Feb. 11 2015 12:00 AM

Walberg gets a 2016 opponent... already


State Rep. Gretchen Driskell’s announcement that she’ll run against U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg in 2016 wasn´t lost this week in national Democratic circles.

David Nir, who covers campaigns for the highly read progressive blog "The Daily Kos," lead off his daily update Tuesday with, "Good news for Democrats. Team Blue has landed one of its first legitimate recruits in the arduous battle to reclaim the House."

With that high praise, Nir went on to talk up the Democrats´ chances in the 7th Congressional seat, which includes Delta Township and Grand Ledge. Last year’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Mark Schauer, held it for a term from 2009 to 2011, taking it away from Republican Walberg. But Walberg won it back and has held onto it.

"Given the Democrats´ huge deficit, this is definitely the kind of district the party will need to win in order to take majority," Nir wrote. "Driskell may just have the chops to make it happen."

So who is Gretchen Driskell, D-Saline, and why are Democrats both in-state and out excited about the prospects of giving Walberg a race in this 53 percent GOP-base seat?

The two-term state House member served as the mayor of Saline for 14 years. She defeated an incumbent Republican in 2012 to win her first term and coasted to second term last year when the GOP failed to find anyone credible to run against her. In that ´12 race, she raised $662,109, which allowed her to go toe-to-toe with former Rep. Mark Ouimet.

"She has been winning tough elections in tough seats her whole career," said Schauer, who campaigned with Driskell during a couple of stops on Monday.

Because she´s a minority member in the state House from a swing district, Driskell, 56, doesn´t have any public acts to her credit during her first term. But the Long Island native sponsored legislation on the equal-pay-for-women issue and sought an opt-out for rape and incest in the new law that women must seek a rider if they want their private health insurance to cover elective abortions.

Conceivably, her work on these issues puts her in a position to cash in on any coattails Hillary Clinton would have if she wins the Democratic presidential nomination and has the success early polling is revealing she will have in Michigan.

For his part, Walberg is taking nothing for granted. The four-term congressman´s campaign sent an email to supporters 24 hours after Driskell´s announcement tour was launched that linked Driskell to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Schauer.

"While the Washington, D.C., Democrats are determined to make this a very long campaign season for the people of the 7th District, Tim is remaining focused on working for you," the email read. "He is working to encourage a stronger economy, make health care and energy more affordable, defend our liberties and improve education by reducing the power of the federal government and promoting freedom."

Without question, Driskell is getting an enormous head start, but there are strong tactical reasons to do so.

For one, the Democrats´ nominee in 2014, Pam Byrnes, is weighing a second run. The former speaker pro tem of the state House will be forced to accelerate her decision-making or risk losing support and potential donors. While Byrnes ran a credible campaign against Walberg last year, she still lost by 12 percentage points.

Also, Driskell will need the extra time to raise the money necessary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to take her campaign seriously. Last year, the DCCC hardly played at all in Michigan, mostly because they were stuck playing defensive with their vulnerable incumbents. The coming 2016 cycle could turn out much different.

During a series of events across the district, Driskell said she wanted to get an early start on the campaign because of how large the 7th District is and because she´s going to be balancing the campaign with her fulltime job as a member of the State House.

"I take my job really seriously," she said. "I have a lot of work to do there too."

The 7th District includes Eaton, Jackson, Hillsdale, Branch, Lenawee and Monroe counties and a portion of Washtenaw County.

Asked how important it is for Driskell to have a clear primary in her push to unseat Walberg, Schauer said it would help from a fundraising standpoint.

"I think it´s beneficial," Schauer said. "I think Gretchen is getting in early because she believes in this race."

Driskell grew up on Long Island and worked in accounting in D.C. before moving with her family to Michigan in 1988.

She became heavily involved in the Saline community, including helping organize fundraising for the Saline Recreation Center. She was elected to the Saline City Council in 1993 and went on become to the city´s longest-serving female mayor.

As Saline´s mayor, Driskell pushed for downtown revitalization and worked on multiple capital improvement projects. She also helped start a farmers market, a youth council and a culture commission in Saline.

As a member of the State House, she has worked with the House´s bipartisan caucus, has fought against education funding cuts and has introduced legislation to require equal pay for equal work.

"For those families that have seen their Michigan dream torn down, I think we need to help them rebuild it," Driskell said during her press conference. "For those families that have built their own Michigan dream through hard work and determination, let´s help them protect it."

She noted that as mayor of Saline she was nonpartisan.

"I really work hard and I believe that most of our voters in this district are looking for people who are going to help try to fix things and look for solutions," Driskell said.

Driskell said she doesn´t plan on comparing and contrasting herself with Walberg on the campaign trail.

"I think his record speaks for itself."