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July 26, 2004

Familiar and new names campaign for 52nd District

From:, MI - Jul 26, 2004

5 candidates hope to join House of Representatives

Monday, July 26, 2004
News Staff Reporter

The open seat in the Michigan State House of Representatives' 52nd District has drawn some experienced local candidates looking to get to the next level and some first-timers looking to break into politics.

Redrawn prior to the 2002 election, the district now includes northeast Ann Arbor, Saline and Manchester, and 13 townships in northern and western Washtenaw County. Its current representative, Gene DeRossett, R-Manchester, is term-limited and in the midst of a congressional campaign, creating a vacuum that three Democrats and two Republicans seek to fill.

Democratic primary

The most recognizable name among Democrats is former candidate and party activist Pam Byrnes, a practicing family law attorney and sitting Washtenaw County road commissioner since 2000. She faces physician Philip Zazove, of Dexter and Fran Brennan Pontoni, a community activist from Webster Township.

Byrnes, of Lyndon Township, was defeated in two previous attempts for the seat, but believes her strong showing against the incumbent DeRossett in 2002 (she lost by about 2,500 votes) shows she can muster a lot of support in a district that tends to lean Republican. Couple that with her own poll data suggesting the district has a soft Republican majority, and Byrnes is encouraged that the third time my be a charm.

Byrnes supports increasing sin taxes to help balance budgets, but sees them as only short-term fixes to a larger problem. She said the tax system needs to be reviewed and would favor looking at increasing state revenues through taxes on Internet and catalog sales.

She does not support vouchers for charter schools because she said they are a move toward privatizing the education system, and there is less accountability for meeting academic standards in such schools than in public schools. If elected, she said, she would oppose an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage and further casino development. She said she would support horse racing tracks having slot machines, however, because such tracks, also known as racinos, would benefit the agricultural industry. She also supports extending term limits to 12 years.

"I'm a moderate, and I don't consider myself a 'flaming liberal,"' she said. "I'm fiscally responsible and about common-sense, responsible government."

Byrnes has a slew of union endorsements and the backing of some of the top Democratic leaders in Washtenaw County. She has raised more than $70,000 and has more than $29,000 in cash on hand, according to financial disclosures released last week.

Rivaling Byrnes in fund-raising is Zazove, who has taken in more than $72,000 and has more than $9,800 in cash on hand, reports show. The University of Michigan professor and practicing physician is making his first run at public office and, if elected, would become the first deaf person selected to a state or federal seat in U.S. history.

Adept at lip reading, Zazove was the first child "mainstreamed" by the Chicago-area school system and among the first deaf people in the country to graduate from medical school. He settled in Scio Township 15 years ago and said he is seeking public office because Michigan, as he sees it, is at a crucial crossroads, and he believes he has the expertise to contribute.

"I just believe Michigan can do better," said Zazove, who also holds a business degree and is associate medical director for several of the U-M Health System's satellite clinics. "If we thought about the problems we're facing today 10 years ago, they may not have been so difficult to deal with," he said.

He is backed by local and state medical societies and would put his expertise on health care to work in the Legislature. His goals are to reduce public health-care costs, increase incentives for doctors to be more cost effective in patient care and stem the state's looming nursing shortage by offering tuition programs for those who stay in Michigan.

The key to saving money in health care is to promote prevention techniques that can educate people about having healthier lives and by addressing the needs of the poor and elderly uninsured who have to rely on Medicaid, Zazove said. It's a big hurdle, but Zazove believes he is the kind of consensus builder who can break through the typical gridlock between the major parties.

"Being deaf may have made me a better listener than others. I truly believe that," he said.

If elected, he said he would be a advocate for increasing funding to the life sciences initiatives. He also wants to improve education and streamline expenses for struggling districts by having them share non-teaching core costs.

He does not believe government should legislate marriage, supports increasing fees and enforcement of current regulations for companies that discharge pollution into public waterways, and supports better enforcement of the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act.

Rounding out the Democratic field is Brennan Pontoni, who is also making her first run at public office.

Education, the environment, improving health care accessibility and advocating incentives for small business growth are among her priorities.

She supports the cigarette tax and other sin taxes to cut the deficit and also believes more non-violent offenders could be moved from expensive prisons to other community corrections programs to help trim spending.

Pontoni also said she would oppose a marriage amendment and gambling initiatives and would fight against anti-affirmative action initiatives that could come up again in the next election cycle.

"I'm tired of the leadership pandering to people's fears," she said of the failed attempt to get the anti-affirmative action issue on the November ballot.

With her children grown, Pontoni said, she is driven and can dedicate the time necessary to defeat a Republican challenger and maintain the seat for Democrats for years to come.

Her financial disclosures were not available Friday.

Republican primary

The Republican race features two sitting public officials who are attempting to reach the state Legislature for the first time.

County Commissioner Joe Yekulis of Chelsea is ready to leave county government after five terms. He faces Saline City Councilwoman Alicia Ping.

Yekulis said he would like to model his career in the state Legislature after DeRossett's and continue his approach of constituent services and shepherding projects that benefit the district.

He supported the state cigarette tax because it provided additional revenue and could reduce smokers' impact on state health care costs. As a commissioner, he voted against the county's smoking/clean-air resolution because he said it infringed on business owners' right to regulate themselves. But he said he could support a similar statewide proposal under consideration because of its overall benefits to society and the health-care budget.

"If it works well in other states and if it's improved things, I would lean toward supporting it," he said. "I keep an open mind and positions can evolve over time as more information comes in."

Yekulis said he would also support a streamlined tax on Internet sales and would work to maintain state revenue sharing for counties and municipalities.

He said he would support a marriage amendment, and foundation grants for education and making service programs a requirement for graduation in public schools. He would oppose further casino expansion and civil unions.

Yekulis, a former Washtenaw County deputy, has the support of prominent Republican legislators across the state.

Financial reports show that he raised more than $146,000 during the campaign, including what he loaned from personal accounts. But they also indicate that he has already returned a significant portion and has nearly $26,000 in cash on hand.

Ping has fought the uphill battle of countering Yekulis' name recognition and support by knocking on more than 8,000 doors in the district and plastering the area with signs. Her energy and ideas have also garnered endorsements that many didn't think she would get, such as one from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Ping has eyed the seat for some time and said now is the perfect opportunity to serve at the state level, because the Legislature needs people with government experience.

She says she is a staunch supporter of improving K-12 education and that she will make revenue sharing for municipalities a top priority.

Ping supports lifting the cap on charter school funding because she believes competition will only improve the final product, and supports school-of-choice programs and vouchers for private schools as long as academic standards meet the criteria for public schools.

She describes herself as a fiscally responsible and tax-fighting Republican and does not believe government has a role in legislating marriage.

Despite the support she's mustered, Ping is determined to keep running as an underdog.

"It's worked for me so far, so I'm not going to stop the momentum," she said. "I just think my philosophies are more representative of the diverse district, and people are seeing that."

Financial reports indicate she is spending like an underdog, too.

Ping has raised more than $25,000, but also spent more than $27,000, including $23,000 in the last quarter alone. Reports show a negative balance of more than $2,000 as she heads into the final week of campaigning.

Art Aisner can be reached at or (734) 994-6823.

© 2004 Ann Arbor News. Used with permission

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