Stabenow relies on farm support in re-election bid

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
Democratic U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow addresses the School of Engineering and Computer Science Fall Research Expo at Oakland University in Rochester on October 19.

Highland Park — The Michigan senator known mostly for her agricultural expertise navigated the cracked sidewalks of an urban area still stung by pockets of poverty but showing signs of rebirth.

In her bright red sweater jacket on a sun-splashed day, Debbie Stabenow was quietly canvassing another neighborhood after her Republican challenger, John James, has attacked her, among other issues, for supposedly abandoning impoverished cities and accomplishing little.

But at least on this racially integrated block, that viewpoint didn't hold. . Especially with Loran Downes, 41, who chatted with the 68-year-old senator about her mother's Alzheimer's diagnosis and the work Stabenow had done in Congress to assist caregivers.

"I think she's very engaging and she seemed very concerned about what's going on with my mother and myself, and I appreciate her even extending any type of help to me," Downes said.

Stabenow, D-Lansing, is seeking a fourth, six-year term. While James sees vulnerabilities and President Donald Trump's White House wants to unseat her, Stabenow has been steadily polling over 50 percent and has led her Republican opponent by double digits in two Detroit News-WDIV polls.

Stabenow is "widely liked" and has deep roots outstate, Glengariff Group pollster Richard Czuba said in September

She is seen as a reliable vote for her party in the Senate, where she voted with almost all her Democratic colleagues against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Trump's tax cuts.

But Stabenow has carved out a bipartisan reputation on farm and agricultural issues, where she has won GOP support among a traditionally Republican constituency. This year and in 2012, she earned the endorsement of the Michigan Farm Bureau.

She has been working for consensus on the farm bill, a $868 billion safety net for the agricultural community. But the bill is stalled in conference committee because the Republican-controlled House approved a version with expanded work requirements for food stamps that the GOP-led Senate and Stabenow opposed, among other issues.

Jed Welder, a former Army commander and military veteran who farms in West Michigan, said many of his farming friends support the senator.

"Most of them will all say, I'm a conservative but I like Debbie," said Welder, a Republican, adding that he was blown away when Stabenow came to visit his small farm years ago. "I don't think there's another senator who understands Michigan agriculture more than her."

While calling John James an "incredibly impressive individual," he said, "Senator Stabenow has gone to bat for farmers over and over in Michigan. And I just can't give that up.

"I don't agree with everything the senator does...I'm a conservative, but this is where my life is, on my farm. The senator has come and visited my farm and looked at my crops. That goes a long way."

One of the public officials with her last week on the Highland Park tour was Mayor Herbert Yopp, who lauded Stabenow for getting his city a half million dollars to address blight and demolition.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow attends a White House ceremony on Oct. 10, 2018 for the signing ceremony for the 'Patient Right to Know Drug Prices Act' and 'Know the Lowest Price Act of 2018,' with fellow senators Susan Collins, R-Maine, left,  and Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, and President Donald Trump.

"She's always been a friend to the inner city, especially to Highland Park. Now she's out here showing the people she cares and we appreciate her," Yopp said. "She's a hard worker. I flew to Washington in March and met with her and Senator Peters. And she assured me that she would help us."

For Stabenow, interacting with voters gives her more insight into what they want and need. Learning about Downes' mother's Alzheimer situation reinforced her commitment to work she already has done on legislation regarding help for caregivers, she said.

"I hope I build trust in two ways: Both being present and listening and talking directly with people," she said. "And also I work hard to build trust by actually getting things done and solving problems."

The James campaign has been hammering Stabenow as having done little in Washington and not delivering enough for Michigan. 

 The incumbent has had a massive fundraising edge until the past month, when help from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have helped energize James' fundraising. James raised more money than Stabenow in the first 17 days of October, $2 million to $471,000.

Still, Stabenow maintained a cash advantage with $2.8 million on hand to James' $1.8 million. 

The longtime Democrat has amassed a variety of government experience. She first ran for the Ingham County Board of Commissioners in the mid-1970s when she was in graduate school.

Stabenow went on to serve in both the state House and Michigan Senate. In 1994, she lost a primary bid to take on Republican then-Gov. John Engler to U.S. Rep. Howard Wolpe. She recovered by winning election to a U.S. House in 1996 and shocked the political establishment by coming from behind to beat first-term Republican U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham of Auburn Hills in 2000.

In the Senate, she established herself as an agricultural guru, in addition to issues related to seniors and the Great Lakes. She was chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee for four years but now is the ranking member with Republicans in control.

U.S Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, has watched Stabenow's success for years and said "she keeps her ears to the ground and she's not afraid of anybody or anything."

"She speaks her mind," Dingell said. "She keeps a network of people that keep her in touch. And when it comes to Michigan, she knows what the issues are that matter to Michigan. And she's fought for them."

One example of Stabenow's experience and bipartisan appeal, Dingell said, is her Farm Bureau endorsement. "There are not a lot of Democrats that get that," she said.

The experience was on display last week while she walked house to house in Highland Park and in Detroit's Powerhouse Gym on Woodward Avenue, where people in the predominantly Democratic stronghold hugged her and begged for selfies.

Marvin Quinn, 54, came running out of a house to give Stabenow a hug, even though he was blotted with white paint from the work he and his sister, Vanessa, 56, were doing.

"You're out here campaigning?" Quinn asked, grinning.

Stabenow replied, "We're out campaigning, doing our thing..."  Quinn interrupted with the declaration, "You already have my vote."

"I'm honored to have it," the senator said.

Stabenow said she hopes people don't give up on politics and public service.

"One of the things I worry about today in our democracy is that if people don't see us actually getting things done, they're going to give up and not want to participate anymore, not have any faith in their elected officials," she said.

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Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed