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Michigan State Senator Sponsors Bill That Furthers Husband’s Political Career

by P.D. Lesko

Voters who meet Democratic state Senator Rebekah Warren are sure to notice that she is warm and approachable. As a politico she is known among local political insiders as a tireless campaigner with an enviable ability to organize grassroots efforts that have knocked off well-funded opponents. In the case of former Third Ward Council member Leigh Greden, when he challenged Warren for the 53rd District House seat she handed him his lunch, beating him with 65 percent of the vote. Longtime Lansing politico, and Speaker Pro Tem of the Michigan House, Representative Pam Byrnes (52nd District), presented more of a challenge when the two women faced off for the 18th District state senate seat vacated by Liz Brater. Nonetheless, Warren won with 55.5 percent of the vote in the August 2010 Democratic primary.

Warren (left) ran hard for the Michigan Senate on the promise that she would be able to work with her Republican colleagues in the Senate. Over and over, at campaign events, she told the audience that she had watched “good legislation” die in the Michigan House because the Republican Senate refused to come to the table. In a July 7, 2010 piece posted to the AnnArborChronicle.com Warren “cited her record of strong bi-partisanship and shared solutions. She told the audience that they could count on her to find compromise solutions that do not compromise their values. She’s successfully negotiated legislation that has been signed into law by the governor, she said, with significant bi-partisan support. She’s encouraged by the progress that’s been made.” She also told voters, “she was willing to be the lone no vote who will say, ‘this is not the right direction for the state,’” according to the same AnnArborChronicle.com piece. Rebekah Warren promised to speak out on behalf of her constituents.

Has she kept those promises? Yes and no.

Warren’s team crafted an attractive campaign platform, yet Byrnes led in the polls in summer 2010. Then, five days before the August 2010 primary election a right-leaning PAC funded primarily by the DeVos family and the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party inexplicably sent out a series of postcards in support of Byrnes, as well as pieces that attacked Warren’s attendance record. Byrnes campaign claimed to have no knowledge of the PAC’s intentions to support her, and attack Warren.

In July 2010 Warren told AnnArbor.com, “[s]he can only conclude the DeVos family and other Republicans are opposing her because she is more liberal, pro-choice, pro-LGBT rights and supports strong public schools. She said they ‘hate’ those things and must find more support for their causes within Byrnes.”

There is another theory: high-level state Republicans were persuaded that Warren and her husband, Democrat Conan Smith (right), a Washtenaw County Commissioner, could be more politically cooperative and useful than Pam Byrnes. The high-profile support from the right-wing PAC was, then, a clever hit job that knee-capped Byrnes five days before the election, allowing Warren to smoothly paint her opponent as supportive of conservative political agendas.

Yet, in January of 2011 it was Ann Arbor’s Senator Rebekah Warren who escorted Republican Governor Rick Snyder to the podium when he delivered his State of the State speech. In March 2011, Warren voted against Snyder’s Emergency Manager law, reviled by progressive politicos and political analysts nation-wide as “anti-democratic,” “unconstitutional,” and “anti-union.” Then, Warren’s husband, the son of state legislator and gubernatorial candidate Alma Wheeler-Smith, told AnnArbor.com, “We absolutely need it [the Emergency Manager law]. When we have cities that are in crisis, they have to get some oversight, they need to get some new tools. This legislation includes empowerment of city councils and existing city managers to tools that they don’t have. That is absolutely necessary given some of the financial situations that cities are going to be in, in particular, and townships.”

To be sure, Senator Warren got endorsements and political donations from many of Snyder’s Ann Arbor Democratic supporters including Rene and Matt Greff, owners of Arbor Brewing Company. The Greffs are local Dems who donated close to $5,000 to Rick Snyder’s campaign. Their endorsement posted to Warren’s campaign web site was glowing: “Rebekah Warren is ideologically driven without being an ideologue – she has one of the most finely-tuned moral compasses in Lansing. And she has a proven ability to compromise without ever compromising our core values. She combines a clear vision of where we need to go with the rare ability to win the necessary buy-in to actually get us there. Quite simply, Rebekah gets things done.”

However, between January and June 2011, Warren did not co-sponsor any bipartisan bills, despite her assertions that voters “could count on her to find compromise solutions.” In fact, according to Senate records, between March 2011 and November 2011, Senator Warren voted against 25 of the 27 piece of key legislation introduced in that chamber.  Many of her no votes were in line with how the rest of the Senate’s handful of Dems voted. On the other hand, somewhat inexplicably, one of the two pieces of key legislation Senator Warren supported in 2011, was the 1 percent paid health claims assessment. The new assessment was slammed via Twitter on November 14, 2011 by the Michigan Democratic Party: “This is a Snyder tax increase” the MDP complained to its social media followers. Warren’s other yes vote in 2011 was in favor of the Republican redistricting of Michigan that has been heavily criticized by the MDP Chair Mark Brewer as “political and racial gerrymandering.”

A politico who has represented Ann Arbor in the State House characterized Senator Warren and Conan Smith thusly: “Warren and her husband are opportunists. That’s the political party they belong to.” It’s obviously not the first time Warren has faced questions of opportunism. At a July 2010 candidate forum it was reported she told voters, “[S]he works hard, takes her responsibility seriously and does not do it [serve in the Michigan legislature] just for a job.”

While the Greffs praised Warren’s “finely-tuned moral compass,” Warren’s first bill with bipartisan support plays into the hands of her critics and contradicts the claims of those who endorsed her for the job. In fact, her sponsorship of the bill raises questions about ethics, and whether Senator Rebekah Warren is using her position to further the political ambitions of her husband. In addition, in September of 2011, Warren found herself outed by national political columnist Susan J. Demas as one of only 4 Michigan legislators who accepted over $1,800 in “free lunches” from lobbyists in 2011. The $1,804 worth of food and drink Senator Warren caged puts her solidly near the top in amounts accepted, and only one of two Dems in the 11 member heavily Republican group who’ve accepted over $1,000 in food and drink from lobbyists.

In June 2011, Rebekah Warren announced that she was planning to co-sponsor a three part bill to create a regional transit authority (RTA) in Southeastern Michigan; the RTA is a Snyder initiative. Warren wrote in her press release about the package of bills: “We’re very pleased that the Republican chair of the Transportation Committee is the lead sponsor of one of the bills in the package and a co-sponsor of all the other bills.” Four months after Senator Warren co-sponsored the RTA legislation, her husband Conan Smith was “appointed to the planning committee for the authority along with the governor, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and other officials from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties,” according to an October 2011 piece posted to AnnArbor.com.

After 10 months in office as a senator, Warren has been unable to find the “compromise solutions” she pledged to find while on the campaign trail. The only bill for which she rustled up bipartisan support has been one that furthers the political ambitions of her own husband.

A member of the Michigan Senate who spoke on condition of anonymity summed up Senator Warren’s performance by describing her as “hard-working,” “dedicated,” and a “Snyder Democrat.” It’s a description that might have had less chilling implications a year ago, but one that carries with it today a clearly less bipartisan connotation. 

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Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=11258

18 Comments for “Michigan State Senator Sponsors Bill That Furthers Husband’s Political Career”

  1. I want to see someone do a spoof of the Board of Commissioners scandal involving per diems and mileage claims involving Conan Smith and three other commissioners. Just like what was done with E-Mailgate.

    Let’s commission mugs, sweatshirts and T-shits emblazoned with slogans like “Pay up Conan” and “I’ll go the extra mile for reimbursement and a per diem”.

    Conan has hurt his own image by failing to remit overpayments and the electorate should vote him out of office next year.

  2. Boy I don’t buy regional cooperation based voluntarily.That the
    attitude that makes the buses in Detroit stop at Eight Mile
    and turn back to the city…

  3. The support for this regional transportation authority is alarming. For one thing it is naïve. Seems that “regional cooperation” is the current magic word that makes “petty local interests” vanish. The problem is that those petty local interests are compounded at regional levels. The deficits in democratic process that make a mess of finances in a city or township only multiply when local scrutiny is no longer possible.

    Regional cooperation is beneficial only if it is voluntary. This legislation does away with local control of transportation dollars. We are a long way from a functional transportation system in Ann Arbor even though we’ve been paying a millage since the 70’s to support our AATA. The answer for that, supporters of the RTA would claim, is even less control and oversight from locals.

    The design flaw of this legislation is top down management removed from the people who are paying for it. What if we are unhappy with the service? What if the routes do nothing to ease congestion within our city, do nothing to get us on the bus. What if our taxes support a rail system to nowhere—yet (Transit Oriented Design—another magic word of the day allows transportation dollars to be diverted to routes where developers have already bought up land).

    Conan Smith is no friend of democracy. He elevates efficiency to an end rather than a means to an end. For this reason, when ever he can get away with it, he dispenses with the messy processes that begin with citizens. With him on the board we’ll not have a voice in how our transportation system will develop. “Move out of the way, people” and “let the experts decide” are the wonkish mantras of the Conan Smiths of this world.

    This legislation needs to be gutted and rewritten with much more input from the people who will be paying for it. I doubt if Warren’s “values” would drive her to do this.

    And now a word about those vaunted “values”. The Warren-Smiths love to talk about their values. These are always vague, but shared with us or another politician they support. But what are those values? The problem with “values” is that they are not an operating system. Values are for evaluation—a pricing system. So let’s say the Warren-Smiths value “fairness”. We don’t know how much they value fairness—a penny a pound or a dollar? For values to mean anything at all, they need to derive from principles. And this is where the Warren-Smiths falter. They appear to operate as though efficiency were a governing principle. And indeed it is–in fascist-corporate states, but not in democracies. For the Warren-Smiths, there are four branches of government—the executive, legislative, judicial and the wonk.

    Our task is to re-educate the Warren-Smiths, the Snyders, the Dingells, the Levins and Stabenows along with the Heiftjes and all their compatriots. There are, indeed, four branches of government. But the fourth branch–forgotten, withering on the vine– is the citizenry. Courage!

  4. @Dave D.

    I certainly believe Conan should repay the money; I think all of the WashCo officials should repay the money. I think they should be held accountable for that.

    But, in an age when anybody can say anything about anybody, I’ll fight against lazy logic anyday. I’m not an ideologue. Just because I disagree with somebody on one decision, doesn’t mean that all other decisions he/she makes are bad. And just because person A is corrupt or under suspicion, doesn’t mean person B is corrupt, eg. the comparison of federal investigations of officials in Wayne County being cited to defend a rather fact-less attack on Warren and Smith.

    As the old Wendy’s commercial goes, where’s the beef? Not here.

  5. #Brandon it would be a better world if the people we elected to office actually behaved the way you believe they do but it’s got to be said that sponsoring a bill for something that her husband then gets to sit on the board of is not just some coincidence, sorry. I am surprised this post forgot to include the fact that Conan Smith still owes money to the county. That goes toward character-both his and Rebekah Warren’s.

  6. And I’m all for ‘regional transit’ too. But I don’t trust Ann Arbor’s Mayor for one second on the issue and that’s colored my views on the subject–giving away parkland to the University that hired his
    wife, created a ‘teaching’ job for him, building a train station without a funding or a regional train, etc. etc. AND I don’t enjoy skimming my tax dollars for AATA and using them to leverage a regional or country-wide plan when improvements should be made to existing Ann Arbor services. AND I especially don’t trust Conan Smith.

  7. I’ve supported Ms. Warren in the past, voted for her each time she’s run for office and contributed more than once financially to her political campaigns as well. I like her too. But this past year she’s been very silent and mostly a “Snyder Democrat” and playing it very safe as a politician. The ‘free lunch’ thing is
    symbolic, her redistricting vote was repulsive and…I’m waiting for her to live up to the promise of being able to accomplish things in a ‘bipartisan’ way. Or at least to speak up against the horrible things being pushed through by the Republicans in Lansing. The fact her first ‘bipartisan’ effort is something Rick Snyder no doubt lobbied her on and he husband has an vested interest in would be ok with me if there were other statements, other accomplishments in the past year. But there haven’t been. Her husband sucking up to Snyder because his mommy wasn’t on the Democratic ticket for Governor is bad enough, his support of Emergency Managers makes me sick but I don’t hear Warren speaking out on this issue at all other than a token vote against the original bill. I think she has a good moral compass as well–it’s why I’ve supported her in the past. But times call for speaking out and she isn’t.

  8. I like Rebekah Warren, and I think your criticism isn’t that accurate
    or warranted. I believe she does have a good moral compass,
    and I like many of her votes. So what if her husband doesn’t
    agree with her on EM, he’s not her clone.
    Yes, there’s plenty of nonsense that goes on in Washtenaw
    County but this line of argument doesn’t hold much water
    with me.

  9. Pat-fortunately we have a subscription to the Freep and get our
    daily dose on the sordid Wayne County slimmy political dealings.
    But of course, not ONE mention in the local media about the
    Roxbury connection to the Library Lot fiasco and how the group
    is being investigated by the Department of Justice. And no mention
    today of Ms. Warren and her free lunches with their cut
    and paste linked story from the Freep.

    • @Alan, I noticed the free lunch omission. As for the Roxbury Group, that’s something I’m looking into for a future piece. I got a tip that the Feds are already looking at Ann Arbor, but I haven’t confirmed it yet.

  10. @A2politico,

    Okay, you’re comment was much clearer than your original post; I can almost follow you this time, but I’m not being obtuse, I’m being honest.

    How does being on the study body for a regional mass transit authority benefit Conan Smith personally, as you would suggest in a charge of cronyism? This body does NOT control millions of dollars. (Does it even have a budget?) Even if it did control millions of dollars, if it funded mass transit in Washtenaw County, how would Conan benefit personally? Because he could ride the train along with the rest of us?

    If you think putting this position on his resume is a personal benefit, you’re out to lunch. This won’t make him politically popular. Just the opposite. If he has any wider political ambitions — and I have no idea, I’ve never met the man — serving on a study committee that could recommend a tax to fund regional mass transit is not the way to do it.

    • @Brandon, you’re being honest, so that means (and I say this as softly as I can), you have not the first clue about politics in Washtenaw County or Ann Arbor. It makes incest look normal.

      The FBI is in the middle of probing Wayne County pols for doing many of the same kinds of creepy, sleazy, shady crap that those who serve on, say, AATA, Ann Arbor SPARK and the the DDA Boards pull with and for their pals. I am hoping the Feds’ investigation of the Roxbury Group (which was recently hired by the city to help evaluate the Library Lot proposals) leads straight to Ann Arbor City Hall and the Washtenaw County Commissioners Urban County group.

      Keep on believing that pols serve on boards and commissions that don’t benefit them personally and professionally, and I’ll keep an eye out for my pal Santa Claus on or around the 25th of next month!

  11. You need to look again at the bills that Rep. Warren has sponsored. These are hardly the only ones that can be considered “bipartisan”. I also think the idea that a Regional Transit Authority would never have happened without her sponsoring legislation for it is unrealistic. Most major metropolitan areas have them and it was simply a matter of time before Michigan did. I’m with Brandon on this, this appointment of Smith isn’t such a plum that warrants charges of unethical behavior. The lunch thing maybe. I had a look at the Michigan Campaign Finance Network study and she’s up there, for sure. But, then too, she’s joined by many others and it’s all legal. Not sometime I’m particularly concerned with unless I see it impacting her votes or the legislation she’s writing.

    And, by the way, getting a bill passed through the state senate in your first ten months in office is not insignificant. Many of our other Reps of both persuasions have zero.

  12. The Democratic Party in Michigan needs to work to either recall or run challengers in future primaries for tools like Ann Arbor’s Conan Smith who proudly supports the State appointed, anti-democracy Emergency Manager. When you look in the dictionary for ‘Suck Up Career Ladder Climbing Political Hack’ guessing you’ll find a smiling picture of Mr. Smith next to the entry.

  13. I don’t understand this. Are you against the Regional Transit Authority? I’m not. I think it’s essential and so do most experts in the area of transit in Michigan. Being against it simply because Governor Snyder is FOR it seems odd.

    And Conan Smith hardly needs being on the RTA to “further his career”. He’s already been a County Commish at one of the most successful counties in the state. He’s the Executuve Director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance with a passion for this topic (and well-compensated for it, unless I miss my guess.) He seems a very solid choice to participate.

    And, at least for me, its no surprise he and his wife share a passion for mass transit as a way of decreasing pollution, conserving energy, and reducing traffic congestion. I can tell you that my wife and I share passions about many topics. That’s why we’re married!

    To suggest that Warren sponsored this legislation in order to promote her husband’s career is demeaning to a woman I think is a solid Democrat. I have yet to see any evidence that she’s a Snyder supporter on anything that I consider to be against my beliefs as a Democrat.

    Your criticism of her accepting too many free lunches is valid, if true. But I don’t see anything here to suggest anything even remotely unethical in Conan Smith being on the RTA. The RTA is a good thing and Smith is a good choice for it. And, to be clear, the RTA enjoyed bipartisan support.

    There’s not even smoke here, much less fire., in my opinion.

    • @Chris, where do I begin? Your question “Are you against regional transit,” misses the point of the piece, I think. Whether I am for or against regional transportation is not really the point. If Conan doesn’t need to sit on the RTA to further his career, he wouldn’t be there. He wouldn’t be there if his wife had not used her position to introduce legislation. She ran on a promise of bipartisanship. In 10 months, the only bipartisan legislation she has introduced is the RTA package.

      I’m not suggesting anything: the facts speak for themselves. She campaigned on a variety of promises. Her votes speak for themselves. Her proposed legislation speaks for itself.

      Conan might be a good choice for the RTA, but there would be no RTA without his wife and her position as an elected official. I’m glad she could help him out. Now, what about the rest of the 380,000 folks in Washtenaw County? She hasn’t managed to do much for them yet.

  14. Meh.

    I’m confused.

    First Warren is depicted as buds with Snyder, but then she votes against his Emergency Manager legislation — which her husband supports as head of the suburbs coalition.

    Then she’s too ideological, voting against legislation in lock-step with the Dems in the Senate. Okay…

    And then she’s supporting a Snyder initiative regarding regional mass transit. Her husband will serve on the planning body as head of the suburbs coalition. Okay, I guess I’ve lost the thread. She can’t find bipartisan solutions, except when she supports regional mass transit it’s to further the ambitions of her husband?

    Really? Sorry, I just don’t buy that. It could be that regional mass transit would benefit Washtenaw County — in fact, the AATA has been spinning its wheels trying to find a regional role for itself and many Washtenaw County residents — as well as our economy — could benefit by regional mass transit.

    To make a charge of cronyism, Conan’s got to actually benefit by being on a planning commission. He’s already a WasCo commissioner — and nobody really cares about his day job in the surburbs alliance; I mean, when was the last time somebody voted for him because of that job. If you think it furthers your political ambitions to serve gratis on a planning body that will make a recommendation that will probably be denounced by the forces of the status quo — does that inlude a2politico — then go ahead, make that charge.

    • @Brandon, if you think someone sits on a committee with the governor of a state, a committee that will decide, literally, how tens of millions of tax dollars will be divvied up among four counties does not result in any benefits, you’re being politically naive or somewhat obtuse. AATA has been MADE to spin its wheels by people appointed to the AATA Board by John Hieftje. Hieftje has been trying mightily to figure out how the millage money paid by Ann Arbor taxpayers can be used outside of Ann Arbor and on trains instead of buses.

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