Oct. 26 2016 11:45 AM

As Dems fight to regain state House, eyes are on Barrett-Abed rematch in Eaton Co.

A woman walks by, her tri-color rat terrier on a leash. She waves. I nod. The neighborhood comprises one-story ranch-style homes with well manicured lawns and soaring trees. The tree tops have been unceremoniously carved around power lines.
Rep. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, hands out candy at the Vermontville Maple Syrup Festival parade earlier this year.
Photo courtesy Tom Barrett for State Representative

This is middle America, a street on the far eastern edge of Eaton County right down to the fault line of political yard signs.

On one end of the street, a string of blue signs promotes Republican incumbent Tom Barrett for state representative; on the other are bright yellow signs for Democratic challenger Theresa Abed. Many homes have no yard signs at all. No one on the block is touting either Clinton or Trump.

This is the 50-50 district that has changed parties every House election since 2008. The district spans most of Eaton County, excluding the city of Eaton Rapids, and three nearby townships. The broad swaths of rural areas are balanced by the diversity boom in Delta Township.

The district is a key battleground for Democrats, who need to win back nine seats to take the House. Rep. Andy Schor, D-Lansing, who is safe in his bid for reelection to a seat representing most of the city of Lansing, has been spending hours knocking doors with Abed. He wants to see the 71st House District turn blue again. He and other Democratic leaders profess there is a chance to capture control of the House. One independent observer put the their chances at 40 percent at best. Whatever the odds, they need Abed to win here; the odds go down if she loses.

Barrett and Abed have knocked heads before. He unseated her in 2014, winning by just 148 votes out of 35,372 cast. She notes that was a non-presidential election year, dragging down turn out significantly.

Democrat Theresa Abed meets with a group of potential constituents in Grand Ledge in her campaign to win back the seat to the state House of Representatives that she lost two years ago to Republican Tom Barrett.
Photo Courtesy of Friends for Theresa Abed

“About 11,000 fewer votes were cast,” she said, correctly, in an interview Sunday afternoon in her Grand Ledge office. “So when I am at the doors, I am telling people my story as a way to tell them that every vote matters — no matter who they are voting for.”

According to Campaign Finance reports on file with the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office, in post-primary election filings, Barrett claimed $77,366 cash on hand. Abed had just under $24,600 on hand. Both candidates are running television and radio ads, a costly expense for a campaign. The next filing deadline is Friday.

I’ve come to this neighborhood to knock doors with Abed. I offered to knock doors with Barrett, but I had to settle for a phone interview after a weekend of reaching out through surrogates and his campaign consultants.

Campaigning two years ago, Barrett told voters he would oppose any bills that siphoned money from the K-12 school aid fund and distributed it to other budget priorities. Both times he voted on the state’s education budget, he held his ground and voted no because K-12 funds were shifted to fund community colleges and universities. It’s not that he opposed the increased higher education funding, it’s that he opposed doing so with K-12 education funding, he said.

He’s also frustrated that 20 years after the passage of the 1994 ballot measure to fund schools through increased taxes on cigarettes and sales, per pupil funding varies vastly from district to district.

“I’ve sponsored a constitutional amendment to equalize school aid payments,” he said.

Abed criticized Barrett for his no votes on the education budget, but she also bemoaned the raiding of the school aid fund for shifting education cash away from K-12 priorities.

I asked both candidates what the other had done they approved of. Abed cited Barrett’s work on behalf of veterans. Barrett, after criticizing Abed for not having any legislation passed which she sponsored, finally acknowledged he thought her advocacy against a pension tax implemented by Gov. Rick Snyder was “something we agree on.”

He failed to note that Abed was a Democrat in a GOP-controlled House representing a targeted seat — a virtual death knell for any hopes of passing legislation into law. Barrett, on the other hand, is a Republican in a GOP-controlled House, representing a vulnerable district, That makes his legislation a priority for the caucus and his party.

The voters I meet with Abed don’t care about the balance of the district or the makeup of the state House. Their worries are personal.

Manuel Pedroza eagerly joined Abed on his front porch. The 32-year-old listened to her pitch and grew excited to learn the school social worker has also worked for the Tri-County Office on Aging.

“They’re good people there,” he said, noting a family member just connected with the agency after a lengthy stay in a nursing home. He’s also pleased with her work in schools addressing bullying, noting his stepson is struggling with “issues” that he didn’t explain.

Next door is Debbie Watkis. She’s 64 and was happy to see and speak with Abed as well. She said she will cast her ballot for the former lawmaker because of her stand on education.

“We have to properly fund our schools,” she told me. “It’s not like I have kids in school. But you know, those kids are going to grow up and one day run this country.”

She’s appalled that cursive is not being taught to her nephew’s classes. She is also keen on fixing the roads and dislikes what she characterized as an assault on Michigan’s medical marijuana law.

“We spend too much money locking people up for drug use,” she said. “We need to focus on treatment.”

When asked, she says she will cast her ballot for Clinton, rather than Trump.

“Number one, she’s not an idiot,” Watkis said of the Democratic nominee comparing her to the billionaire reality show star. “I never hated Trump. I never paid any attention to him. I just thought he was a loudmouth on TV.”

She said she is also convinced that Clinton’s history fighting for children is important.

Pedroza, on the other hand, is more negative on the top of the ticket races.

“I’m undecided,” he says. “Either way, I think we’re in trouble.”

I knocked on doors of some of the homes with Barrett campaign signs on Sunday. No one would talk on the record, with one person telling me, “I wish this would all just stop.”

He said he definitely won’t vote for Trump because of his attacks on Mexican immigrants.

Susan Demas, editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, said the race for this seat is “tight,” but she said Barrett's incumbency gives him “a slight edge” over Abed. The real risk to his reelection hopes are whether Trump “tanks” even further than he already has, she said.

Barrett said he is supporting Trump but “does not condone the things he said” in the infamous Access Hollywood video. Abed is supporting Clinton. He said he did not think his support for Trump, or Trump’s crashing poll numbers, would impact his race.

“I think I stand on my own merits,” he said.

While Democrats would be glad to see the district turn blue again this election, Demas said their strategy to take control of the House does not rely exclusively on that race.

But the shifting demographics in the district could also play a crucial role in an Abed win.

“Eaton County has changed quite a bit,” said Demas. “Delta Township and Eaton County Commission are controlled by the Democrats. The old days of the more right wing stuff of Rick Jones are waning.”