When Angela Witwer saw her name on Barack Obama’s Facebook page, she said her eyes stung from staring at the screen in shock.
The former president of the United States, a person who represents the seemingly vanishing art of civility in politics, endorsed Witwer’s campaign for the Eaton County-based 71st House District as part of 17 Michigan legislative endorsements and two congressional races in critical battleground seats.
“I was blown away. I didn’t see it until a former client wrote me, ‘WOW’ in all capital letters,” said the Delta Township Democrat. “This is such a huge honor. He’s such a good person.”
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Gretchen Whitmer and 8th Congressional District nominee Elissa Slotkin were also supported by a former president injecting a shot of enthusiasm into the races that will decide the partisan makeup of Congress and the Michigan Legislature.
Standing in the middle of control of the House is Witwer, who spent 22 years in Sparrow’s burn unit as manager of pediatric rehabilitation before starting Edge Partnership. She’s the vice president of the Waverly School Board, making her first run for state office.
The 71st House District, made up of nearly all of Eaton County, has emerged as one of the state’s true 50/50 districts, where the Democratic/Republican split is just about even. The district backed Rick Snyder in 2010, Obama in 2012, Democrat Mark Schauer in 2014 and President Donald Trump in 2016.
Rep. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, isn’t seeking his third term in the House so he can run for the Senate, leaving Witwer to square off against Republican Christine Barnes on Nov. 6. In the latest MIRS “Top 15 House Seats Most Likely to Flip,” the 71st District is listed as the sixth seat most likely to flip from Republican hands to the Democrats.
Democrats need eight more seats to manage a 55-55 tie in the Michigan House and nine seats to gain majority, meaning Witwer’s seat is critical to who holds the gavel next year. Both sides realize it, too.
Like the Tom Leonard-Theresa Abed races of years past, the 71st is drawing money, resources and ground troops from state Republicans, Democrats and their associated political allies. Republicans say their polling shows Barnes is on the path to victory while Democrats claim Witwer is the frontrunner based on their polling.
State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, is playing close attention to the race, too. As an early Barnes supporter, he popped Witwer’s balloon by saying: “I predict the Obama endorsement will be like a boat anchor.” He claims that Witwer is a “self-described progressive” who “wants to raise taxes and take guns away.”
The reference is to comments Witwer made at a recent forum, which she claims have become twisted in some game of political telephone. The Barnes campaign has Witwer telling a public forum that she supports banning semi-automatic weapons and raising the gas tax 25 cents.
Witwer calls the first assertion “ludicrous.” As a native Northern Michigan resident, she said her son and other members of her family are avid hunters so she respects the Second Amendment, but she does believe in “reasonable” background checks.
On the gas tax, she said the Legislature could have raised it 25 cents a gallon, the established level of investment needed to fix the roads. Instead, Jones and Republicans raised the tax 7 cents in 2015 and “they didn’t even come close to fixing the roads.” On whether she would support raising the gas tax further, Witwer said she supports looking at the “big picture” of road funding and not just sticking the average taxpayer with the cost of improving Michigan’s roads. Corporations can play a larger role, Witwer said.
“Republicans are trying to distract from their terrible record on roads and schools, but I’m remaining focused on fighting for families, just like I will be as state representative,” she said.
Barnes is taking all tax increases off the table in terms of fixing the roads. An Eaton County commissioner, Barnes said the county invested in 26 miles of road this year as opposed to three to six in the year prior. The road money approved by legislators in 2015 is starting to have an impact, she argued.
The 50-year-old gun safety instructor claims Witwer is backtracking on her position on guns after not seemingly having a clear understanding that a modern-day hunting rifle is a semi-automatic weapon.
“The issues of firearms is an issue that clearly separates us,” Barnes said.
(Kyle Melinn of the Capitol news service MIRS is at firstname.lastname@example.org.)