Nearly 45 years ago, Debbie Stabenow was a Michigan State University social work graduate working toward a master’s in criminal justice.
A Clare native, she didn’t grow up in a politically active family. Like her a mother, a nurse, she was interested in healthcare, but the 24-year-old saw herself as an aspiring school counselor, not a politician.
Then a few things happened in the early ‘70s. A local UAW stalwart named Valla Nemeth talked Stabenow into coming to a Sunday coffee gathering of local Democratic activists.
One coffee turned into several more and before she knew it, Stabenow became part of a movement to create an Ingham County government women’s commission.
Standing in the way were several Republican commissioners who said they didn’t want to get into the habit of creating numerous commissions for different groups of people.
One of them was Gordon Swix, a mid-level manager at Oldsmobile who still lives off Berten Street south of Moore’s River Drive.
Swix was a two-term Ingham County commissioner who beat Stabenow’s then husband, Dennis, in 1972 by 200 votes. As far as Swix was concerned, creating a women’s commission would open the door to independent bodies for Hispanics, African- Americans or other special groups.
“I am concerned that the continuation of polarization throughout the county, state and national government is not in the best interest of the country,” Swix told the Lansing State Journal at the time.
He suggested a county anti-discrimination commission, but Stabenow’s group wasn’t buying it.
Meanwhile, the drab, outmodeled, county-run extended care home off Dobie Road was at risk of losing its federal funding absent $1.5 million in renovations. Since roughly 75 percent of its residents were Medicaid and Medicare patients — the only facility in mid-Michigan at the time to take them — the home for low-income seniors was at risk of shutting down.
The tight-fisted county commissioners, including Swix, made gestures toward saving the home, but weren’t doing anything about securing additional money for the rehab.
“He was Newt Gingrich before his time,” Stabenow said. “I was very mad at him, and one thing led to another, and I decided to run against him.”
Backed by the UAW who saw the then- 13th District as a swing district in the post-Watergate era, the hungry Stabenow said she knocked on every door in the district five times. More than 500 yard signs were stuck in yards.
Meanwhile, word began circulating that Swig had referred to Stabenow as “that broad who’s running against me,” which didn’t go over well, even in 1974.
Looking back at it, Swix said he doesn’t remember ever making that statement, but said it’s possible he uttered something to that effect among friends or colleagues off hours. He claims he certainly didn’t say it at any public forum.
Nonetheless, when Stabenow beat Swix nearly 2:1 (2,027-1,178), even Swix wasn’t surprised at the result. A casualty of a wave year spurred, in part, by President Nixon’s resignation saw Democrats expand majorities in the state House and Senate. As the local chairman of Nixon’s ‘72 re-election campaign, Swix was prime to be swept away.
“She just has this raw work ethic,” said Dianne Byrum, who years later followed Stabenow in the state Legislature. “She does have a warm, disarming personality, but her greatest strength is that she’s a driven, hard worker who is not afraid to take on a challenge.”
The rest is history, as they say. Stabenow moved on to become the county board chairwoman. She led the successful millage to fund the Dobie Road extended care facility renovations and then sat on the county board that built the current jail, dredged Lake Lansing and renovated the parks.
By 1978, she said she saw challenges in mental health services needing state legislative attention, so she ran against another incumbent for the state House. Stabenow won that, too. As she saw more issues that needed addressing, she kept winning bids for higher offices, seemingly regardless of who was serving at the time, including U.S. Rep. Dick Chrysler in 1996 and U.S. Sen. Spence Abraham in 2000.
With Stabenow in the driver’s seat to win her fourth U.S. Senate term this November, Swix sometimes thinks about the “if.” What if he’d won in ‘74? Would he have stopped the matriarch of Michigan politics in the crib, so to speak?
He pushes the thoughts away quickly, though.
“I was working full time at Oldsmobile.
I had two kids at home and the population of this commission district was shifting,” he said. “She was such an eloquent speaker and she worked very, very hard.”
Some would argue she’s never stopped.
(Melinn, of the Capitol news service MIRS, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.)