Could you tell me a little about yourself? Where you’re from? Went to school? What did you study?
I’m married with 3 children and live in East Lansing. I grew up in Keego Harbor, MI and went through West Bloomfield Public Schools. I got a Natural Resource undergraduate degree from U.M. School of Natural Resources and Environment and my JD from Wayne State University law. Passed the bar but never practiced law, I prefer policy/legislation to the courtroom.
Where did you work before the Michigan Environmental Council?
I worked in the Michigan House and Senate as well as for Representative Liz Brater, Representative Chris Kolb and Senator Liz Brater.
How did you get involved with the Michigan Environmental Council?
MEC lobbied on natural resources and environment policy and I came to know the staff through their legislative work.
Could you tell me more about what the Michigan Environmental Council is/does?
MEC is a statewide member group. We are the ears and eyes in the state capitol and alert member groups when policies are moving that will impact them or their interests. MEC also acts as a convener and is often asked by policy makers to help develop or amend environmental and natural resource policy, and sometimes health policies.
As the Health Policy Director, how does your work fit within the MEC?
I work alongside our policy director who works the Capitol and our other policy directors in energy, transportation, water, natural resources and emerging issues to stay on top of happening s in state policy.
What have been some of your biggest personal successes in this position? In influencing Michigan public policy?
Educating lawmakers that childhood lead poisoning is still a problem and we need more state money to address it. My lead poisoning coalition was successful in adding $1.25 million to the state budget to make homes lead safe for kids. Also, my work linking childhood obesity to environmental factors like physical activity and healthy food access.
What are some challenges MEC and yourself have faced in influencing policy?
With the economic downturn policy makers and citizens in general have focused on jobs and job providers. Many times they seek to relax environmental regulations thinking it will spur jobs. Often times it doesn’t and the environment suffers. The poor economy hit our state departments protecting health and the environment hard too, and many staff and program supports have been eliminated. The move toward smaller government and fewer regulations in today’s political climate often comes at the expense of environmental protections. Our job is to ensure policy makers make smart decisions, and don’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater” when making cutbacks.
What are some typical tactics you use? How do you deal with your opponents?
Lots of education and outreach describing a side to the issue they may not have considered before. I try to identify a constituent in their district to contact them as well since lawmakers want to please the folks who vote for them. I may offer a compromise that works for both sides versus saying “No” and getting nothing. I like to follow the money. Many big business interests have deep pockets and we can’t compete against that, so I like to know where we stand and who the deep pocket opponents have gotten too. I also praise good policy decisions and the lawmakers who made them to build up good will and give them some positive PR. Same with bad decisions; people need to know where their lawmakers stand. Most important is I try to never make enemies. I very well may need them as my partner on another issue and folks in Lansing turn up in unexpected places—never make enemies.
As you’ve become more involved in government, have your opinions of state politics/policy changed? If yes, how?
Yes, I’m much more cynical. I see how some decisions are made for money or political gain. How some decisions are rushed through with no comment or thought of how others will be impacted. I have seen decisions based on reasons that have little to do with sound public policy, and that hurt Michigan residents. I have seen needed infrastructure health and other policies wither on the vine because our policy makers don’t want to raise revenues kicking the can down the road for the next guys…. There are some kind and benevolent policy makers and most lawmakers spend long hours and make personal sacrifices in their jobs so it’s not all bad. Just when I first started in Lansing, I had higher visions of the Democratic process and lawmakers working for the best interests of their electorate. I haven’t found that to be uniformly true.
What kind of projects/work are you working on right now, be it local or state?
I’m working to get more lead poisoning prevention money into the state budget. I’m organizing a lead education day for my coalition to visit lawmakers in Lansing. I’m working on Green and Healthy Homes in Lansing and Detroit, asthma education and prevention, toxics in our products, pesticides, obesity prevention and infant mortality when I can. Most of my work is statewide in scope.
How would you compare Michigan current policy in environmental and health policy compared to other states?
I would say we are the middle of the pack. We used to be a leader and folks took seriously that we are protectors of the Great Lakes and enacted California type environmental and health laws. We were the model. No longer but we’re not the bottom of states either.
What would you suggest young people, like college students, do to get involved, or learn more about Michigan’s environmental issues and policies?
Get educated. Pick a few issues that you are passionate about and volunteer to help relevant coalitions or groups engaged on your issues of choice. These groups always need social media articles, personal stories, field work, attendance at special events and meetings. Many health and environment groups I work with spend lots of time looking for committed volunteers to pitch in and help spread the word. Many times this work (aside from the good experience) can lead to direct jobs so it’s a win win.
Could this interview be posted on the Michigan Policy Network?