On November 4, voters in Michigan’s 27th House District elected Democrat Robert Wittenberg to replace outgoing Representative Ellen Cogen Lipton. Wittenberg has lived in the district all his life; he was born in Huntington Woods, attended high school in Berkley, and currently resides in Oak Park. Now, he gets the opportunity to represent us all in Lansing. I sat down with Representative-Elect Wittenberg recently to talk about the tasks he faces as he prepares to head off to the Michigan State Capitol in January.
Ferndale Friends: Being a politician has to be a real strain on self, friends, and family. Why did you run for office?
Robert Wittenberg: I ran because I grew up in this community, I love this community, and I really want to serve this community. I’m frustrated with the way things are in Lansing, and I want to make a change. There are issues of fairness and equality for the LGBT community we have to address. There are issues with education, which isn’t a priority in Lansing any more. Teachers in public schools are having their resources cut, their benefits cut, and their class sizes increased. We need to reverse this trend.
FF: How would you describe your position in the political spectrum? Progressive, moderate, conservative?
RW: Definitely progressive, which is good because this district is progressive. My values align with the people of this district, and I hope to bring some progressive ideas to Lansing.
FF: As a member of the minority party in a deeply divided political landscape, how do you plan on getting things done in Lansing?
RW: There are definitely members of the far right that believe that government
has no role in anyone’s life, but there are a lot of people, both Republican and Democrat, who are closer to the middle and really do want to get things done, and you have to be able to work with them. There are, however, issues where we (the Democrats) won’t compromise. I’ll never sell out my progressive values. But overall, if there’s something we can figure out that will benefit the state, then we have to have that discussion. Many times, it’s about the relationships you build. When I had my orientation for incoming House members, there were 40 new representatives (out of 110 total seats) from both parties. I talked to the new Republicans, sat next to them, in the interest of building those relationships that will let us get some things done.
FF: What are some of the unique problems of the 27th District that you hope to address?
RW: Our municipalities are starved for funds. I sat down with the city managers in just about every city in the district, and all of them said that they don’t have the money to pay for essential services, that they’ve had to cut back on almost everything. This is true all over the state, but it especially affects some of our communities here in the district. This also affects our schools. We have great schools in our district, but can they continue to be great without proper funding? Every time I’ve gone to a school board meeting, they talk about their funding being cut and cut and cut. They’re like magicians, figuring out how to do more with less. While it’s a good thing to be able to do that, I don’t think they should have to. I think they should be able to do more with more.
Another thing I’ve been fighting for is equality, and the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. The Republicans aren’t allowing a fully-inclusive bill; they want to leave out transgender rights. They’re getting a lot of push-back from Democrats, and our caucus is united on the idea that unless a bill is fully-inclusive, we won’t support it. Because we have people from all walks of life in our district, this is something that will affect us directly.
FF: What’s highest on the agenda once you get to Lansing?
RW: As a caucus, there are things we want to pursue. Besides equal rights with the Elliott-Larsen Act, there’s the pension tax on the seniors. It’s against the constitution, and these were people who worked their whole lives, followed the rules, did everything right, and were promised something, and all of a sudden, it’s being taken away. Repealing “Right to Work,” too. Putting money back into public schools, more financial transparency with charter schools and with the EAA (Education Achievement Authority), which is something our current representative has been fighting for. I also want to do something to get more people involved in the democratic process. Unfortunately, the other side has been trying to restrict voting; I want to make it easier. There are a lot of ideas: Early voting, same-day registration, voting by mail, making election day a holiday, that we’d like to explore.
FF: Having lived here all your life, what’s the best thing about the 27th District?
RW: The people. It’s such a friendly community. When I was going door-to- door campaigning, I’d knock and it turned out it was someone I went to school with, or their kids went to school with me, or my brother or sister or my cousins, or someone I played youth football or baseball with. There’s a real small-town feel. The cities of this district are great, their elected officials are working hard to keep them moving forward and make them family- friendly and wonderful places to live. I love being from here, I love living here, and I’m looking forward to raising my family here. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else!
FF: Has there been any sense of unreality at getting elected? A moment when you were at the orientation, and it was like, wow, am I really here?
RW: Yes, there was. It’s pretty crazy to think about it. People are calling me “Representative-Elect”… I’m like, just call me Robert. It’s funny to hear that… I’m no different than anyone else. I’m just a person who wants to help out. When I was going door-to-door during the campaign, I kept telling people that I’m available, that they can always call me, e-mail me, reach out to me, that their voices will be heard. I want to work for the people of this community, and I will never take that for granted.