DREAM Act” that would include legal status and a path to citizenship for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. A program launched in 2012, DACA shields some individuals who, as children, were brought to the U.S. without documentation from deportation. DACA does not provide a path to citizenship.
Saying it’s crucial to work with the other side of the political aisle on this issue, Davidson said he would partner with Republicans on immigration reform.
“There was bipartisan work on this in the early 90s and then we got the poison well of partisanship,” he said. “I would sit down with the other side of the aisle and say, ‘You may need a wall and I may not. What do we need to protect our border?’”
“We need border security, we absolutely do, but we need to sit down together in a bipartisan way and figure out how to get border security while maintaining our humanity,” Davidson said.
Davidson said an audit of defense spending is needed to “determine what is necessary and what is waste.” He also noted that about 23,000 military families have a low enough income to qualify for benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“Why are we not paying members of our military enough to buy their own food?” Davidson asked.
The candidate went on to emphasize a need for a foreign policy centered on diplomacy.
“We have a president right now who I believe looks at [military] power as our strength; our strength is about diplomacy,” Davidson said.
“We all know the phrase from Teddy Roosevelt, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick,’” he continued. “You don’t have to tell everyone how tough and strong you are; they know that. Use that as your backdrop to diplomacy.”
State Senate District 34
Michigan’s 34th state Senate District covers Muskegon, Oceana and Newaygo counties. State Sen. Goeff Hansen, a Republican, has represented the district since 2011. Hansen cannot seek reelection due to term limits.
Candidates for the 34th District are: Jon Bumstead, a Republican from Newaygo who represented Michigan’s 100th District in the state House from 2010 to 2016 and founded his own construction company ; Max Riekse, a Libertarian from Fruitport, retired public school teacher, and former colonel lieutenant in the U.S. Army; and Poppy Sias-Hernandez, a Democrat from Muskegon, a longtime community leader who works in public health, education and community development, and the director of a nonprofit (Good for Youth).
Bumstead did not attend Saturday’s event.
K-12 education concerns
Sias-Hernandez: The candidate expressed concern about how the state’s public education is funded, which she said is a discriminatory practice that results in the underfunding of schools in communities of color. Too, Sias-Hernandez said, “we have a K-12 education system that’s being called to grow and change with an evolving population, and we’re not making changes in real time,” such as adequately supporting career technical education and having “assessments that are relevant and used to inform how we teach instead of how we punish teachers.”
“I’d advocate for empowering teachers,” she said.
“I’m very concerned with what’s happening with special ed,” she continued. “Young people with special ed needs have a right to education, like every other young person in those buildings. That doesn’t mean just pushing them into the classroom; that means pushing them into the classroom with the right support; that means making sure that the teachers in that classroom have the professional development they need to be effective in serving that population of students.”
Riekse: “The Republican war on public schools and public school teachers needs to come to an end,” said the Libertarian candidate, who wore a “Make America Great Again” and frequently voiced his support for Trump throughout the debate. “Second of all, the radical Democrat [National Education Association] teachers’ union needs to stop their war on Republicans and move on to support public education and public school teachers.”
Riekse went on to address public school safety, for which the candidate, who noted he has been an National Rifle Association member for 50 years, said “gun control is not the answer.” Riekse said the NRA offers school safety programs for students and building security personnel.
“School safety is important; school funding is important,” he said. “But you’ve gotta get the Democrats and Republicans to focus not against Democrats or Republicans but to focus on our K through 12 education and school safety.”
Riekse: The candidate responded to this with a phrase he oft repeated throughout the event: “Libertarians don’t like taxes: lower taxes, less government.” Riekse said he would be in favor of entirely repealing a number of taxes, including the individual income tax at the state and federal level. He too said he is for “Michigan having the lowest corporate tax in all 50 states. Think about how many jobs would move to Michigan.”
Limiting taxes would translate to less spending on military operations abroad, Riekse said.
“I like the military, right? But why are we spending a trillion dollars in Afghanistan?” Riekse asked. “Why are we spending a trillion dollars in Iraq? Why do we spend trillions of dollars on all these other neocon, Trotskyite, Community wars? Because they got the money to spend.”
U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan have cost American taxpayers about $5.6 trillion since 2001, according to a 2017 study from the Watson Institute and Public Affairs at Brown University. That number is more than three times the amount the U.S. Defense Department reported; the DoD said the conflicts have amounted to $1.5 trillion.
“Democrats and Republicans say war is the answer because they’re making money off it,” Riekse said.
Sias-Hernandez: “You’ve gotta pay individual taxes; I’m not going to be apologetic about it,” the candidate said.
“We live in a community, and it costs money to live in a community,” she said. “It costs money to have schools and roads and infrastructure; we need to have individual taxes,” she said, landing cheers from the audience.
Individual taxes need to be part of a system in which people and families do not feel burdened by taxation and where corporations pay their fair share of taxes, Sias-Hernandez emphasized.
“When we think about individual taxes, we can’t have people worried about paying for public education because their car insurance rates are too high,” she said.
“As long as we’re being responsible in how we’re doing taxation, there is a place for individual taxation,” the candidate continued.
Ballot proposal 2: Independent redistricting commission initiative
On Nov. 6, Michiganders will be able to vote on whether to change how state and federal voting district lines are drawn in Michigan. Proposal 2 would amend the Michigan Constitution and take the power to draw district lines away from whichever political party is in charge in Lansing. It would then create an independent redistricting commission. The 13-person commission would include five independent members, four Democrats, and four Republicans.
Riekse: Citing the Libertarian Party not backing Proposition 2, Riekse said he too won’t support it in part because it does not specifically call for any Libertarian commission members.
“Where’s the independence going to come from?” he asked. “I think it’s a lousy deal.”
Sias-Hernandez: The candidate said she fully supports it.
“I think people are genuinely frustrated with our system, where there is a sense that their vote isn’t their voice,” Sias-Hernandez said.
“There’s a desire to have more equitable room at the table so we can elect people who actually represent us,” she continued and added that she expects people to show up to the ballot solely to cast a vote on Prop 2.
“If it gets people to the polls, I’m excited about that, too,” the candidate said.
Sias-Hernandez: “In West Michigan, we have often thought about our natural resources as commodities,” she said. “We have a long history of exploiting our natural resources in really irresponsible ways; we need to be real about that with ourselves.”
That history, however, is not the present—people are prioritizing the environment and that should be reflected among legislators and legislation, the candidate said.
“I think we are living in a time where people feel strongly about changing that [history] and being good stewards of the amazing resources that surround us, and I think that our legislators need to be on par with what the people want.”
Riekse: Line 5 needs to be shut down, the Libertarian said of Enbridge Energy’s oil and gas pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac. Long a magnet for environmental concerns, Line 5 carries about 540,000 barrels of oil per day; the line extends about 645 miles from Superior, Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario and crosses large parts of northern Michigan. An oil spill from Line 5 would be an environmental disaster in a crucial Great Lakes channel, activists have said.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration and Enbridge, a Canadian company, announced earlier this month that Enbridge agreed to pay for the construction of a nearly four-mile tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac, which will replace the Line 5 pipeline. The construction project is expected to take seven to 10 years to complete; in the meantime, Line 5 will continue to carry oil.
“If Line 5 explodes, it’s going to devastate Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, our fresh water,” Riekse said.
As for Nestle pumping water from Michigan, Riekse said, “stop it.”
In April, the state Department of Environmental Quality [DEQ] approved Nestle’s permit to increase the amount of water it pumps from the White Pine Springs well in the Great Lakes Basin from 250 gallons a minute to 400 gallons. Nestle is able to access the groundwater for nothing more than a $200 annual DEQ permit.
Michigan residents were overwhelmingly against Nestle’s plan, with the company’s request attracting a record number of public comments—80,945 of which were against the permit and 75 were in favor.
“Our water in Michigan is not safe, and we need to do something about it,” Riekse said.
While Sias-Hernandez did not specifically discuss Nestle during the debates, she specifies on her campaign website that, “companies like Nestle have no business making a profit at the expense of Michigan water sources and Michigan residents.”
“Nestle profiting from exploiting our natural resources becomes especially absurd when considered in the context of state legislators who cut corners in Flint, which had profoundly negative consequences for many generations of Michiganders to come,” Sias-Hernandez writes on her website.
Preparing Michigan’s youth for the careers of the future
Sias-Hernandez: Public schools must ensure all students are college ready while still investing in the skilled trades, she said.
“We often hear talk of this pipeline to prison when schools aren’t funded, when kids don’t have support,” the candidate continued. “I want to see a pipeline to innovative and exciting careers. I believe that pipeline happens by investing in skilled trades at the high school level. I believe it happens through stronger partnerships at the community college level.”
Affordable college education makes a world of difference when it comes to students accessing future careers, Sias-Hernandez said. The candidate noted that she herself was able to afford classes at a community college after high school, which set her on the path to receiving her Master’s degree and pursuing the career she has now.
Riekse: The Libertarian too focused on skilled trades, adding he would encourage skilled trades programs to be offered at both the high school and middle school levels.
“Muskegon public schools used to have welding, foundry classes; they don’t teach that anymore,” he said.
Riekse: The candidate accused Republicans and Democrats of intentionally building roads and bridges that do not last in order to create jobs and provide money to contractors.
“You got crappy roads and that’s going to continue; it’s a perpetual game to keep going on and on,” he said.
Sias-Hernandez: “I will advocate for responsible taxation so we can take care of our roads and infrastructure,” the Democratic candidate said. “I want to see the work being powered by Michigan labor. I want to see us using technology and innovation that’s sustainable and green [for the infrastructure] because this state is worth it.”
Labor laws issues facing Michigan workers
Sias-Hernandez: The undermining of labor, unions and collective bargaining has had a direct impact on the quality of roads and infrastructure, as well as on public education and other public institutions, she said.
“As your next state senator, I will fight to strengthen collective bargaining; I will fight to strengthen labor unions,” Sias-Hernandez said. “I will fight so the people powering the work have a voice at the decision-making table.”
“Labor unions don’t only fight for livable wages and safe working conditions—they fight for quality because it’s their work product,” she continued. “I believe that we can’t depend on large corporations to ensure all those things are in place.”
Sias-Hernandez also noted she would fight to repeal the “right-to-freeload,” otherwise known as Michigan’s “right-to-work” legislation that was enacted in 2013. That year, the state began allowing workers to choose whether or not to be members of unions, resulting in unions losing thousands of members and seeing their political spending drop by millions of dollars.
“I would fight to ensure that working families can make a living, feel good about what they’re doing, have access to insurance, and know someday they can retire,” she said.
Riekse: While the Libertarian candidate threw his support behind unions and called for state infrastructure to be built by “Michigan companies with Michigan workers,” he also said he does not believe in a minimum wage.
“I’m a Libertarian; we don’t like government,” he said. “So I don’t believe in a minimum wage. No minimum wage means there will be more jobs.”
92nd state House District
The 92nd state House District includes the cities of Muskegon, Muskegon Heights and North Muskegon, as well as the townships of Muskegon, Laketon, Fruitland, and Whitehall. State Rep. Terry J. Sabo (D-Muskegon) is serving his first term representing the 92nd District. The Laketon resident serves as the Democratic vice chairman of the House Military and Veterans Affairs Committee and also serves on the Agriculture, Workforce and Talent Development, and Transportation and Infrastructure committees. He is a retired firefighter and U.S. Air Force security officer.
Gail Eichorst, the Republican candidate challenging Sabo, is a retired registered nurse. She has served as a Republican Party precinct delegate since 1986. Eichorst did not attend Saturday’s forum.
Sabo did not address specific questions but rather gave an overview of his platform and assessment of major issues facing the district and state.
“I’m very concerned about the way our schools are being underfunded,” Sabo said and went on to address “attacks on organized labor.”
“Organized labor built the middle class, built this state, but unfortunately we’re seeing so many things happen taking away those rights of workers, and I believe that’s something that’s going to come back and harm us,” Sabo said.
The representative expressed frustration with low wages.
“What I do see is a lot of people who are working poor,” he said. “They have a job, but they don’t make enough money with that job to pay the bills. That’s one thing that’s coming back to haunt us.”
Like Sias-Hernandez and Riekse, Sabo issued harsh words regarding Nestle.
“They’re pumping out hundreds of gallons of water for a minimal fee of $200,” he said. “It’s a disgrace we have that going on while we have people over in Flint who’ve had poisoned water for years. And then we have the PFAS issue that’s just starting to come up…It doesn’t matter where you are, you’re susceptible to contaminated drinking water.”
PFAS—polyfluoroalkyl substances—are a large group of man-made chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products around the globe since the 1950s. At high concentrations, certain PFAS have been linked to a range of health problems, including lowering a woman’s chance of getting pregnant, increasing cholesterol levels, and increasing the risk of cancer.
The Michigan DEQ began testing for PFAS chemicals in all public water systems and schools on private well water this year, and, to date, the chemicals have been found at various levels in municipal drinking water of about 1.9 million people throughout the state.
When Muskegon’s water was tested in September, the city reported it did not find high levels of PFAS in its system and that the water is safe to drink.
91st state House District
The 91st state House District encompasses part of Muskegon County, including the cities of Montague, Norton Shores, Roosevelt Park, and Whitehall. It also includes the townships of Blue Lake, Casnovia, Cedar Creek, Dalton, Egleston, Fruitport, Holton, Montague, Moorland, Ravenna, Sullivan, and White River. State Rep. Holly Hughes (R-Montague) has represented the district since 2011 and is not running for reelection due to term limits.
Tanya Cabala, a lifelong resident of Whitehall, is the Democratic candidate for the 91st District. A teacher, freelancer writer, community activist, business owner, and Great Lakes protection advocate, Cabala served three terms—12 years—on the Whitehall City Council.
Greg VanWoerkom, a Norton Shores resident, is the Republican vying for the 91st District. He is the district director for U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland) and previously served as the senior policy advisor to former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra.
Infrastructure and roadways
Cabala: Highlighting the American Society of Civil Engineers’ report that Michigan has some of the worst roads in the country (the state landed a D-plus on the engineers’ report card), the Democratic candidate said “because our roads are in such poor shape, we’ve had trouble attracting big businesses to our state.”
To fund better roads, Cabala said she’d like to “remove the burden of taxation from the lower and middle classes and have everybody pay their fair share. I’d be looking at a graduated income tax. For too long, we’ve given tax breaks to big corporations.”
VanWoerkom: The Republican candidate emphasized that state roads are in better condition than city, village and county roads. According to an Oct. 2 report from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank, 75 percent of state roads are in fair or good condition, while nearly half of city, village and county roads examined in the report were in poor condition.
“It doesn’t mean there’s not more to be done, but a lot of it is county and city roads that need to be addressed,” he said.
To make safe and well-built roads a priority, VanWoerkom said it could be time for Michigan to revisit Act 51 of 1951, which guides the state’s infrastructure spending.
“Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to start looking at that and addressing that to make sure those dollars are going to the communities, the counties that need it the most,” he said.
Ballot proposal 2: Independent redistricting commission initiative
As stated previously, voters will cast their ballots on whether to change how state and federal voting district lines are drawn during the Nov. 6 election. Proposal 2 would amend the Michigan Constitution and take the power to draw district lines away from whichever political party is in charge in Lansing. It would then create an independent redistricting commission. The 13-person commission would include five independent members, four Democrats, and four Republicans.
VanWoerkom: Citing concerns over amending the state Constitution, the Republican candidate said he’s worried Proposal 2 could end up being costly for Michigan.
“I’m very concerned of the costs associated with it and the fact that it will be in our Constitution because then we can’t amend it easily,” he said.
VanWoerkom too criticized the makeup of the proposed independent redistricting commission.
“It’s very difficult to actually be on that commission,” he said. “If you ever ran for precinct delegate, or your family member ever ran for delegate, you are not allowed to serve on this.”
Cabala: The Democrat is throwing her support behind Prop 2.
“We’ve gone to about 25,000 doors, and one of the things I’ve heard from people is they feel disenfranchised, and that’s one reason I support it,” she said.
“You can have a county with more Democrats than Republicans, but you get more Republican representation because of the way the lines are drawn,” she continued.
The independent commission is “an excellent start to this question of representation and making sure voters are represented fairly in our democratic process.”
Public water quality
Cabala: Like Sabo, Cabala noted that about 1.9 million Michiganders may be drinking water with PFAS contamination. She also questioned the state of Michigan using the federal guideline for dangerous levels of PFAS, despite studies that have reported negative health effects among people exposed to PFAS levels lower than the federal guideline.
“The effects of PFAS are very serious: cancers, infertility, and development problems with children,” she said. “…We need to make sure our agencies have enough staff to deal with these emerging issues and deal with them quickly.”
VanWoerkom: “Environment is important to me,” the candidate said. “It’s important to all of us.”
“We’ve got good corporate citizens trying to do the right thing, government trying to do the right thing,” he said in reference to addressing PFAS. “We’re a state going out and testing the water supply, the wells. We’re trying to get ahead of it and trying to be a leader on this issue.”
VanWoerkom: As the board president for Western Michigan Christian High and Middle School in Norton Shores, the candidate said of himself and his family that, “we are people who believe heavily in Christian education.”
VanWoerkom said he has sat down with school superintendents in the Muskegon area to discuss funding needs.
“We need to allow flexibility for administrators and teachers to use the [government] dollars as they see fit,” he said.
Cabala: A school teacher who comes from a family of educators, Cabala taught in public schools 30 years ago and has also been teaching in them for the past three years.
“We don’t have people who want to go into teaching in Michigan because our pay is dropping; benefits are being cut,” she said, adding that per-pupil funding needs to be increased in the state.
“School funding has not been the priority it need to be in our state,” she continued.
Taxpayer dollars should be going to public schools, not for-profit charters, Cabala said.
“There are teachers paying for their own supplies in public schools; schools are going without mental health professionals,” she said, citing the need for increased funding for education. “It’s obvious resources are limited in our schools.”
Cabala: Thirty years ago, Cabala got involved with the White Lake restoration efforts, which led to the formerly polluted White Lake being delisted as a federal area of concern in 2014.
“I have been involved in issues from fracking to renewable energy to protecting our sand dunes,” said Cabala, who noted she has been endorsed by the Sierra Club, one of the country’s leading environmental organizations.
Having worked with both Republicans and Democrats on environmental issues, Cabala said she would continue to reach across the aisle if elected.
“Clean water and protecting the Great Lakes are not partisan issues,” she said.
“In Michigan, we have some huge challenges,” Cabala continued. “What are we going to do about Nestle and large scale water withdrawals? We have pipeline issues; we have the PFAS issue; we have huge challenges regarding the environment.”
VanWoerkom: Emphasizing his work on such environmental projects as cleanup funding for Ruddiman Creek and Ryerson Creek, as well as writing legislation to protect Sleeping Bear Dunes, the Republican candidate said he’s “happy to stand on my record for protecting the environment.”
“That’s what makes unique in West Michigan, what draws us to West Michigan,” he said of the environment. “We take pride in our resources and the beauty that is West Michigan. It’s something I’ll continue to be an advocate for.”
Labor in Michigan
Cabala: Like Sias-Hernandez, Cabala slammed the “right-to-work” legislation.
“I don’t think it’s fair if you’re in workplace and you don’t pay union dues, you still get those salaries and those benefits,” she said and noted she has been endorsed by a number of unions, including the United Auto Workers, the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, the Michigan state AFL-CIO, and others.
“I’m endorsed by unions because I care about working families, and I believe workers should have a right to bargain for their salary,” she said.
VanWoerkom: “It’s a great time to be a Michigan worker,” the candidate said.
“It’s a great time to job shop,” he continued, saying there are more jobs than there are qualified workers.
“The number one issue is finding skilled workers,” he said. “…It’s tough to retain people because they’re finding better paying jobs elsewhere.”
Taxes need to be low to “create an environment to let companies grow and create jobs,” VanWoerkom said.
“We need to continue the progress and continue the training we have here,” he continued.
VanWoerkom: Praising changes in Michigan’s corporate tax structure—in 2011, Gov. Snyder signed legislation that replaced the state’s business tax with a flat corporate tax—VanWoerkom said Michigan is attracting large companies looking to relocate.
“We’re growing; we’re expanding,” he said. “You can see that here, at Arconic, at GE. They’re adding jobs.”
The flat corporate tax signed by Snyder in 2011 “made it an easier tax so we can bring more talent to the state,” VanWoerkom said.
A February 2018 report from Bridge Magazine reported the 2011 change in corporate taxes has led to to a state that is more heavily dependent on individual taxes.
“Nearly 70 percent of the revenue in the general fund budget this year comes from income taxes, up from 54.6 percent in the 2012 fiscal year,” Bridge wrote. “Business taxes, meanwhile, are an estimated 1.9 percent of the state revenue pot this year, considerably less than 12.4 percent in 2012.”
Cabala: “When we have gone to doors, we’ve met people working two, sometimes three jobs,” Cabala said. “There’s low unemployment, but there are low wages. There’s a tale of two districts: I’m not knocking on the doors of the biggest donors. When will the state legislature look after us?”
Large corporations have a better deal than individuals when it comes to taxes, Cabala said.
“They definitely are looking to give more benefits to those have a big corporation,” she said. “I don’t think [corporations] should get all the tax breaks and all the benefits.”
While corporations are receiving tax cuts, individuals are having trouble affording things like health care, the candidate continued.
“There’s a world out there of people who are struggling, and our state government needs to step up,” Cabala said.
Story and photos by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitterand Instagram.