- The Washington Times - Friday, September 29, 2006

LINCOLN PARK, Mich. — The fever among voters to throw incumbents out of office — furiously stoked by Democrats in Washington — might backfire in this state, where Republicans are riding a surge of voter discontent.

With Democrats holding both Senate seats and the governor’s mansion, Michigan is suffering the worst economy of any state in the nation. The state’s unemployment rate is nearly twice the national average of 4.7 percent, and the auto industry is losing jobs by the tens of thousands. A recent job fair offering factory work for $10 an hour with no benefits drew 4,000 applicants.

“They’re Democrats, but they want jobs,” John Katinsky said of his neighbors in this hard-hit town downriver from Detroit.

Much of the discontent is being directed at Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the first-term senator who is trying to fend off a challenge from Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard.

“Only one state in America has lost jobs for three straight years and that’s Michigan,” Mr. Bouchard says. “That needs to change, and it’s going to change by starting with the leadership.”

Mrs. Stabenow’s primary line of attack on Mr. Bouchard is linking him to President Bush, who lost the state in the 2000 and 2004 elections, though by relatively small margins.

“The people of Michigan have a clear choice in this election between a senator who is fighting hard for them and delivering real results and someone who insists on endorsing the failed and tired policies of the Bush administration even as they continue to cost us jobs and threaten our Michigan way of life,” Stabenow campaign spokesman Brent Colburn said.

Not a ‘nice’-lady race

Mr. Bouchard often tells voters on the campaign trail that Mrs. Stabenow is a “nice” lady but that they’re not running in a nice-lady contest. He then rattles off reasons why he thinks she should be replaced.

He tells people that Mrs. Stabenow voted to grant Social Security benefits to illegal aliens, is one of the biggest pork-barrel spenders in Washington and has authored only one successful bill in Congress: a law to rename a federal building in Detroit.

Last month, Mr. Bouchard toured the state in a moving van to highlight the exodus of Michigan residents leaving the state in search of jobs. The flight is so bad, Mr. Bouchard said in an interview with The Washington Times, that when his neighbors put their house on the market, they had to wait more than a week before a “for sale” sign was available.

On his tour, he promised to curb federal spending, reduce “regulatory burdens” on small businesses and make tax cuts permanent.

Mrs. Stabenow, he says, has spent six years in Washington with little to show for it. She has authored 68 bills, according to records kept by the Library of Congress, and only one has been approved by the Senate. The bill, S.1285, renamed a building in Detroit the “Rosa Parks Federal Building” in honor of the civil rights activist.

During that same period, she also has written 68 amendments, 19 of which were adopted by her colleagues.

Those figures do not accurately reflect how hard she is working on behalf of her state, Mrs. Stabenow’s campaign says.

She has “set the standard for constituent service,” fought for lower health care costs and wrote the ban on drilling for oil in the Great Lakes, according to the campaign. In addition, she has supported tax cuts for businesses that create jobs in the United States and “helped lead the delegation effort” to secure more federal transportation dollars for Michigan roads.

A lackluster record?

Despite her successes, even Mrs. Stabenow’s staunchest supporters are somewhat at a loss to name her accomplishments as a U.S. senator.

A survey by The Washington Times of delegates who attended the state Democratic convention in Detroit in August found no one who could list any specific successes.

Larry Lewis of Detroit said, “She’s done an outstanding job.”

Asked to name any accomplishments, Mr. Lewis replied: “I don’t have her record in front of me. I couldn’t go over it verbatim.”

Thelma Murrell of Southgate said: “Off the top of my head, I can’t name them. But she does a great deal of things for us. It’s not just caring; she really does help.”

Carol Poenisch of Northville couldn’t name any legislative victories for Mrs. Stabenow, but applauded her efforts to stop Canadian trucks from hauling tons of garbage across the border and dumping it in U.S. landfills. It’s an issue that has dogged Michigan politicians for years.

Just last month, Mrs. Stabenow issued a press release boasting that she and other Democrats in the state had reached a deal with Canadian officials “to stop shipments of municipal solid waste to Michigan over the next four years.”

But Canada’s environment ministry officials weren’t losing much sleep over the deal they cut with Mrs. Stabenow. They told local reporters that it does nothing to curb industrial and commercial waste, which makes up more than half of the 4 million metric tons of Canadian trash hauled into Michigan each year.

Moreover, they said the relatively generous deal was prompted by fears that bipartisan legislation moving through Congress would end all trash shipments by year’s end.

“Our garbage trucks could have been turned back from the border as early as January 2007,” Ontario’s environment ministry spokeswoman, Kate Jordan, told the Detroit News. “We needed to find a solution to avert that.”

Indeed, that legislation was approved by the House a few days later. But it’s not likely to go anywhere soon because the Senate version of the bill — introduced by Mrs. Stabenow — has languished for more than a year in the chamber’s Environmental and Public Works Committee.

And, as part of her deal with Canadian officials, Mrs. Stabenow agreed to drop any efforts to get tougher legislation through Congress for the next four years.

Taking a stand on illegals

During these lean times in Michigan, illegal entry has become a top concern for voters. Polls consistently show that three-quarters or more of voters in the state oppose granting amnesty to illegals and support building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

After the Senate passed a bill last spring that would allow illegals to become citizens, Republicans in Macomb County revolted. Rep. Tom Tancredo, the Colorado Republican who is little known except for his tough stance against illegal entry, surprised Republican officials by winning a straw poll in the county for the presidential nomination. Among the Republican luminaries Mr. Tancredo beat were Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the son of former Michigan Gov. George Romney.

A standard line of Mr. Bouchard’s stump speech is that anything that begins with the word “illegal” — as in illegal entry — he’s against. Mrs. Stabenow, on the other hand, he says, has a weak record on the issue.

No immigration vote has dogged Mrs. Stabenow more than the one she cast to grant Social Security benefits to illegal aliens for the work they performed illegally.

Mr. Colburn flatly denies that Mrs. Stabenow supported granting the benefits to illegal aliens and called such accusations “misleading and disingenuous.”

“Senator Stabenow does not support and has never supported granting Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants,” he said.

But, according to the Congressional Record — the official publication of all votes and floor speeches in Congress — Mrs. Stabenow voted on May 18 to strike Amendment No. 3985 offered by Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican. That amendment would have prohibited illegals from collecting “Social Security benefits as a result of unlawful activity.”

While Mrs. Stabenow went on to vote against the overall Senate immigration bill, she provided the deciding vote that would allow aliens to collect Social Security benefits for illegal work, even if that work had been done using forged documents. And today, that provision remains part of the Senate immigration bill.

Watching the polls

Despite the hostile environment for incumbents here, the Stabenow campaign still takes solace in the poll numbers, which show Mrs. Stabenow more than 10 points ahead of Mr. Bouchard.

The Bouchard campaign notes that her support, however, hovers around 50 percent. With plenty of undecided voters remaining, Mr. Bouchard hopes to see his numbers rise as people across the expansive state learn more about him and hear more about Mrs. Stabenow’s positions on key issues.

An ace in Mr. Bouchard’s pocket, his campaign says, is Oakland County, which has been trending Democratic in recent elections and is the state’s second largest county. In 2004 — when Mr. Bush lost the county — Mr. Bouchard won with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Stabenow supporters say the senator has worked tirelessly on constituent services and that voters here relate better to common-touch Democrats than pro-business Republicans.

“What you have to ask yourself is if you’re better off now than you were four years ago,” says Jack Childress, a General Motors retiree who supports Mrs. Stabenow. “If you answer that honestly, you won’t vote for no Republican.”

But Mr. Bouchard is hardly a corporate Republican in a pin-stripe suit. At a carnival in this downtrodden, industrial suburb of Detroit, he rides up in a pack of motorcycles on his Harley-Davidson Road King.

Mr. Katinsky, who calls himself a “closet Republican,” also doesn’t fit the usual description of a Republican. Wearing yellow machinist’s glasses, seven earrings and a long braided pony tail, he asks for a picture with Mr. Bouchard.

Though most of his neighbors are Democrats, he said they desperately want jobs to return to the state. Also, they’re alarmed by the influx of illegal aliens who are taking many of the jobs that pay little but are jobs nonetheless.

“Everybody I know wants these borders locked up,” he said. “How is that racist? It might be anti-noncitizen, but it ain’t racist.”

After milling around the carnival with voters for about an hour, Mr. Bouchard stops to talk to a man who is unshaven, smoking a cigarette and wearing thick, military-issue glasses. The man says he’s out of work. Mr. Bouchard tells him that he intends to make Michigan a better place to do business.

“Bush is killing us,” the man says, shaking Mr. Bouchard’s hand. “You got my vote.”

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