Senator Debbie Stabenow came to Michigan last weekend, to visit some farms and talk with fruit and vegetable growers. She is, after all, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
For some reason, though agriculture has long been the state’s second biggest industry, those of us not involved in it tend to give it short shrift. So, mostly do our politicians.
The last time Michigan had a Senate ag committee chair was back in the 1880s, well before even Henry Ford had the idea for a cart without a horse. In fact, the last Michigan Senator to even serve on the committee was the legendary Phil Hart, who died in 1976.
But Stabenow, the daughter of a small town Oldsmobile dealer, takes agriculture seriously. She has served on agriculture committees in both houses of the Michigan legislature, and in the House before being elected to the Senate.
She’s happy to talk enthusiastically about nutrition programs and the upcoming farm bill; she is intrigued by the concept of urban agriculture in Detroit, and has an idea for something she calls a “kitchen incubator” in Detroit’s eastern market.
But before she headed off to farm country, I met her in Dearborn, shortly after her plane landed. I hadn’t had a real conversation with the senator in well over a year, and she has a re-election campaign coming up. Less than a year ago, Republicans were telling me this would be the year they took Stabenow down.
They said that she had accomplished little in her two terms in the Senate, was highly vulnerable, and way too liberal. They thought they’d have no problem in getting a top tier candidate to take her on.
What a difference a few months make. One by one, the major GOP names found one reason or another they couldn‘t make the race. Terri Lynn Land, perhaps their strongest potential candidate, blasted the national party, saying it wasn’t willing to make the kind of financial commitment beating an incumbent would need. While a couple relatively unknown candidates are running, Republican leaders have been reduced to hoping a white knight will ride in on a horse. For her part, Stabenow doesn’t plan to take any chances. She’s running for reelection, of course, but doesn’t even want to talk about politics yet. Carl Levin, Michigan’s senior senator, has seemed focused on the Pentagon in recent years. But for Stabenow it’s all about Michigan and all about jobs, whether in agriculture, the high-tech battery industry, or a cellulosic ethanol plant planned for the upper peninsula.
When she isn’t thinking about jobs, she says she’s thinking about ways to prevent China stealing our patents, or about stopping “the fish that keeps me up at night,” the Asian carp.
Politicians have been underestimating Debbie Stabenow for years, from the time she ran for a county commission seat when she was twenty-four. She’s beaten an incumbent congressman and senator, and wins most of the time by landslides.
Nothing is ever certain in politics, but it might be foolish to bet that the voters won’t send her back to Washington again.