One morning earlier this week, I was in a donut shop on Vernor Avenue in southwest Detroit, in a neighborhood where you hear far more Spanish than English.
In fact, everyone in the shop was speaking Spanish except me and the woman I was drinking coffee with – state Representative Stephanie Chang, who represents this area, and about 90,000 people. Chang’s territory also includes the land where the Ambassador Bridge stands as well as the place where the new Gordie Howe International Bridge is to be built.
Politically, by conventional standards, she is an unusual fit for this district, which is more than half African-American and almost one-quarter Hispanic. Chang, who has master’s degrees in public policy and social work, was born 34 years ago to parents who emigrated from Taiwan.
Far less than one percent of the population in her district is Asian, yet she is wildly popular with the people she represents. Last year, challenged by six would-be opponents in the Democratic primary, she still got 71 percent of the vote. In the general election, she got a stunning 93 percent.
She shrugged when I asked why she was so popular, but I already believed I knew the answer. She went into politics to put people first.
Prior to getting elected three years ago, she spent a decade as a community organizer in Detroit. Since going to Lansing, much of her concerns have had to do with the complex issue of benefits for the dilapidated Delray neighborhood where the new bridge will rise. In the end, the city and the state provided an impressive package that includes $10 million in training funds to help some of her constituents get the skills they need to get jobs building that bridge.
Earlier this year, the Canadian government granted the Moroun family permission to build their own new bridge, provided they meet a long list of conditions, and Chang is already talking about what that would do to their lives.
But if Chang is able to help it will be from the state Senate. Though she could be elected to one more term in the house, she is instead running for the senate next year. Democrats lost control of Michigan’s senate when she was one month old.
Thanks to gerrymandering, the Republicans have had control ever since, and there is no realistic possibility that will change next year. I asked Chang why she would want to be in a body where she would be doomed to being in a perpetual minority.
She indicated that if nothing else, she thought she could make bills better at the margins. Politically, she is regarded as quite liberal, and I expected her to have some bitter things to say about the Republicans. But she didn’t.
Chang told me her impression of her fellow lawmakers was that “most people are there to try to make a difference for people,” even if they had radically different ways of going about it.
My impression was that for Stephanie Chang, the bitter ideological wars of recent years are themselves relics of the past, and that she sees politics as the art of getting whatever you can done as best as you can. I wonder whether that might be the best we can hope for.
In any event, it sounds better than what we have now.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.