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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