Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D)
Elected: 2000, term expires 2012, 2nd term.
Born: April 29, 1950, Gladwin .
Education: MI St. U., B.A. 1972, M.S.W. 1975.
Religion: United Methodist.
Family: Married (Tom Athans); 2 children.
Elected office: Ingham Cnty. comm., 1975–78, Chair, 1976–78; MI House of Reps., 1978–90; MI Senate, 1990–94; U.S. House of Reps 1996-2000.
Professional Career: Consultant & co–founder, MI Leadership Inst., 1995–96.
Michigan’s junior senator is Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat elected in 2000. Stabenow grew up in the small Outstate town of Clare, where her father was an Oldsmobile dealer and her mother was a nurse. She went to Michigan State University, where she got a master’s degree in social work. She counseled kids in public schools and made extra money singing folk songs in coffeehouses. Young Stabenow also marched in antiwar rallies during the Vietnam War era and volunteered for antiwar presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972. Angered when the Ingham County Commission closed a nursing home, she ran for the commission two years later and, at age 24, beat an incumbent who referred to her as “that young broad.” She was elected to the state House in 1978 at age 28 and was elected to the state Senate in 1990. Four years later, while running for governor, she was at the center of a storm in state politics. In response to Republican Gov. John Engler’s call for changes in financing education, she proposed to zero out the property tax and start over, apparently calculating that he would reject such a drastic tax cut. Instead, he accepted her proposal and passed a plan reducing property taxes vastly and increasing the sales tax, which was approved by voters, 70%-30%, in March 1994. In the August primary, the state Democratic establishment opposed Stabenow: the Michigan Education Association, the UAW and AFL-CIO. She won 30% of the vote, behind former Rep. Howard Wolpe’s 35%. She was chosen as Wolpe’s running mate, but the ticket lost to Engler, 61%-38%.
|Debbie Stabenow (D)||2,151,278||(57%)||($11,220,506)|
|Mike Bouchard (R)||1,559,597||(41%)||($6,050,148)|
|Debbie Stabenow (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2000 (49%), 1998 House (57%), 1996 House (54%)
Undaunted, Stabenow almost immediately began running for Congress. The 8th Congressional District seat, which included Lansing’s Democratic Ingham County and heavily Republican Livingston County to the east, was held by freshman Republican Dick Chrysler. For the 1996 race, Stabenow raised more than $1 million in individual contributions, a tribute to her industriousness and the fundraising prowess of the feminist left; overall each spent $1.5 million. She won impressively, 54%-44%. In the House, Stabenow had a fairly liberal voting record. She opposed increasing the president’s power to negotiate trade agreements and the partial-birth abortion ban. In March 1999, she announced she would run against first-term Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham in 2000. That day, Abraham took out full-page ads calling her a liberal.
This turned out to be one of the critical races among 2000 Senate contests. The first barrage of ads in the race came not from either candidate or their respective parties, but from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which in early 2000 spent $700,000 attacking Abraham for his stands on immigration and charging that his stands cost Michigan workers jobs. In the summer, Abraham used his money advantage—he ultimately spent $13 million to Stabenow’s nearly $8 million—to run ads spotlighting his own program for prescription drugs for senior citizens and attacked Stabenow as a free-spending liberal favoring increased bureaucracy and higher taxes, opposing welfare reform and supporting lenient sentences for criminals. Stabenow resisted pressure and hoarded her money for an October ad buy. This proved to be a good strategy. Stabenow was down by 17% in mid-October, but she answered charges that she was a liberal by citing her votes for a balanced budget and ending the marriage penalty. She kept herself in the good graces of labor by voting against normalizing trade relations with China. Stabenow said Abraham was beholden to corporations and special interests and attacked his stands on making prescription drugs affordable and regulation of health maintenance organizations. This race was heavy on ads by outside groups—the Sierra Club, Peace Action, and EMILY’s List for Stabenow, and for Abraham, the Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable, Americans for Job Security, National Rifle Association, and Michigan Right to Life. It was the most expensive Senate race in Michigan history and the first since 1942 in which neither candidate won a majority of the vote. Stabenow won 49%-48%, carrying only 13 of the state’s 83 counties.
To help her strengthen her grip on the seat, Senate Democrats made Stabenow head of a task force on prescription drugs, then among the hottest issues in the country. She organized bus trips of seniors to Canada and pressed for measures allowing the importation of U.S. drugs from Canada and permitting states to continue to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies on Medicaid drug purchases. In 2004, Stabenow won passage of an amendment for $2 billion in corporate tax cuts for manufacturers who create jobs in the United States.
Stabenow also focused on Michigan’s environment issues. In 2003, Toronto began shipping all its trash to a landfill southwest of Detroit: 180 truckloads a day, or over 1 million tons a year. Stabenow argued that the practice violated a 1992 treaty and launched an online campaign to amass signatures to demand that the Environmental Protection Agency enforce the treaty, which required notification of each shipment and allowed the U.S. to decline. She presented 165,000 signatures to EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt, but he maintained that only hazardous-waste shipments violated the treaty. Stabenow argued that all waste was covered. The shipments continued, as did the fight. In August 2006, Stabenow and fellow Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan announced an agreement with Ontario’s Environment Minister to end the shipment of municipal garbage by 2010. “This is real. It’s concrete. It cannot be challenged in court,” she said. Some skeptics were dubious that it was comprehensive or legally binding. By 2008, trash shipments from Canada and other states had been reduced, but by just 10%.
Late in her first term, Stabenow decided to try to get a toehold in leadership. In November 2004, when Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., stepped down as secretary of the Democratic caucus, Stabenow called Mikulski to ask for her support, and the two worked the phones. Stabenow got the job, the No. 3 position in the Senate Democratic leadership. It gave her a voice at leadership meetings, though her performance was limited. Other senior Senate Democrats quietly discussed replacing her after the 2006 election. Ultimately, the sides reached an agreement: Stabenow got a much-sought-after seat on the Finance Committee, and she became chair of the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, a liaison to grassroots groups across the nation. And Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., took over as conference secretary.
In the majority, Stabenow was a leading foe of President Bush’s international trade agenda, insisting on protections for American workers who lose their jobs to foreign competition. In 2007 the Senate easily approved a bilateral trade deal with Peru despite her opposition. With Republican Jim Bunning of Kentucky, she sponsored a proposal to make it easier for U.S. manufacturers to show currency manipulation by other nations, a measure directed at China. With her seat on Finance, she also was a leading advocate of expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. With other rust-belt Democrats, she successfully fought Senate action on climate change legislation, which was opposed by heavy industries, and she opposed tougher fuel economy standards for the auto industry, which ultimately passed the Senate.
Facing re-election in 2006, Stabenow got early breaks when two Republican House members, Candice Miller and Mike Rogers, said that they would not run. Several second-tier candidates emerged, including wealthy Keith Butler, a former Detroit councilman, and Jerry Zandstra, a director at a Grand Rapids religious think tank. National Republicans encouraged Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, who initially demurred but announced his candidacy in October 2005. Bouchard won the August primary, 61%-39%. The general election campaign was overshadowed by the more competitive race for governor, and Bouchard struggled to gain attention and attract money. Republicans ran an ad mocking Stabenow for caving in to Canadian interests on trash shipments, and Bouchard called her ineffective. But incumbent Republican senators were struggling that year, and the GOP did not make this a high-priority contest. Stabenow won 57%-41%, taking 65 of the 83 counties.
Stabenow faced a personal challenge in 2008 when her husband, Tom Athans, a co-founder of the TalkUSA Radio network, acknowledged that he had solicited sex from a prostitute in Michigan, though he was not arrested.