It didn’t seem possible even eight months ago. With a 67-43 majority in the Michigan House of Representatives after the 2008 elections, the Democrats’ advantage in the lower chamber looked secure for years.
Now Republicans believe they have a realistic shot to take a majority in the Michigan House, and there’s an outside shot that whether they do depends on what happens in the Lansing area, which features three competitive races.
Rep. Barb Byrum, D-Onondaga, and Rep. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing, are facing their toughest general election challenges to date from a pair of fiscal conservatives with local government experience. In Eaton County, Democrats are holding onto hopes they can steal an open seat that has trended away from Republicans the last two election cycles.
In Byrum’s south Lansing/rural Ingham County 67th District, former Vevay Township Supervisor Jeff Oesterle is the former president of the local Farm Bureau and believes he has a name that is as familiar as Byrum’s in rural Ingham County, where he was born and raised.
Oesterle has let his sons run the farm while he campaigns seven days a week knocking on doors. He questions Byrum’s support for the Michigan Business Tax, which he "absolutely" believes must be eliminated. He’s open to Republican gubernatorial nominee Rick Snyder’s corporate income tax, but wants to see other options.
Byrum is a lifelong resident of the district, too. She attended school in Holt but graduated from Leslie High School and Michigan State University. The daughter of former Rep. and Sen. Dianne Byrum, she chairs the influential House Insurance Committee.
Byrum, 33, said the MBT surcharge, which she pays as the owner of a hardware store, needs to be repealed. However, instead of focusing on ditching the entire tax, the Legislature needs to continue reforming state government with measures like the 10 percent legislative pay cut, which she supported.
More audits need to be done of state government across the board, she said, to make sure every taxpayer dollar is spent wisely.
Traditionally, Meadows’ East Lansing/ Meridian Township-based 69th House District has been out of reach for Republicans, but there’s a buzz this year about Meridian Township Supervisor Susan McGuillicuddy, whose strong conservation credentials regarding land use are well known in Okemos and Haslett. She chairs of the Michigan chapter of "Republicans for Environmental Protection."
On fiscal issues, though, McGuillicuddy said she is a strong conservative who supports cutting the MBT and the personal property tax as a way to improve the state’s business climate. In order to balance the state’s budget she said she would ask each department to justify expenses to weed out government waste.
With the state facing at least a $1.6 billion hole in Fiscal Year 2012, McGuillicuddy, 56, wasn’t specific about what programs she would cut, other than opposing the $40 million note the Department of Transportation took out to balance this year’s budget. She remained open to such options as selling state assets like highways and the Mackinac Bridge.
Meadows, 63, is in his second House term and chairs the Judiciary Committee, which Meadows has used to explore term limits, public employee retirement and many other hot subjects.
The former East Lansing mayor is sponsoring legislation to eliminate the 22 percent MBT surcharge, which he voted for as a temporary alternative for the sales tax on services. The MBT itself is one of the country’s lowest state business taxes, he said.
But Meadows says cutting taxes by $2.7 billion, as McGuillicuddy is suggesting, would mean releasing "multitudes of prisoners," eliminate Medicaid coverage for the state’s poor and eliminate the state’s ability to provide adult and children’s protective services.
"Essentially, what she is proposing is the elimination of state government," he said, adding he is “not being dramatic at all. If you combine $2.7 billion with the $1.6 billion hole that we project in revenues, what you’ve done is eliminate the ability for state government to operate."
In Eaton County, Democrats have been excited about the prospects of Rep. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, being term-limited out of office and potentially picking up the seat. An expansion of the Lansing suburbs into Delta Township has helped Democrats earn a majority on the Eaton County Board of Commissioners.
Republican Deb Shaughnessy, 49, the former Charlotte mayor, said she hopped into the 71st state House race early to make sure that didn’t happen.
"I said when I got into this race a year and a half ago that no Republican candidate was going to work harder than me to keep this seat in Republicans’ hands," she said.
Shaughnessy, a customer service representative for Charlotte Insurance, won handily a hard-fought primary. Jones did not endorse Shaughnessy in the primary because of some critical remarks the candidate’s former campaign manager made about Jones. The campaign manager is no longer working on Shaughnessy’s campaign and Jones said the GOP in Eaton County is as unified as ever.
Democrat Theresa Abed, 56, is a school social worker of more than 30 years, serving students in preschool through post-secondary education. An Eaton County commissioner, Abed said she’s hearing at the doors a feeling of disillusionment. Voters are concerned that the person elected in the 71st District will continue down the same path as past state representatives and not truly represent the district, she said.
"It’s important for the voters to see that you are passionate. You are wanting to advocate for their needs and you really want to make a difference and not go along with the partisanship," she said.
In the 68th House District, two-term Rep. Joan Bauer, D-Lansing, 60, the House’s point on higher education funding, is running against retired Lansing Fire Department Capt. Timothy Moede, 56.
In the 23rd Senate District, Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, 39, a favorite to lead the Democrats as minority leader in 2011, is running against Republican law school student Kyle Haubrich, 30, whose been endorsed by the Tea Party-supported iCaucus.