Last week, I was honored to get the chance to talk to Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), the senior U.S. Senator from Michigan and a member of Congress since 1997. We discussed a variety of issues ranging from gun control to climate change to voting suppression, but most importantly, her passion for serving our community.
Interviewer: You have had a long journey in politics starting as a Michigan state representative in 1979 to becoming the first female senator from Michigan in 2000. What was the inspiration that got you interested in running for public office in the first place?
Senator Stabenow: You know, I grew up in a small town in Claire, Michigan, which is the beginning of the north in the lower peninsula of Michigan, and my family wasn’t involved in politics but they were very involved in the community. We were very involved in our church, United Methodist Church, and doing a lot of things to help the community. My mom was Director of Nurses at the hospital so I was very much around health care and trying to help people who had health care needs and my Dad had a car dealership. We were really involved in supporting the community so I was always told that we needed to give back and that it wasn’t enough just to benefit from what was happening in the community but we needed to give back. And then, when I went to college I realized that really meant paying attention to politics and to government and to what was happening. And I was getting my master’s degree at Michigan State when I was involved with a group that heard a presentation about the county commissioners trying to close the local nursing home which, at the time, was the only nursing home that took low-income senior citizens. With a background in health care, through my mom I decided that I really wanted to get involved to try to save the nursing home.
One thing led to another, I ended up leading that effort and we saved the nursing home, but I was going to county commission meetings all the time and then suddenly began to see I was asking a lot of questions: “Well, who are these people, what are they doing, how you become a county commissioner?” One thing led to another and actually, before running for the state house, I ran against the county commissioner trying to close the nursing home and beat him. He referred to me as ‘that young blonde’ running against him. I was 24 years old and I won, and then went on from there and ran for the State House but it really was not about growing up in politics per se but it was about growing up with the values of helping, contributing, trying to make a difference to make the community a better place for people.
Interviewer: You have expressed a clear concern about gun rights, which has earned you an A+ rating from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence but an F rating from the NRA and the Gun Owners of America, which shows the political divide that plagues our country now more than ever before. You’ve shown your support for gun control after many shooting incidents, but one of the most recent school shootings occurred in our home state, Michigan, specifically the Oxford High School shooting. Now that this problem has truly hit home, what future steps can we take into creating a safer environment for students like me?
Senator Stabenow: This is so very important and I have to say, having grown up in Claire, a community where everybody hunts, my dad had guns that were not loaded and were locked and put away when we were growing up and we were taught great respect for the outdoors, but the world has really changed and we are seeing more and more efforts to make gun ownership easier. Now, in the midst of pitting people against each other, somehow guns are used in much more violent ways every day and I have to say, I’m so sorry that you have to worry about somebody coming into the school.
When I think about my young grandchildren having to go through these shooter drills, protection efforts, and training in the school, it’s horrifying. I don’t want you to have to worry about that and yet, I know that it’s very real right now. So a number of things have to happen; we have to make sure that we have common-sense background checks so that the people who are purchasing guns aren’t people with criminal records or with serious histories of mental illness. We have to make sure that the weapons that people have are not military assault weapons where you can have multiple rounds, large magazines that can kill many people in just a few minutes. These are not guns that my family uses to hunt, these are weapons designed to kill people and we need to not make these readily available to the average person when these are military assault weapons. It’s also very important that we have strong mental health services in schools. I’m the leader of school-based health clinics and community mental health efforts which we need to do. We need to make sure that we’re supporting young people when they have problems and challenges.
In Oxford, we saw very clearly what was happening to this young man and his cries for help and his drawings which made it very clear there was a serious mental illness involved. We need to be making sure we’re reaching out and supporting parents and young people with that as well, and we’ve got to deal more broadly with something I didn’t have to deal with in school because we didn’t have social media like you do, but all the issues on bullying and social media right now that make it so challenging for young people, so easy to criticize, so easy to say mean ugly things and to pit people against each other in a way that takes away from our efforts to support each other. You need to be able to have fun and enjoy school and know that you have the support of friends and people around you. There’s just so many pressures coming at you right now that we as adults need to be more responsible for addressing.
Interviewer: It’s clear that the impact of climate change is becoming more evident with the increasing frequency of wildfires, droughts, and storms. Lawmakers have proposed many solutions, but clearly we need a stronger, more permanent one, as environmental problems are more prevalent than ever before. What exactly have we been doing wrong, and what is the correct way to go about this issue?
Senator Stabenow: Well this is existential; this is really about whether we’re going to be able to survive and thrive as a country and globe, and first and foremost, we have seen the interests of the polluters, for decades, taking the forefront. Also, realizing that if people really understood the impact of using fossil fuels, we would turn to cleaner energies, and polluters didn’t want that to happen, so they’ve spent billions and billions of dollars trying to convince us that the climate crisis isn’t real. Well, it is real and we’re seeing it right in front of our face right now. We now know that the Great Lakes are warming faster than the oceans, we know that Lake Superior is one of the top five fastest warming lakes in the world, and we are seeing it affect our agriculture economy.
We’re seeing it affect every part of our lives and so we have to act; we should have already been acting. I’m leading the efforts on electric vehicles. We need to be driving vehicles that don’t emit carbon pollution and that also creates jobs. We have the capacity to use wind, solar, geothermal, and other forms of clean energy that will also create jobs for Michigan. One third of the polysilicon used for the building of solar panels is actually in Midland, Michigan, so we need to build on that. There’s much that we can do about keeping carbon in the soil, doing a better job of protecting forests, stopping large deforestation that is sending tons and tons and tons of carbon into the air. There’s a lot of things that we can do that also create jobs but also we’re going to be able to guarantee that we have a country and a planet that you’re going to be able to live in and that your kids and grandkids are going to be able to live in.
Interviewer: There are currently many efforts in the federal government and many state governments to suppress voters’ rights, and recently there was a vote in Congress about the Voting Rights Bill. Could you please give a deeper overview of what is going on right now and what we can do to stop these efforts of undermining American democracy?
Senator Stabenow: This is very serious and we have to all stand up together and protect our freedom to vote under the American constitution. In 2018, in Michigan, almost two-thirds of the voters voted to give us more choices on voting, like no excuse absentee, so you could vote early, same-day voter registration, and other things that actually helped people in the middle of the pandemic in 2020 have the largest voter turnout in the history of Michigan, which is great, but what’s happening right now, and this goes back to that 2020 election, the person who lost the election, the former president, did not accept his loss.
Nobody likes a loss, I’ve won and I’ve lost. It’s not fun to lose, but he decided that he was going to do everything possible to stop certifying the presidential vote. And on January 6 [the day of the certification], I was there at the Capitol when there were violent insurrectionists who came in to attempt to stop the legal certification of the vote of the public in the United States of America, which led to at least five police officers who lost their lives and others who lost their lives. But, it wasn’t enough to do that. They now have a concerted effort, a plan all across the country, including in Michigan. 19 states have passed changes to restrict our freedom to vote so instead of saying, “Gee, we lost, we’re going to go out and convince people we’re the right folks to vote for and we’re going to do a better job of doing that”, they just want to make it harder for people to vote. So in Michigan, it’s really important right now that we are aware that there are petitions that folks are trying to get signed, and if they get enough signatures, the Republican majority in the legislature is going to adopt the signatures.
They’re going to be able to basically take away people’s freedom to vote. So first thing is don’t sign those petitions; tell your folks, tell everybody not to sign the petitions, and then really speak out about what we need to do together to guarantee that as many people as possible of every age have the right to vote. It’s about our freedom under the Constitution, and we can disagree and have differences of ideas, that’s what America is based on, but we all have a right to have our voice heard, and that is through our vote and there shouldn’t be efforts to restrict certain people. For instance, in some of the states, you could use a hunting license for a Voter ID but not a college student ID. Well, that’s not even subtle in terms of the effort they’re trying to stop students from voting. We’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen in Michigan, so we don’t want these petitions that are out right now to get enough signatures to pass and then, we want to make sure, going forward, there aren’t efforts to restrict our freedom to vote.
Interviewer: Something softer that many people don’t know about you is that you were in a cameo role in the 2016 movie Batman vs Superman. I’ve always been a large fan of superheroes, so what was it like to have a part in the movie?
Senator Stabenow: I have to tell you this was on my bucket list. It was so much fun, they did a lot of the filming in Michigan and the filming of the part I was in was actually filmed on Michigan State University’s campus. It was Lex Luthor’s home; they used the Broad Art Museum. I had a very small role, if you blink, you miss me, but it still took two days. I was there from 6 p.m to 4 a.m for two days and ended up being in a very small role at a reception that was being held. But, it brought Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman all together in sort of the pivotal scene. I was the Governor of Metropolis, and I played a very minor role, but it was a lot of fun.
Interviewer: Like you were saying earlier, with the voting rights, America is currently at a time where the entire country is divided, whether it be politically motivated or not. And a big reason why we have reached this stage is because, time and time again, we see band-aid solutions to a problem that requires intricate and more permanent fixes. What can children like me do to help bring America back together?
Senator Stabenow: I think, first of all, being aware of this moment, our history, and the roles and responsibilities we have. If you go back and listen to the great debates of our founders, I’m a great fan of Alexander Hamilton (not only the broadway play but all the efforts he talked about like majority rule and what it means under the Constitution), but then taking an interest in what’s happening today, pushing all of us as adults getting involved in campaigns of people that you believe will do the right thing, speaking out about the climate crisis, and really not letting us, as adults, continue to create this division and poison. Don’t accept it, it should not be this way, it does not have to be this way, and you deserve better than what is happening right now. I think all of you can step in and really speak to what we need to do as a country and bring us all together.
Update note: The author of this article is Krishna Mano and was only briefly listed otherwise due to a mistake by website administrators. The City Voice apologizes for the error.