Stabenow on Michigan Progress, White House Politics

Debbie Stabenow was 24 when she won her first election as a county commissioner. Today, the Democrat from Michigan is the first woman to represent her state in the U.S. Senate. Stabenow discusses her ascension in politics, the race for the White House and the political crisis in Detroit.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. March is women's history month, and our guest this morning has made quite a bit of history in her own lifetime. U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan started out working with school kids, but at an age when some thought she was still a kid herself, she ran for a seat on the Ingham County Board of Commissioners and won. She was just 24 years old. She went on to become the first woman and the youngest person to chair that county board, the first woman to preside over the Michigan House of Representatives, and the first woman elected for Michigan to the U.S. Senate.

Senator Stabenow is with us now. Senator, welcome. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Senator DEBBIE STABENOW (Democrat, Michigan): Well, it's great to be with you.

MARTIN: We want to hear more about you, but we do have to ask about a very important issue for Democrats in your state. The national party of course, as you know, refused to recognize Michigan's Democratic primary, saying that your state violated the rules by moving up the voting date. Now, there's talk of a revote. What can you tell us about a possible resolution to this?

Senator STABENOW: Well, we hope this is going to be resolved very, very soon and that it will be essentially a revote run by the state, but privately funded. Something that we think is the fairest for both candidates. Hopefully, both candidates will think it's fair as well. Who would have guessed back when Michigan and Florida decided to challenge the rules, to try to change the national rules related to the early primaries, that we would be in a situation where there would be no nominee at this point.

Two people in a horserace, two terrific candidates - and that we would be in a position where we wouldn't have a candidate who would turn around and seat Michigan and Florida as the Republicans are doing. So it was an important principle. I should say, though, that we have been challenging, which is the fact that two small states shouldn't basically decide in many, many elections who the nominee is. A large diverse state like Michigan - a lot of challenges related to manufacturing in the middle-class, it's important that candidates be vigorously campaigning in states like ours. And as fate would have it, we may in fact be the last place, the last contest between our two great candidates.

MARTIN: The state of Florida has the same problem. It seems like party leaders there are putting the whole idea of a revote to rest. They're just saying people just don't have the appetite for it. Why do you think the folks in Michigan do and the folks in Florida don't?

Senator STABENOW: Well, we have a little different situation. It was actually the Republican legislature and Republican governor in Florida that made the decision about their primary and there, everyone's name was on the ballot. In Michigan, you can take your name off the ballot and at the time, two of three top candidates, Senator Obama and former Senator John Edwards, chose as a strategy to take their names off of the ballot.

Senator Clinton left her name on the ballot in Michigan, but it created a situation where there's a sense now that it wasn't fair because there was essentially a campaign with Senator Clinton running against everybody else arguing to vote for uncommitted. So given that, we think that it's important that this be viewed as fair by all sides but at the same time, Michigan is a very important state in the general election, and our voices need to be heard.

MARTIN: Just to be clear on where you're coming from. I understand that you're supporting Senator Clinton in the presidential race, is that accurate?

Senator STABENOW: I am. Yeah, I am.

MARTIN: If you'd just briefly - I'm sure you could go on at some length about this, but just tell us why you think she's the best candidate.

Senator STABENOW: Well, I will. Let me also say, though, that both of our candidates are friends of mine, and I can enthusiastically support either one. I truly mean that. But in my case, I have worked with Senator Clinton for years on issues that we care deeply about in Michigan. She co-chairs the Bipartisan Manufacturing Caucus in the Senate, which focuses on things that are the heart and soul of Michigan - retooling our auto industry, alternative vehicles, looking to the future of manufacturing.

She really understands what's happening to the middle class of Michigan and across the country, so I really believe that she is the person who best understands what it's like for the people of Michigan who are really fighting for our way of life.

MARTIN: Do you think Senator Obama doesn't understand those things - comes from a Midwestern state also, similar challenges?

Senator STABENOW: Certainly he comes from a Midwestern state, we just haven't had the opportunity to work on those issues together as Senator Clinton and I have.

MARTIN: Just want to ask your thoughts about one more political stir before we move on to other matters. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has been accused of misleading the public about his relationship with his chief of staff, and lying to investigators, and so forth. Some people feel that this reflects poorly on the state. What do you think? Do you think he should step down?

Senator STABENOW: Well, I think that the big question will come in whether or not the Wayne County prosecutor decides to bring some kind of indictment. My biggest concern, and certainly this is a real tragedy for his family, but I see also a city in transition that has so much that's happening that's great about it. We have wonderful investments going on in the city of Detroit - rebuilding downtown, all kinds of new business investments, and I want to make sure that people continue to look at this rebirth in Detroit in a very positive way. And so, I'm concerned that, one way or the other, we need to move quickly beyond this.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with United States Senator Debbie Stabenow from Michigan. Let's talk about you. As we mentioned, your career was full of historic firsts. I'm just wondering why you decided at such a young age to run for office. A lot of people, still you know, figuring out where they want to go on Saturday night at that age.

Senator STABENOW: Right, exactly. Well you know, when you look back, I mean it's one of those things where you never say, gee I want to be, you know, part of the wave of women in office. I look back, and I see that women were coming into local office in the seventies, which I chose to do. Women were coming into state legislatures in the eighties, which I chose to do. Women were coming into Congress and statewide office in the nineties, which I chose to do.

But you don't realize it when you're in the middle of it, that you're part of that history-making wave. For me, I really got involved in a time much like now. I was coming right out of college in the middle of a war, and I got engaged like many young people are today who are deeply concerned about the country, about the war in Iraq. For me, it was the war in Vietnam, and I got involved with folks on campus at Michigan State University. Got involved with the local Democratic Party, which was very, very welcoming to young people, like I believe our Democratic Party is today.

And I ended up getting involved in some community efforts. I was a volunteer in a lot of community efforts, and the local county board was trying to shut down the only nursing home that took low income senior citizens and the only nursing home that took Medicaid. And so, they were looking for volunteers to go to the county board, and to try to stop this effort, and to work on building a new nursing home. And I guess I was the person standing when everybody stepped back.

So I ended up heading that effort and going to county board meetings, and I started watching the folks there and the decisions they were making. And for the first time, started to tune into the fact that these were human beings making decisions, and that it turned out the person trying to close the nursing home was my county commissioner. And so after we succeeded in protecting the nursing home and building a new one, everybody turned to me and said that I should run against him, which at the time, you know, I mean, I knew nothing this thing called politics.

But the more I looked at it, I thought, you know, this really is about people who care about their community, stepping up, getting involved. So I decided to do it. I was 24. My opponent was an entrenched incumbent who referred as that young broad...

MARTIN: In fact, it's become part of the lore that he said there's no way we're going to lose to that young broad...

Senator STABENOW: Yeah.

MARTIN: But I do want to ask you, women are making gains all the time. But in contrast to the Scandinavian countries and emerging countries in Africa, women are still a fraction of - particularly legislative representatives in the country - really at all levels, women are, pardon me, underrepresented. I'm just wondering why you think that is.

Senator STABENOW: Well, you know, I think there are lots of reasons. We've seen a lot of women come into the political process and then at other times, I think in states with term limits and so on, like ours in Michigan, that's changed the dynamic for folks that are able to step away for just a couple of years from a profession and then go back and find another job. So it's changed the dynamic for a lot of women I know.

But I think this is just a continual process. It's important that, first of all, remember that 54 percent of the voting population are women. So we are the majority when it comes to elections, deciding who will be there. And it's critical...

MARTIN: All the more reason why you think that you - there might be more representation. I mean, I'm not saying...

Senator STABENOW: Absolutely.

MARTIN: It should be a one to one relationship, but you would think, given that women are so dominant in the voting population, that there would be more represent - but listen, we only have about a minute left. I did want to ask you...

Senator STABENOW: Yes!

MARTIN: One more question about your Green Collar Jobs Initiative. It was included in the budget that passed the Senate last week. A lot of people are intrigued with this because people think of Michigan as kind of a automotive manufacturing, not on the cutting edge on kind of alternate energy. Just wanted to ask you why you think that's important, in about the minute that we have left.

Senator STABENOW: Well, this is incredibly important for us. We're building the new vehicles. We are growing the new fuels in Michigan. You know, this isn't your father's factory anymore. These are new, advanced manufacturing technologies. My Green Collar Job program invests in advanced battery technology. Frankly, we don't want to go from dependence on foreign oil to dependence on foreign technology. And Michigan really can lead the way in this effort.

MARTIN: Why do you think, though, it just seems as Americans aren't as interested in kind of green technologies as they are in Europe. Why do you think that is? And do you think Americans are catching up?

Senator STABENOW: Well, I think we are finally catching up. I really do. I think people now understand that global warming is real, that at over 100 dollars a barrel, and close to four dollars a gallon for gas, that we better pay attention to what's going on in the world in terms of oil prices. And for us in Michigan, I can tell you that this really is an opportunity for jobs. Because when we move forward in what we call the green economy, it's got to be about jobs. This really is a fight for our American way of life, for the middle class in this country. We want to make sure in a global economy that we are competing up and asking other countries to compete up to our standards, that we are not lowering ourself to theirs. We don't want to work for less. We want them to work for more.

MARTIN: All right, we're going to have to leave it there. Hope you'll come back and see us.

Senator STABENOW: I will. Thank you.

MARTIN: Senator Debbie Stabenow is a pioneering leader at the local, state, and national levels. She joined us from member station, WKAR, in East Lansing, Michigan. Senator, thank you so much, and happy Women's History Month to you.

Senator STABENOW: Thanks.

MARTIN: This is Tell Me More from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.