For this interview, I spoke with Betsy Coffia, two-time Democratic candidate for the Michigan State House of Representatives, from the 104th district (Grand Traverse County); the interview took place by phone on April 15th, 2015. I had the pleasure of volunteering for Betsy’s second campaign during the summer of 2014. Her unique platform highlighted (among other things) the issue of special interest group money and influence in politics. She completed both campaigns by accepting only donations from individual Michigan residents, not out-of-state, special interest, PAC, or party money. Betsy’s integrity and commitment resonated with the voters and her numerous campaign volunteers.
. Lindsay: So, if you could, please introduce yourself.
Ms. Coffia: My name is Betsy Coffia. I live in Traverse City, Michigan. I grew up here in Northern Michigan. I am newly appointed to a position as Director of Alumni Relations at Northwestern Michigan College, which is the college where I got my associates degree here in the area. My past professional endeavors have included journalism as a newspaper editor for several years and then I have worked as a social worker in the region as well. I ran for political office the state house for the 104thDistrict – that’s Grand Traverse County – in 2012 and 2014 on the Democratic ticket.
Lindsay: What first sparked your interest in politics and why did you choose to become involved at the state level?
Ms. Coffia: Well, I mean, I was definitely raised in a household where you vote, you know? It’s considered to be responsibility and a privilege, really. Both of my grandfathers are war veterans and it was just considered patriotic duty, so that was certainly something I grew up with but I didn’t think a whole lot about it. And so, I don’t know, several years ago, I really started tuning into some things that were happening with regard to the incredible amount of money flowing into the political process and I had some experiences, when I tried to advocate for some things, I was concerned about my state rep and state senator and the Governor’s office, and just felt completely dismissed and unimportant because I couldn’t – I was like just out of college – I couldn’t write a big check, was the impression I got. And so the more I looked at how much our political process is being influenced by people or groups who can donate huge sums of money, the more concerned I got. I was also noticing some pretty concerning trends in terms of rights being taken away, women’s rights, the environment, equality… there are all these important things going down and I really want my representative to represent the public interest. So that’s a really long politician-y way of answering. It’s an occupational hazard, sorry. I’m also a writer, right? So I don’t do bullet points, I do essays.
Lindsay: I completely understand! So, then what was it about the state level as opposed to more of a city level or a national level? Was it just the amount of influence that you would have versus the local level, or like maybe you wanted to stay close to your community, to have a more direct influence on your community than you would at the national level?
Ms. Coffia: Certainly yes to the last question. The federal level, it’s hard not to look at Congress and just feel like we’re beyond all hope.
Ms. Coffia: You know, and so another piece was the money in politics issue. I live in a city of 14,000. People run for local elected office, which is an important thing to do, but they do that with, you know, a couple thousand dollars and they talk to their friends and they listen… it’s pretty accountable I would say. I don’t always like the decisions made but I do feel like there is plenty of local accountability so with my main concern, this underlying issue for everything that I cared about that, with public policy being that our elected leaders weren’t representing us, they were representing their biggest donors. I felt like it was important to run for something that would allow me to take a stand on that issue, and also to really champion the idea that we shouldn’t be able to be bought, we should be accountable to our constituents, period.
Lindsay: Yeah absolutely. So, next question is, well, I guess, I suppose you kind of addressed already either what did you hope to achieve by doing so, or what were your goals? What I mean, in terms of the whole money in politics issue and incorporating that into your goals, what, as just one single person, is it kind of always in the back of your head, you know, as one person what can I honestly do?
Ms. Coffia: It’s a super legitimate point but I also worry that because all of us, once we decide that we can’t possibly do anything about whatever it is alone, we bow out. And if you look at most of the important movements and changes that needed to happen in history, they often start with one person. Standing up, you know, and being willing to say, “this is the problem, here’s what I think we should do about it”, and, you know, try to talk to others. And you, Lindsay, were one of the people who worked on my campaign (and know we had hundreds by the end) who understood that. So somebody has to be crazy enough to say, “all right this is worth doing, if no one else is doing it”. And I certainly looked around plenty before I raised my hand. I’d never ever considered running for political office ever before that, but at a point I just had to say, “all right, well this is important enough. My entire future and the future of our country are riding on some of these issues”. So it’s a big weighty thing that just kind of pushed me to that point, and so I did it.
Lindsay: Yeah, I actually agree with you wholeheartedly. I just asked because that was more or less a comment from potential voters that I got on more than one occasion while campaigning for you, and my take on it, I don’t know what you think about this, but my take on it was raising awareness that, you know, running for office with all this money wasn’t the only way to do it, and people, you know, voters might start to expect that of other candidates.
Ms. Coffia: Sure. And that’s a really good point, Lindsay, and I certainly do. I know for a fact because I had very influential business leaders within the community and pretty, you know, moderate, conservative-ish leaders in the area after the election say, “you know, no matter what happens or happened, you changed the conversation, and you really challenge this community to think about this whole issue of who our elected leaders work for”. Why are we spending all this money paying these people to go to Lansing, where they get a full-time salary, they get staff all on our dime? What are we paying them for if not to represent us? And so by us running a hardworking, principled, positive, ethical campaign that really had legs, people came to respect us. I think in spite of my opponent with all his money, we were able to model the possible and even though we didn’t win, which of course, I desperately wanted and I know you did, all of us did. We still had an impact and that is really powerful and I think it’s important. You know, I’m nobody special but it is important for those points to be made at key times in history and in Michigan history right now we’re in a really bad way. We’re feeling like our electeds don’t represent us. So when will we stop settling?
Lindsay: Right. Yeah, so I guess in a related question, you ran your campaigns without financial help from any special interest groups. What difficulties or backlash did you face, whether it’s from, you know, prospective voters or the interest groups themselves or even the Democratic Party?
Ms. Coffia: I got pushback from all the above. The voters actually as a whole were the most receptive. They – it was one of those things where, you know, I can’t even count how many doors I knocked all over the district, but I made a point to not just knock on democratic doors. I went to leaning republicans and independents as well. Initially, as I’m trying to talk with them, I’m smiling; I have a piece of literature in my hand… I’m a politician. You could just see that like look in their eye like, “yeah, yeah, whatever, you’re telling me whatever you think I want to hear to get a vote and then I’ll never see you again. Why are you different?” And the minute I told them that the entire premise of my campaign was to run it completely accountable to them with not a penny of out of state, special interest group or even party money coming my way, it was like that totally changed that look. Suddenly they were sort of intrigued, and they were willing to spend another minute at the door talking to me usually, and I had plenty of folks who crossed over for me on that issue. They voted for me because I’d won their respect by saying “I’m not going to be bought. I work for you”. So, that’s the voters. And then, you know, some of the interest groups… librarians have a PAC, teachers have a PAC, firefighters have a PAC, some our neighbors have PACs and so, you know, some really took issue with me saying special interest groups, including them, were my concern and the reason I decided to draw that clear line. I always set a straight line between me and the voters themselves, individually, because I feel like voters don’t distinguish generally, you know, your average Joe or Jane on the street is not making exceptions (for good or bad interest groups). They’re saying “oh, special interest groups”. And so I knew that if I didn’t take a very clear stand that the media would crucify me on that point, as would my opponent. It was important for me to just, you know, really just go over and above, and it made it harder, and I had some people who actually stepped down from positions within my campaign because they were part of one of those groups and just could not get on board with this position I was taking.
Lindsay: Wow. I didn’t realize that.
Ms. Coffia: Yeah that happened. I had sort of an ultimatum given to me that if I didn’t change my stance, this person, who I respect greatly still and we’re still friends, but it was a tough moment, you know. They were very powerful and had a lot of people’s ears and I had to make the call. This challenge was made known to me at a team meeting with like eight of my key people sitting there. That was a tough week or two where I really had to roll that one over. So, that was not an easy thing. But in the end, you know, I really do believe it was the right thing for me. Might be different for someone else but for me, I need to have that clarity and that straight line. And then for the party, I certainly had people from every level, from the top, the chair of the party, state level all the way to local operatives tell me to my face and otherwise, “this is a mistake, you’re doing it wrong”. If I had a penny for every time I was told that I was doing it wrong I would be very wealthy…
Lindsay: You could run a campaign off of it!
Ms. Coffia: Yeah, but the reality is Lindsay, what’s so interesting is in 2012, I was a complete green, unknown candidate, and in that election I raised $22,500, maybe. And a very well known, very connected to D.C. and Lansing candidate, who went on to party leadership after this most recent election, ran in the next district over and he raised a quarter of a million dollars. Much of it was from out of state.
Lindsay: Yeah, I was going to say, that district is generally poorer than our district. That’s odd.
Ms. Coffia: It’s in an area that I grew up, and it’s desperately poor. It’s one of the poor areas of the state and so, you know, here’s a model example of maybe what I “should have been doing”, and this person lost just like I did. And then in the 2014 election, we were looking at the filings for all the different candidates and I was looking at all the 110 House Districts. I ended up raising more than I think just about any other state house candidate, and in individual donations, it appeared that I raised the most. What we did really struck a chord with people. We raised, I think we hit $70,000 or so with just individual donations, you know, $3, $5, and $20, up to the $1000 limit.
Lindsay: Well that’s, I mean, when the candidates have that crutch of the special interest money, they’re not out pursuing the individual donations like you did.
Ms. Coffia: Well, hopefully it’s inspiring people to decide to give. That was something else that I was told by people who have been doing this sort of thing for a very long time. I had one girl who almost fell off her chair when I told her that we had people just giving without asking. They were just donating, and this is back, well before the campaign really got going in 2014. We had so many people who just gave what they could without me even soliciting it because we had talked to them and they resonated with what we were saying and they saw that I didn’t take it for granted. I was willing to work very hard for every dime and I didn’t take any of it for granted. So I really think that this is an idea that the time, if it hasn’t come, it sure as heck is close. You know, it wasn’t my time, but this idea’s time is here.
Lindsay: Absolutely. Well, I sure hope so. So changing the subject a tiny bit, can you describe for me the process of getting your name on the ballot for the state house? Like, how you went from being a layperson to having your name on an election ballot?
Ms. Coffia: Sure. Well, it’s always really funny for me to tell people how it started for me, because once I decided to run, I didn’t know who to talk to. I had no idea how exactly this all was supposed to work and so I checked out about 20 books from the library on this subject. It was a huge stack and I started reading them and sort of followed some trails that I found there and then, you know, researched the state’s website where it explains – not in super easy to read English – the process. And what I found out right after that was there’s a very interesting additional barrier for third-party candidates. I found out that for a Democrat or a Republican to get their name on the primary ballot they either have to collect a couple hundred signatures or they could just pay a hundred bucks and get their name on the ballot. For a third-party candidate of any kind, they have to get six times as many signatures as the Dem or a Republican candidate and they don’t have the option to put down the money. I thought that was a really interesting invisible barrier that probably nobody really notices except those candidates. But I ran as a Democrat. I collected the signatures – actually I did pay the $100 fee in 2012… we collected signatures in 2014, but you have several deadlines you have to meet and you file the paperwork and get on the ballot, and then from there it really depends on the candidate. Some people, they get their name on and then they tell some people and maybe take out an ad or two. Or, you go full-bore and you build the campaign and that’s what we did. My first campaign, I had no paid staff at all. My second campaign, we had a semi-volunteer situation with my campaign manager, and then everybody else, including of course myself, worked for free. It’s easily a 40 to 80 hour a week job if you’re going to do it right.
Lindsay: Do you think that that is another barrier to entry, I guess, another deterrent for somebody running for office, the amount of time that you have to put in to it? Because, I mean, you have to be well off enough to not work that whole time…
Ms. Coffia: Oh, unquestionably. Or you have to be willing to be broke or fortunate enough to have a life partner or someone in your family who is willing to kind of pull more than their share for a while. I mean, I worked but he (Brendan) was doing so much more of just floating it, but yeah, generally speaking, I’d say it’s restricted to the well-off and the retired, which sort of reflects itself in our representation. And that’s a huge problem. That’s something the issues like public funding of elections attempts to address. In some states where they’ve done that with public matching dollars, it allows a lot more diversity of each income, gender, etcetera, but yeah, it’s not too much if you’re wealthy or willing to eat a lot of rice and beans and just go at it, which is what we did. It is a huge barrier to entry.
Lindsay: Well, we talked about the financial stuff, but was there anything else, like you know, through the election process… What would you say were your greatest challenges, obviously aside from the grief that you got from the interest groups and the fundraising?
Ms. Coffia: It’s like most of the things you endeavor in life, they always have so much more to them and they take more than you think they will, but I mean, obviously I did it the first time and came back for more so…
I remember so many times, you know, walking with my clipboard and just sort of willing to the universe like, “we have to win, for all these people we have to win, this can’t not work out”! That was like a gift and also a weight that I wanted it so badly and it was just unthinkable that with all of this amazing people power that we couldn’t succeed, we wouldn’t succeed. So I think that was actually more of a challenge than I had anticipated because in a lot of areas in my life I’m not that competitive, but I just I wanted this so bad. So I think that was probably one of the hardest things, and then having the continuous second-guessing of the choices that I had made and the commitment, really an ethical commitment on my part, that I had made continually challenged from friendly quarters was exhausting.
Betsy closes the interview by acknowledging the fact that the 2014 election cycle proved to be detrimental to Democrats all over the country, not just in northern Michigan. She points out another fact, that a Democrat has never won the State House seat from the 104th district. She also adds the challenge of running against a two-term incumbent (Republican Wayne Schmidt) in 2012. Betsy goes on to cite the David-over-Goliath battle in California where a local city council was able to fend off the interests of Chevron in 2014 as proof that the voters’ interests can overcome powerful special interests. Sadly, Betsy says that she will likely not run for office again in 2016, instead focusing on more personal endeavors and lending support to future candidates and her community.