The subject is Michigan’s cratered roads.
Lansing, Rochester, Howell, Brighton.
Wherever Elissa Slotkin’s travels in her quest for the 8 th Congressional District seat, the number one complaint isn’t all that different.
“How many people here have had to take their car to the shop in last 12 months for a bent rim or some other repair because you’ve hit a pothole? Let’s see a show of hands,” Slotkin asked this gathering of a few dozen people at East Lansing’s Hannah Center.
Most everybody’s right hand shoots up.
Slotkin’s guest, U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., lets out an audible gasp.
Slotkin had put together a panel Monday at Foster Community Center on Lansing’s east side to talk about Michigan’s cruddy roads. Michigan Rep. Tom Cochran, D-Mason, lamented that Republicans haven’t gotten the job done. If only “politicians” would quit worrying about the next election and raise taxes to the correct levels …
A former Lansing roads engineer, Jan Dykema, said basically the thing. Every Michigan road that’s built or fixed must meet certain state and federal standards. You couldn’t purposely build a bad road if you wanted to. The bottom line: Roads aren’t fixed or replaced unless you pay for them.
The hour-long campaign event was following a familiar pattern: A politician shares a hand-wringing catharsis with local experts and some members of the public over a seemingly unsolvable Rubik’s cube. The politician promises some vague action. Everyone goes home feeling like they “did something.”
But as the event closed, Slotkin deviated from the script.
“I wanted this issue to be more complicated than it is, but it is all about money,” she told the room. “It’s about choices and it’s about leadership. It’s as simple as that. If we invest in ourselves, we will have the roads we deserve and the water system our kids deserve. Until then, we will not.”
So, let’s recap.
The Democratic frontrunner to face U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, this fall endorsed raising taxes for roads, implicitly endorsing the U.S. House Democrats’ plan to raise the federal gas tax a penny a year for the next 30 years.
“That is something we haven’t seen for a long time — somebody who is honest about what we need to do,” said a smiling Annie Woiwode, a former Meridian Township trustee, as she left the event.
Ingham County Democrats are getting giddy about Slotkin. They believe the 41-year-old former defense security adviser and CIA agent under presidents Bush and Obama will break 20 years of solid Republican representation in a district that includes typically red Livingston and northern Oakland counties, usually more than offsetting blue Ingham County.
CNN and NBC News are among the national news outlets that have used Slotkin as the public face of the national trend of more professional women running for public office in the post-Donald Trump world.
Between Jan. 1 and March 30, no other Michigan congressional candidate — Republican or Democrat, incumbent or non-incumbent — raised more money or had more cash in the bank than Elissa Slotkin.
A year ago, nobody knew Elissa Slotkin Theresa Rosado/CityPulse from Eve. Last month, Slotkin trailed Bishop, a two-term incumbent, in a head-to-head Target Insyght/MIRS News poll 45 to 39 percent. And she hasn’t even dipped into her purse, for mailers, TV ads, radio spots or Internet banner ads.
Two years ago, Practical Political Consultant’s Mark Grebner described Democrats’ attraction to Michigan’s 8 th Congressional District to a moth’s attraction to candles. The closer they get, the more likely they are to get burned. Made sense.
After Dianne Byrum lost by 111 votes, Democrats have made varying degrees of effort to win back a seat that’s been since gerrymandered in such a way that the Republican should win with at least 55 percent of the vote, all things being equal.
Since 2002, former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers and Bishop have defeated their Democratic opponents an average of 59.25 to 38 percent. At no time did they win by less than a 10 percent margin.
When asked Tuesday about Slotkin’s chances, Grebner threw his crystal ball into the trash.
“All predictions are less certain this year because the situation is so different from the world we have known,” Grebner said cryptically. “Partly because Trump has changed things, and partly because there may be an immense anti-GOP wave. Or not.”
How are things different? Look around the country. Last week, a Republican won a congressional seat with 52.61 percent of the vote that the prior Republican won in 2016 with 68.6 percent of the vote. Democrat Conor Lamb narrowly won his Pennsylvania congressional seat after Republicans had held it every year since — like Michigan’s 8 th Congressional — 2002.
Democrats aren’t winning every special election, but in those educated, suburban districts where Trump did worse than he should have, Dems are funneling money from excited progressives from the east and west coasts and making life uncomfortable for Republican officeholders.
Elissa Slotkin fits squarely into that playbook.
“I consider her one of the top candidates in the entire nation,” Bustos said. “The path to a Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives goes right through Elissa Slotkin’s district.”
In past years, national Democratic and progressive money flooded the Lansing TV stations with ads against U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg in the Eaton County/Jackson County-based 7 th District.
This year, the Cook Political Report has Michigan’s 8 th in the “Lean Republican” category while the 7 th is in the less-certain “Likely Republican” slot. Outside of Michigan’s open 11 th Congressional seat, the big money will be on the 8 th because of people like Kathleen VanPoppelen.
The self-described Rochester Republican has voted Republican as far back as you want to go — Reagan, Bush, McCain. She did vote Libertarian Gary Johnson last year. She couldn’t stomach Trump or Hillary.
Nowadays, she and her old nursing pals complain about the “despicable rhetoric” from Washington. She dodged a metal tie bar poking out of a gutted-up Macomb County road the other day.
“It’s terrible,” she said. “I feel that there are people yelling at each other from both sides and we have to find someone who will just get some things done.”
Begrudgingly, VanPoppelen accepted her “more liberal” sister’s invitation to meet Slotkin at an event. She didn’t really think she’d connect with a Democrat.
And, yet, she did.
On Monday, VanPoppelen took up a challenge from her nursing friends to get involved. She showed up at Slotkinsponsored breakfast at a cute Rochester diner with about 15 other Republican and independent women.
“This is somebody who knows how to get this done,” VanPoppelen said. “We need more people like here.”
How can she say that? Slotkin moved back to her family’s Holly farm last year from D.C. To the best of anyone’s research, she’s never voted in the 8 th Congressional District before, let alone voted on any public board or commission.
Who is this woman? Slotkin grew up in Holly, where her grandfather set up a family cattle farm to supply his meat business, Hygrade Foods. Back in the day, Tiger Stadium was looking for hot dogs that wouldn’t shrivel up by the 8 th inning so the company created the Ballpark frank, which “plumps when you cook it.”
The hot dog was a hit, even though — ironically — Slotkin doesn’t like hot dogs and her adult brother grew up to be a vegetarian.
Growing up, her family was one of means. Her parents divorced when she was at home and she moved around Oakland County. The meat company was gradually sold and the cattle gone by the 1980s. She went to private Bloomfield Hills boarding school Cranbrook, where she did well enough to get accepted into the Ivy League school Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. She got her bachelor’s there. She got her Master’s from another Ivy League School, Columbia University, in New York City.
While at Columbia, she said she felt a calling to military service after the Sept. 11 attacks and joined the Central Intelligence Agency as a Middle East analyst, before moving to the White House as National Security Council staff. In total, she served three tours in Iraq, never having served as a political appointment.
She returned to Michigan for a spell after her mother, a breast cancer survivor, lost her health coverage and struggled to find comparable insurance with her preexisting condition. A short time later, Judith Slotkin, a Detroit-area public relations professional, was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. Her family resumed her previous coverage via a loophole, Slotkin said, but her family had to cut checks up to $6,000 for MRIs and other services.
Judith Slotkin died March 14, 2011.
Elissa doesn’t shy away from talking about it. She feels she can relate to those who have needed Obama’s Affordable Care Act so they didn’t gut their personal savings or fall into bankruptcy to pay medical bills.
Right about the time Trump became president, Slotkin left her Washington job and returned to that family farm to “reset.” The animals are gone and a neighbor leases the land to grow soybeans.
“I was looking for my next step after being in government for 14 years and I was asked to do some work on an Iraqrelated matter,” she said. “Every time I’ve had a sort of life change, I’ve come back to Michigan to reset, to find out what’s going on. That’s always the place I come back to figure out what my next steps.”
She said she set up a consulting business called Pinpoint Consulting until she decided the next step for her was a run for Congress.
The enthusiasm within Democratic circles was immediate, suspiciously so for Republicans. They see Slotkin as a D.C-transplant recruited by national Democrats to “parachute” into the 8 th Congressional District with her impressive resume.
A sharp female candidate with some family money who has served in national security under presidents of both major parties? You couldn’t draw a better candidate with a pencil and blank paper.
Shining a light on her absence from the district most of her adult life is what Ingham County Republican Party Chair Yavonne Whitbeck did in her comments on Slotkin and Bustos’ tour this week.
“D.C. insiders Cheri Bustos and Elissa Slotkin both know very little about Michigan’s 8 th District,” Whitbeck said. “Neither has voted here and neither owns property in the 8 th ’s District. Nancy Pelosi is flooding Michigan’s 8 th District with out-of-state money to help Elissa Slotkin and now she is sending in one of her top lieutenants.
“Folks who have vested interest in our community, and actually pay property taxes in Michigan, we are not buying this charade.”
(As a side note, when asked if she would support Pelosi for House speaker if elected with a Democratic majority, Slotkin said this month, “People are saying they want new leaders and we need to hear that. They want a new generation and someone who represents my district, my state and that is someone new.”) Slotkin and her husband, Dave Moore, claimed their Washington home as their homestead for tax purposes when she launched her campaign, but they quit doing so after Bishop attack her for doing so. Moore works in D.C. four days a week as a counter terrorism planner for the Pentagon. The couple needs the paycheck, she said.
During a 1320-AM WILS interview, Bishop compared his latest challenger to Georgia’s Jon Osseff. Both are funded with out-of-state money and have little adult ties to their respective districts.
“I don’t believe she knows the district,” Bishop said. “The first vote she has will be for herself.”
Slotkin is not deterred, saying that such a line of attacks smells of someone who hasn’t felt competition from a “very long time.”
“If a sitting representative needs to attack on that issue, it means they have nothing to be proud of with their record,” she told City Pulse during a “Michigan’s Big Show” radio interview.
State Rep. Cochran said Bishop is struggling in Lansing. He’s not accessible. He doesn’t hold regular coffee hours. Slotkin herself conceded she wouldn’t have run against Rogers, a national security expert, because Rogers had a national security background and kept an office in Lansing.
Bishop closed the office and is rarely seen in Ingham County. Slotkin pledged to re-open the office, and that’s alluring to folks like Cochran. Her town hall — six months before she could be elected to anything — shows him she’s dedicated to meeting with constituents.
She claims that’s what she’s been doing the last few months. Going door to door in the snow, learning what’s on people’s minds. That’s what helps make the engaging Slotkin a rare candidate, Bustos said. She’s connecting … at least in the eyes of people who want that connection to happen.
“You need to be available. Most people want to have the ability to sit and talk with that person. Have a conversation.
They want to be heard,” said Cochran before making this bold predication: “She will be our next congressperson.” (Kyle Melinn is news editor and co-owner of MIRS, a Capitol newsletter.)