Reflections on the Gratiot Area Chamber of Commerce Forum

Last Tuesday I spoke in the Gratiot Area Chamber of Commerce Forum. As a candidate for State Representative, I had ten minutes to respond to the question: “What are your top 3 priorities for the State of Michigan and what actions or steps would you take to address these?”

I love data, and I love dealing with facts and figures. I’m a researcher, deep down, and I spent hours collecting data about the issues that I thought were the most important in the coming election. I tried to avoid watering down what I said with useless rhetoric, though every now and then I felt it was necessary to drive a point home. In all honesty, ten minutes was not enough time to speak; I reduced my original outline from 20 pages to 3 and a quarter, and even then I only got through about half of the points I wanted to cover.

While I have a lot of information on the issues, and my opinions are based on information and logical reasoning, I could use improvement in my public speaking abilities. I get nervous in front of large crowds. Knowing this, I decided that, instead of standing and speaking to the crowd from behind the table, I would get up and stand before them. I wanted to address them more directly–to get out in front of them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI spoke sincerely, honestly, and passionately. I didn’t want to shy away from avoiding ideas and facts that would have been unpopular–I wanted to look the people in the eye and tell them what I thought needed to be done. And I think a great many of the people at the forum appreciated that. I received many words of encouragement after the forum, and many people told me (Republicans included!) that they liked my ideas and that I had a future in politics.

IMG_0368

Fred Sprague (State Senate District 33), Me, Jeff Holmes (U.S. congress District 4)

I just briefly want to say that I think new politicians want to think of themselves as the unpolitician–or perhaps, not even politicians at all. In all honesty, they are. I recognize that my candidacy and involvement in politics makes me a politician. I’d like to think that I’m a better class of politician than the norm; I avoid rhetoric without substance, I find facts to back up my ideas, and if the facts show me to be wrong, I change my views. I speak honestly, I like debate, and I stand up for what I believe in, sometimes fiercely and passionately. I don’t want to be an ideologue; I want all of my views to be formed by data, logic, and a firm adherence to a strict morality and ethics that precludes lying or hiding my views and beliefs. Whenever I go to a forum like this I carry my binder of surveys and responses so people can look through it as they wish. I’m not afraid to say that I don’t know the answer to a question, but I follow that up with “I’ll do my best to learn about it.”

And if anything describes the foundation of my candidacy, it is a love of knowledge and the desire to learn. I think it goes without saying that politicians won’t always agree with their constituents; after all, we’re people with our own views, too. But it is incumbent upon us to act in good faith; to explain why we take the actions we do and be open to feedback and criticism. And, when we run for election again, to be accountable to the people who vote for us.

I presented myself to the voters as I really am. I dressed simply in jeans, tennis shoes, and a button up shirt because I don’t wear tailored suits. There’s no problem with wearing tailored suits, of course, but it isn’t me. I’m a down-to-Earth guy who enjoys debating issues and drinking a craft beer from a Michigan microbrewery every now and then (Founders Pale Ale and Bell’s Two Hearted Ale are my personal favorites). But this doesn’t mean I’m not serious about policy and governance, nor does it mean that, if elected, I will take a laid-back approach as a legislator. I’ll work to represent all of the people of my district, be they in the LGBT community, Republicans, Libertarians, Independents, Democrats, religious minorities, homeless, or elderly. Everyone deserves a voice.

All of us have a stake in the long-term prosperity of Michigan, and I feel that I can best represent the people of Michigan by offering a fresh perspective, new ideas, and a different kind of approach to politics and the role of elected officials.

In the interest of openness, I’m going to post the notes I used at the forum, including what I’ve crossed out (in those cases it’s not because they’re not important, but because I was trying to best use my time) and what I had added.

Gratiot_Notes01 Gratiot_Notes02 Gratiot_Notes03 Gratiot_Notes04The study mentioned at the bottom of page 3 can be found here.

Thank you for reading. If you have questions or comments, please contact me via email at jderke2014@gmail.com or leave a comment below.

Advertisements

Issues: Education

Greetings!

This post will focus on the relatively contentious topic of education. A great deal of my life has involved education, from student to educator. To ensure Michigan has a competitive economy and to increase the quality of life, we must ensure that everyone has access to an affordable education. Support of our public schools, universities, and community colleges are vital, as are investing in training and education for green, high-tech, and other skilled jobs.

What’s really striking is that Michigan spends nearly $2 billion on its prisons systems. Ted Roelofs, in his article on M-Live, notes that “In 1980, corrections spending consumed just 3 percent of the state budget. That soared to more than 21 percent by 2013. Prison population stood near 15,000 in 1980. It was more than triple that 25 years later. On average, prisoners today cost the state $35,000 a year. And they are growing more expensive as they age.”

Further, according to the Business Leaders for Michigan Political Action Committee, the Michigan General Fund for fiscal year 2015 is about $10 billion. They contend that we dedicate 67% more dollars in discretionary spending to prisons than we do public universities, about $1.2 billion, which they report is a 33% drop from its $1.8 billion level in 2001. Why do we spend about $800 million more dollars on prisons than we do on funding for higher education?

I believe that Michiganians want to reduce the debt burden on college students (Michigan is among the states with the most student debt), and make college more affordable by reducing tuition costs. One of the best ways to do that is for our students in higher education is to increase funding for our public universities by directing more of our general fund dollars to universities and other training and educational programs and away from prisons by instituting prison reforms that will reduce the cost of maintaining our prisons.

Along with that, we should also expand access and opportunities for preschool, further developing early childhood development programs. These programs are essential for building a solid educational foundation that the children will carry with them through their lives.

A major concern of mine is the rapid expansion of cyber schools, which have a really shoddy education record (as reported here and here), and are often owned by private companies with a profit margin. I have had experience with online classes, and I know that they are no substitute for face-to-face learning experiences. In fact, I believe that they are disadvantageous to a student’s ability to learn. I am very strongly opposed to using public education funds to pay for cyber school programs as they are not sufficient replacements for public school systems. Traditional, public schools offer much better opportunities for children. While I do support having a variety of educational options for students, replacing face-to-face education with online cyber schools is not the way to go.

I also feel strongly that we should not use public education dollars to fund or subsidize private or religious schools. Maintaining a healthy separation between church and state, and properly funding our public schools, is conducive to the best learning environments. I am also a strong advocate of teaching science in science classes, and basing the subject matter of those classes on the best, most current scientific knowledge. While I respect the diversity of religious beliefs throughout the state, I also acknowledge that to produce the best students in STEM fields we need to provide the best science educations.

We should also make sure that the cornerstone of education, teachers, are well-supported with training to implement new standards. I think the profession of teaching is one of the noblest callings that there is, and we should recognize that by rewarding our best teachers,  and providing incentives and pay to attract the best and brightest to this profession. But more than that, teachers should not be used as scapegoats for education shortfalls that can be traced by to administrative issues or bureaucratic nonsense. They deserve the dignity and respect that their profession necessarily confers on them as educators.

I would also like to take this time to touch on the Common Core standards. This article, written by Nancy Kaffer, provides background information on the topic of the Common Core standards. Common Core provides a set of rigorous educational standards to match 21st century requirements, and sets benchmarks for learning that are uniform throughout the country. It was not devised by “Washington insiders” as some have claimed, but instead by the National Governor’s Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, as well as by teachers and parents across the country. Education and curriculum are largely left in local hands as long as the standards are met. Former Republican Governor John Engler supports the Common Core Standards. It’s a completely voluntary set of standards, and I support Michigan’s involvement in them as they teach critical thinking and problem solving skills. The incumbent of the 93rd House Seat, Tom Leonard, voted against adopting the Common Core standards. I believe that this puts him on the wrong side of this vital education issue.

I support lowering the caps on charter schools, as well as holding them and the authorizers more accountable for the schools’ performance. The charter school authorizers have proposed setting up their own accreditation regime, which would judge authorizers on nine metrics, but I do have concerns about the potential for abuse in a self-regulation scheme.

Finally, I would like to also state that I would like to scale-back the recent push and focus on standardized testing. I feel that we run the risk of making our schools about nothing more than test-prep, and if this happens, students will lose.

Thanks for reading. If you have any thoughts on education policy, please write your thoughts in the comments or email me at jderke2014@gmail.com.

Money and Politics

One of the earliest decisions I made when I started my campaign for State Rep was that I would accept endorsements from groups whose goals aligned with mine, but that I wouldn’t be raising money from that. And, indeed, I have decided not to raise any money at all for the campaign.

This puts me at a heavy disadvantage given the current state of our politics. Money flows through it all very, very easily, especially since the Citizens United decision. I get letters and emails from PACS asking me to fill out surveys for possible endorsements and, if deemed appropriate, funding. As I’ve written about before, groups like Americans for Prosperity are spending millions of dollars to influence the elections in Michigan this year.

I happened to come across this political story, entitled “Big Money, the Koch Brothers and Me.” The article details reporter Kenneth P. Vogel‘s attempts to observe the secretive Koch brothers meetings with popular media personalities, conservative politicians, and other ultra-wealthy individuals. I found the article difficult to read because of the frank way it discusses the way in which our politics have changed over the last decade, and the ways in which money is warping the system.

Vogel concludes,

The result—the one Obama lamented on that rainy day in Washington state—is the privatization of a system that we’d always thought of as public. It amounts to the takeover—hostile or not—of American politics by the ultra-rich.

I think this is a fairly powerful indictment on the massive influx of money we’re seeing in politics. And I see the kinds of things that this sort of setup can bring when we see politicians who dole out checks on the House floor and others who kowtow to the special interests.

And who suffers? We do. The voters and the citizens who are not ultra-rich and do not have access to the halls of power like the Koch brothers. And I find it disturbing that people who operate under a moniker of “fair and balanced” are at these shindigs, giving presentations and schmoozing with those who operate out of the sunlight, and as Vogel notes, have privatized a once public system.

We’re the losers in this systems as our access and influence dwindles even as the amount of wealth the middle and lower class owns dwindles.

And this is why it’s time for a change in how our politics operates. We need to have sensible campaign finance laws, and pass laws to make political donations a matter of public record so that those who try to influence elections can be held accountable. When access to politicians is bought and policies crafted with a checkbook, we lose.

Update (12:08 AM): Bridge Magazine has an excellent article about the campaign spending by outside billionaires that is well worth a read. From the article, which can be found here:

Overwhelm them, and make them irrelevant. Local parties no longer control the dominant messaging in political campaign. Instead, a few highly motivated billionaires, often very ideological, are increasingly in a position to dominate political discourse in this country.

I don’t think this is a very good trend.