April 23 2014 12:00 AM

Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing says upbringing will resonate with rural 8th Congressional District voters

A humble, hard-working farmer from Bunker Hill Township. Responsible with money, progressive on social issues. That’s the portrait Eric Schertzing paints of himself — and it is one that he believes will make him the next congressman from Michigan’s 8th District.

The gerrymandered district of Ingham and Livingston counties and the northern portion of Oakland County favors Republicans, particularly in a midterm election. To have a shot at it, the Democratic candidate is going to have to be perceived as moderate.

The 52-year-old Ingham County treasurer seems to recognize this. He is using those roots — and what he says is a middle-of-the-road approach to politics — as he emerges as the leading Democratic candidate to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers.

While four Democrats are seeking to replace Rogers, who is leaving for a talk-radio hosting job on the Cumulus network, Schertzing enters with the most name recognition and as the most likely candidate to get fundraising help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which reportedly has taken an interest in Schertzing’s campaign. Schertzing has served as county treasurer for over 13 years and also campaigned unsuccessfully in 1992 for the 67th state House district seat.

“I’m not a flamboyant individual,” he said in an interview Friday. “There’s not as much black and white as some people would like. There’s a lot of gray. I’m going to try to work the way up through a reasonable middle by focusing on problem solving.”

Schertzing was one of four Democrats collecting the necessary 1,000 signatures to get on the primary ballot. He is joined by 32-year-old Lansing attorney Jeffrey Hank, who organized the petition drive last year to legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana in the city of Lansing; 61-year-old Ken Darga, a retired state demographer positioning himself as the moderate economist; and 57-year-old Susan Grettenberger, a professor of social work at Central Michigan University.

Schertzing thinks he can “make this one of the top competitive districts in the country.” Not since 2008 during a presidential election and pre-gerrymandered district boundaries have Democrats had such a legitimate shot at the seat, he added. And it might be the Democrats’ best chance until the district is reapportioned after the 2000 U.S. Census.

“This is it,” he said. “This is the year for the full push.” He predicts competitive congressional races in the 1st District in northern Michigan and in the 7th District, which includes Eaton County. “I intend to make the 8th District the third.”

From the farm

Growing up on a family farm in rural Ingham County instilled in Schertzing the work ethic of a farmer.

“I think I’m still that farm boy at heart. You learn to work hard. The day starts early and days go late. Weekends are work,” he said. “That’s the spirit and the ethics of the application of work that I’ve brought to stuff.”

When Schertzing was 10, his father died of cancer. His mother also struggled with health issues during his upbringing. But he remembers reading Newsweek when he was 8, 9, 10 years old, watching Walter Cronkite on TV and “body bags coming back from Vietnam.” His father’s civic engagement, including his involvement with local and countywide politics, exposed Schertzing to politics early on.

On a ninth-grade field trip to Washington, Schertzing first met former Democratic Congressman Robert Carr, who served a total of nine terms in Michigan’s 6th and 8th House districts. As a sophomore in college, Schertzing worked on Carr’s comeback campaign in 1982. Schertzing would spend eight years as Carr’s legislative aide from 1983 to 1991.

In 1992, Schertzing campaigned unsuccessfully for the 67th state House District, which included outlying portions of Ingham County, Howell and Fenton. He was beaten by Republican Dan Gustafson of Haslett in the General Election that year 54 percent to 46 percent.

“As a farm boy at heart, that was a very comfortable district for me to spend time in and get to know,” he said. “That’s also a part of who I am who I think I can pull on the strength of that.”

After the campaign, Schertzing became chief deputy for Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann for seven years. In 2000, he defeated Republican Kirk Squiers to become Ingham County’s first Democratic county treasurer since 1922.

“I’ve always liked numbers and dealing with money,” Schertzing said. “I had to deal with that young as a child due to Mom and Dad’s sickness.” He has been re-elected every four years since.

‘Fiscally conservative, socially liberal’

Ex-boss Lindemann called Schertzing “an extraordinary candidate” for Congress. “He has one of the better chances of winning it. There isn’t anyone I would trust better than him to take on these very large issues on a federal level.”

Lindemann described Schertzing as “fiscally conservative but socially liberal.”

“I’d label him as a human-rights advocate for doing the right thing.”

Whether Republicans home in on Schertzing’s liberal side will be an issue of “political rhetoric,” Lindemann said. “It’s really quite different than that. I don’t think the public is that stupid to buy into that rhetoric.”

Susan Demas, editor and publisher of the political newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, said this weekend on the TV show “City Pulse Newsmakers” that it will be an “uphill battle” for any Democrat in this race, moderate or liberal. “It’s a 54 percent Republican district. … Certainly I don’t think he’s identified as a liberal as maybe (Lansing Mayor) Virg Bernero, but (Schertzing’s) politics are certainly to the left of probably some of the Democrats already in the race.”

Bernero briefly entertained the possibility of running for the open 8th District seat, but backed away even though it was “tempting” for him to fix the culture of a broken political system in D.C. Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum also considered a Congressional campaign but dropped out earlier this month.

Schertzing believes Livingston County — sandwiched between the left-leaning west end of the district and the conservative-leaning east end — will be “ground zero” for the race.

“My background growing up on a farm — that’s where I learned my work ethic that I bring to my public life. It’s an area I know a lot about,” Schertzing said. He also is familiar with the area after working for Carr. “The Oakland County portion I’ll have to do more time on.”

Competitive primary races for both Republicans and Democrats will place a premium on fundraising, where the advantage goes to Republicans. Schertzing plans a “first-class effort” in “dialing for dollars” and hopes the three Republican candidates from Oakland County will have tapped much of their fundraising resources in their own primary.

“Are there billionaires that will come into play and help out the Republicans? Probably,” Schertzing said. “But money, at some level eventually, has a fairly diminishing return. Otherwise, corporate America and billionaires would control everything, and we wouldn’t be here.”

Aside from fundraising, though, Demas said Democrats should hope for state Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester, to win the Republican primary over former Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop and Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett. McMillin is a member of the “liberty movement” brand of conservatism who has the potential to steal primary votes away from Barnett and Bishop, who are seen as more establishment Republicans.

While a primary for either party could drain resources, party leadership in Ingham County is excited about the prospect of one.

A primary fight “just brings more excitement and energy to the race,” Ingham County Democratic Party Chairwoman Sandra Zerkle said. “Hopefully we will come out stronger. It’s a real plus for the Democratic Party having four candidates interested in this race. It’s been kind of lackluster the past few years.”

Zerkle said she “sincerely doubts” the Ingham County Democratic Party will endorse anyone in the primary. She called all four candidates strong.

“Obviously, Eric has had more visibility and has been active in politics for a number of years,” Zerkle said. “But they each bring their own form of politics and their own views to the race.”

And on that point, Schertzing is staying focused on his roots.

“I still love getting in the dirt,” Schertzing said. “You can’t take the farm out of the farm boy.”

On the issues

Q&A with Eric Schertzing

Tuesday at 4 p.m. was the filing deadline for candidates in this year’s mid-term elections to get their names on the primary ballot. In Ingham County, four Democrats have lined up to try and replace outgoing U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers.

Below is a Q&A with Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing, the Democratic candidate with the most name recognition. Also below is an introduction to the three other Democrats: Ken Darga, Susan Grettenberger and Jeffrey Hank. On page 11, read more about Schertzing’s history in politics and why he’s portraying himself as a moderate Democrat.

How would you solve problems in what is widely considered a “broken Congress?”
I’m not nave about this stuff, but folks just have to talk more. Some basic human courtesies in the dialogue have been lost. Is the process going to try and suck you into those bitter partisan divides? Absolutely. But you’ve got to work harder to resist that and talk to folks.

Do you think this is the Democrats’ best chance in recent elections for picking up this seat?
This is the year for the full push. All of the folks are ready to make that push. We have two competitive congressional districts in Michigan: The 1st District in northern Michigan with Jerry Cannon as our candidate and then Pam Byrnes in the 7th Congressional District in Eaton County. I intend to make the 8th District the third.

What did Mike Rogers do well for the 8th District?
He did his politics really well. He came across when it was convenient as a moderate but he certainly didn’t legislate that way. He didn’t reach across the aisle. He was good on the auto industry where Democrats and Republicans in Michigan support manufacturing, but I think he was way too partisan. He was very caught up in fundraising and the money. I think that really turned him into a different individual when we sent him to Washington in 2000.

What are your funding priorities for getting money back to the district?
Education and infrastructure. And of course, education is part of the human infrastructure of the country. This country was built on high-quality infrastructure. That’s roads, sanitary and storm drains, our drinking water. The infrastructure issues are just mind-boggling in magnitude.

What should Congress be doing to when it comes to reining in the National Security Agency?
Some constitutional protections in our democracy have been blurred. The fear factor has been used so much to let folks think the government can do what they need to do. Certainly one of the primary responsibilities of government is to keep us all safe, and a decent job has been done on that. But you also have to defend and protect the Constitution and individual liberties. We’re in a great sortingout process in our country over what that’s going to look like.

Edward Snowden: A hero or a traitor?
Traitor is a little strong. That could be the camp he’d end up in. There is an awful lot of stuff that was going on that we’re not very well aware of. This is a government, supposedly, of the people, by the people and for the people. I think a lot of folks have forgotten that.

Does he deserve to be pardoned?
I think it’s too early for that, too, but I’m glad we can have both of those things in the discussion. That’s the full spectrum of the conversation: Pardon the traitor. Most things are somewhere in the middle. But the way we play everything to the extremes, we’re typically not saints or sinners. We’re somewhere in the middle.

How can the federal government or Congress reasonably approach issues of income inequality?
We have this fairly divided conversation on minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit. The Earned Income Tax Credit is one of the best things we’ve got going. It was Nixon who put that in place. It would be more helpful and more intelligent to talk about those two in combination so that the programs complement each other.

What is your position on marijuana legalization?
I would come down on legalizing, regulating and taxing it. Let’s control it. It could be a revenue source. And how much money have we pointlessly spent trying to eradicate it? It was prevalent when I was in high school in the ‘70s and it’s prevalent today.

Republicans have made it well known that they plan to attack Democrats on the Affordable Care Act in this midterm election. What is your strategy to combat that?
I grew up in a household with sick parents. I would ask people and I would look them in the eyes: What would you do living in that environment without health care? Who wants to be a parent and go through a process of not having health insurance that takes care of things when your child is sick? Health care needs to be available to everybody. Obamacare is not perfect, but there’s no alternative that the Republicans have come up with that stands up to it at all.

Rogers likes to talk about the concept of “American exceptionalism.” How do you view the country’s stature in the world?
Absolutely we’re an exceptional country. But we’ve got to make sure that we remain true to our constitutional values. We’re not doing the things we need to do with infrastructure and education to be as strong a country as we should be.