Dems target GOP House seats
Lansing — The Democrats hope to win back the Michigan House of Representatives on Nov. 4 and challenges of four Republican-controlled seats in Metro Detroit could help decide the balance of power next year.
Democrats have their eyes on 12 competitive statewide races, including close re-election battles for Republican incumbents in the 30th District in Macomb County, 39th and 41st districts in Oakland County and 23rd District in Downriver Wayne County.
If the Democrats take back control of the House, it at the least would break the Republicans' control of state government that includes the governorship, House, Senate, Attorney General's Office and Secretary of State.
The GOP majority holds 59 of the 110 seats. With the expected loss of a Democratic-controlled seat in the Thumb, the Democrats need to capture at least six Republican seats to win back the majority.
The Democratic House message mirrors the one for Mark Schauer's campaign for governor. It includes railing against a GOP-imposed tax on some pension income, the Republican reduction of popular tax credits for seniors and the working poor, and decrying a perceived shortfall of funding for public schools.
"The No. 1 issue across the state is the retirement tax. Depending on where you are, the intensity is a little different," said state Rep. Brandon Dillon, D-Grand Rapids, chairman of the House Democrats' campaign committee.
"People know their school districts aren't in as good of a position as they were four years ago."
Republicans are countering by targeting two Democratic lawmakers in western Wayne and southern Macomb counties. Their message is focused on an improved statewide economy and $1.1 billion more in overall funding since they took total control of the Legislature in 2011.
"I feel the difference can't be starker between a results-orientated Republican caucus we've had the past couple of years compared with empty political talking points by the Democrats," said Rep. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, chairman of the House GOP campaign committee.
Because so many district boundaries for the 110 House and 38 Senate seats are drawn to favor one party or the other, the vast majority of legislators are cruising to likely election or re-election.
Here's a look at the hottest House races in Metro Detroit:
Macomb Co.: 30th District
Democrat Bo Karpinsky, a 59-year-old retired schoolteacher paying the pension tax, is making his campaign a referendum of sorts on Rep. Jeff Farrington's vote for levying the 4.25 percent income tax on more pensions. Under the 2011 change, any resident 62 or younger now has to pay the income tax on all of his or her pension income.
Karpinsky said the issue is resonating with retired autoworkers and public employees in Sterling Heights and Utica.
"People in this district not only feel shortchanged, but they were promised no new taxes and that hasn't been the situation," said Karpinsky, of Sterling Heights.
Farrington, R-Utica, said the elimination of the pension tax exemption — which is generating an estimated $350 million annually — was necessary to balance the budget after lawmakers cut business taxes $1.8 billion.
"I voted for it because it was the only way to get rid of the Michigan Business Tax," he said.
Farrington said his opponent is inflating the significance of pension tax issue among voters.
Wayne Co.: 23rd District
In this Democratic-leaning Downriver district, incumbent GOP Rep. Pat Somerville emphasizes his vote against the pension tax. Somerville, R-New Boston, has co-sponsored bills to repeal or scale back the tax, but they've gone nowhere in the House.
Democrat David Haener said Somerville hasn't fought hard enough to repeal the pension tax while businesses enjoy a tax break. "We need to say are we prioritizing corporations over seniors?" said Haener, 44, of New Boston.
If re-elected to a third term, Somerville said he wants to explore toll roads to help ease the state's highway funding woes and elimination of the income tax to spur economic growth.
"It's something I think we need to seriously consider, and it kills two birds with one stone — it takes care of the income tax and eliminates this dreaded pension tax," Somerville said.
The federal government would need to ease its restrictions against toll roads, he said. "I think it's the ultimate solution."
Wayne Co.: 21st District
Republicans are trying to make Democrats work to keep a seat held by outgoing Democratic Rep. Dian Slavens.
Republican Carol Ann Fausone, a retired National Guard brigadier general, is facing Democrat Kristy Pagan, a small-business owner and former aide to U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
Oakland Co.: 41st District
This race features a rematch from 2012 between Republican incumbent Martin Howrylak and Democrat Mary Kerwin, both of Troy. Howrylak defeated Kerwin by 427 votes two years ago.
Democrats argue they could have captured the GOP-leaning Oakland County seat in 2012 had they spent money for Kerwin, a former member of the Troy City Council, planning commission and school board.
"This time, we're in this one to win it," Dillon said.
Oakland Co.: 39th District
Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township, faces a challenge from Democrat Sandy Colvin, a corporate finance attorney from West Bloomfield.
Colvin said the state needs to "readjust" the new 6 percent corporate income tax to generate more revenue for schools and make up for lost revenue from an elimination of the pension tax.
"It's driving people out of state, so in the end we're not gaining much by taxing the pensions," she said.
Kesto was not in the Legislature when the pension tax was imposed and says he opposes it.
In his bid for a second term, Kesto is touting $2.5 million in additional road funds he secured for a rebuild of pockmarked Green Lake Road and another $1 million for repaving a section of Walnut Lake Road.
Macomb Co.: 25th District
First-term Democratic Rep. Henry Yanez's re-election bid against Republican Nick Hawatmeh turned ugly recently when the Michigan Republican Party injected the issue of national immigration border enforcement into the race.
The GOP mailed some voters a flier featuring images of the U.S.-Mexican border and a message that said: "Henry Yanez refuses to protect our borders."
Democrats have said the flier is a racist attack on Yanez, who is of Mexican heritage.
"Out of 148 races, only one candidate, the Hispanic candidate, is hit with a campaign piece about immigration," said Yanez.
Republicans have defended the claims in the flier because Yanez said he opposes building a fence at the southern border in a 2010 candidate questionnaire when he ran for Congress.
"It tells you where a person stands on overall issues and how far to the left they are," Nesbitt said.
Hawatmeh, who is Catholic and of Jordanian descent, said he "had nothing to do" with the GOP's flier. He said Yanez has mailed out false advertising claiming he's in favor of the pension tax.
"I'm focused on what issues matter to people in the district," said Hawatmeh, an attorney and catering business owner. "I'm focused on making sure we repeal the pension tax."