Rebekah Warren

Rebekah Warren
Candidate, Michigan State House Democratic Primary, 53rd District, August 2006; Executive Director, MARAL

Tottered on: 10 January 2006
Temperature: 37 F
Ceiling: mostly cloudy
Ground: wet and muddy
Wind: SSE at 8 mph

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TT with HD: Rebekah Warren

HD: Your choice. Although I have to observe that this end is still a bit damp despite my best efforts to wrap it up.

RW: Well, then I'll happily take the dry end if you, as host, are willing.

HD: Fair enough. It's sort of like chef-eats-their-own-mistake ... I really didn't think through the whole idea of providing people with drinks ...

RW: ... really? It looked like on the website when I was ... I'm a research person I tend to want to know the minutia of everything that I'm involved in ... so when I checked out the website to see who you'd had here before, it seemed like a lot of people had a drink while they were ...

HD: ... right. And you know, I probably would've elected not to offer people drinks if I had noodled it through because with the up-and-down motion the slosh potential is considerable. There's been near-accidents so I hope you've drunk down the coffee enough ...

RW: ... so it doesn't slosh? Yeah I think so. And actually it's excellent so your concerns about the French press ...

HD: ... so it worked okay, good.

RW: So I had a question actually ...

HD: ... shoot ...

RW: ... looking at the website, I noticed that the male-to-female ratio of people sitting on the other end of the totter with you was running very high with 4 to 1 for the men. Are women turning you DOWN or are you just not asking as many women to sit on this end of the teeter totter?

HD: I have asked um ... who else have I asked besides you and René? Hmm ... ... ... some have declined. It's not like I haven't asked. There's some other women who may be appearing, one for sure ... so yeah, it's something that I'm paying attention to. I'm trying to get a cross section. I'm trying to get people besides business owners and political people. Up to now I don't really have anybody that falls outside of those categories but I'm working on it. So if you KNOW anybody ...

RW: ... who's not a politico ...

HD: ... or a business owner ...

RW: Hmm. The question though I had, in thinking about this was a very girly question. Which was: is there a gender difference? Do you look through the gender lens when you decide what kind of playground equipment you like? Do women just not like the teeter totter as much as men or is it about the shoes?

HD: About the shoes? Are there special teeter tottering shoes that I should be aware of?

RW: Well, I was trying to decide what to put on for my afternoon coming over here. That was the biggest challenge for me because I'm a short woman and I tend to be a person who wears heels most of the time and I thought, Can you wear heels on the teeter totter? I wasn't sure.

HD: I think pretty much any kind of footwear will work.

RW: It's true. I'm sitting here with 3-inch heals on my boots and I don't seem to be having any problem so ...

HD: ... so what is your favorite piece of playground equipment?

RW: When I was still in elementary school we did a lot of swinging. But my girlfriends and I did a lot of tricks on the monkey-bars. We'd do the 'hang upside down by your knees until all the blood rushes to your head'. Your girl friends would grab your hands and pull you forward and so that you'd do like a half-flip to get down. And then the more you do it the better you get. And you learn to do it without a spotter. So it's the training of how much swing you need and how much force you need to land on your feet and not on your face. So lots of monkey-bar time in elementary school.

HD: Well, you know, if you've read the the previous interviews, snow has been one of my favorite topics. Because there's been a lot of snow on the ground. But right now, if we had to do the Winter Olympics here in the back yard, it would be tough sledding. But since the Winter Olympics are coming up, are you planning to watch a lot of the Olympics?

RW: Actually I don't tend to watch a lot of sports on TV of any kind. And I can't think of the last time I watched any of the Winter Olympics. So probably not.

HD: So it's not that you dislike winter sports specifically, you just generally don't watch sports on TV?

RW: No, almost never.

HD: Do you do any winter sports?

RW: I don't. I never even really ice-skated as an adult. I do some downhill skiing, not a lot. I'm not great at it, but I have fun. So I will do it. But, oh, sledding. We live right next to Slaussen and there's a HUGE sledding hill that the kids sled on. And there are grooves that are made with jumps made into the hill by their sledding. So as an adult it can be kind of fun on a Friday night or a Saturday night to ... and Conan is really the king of the sled much more than me. But we'll go out there in our little saucer sleds and take a run down the hill.

HD: So did you go sledding this season already?

RW: We have, yeah. Conan has the bruises and injuries to prove it. He's a little more daring than I am. I tend to be a little more cautious and that's probably a good descriptor of our whole life. He's got the bangs and bruises to prove he's adventurous ...

HD: Speaking of Conan, you know, he described the story of how he proposed and so that's sort of a matter of record now. But what I'm interested in knowing from you is: was there anyone in your family that he really ought to have asked permission from, before he asked for your hand in marriage?

RW: Well, he actually did.

HD: No fooling?

RW: I found out later that he actually did drive to the small town where I grew up and asked my parents both together. Told them that he wanted to marry me and asked for permission to ask for my hand from the two of them. My mom thought it was really great and was honored and thrilled that he would do it. My dad, uh, said, "You know my daughter, right? And it's really going be her decision." He kind of had fun reminding him that regardless of what our parents said I'd be doing what I felt was the best thing in the situation. So he actually did [ask permission]. It was very surprising.

HD: So did he take gifts on that occasion?

RW: No, I don't really know all the details. It'd be interesting to. He tends to be very generous, so I wouldn't be surprised if he did. But I never heard any of the details of the day. It was the first time he ever visited them without me.

HD: So it wasn't the first time he'd ever met them?

RW: Oh no. No, we've been together for a long time, so he'd had plenty of opportunities to hang out with them.

HD: So it wasn't really surprising to them ...

RW: That he was interested in getting married? ...

HD: ... right ...

RW: ... or that he'd come and ask them? No, we finished our ninth year together. So I think at some point, my parents almost gave up on the idea that we ever would get married and focused more on the grandkids. My mom wants two more grandkids. From us. My sisters have 13 children between the three of them. So she wants an even 15, apparently. She's asked more in the last few years, "When are you going to have babies?" instead of getting married, so they might have been surprised that we were getting married.

HD: Does the Democratic Party work in any sense like that as far as declaring your intentions to run for office? I mean, technically speaking, just like two people can decide that they want to get married, they can go do it and the parents have nothing to say about it from a legal point of view. You can file as a candidate in the Democratic primary and just say, "Okay, everybody, I'm a candidate now," but are there people in the Democratic Party that if you really want to be smart about it you should sort of make the rounds to 'ask permission'?

RW: I think it depends a lot on where you are. For my day job I work for a political nonprofit so I work with campaigns around the state and around the country. I've gone to a lot of different places where there were targeted races and I've worked on those races. In some cities like Philadelphia or Chicago they're still a lot more focused party systems, where there really are specific 'party boss' type people you'd have to ask or at least let them know that you were going to run. Here, I don't think you have as much of that sense. Especially, in a place like Ann Arbor, where although we don't see as many primaries as I think we should, I think that people understand that it's healthy for democracy to have a lot of voices. And that it's very good to have many candidates talking about many important issues to really get the kind of representatives we want. So I don't think there's anybody you necessarily specifically have to speak to ...

HD: But there's people you'd like to tell say face-to-face or in an email or a phone call as opposed to just having them notice that you filed ...

RW: Well, you know, the three things that they joke about that you absolutely need for a campaign: money, people, and time. And you can always get more money, you can always get more people, but you can't get more time, right? So it's a set amount of time. But the people part is: you need people to know your running. So if someone else feels the way that you do on a lot of issues and knows what kind of job you'd do, they wouldn't necessarily run against you. You have people who'd make decisions if they knew, so that's one. But two, you need people just to help to be involved. To talk to their friends and neighbors. To volunteer. So the more people that you tell and talk to early, the more likely that you'll have their support and ...

HD: ... so you're not saying any one particular person or set of people? You're saying you just need to talk up the idea that you're interested in running?

RW: I think that's right. With term limits ... at the state level, anyway, the state representative seat comes open every six years and a state senate seat comes open every eight years. Open elections where you don't have to run against an incumbent are much more winnable, generally speaking. So when a seat comes open in your district, people who are aware, people who are involved, they have an idea of who's thinking of running. Names float around. So it's good to have people know that it's something you're interested in.

HD: So you filed like a month and a half before Leigh Greden did ...

RW: Is that right?

HD: Yeah, I looked it up. What I found was you were mid-April he was May 31st.

RW: Okay ... ?

HD: Did you have any notion that he was planning to run before he actually announced it officially?

RW: I did. You know, there were a lot of names early on that were mentioned as possible candidates for this race. And his name kept coming up over and over again as we talked to people. So I had a good idea that it was something that he was interested in. But there were other names, too. And it's still early. The filing deadline is not until May 16th, so until May 16th anybody else can still get into the race. The primary is August 8th 2006, but this district is very Democratic, obviously, ...

HD: ... so the real race is going to be happening in the primary. Have you heard of anybody on the Republican side interested in contesting it?

RW: I haven't heard. I'm sure they'll put up someone. It's good for their party to have somebody up there, so I'm sure they'll come up with someone. Although I'm not sure who it might be.

HD: Do you get along with Leigh Greden alright?

RW: I do. I must say, I don't know him very well. I've worked with him a little bit. We've served together on the City's Community Development Executive Committee I'm the chair and he's one of the City Council appointees to the committee so we've worked together on that committee for a little while ...

HD: What does that committee do? Because that was on my list of things to ask you about, not necessarily in this context, but I was wondering what exactly is the domain of interest of that committee?

RW: Basically it's a citizen body that makes recommendations to City Council about how to prioritize spending of federal funds for a couple of areas. Homelessness and homelessness prevention services for our most vulnerable citizens ... so medical care dental care, food bank, emergency food programs, ... there are funding streams that come in through the federal government through the CDBG, which is Community Development Block Grant and Home Funds that come through HUD, federally. We get a million and a half dollars or so. And the City gives us some general funds dollars as well. We just try to prioritize where we can to help people in the City of Ann Arbor ...

HD: It was on my list mainly because when I reviewed all the City Council minutes that had your name in them ... there was this mention of your reappointment to your second term on the committee. It was a unanimous vote except for one no vote from Marcia Higgins. And it struck me as the kind of appointment where you wouldn't really vote no on. And I was wondering if you knew why, or if you keep score on this kind of thing? Do you say, "Okay well, Marcia, there's one black mark in your column."?

RW: No, not at all! Actually it was a strange thing. There's been a movement by some folks at the City to consolidate citizen committees and to lower the number of citizen committees. So there's been talk for a few years now about whether our committee would continue to exist in the form that it is. Or if it would merge with another committee or whether it would just cease to exist. If you look back you'll see that appointments to those committees have really fallen off ... My term had lapsed and I think there was thought that I would just not even get reappointed because they were really shrinking the committees. And at that same time some of my colleagues on the committee had moved to appoint me as chair of the committee. So it was a strange position, because I'd lapsed on the committee and they wanted to make me chair. So what came before City Council was both the movement to reappoint me and then to make me chair. I think what Marcia said that night was, it wasn't really clear that City Council should vote on who was the chair of the committee and that she thought that might be the purview of the committee themselves to self-select the chair. Which the committee had done but that was how I understood it: that Marcia's no vote was more about feeling the committee should pick the chair and not have City Council 'anoint' the chair

HD: Okay, because, that just struck me as curious, you know ...

RW: ... yeah, the whole thing was rather strange. Now our committee is still kind of up in the air. We haven't had any new appointments so it's this tiny little committee. It's pretty small now and they're talking about merging us with the Housing Policy Board. Those on our committee feel like it's not really in the interest of the City, and of the citizens, because we have such a lot of work that we do reviewing the proposals from the non-profit agencies that do the work. And we have a system that works. The questions about Housing Policy Board and how people make decisions about investments in development is a whole new area for everyone to learn. So it's kind of an if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it kind of mentality by our committee. We'd prefer to not change the way we're doing business, because we think we're doing a good job.

HD: So if elected [to the State House] you'd continue your same function on the Community Development Committee?

RW: That's a good question. Sometimes there are recommendations made by attorneys about what the conflict of interest might be and whatnot. I'm not sure that my position in the City would be something that they would necessarily want me to continue if I were elected. I enjoy it. I love it. It's a great committee that has a hand in doing really great work for the City. So I'd love to be involved with it, if I can.

HD: This is not the first time you've run for a state seat, right? Back in 1998 you ran in the 52nd District?

RW: Right.

HD: Is there anything that you're already applying as far as lessons learned from that race?

RW: Well, after the 2000 census we had redistricting. So all of this area that used be a part of the 52nd is now a part of the 53rd. The house [where we live] didn't move or anything, we're just in a different district now. In 1998 I was working for State Representative Mary Schroer, who was term-limited. I had made the decision that I wanted to run behind her when the seat was open. And when you work for the Legislature, if you are running actively for a seat in the Legislature, you have to quit your job the minute you start campaigning. So for me, I was 26 years old, I was trying to make a difference, find a way to be involved in something that I cared about, but the minute that I started campaigning I had to quit my job. So I waited until the filing deadline ... I think it was May 12th ... to start campaigning because then I only had to go without a salary for May-June-July until the August primary, which was a decision I had to make based on finances. I couldn't afford to start earlier and not have a job. I think that hurt a lot. There were other candidates in the race already.

HD: That sort of goes back to your observation earlier about of the three things the one thing that you can't get more of is time. And you basically sacrificed a big chunk of that at the front end.

RW: Yeah, and this time around I think making the decision early that I did want to run and being able to talk to people early hopefully will make a difference. I mean, I was 26 years old when I ran. The person who beat me, John Hansen, had been this very involved teacher, principal, superintendent of schools, for thirty years. He beat me by 300 votes. Had I had more time to campaign, you think it might make a difference. So that's the goal this time around: talking to a lot of people so that they know what I'm about, what I stand for, what my vision and values are ...

HD: So there's an event marked on the calendar of some website I found ... Democratic Committee for Washtenaw County? Maybe. February 1st is a meet-and-greet of the candidates?

RW: It's a candidate forum I think, organized by Democracy for America in Washtenaw County.

HD: Yeah, maybe it was their website I found it on. Is that a format that you're familiar with? Is that going to be people hanging out eating snacks or is it going to be more of a debate kind of format? Or a chance for people go give their elevator speech on various issues. What's going to go on there?

RW: At this state legislative level, you don't see a lot of the formal debates and you don't see that many candidate forums. My sense is that this will be a venue where people can ask questions. There'll be candidates from, I think, even some federal candidates ... so people who are running for State Legislature or for Congress in this county. It will probably be Candidates A, B, and C will all answer the same question. That's my guess how it would work. It's so hard in these races for the state legislature ... you don't have the kind of huge budgets that a national campaign would have, so you're not on TV, you're not in people's immediate mindset all the time with tons of radio or tons of TV. So getting the chance to really talk about issues, it doesn't happen very often. So I hope people come to this forum. I hope that other people will have forums so that people can come out and ask questions.

HD: So what kind of infrastructure is there a budget for? I mean do you have a mechanism for finding out if you're ahead in the race?

RW: Well, polling is incredibly expensive. So in my experience the only time you do a lot of polling at the state legislative level are on those ... in Michigan 85% of the state legislative races are decided in the primary, it's either a Republican seat and you know whoever is the winner of the Republican primary win and if it's a Democratic seat then you know that whoever wins the Democratic primary will win ... 12 or so seats in the House and a handful of seats in the Senate that can go either way. That's usually the place where they'll really invest in the polling, because it's so expensive. But maybe both the House and Senate caucuses want to know what's happening in this particular area. But no, it'd be very unusual to do polling in a race like this.

HD: So as far as managing the campaign, plotting out strategy and whatnot, is that something you personally take total responsibility for or is that something ... is it Christine Greene who's chair of your committee?

RW: Chris is the Treasurer of the Committee. I think the first campaign I worked on was in 1986, so I've been working on campaigns for 20 years and love it. I definitely think I know a lot about campaigns, but you can never know enough. So one of the things I focused on from the beginning was really trying to put together a kitchen cabinet of advisors who could help me. So we have people who are good at fundraising and who've done that for US Senate and Congressional candidates. We have a former political director for the DNC who's advising us on strategy. We have a statistics PhD who's helping us with numbers. You definitely don't want to do it by yourself, because you need other people and their experience to make good decisions ...

HD: You mentioned this non-profit you work for. This is MARAL /may-ral/, that's how it's pronounced?

RW: Yeah.

HD: But from what I gather, the letters don't stand for any specific words any more?

RW: It's one of those acronyms that has changed so much over the years. We're a state affiliate of a national organization, NARAL, that when it was formed ... it was formed before the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down ... was originally incorporated as the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws. And once the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down and we had reproductive freedom in the country it became the National Abortion Rights Action League, which is what it was for a long time. Then in the mid-90's we started thinking about the fact that it's not really just about abortion anymore. It's really the whole range of reproductive rights: about access to birth control, access to clinics, access to good sexual education so that our kids are making good decisions about what they do with their bodies. So they added 'reproductive rights'. It became the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, only it didn't add another R so it was always a little strange. Then about two years ago ... again, I think it had to do with the climate changing in the country and 'abortion' has become such a polarizing word, a lightening-rod issue, and people started to understand that really the bottom line of this issue is about who decides. Who gets to decide what's right for a woman with an unplanned pregnancy, what's right for her future, for her destiny. 'Choice' became a word that resonated with people in our movement and with the general public and so our national organization dropped what was behind the acronym and became NARAL Pro- Choice America and all of their state affiliates then changed their names.

HD: You kept the M because ...

RW: ... because it's Michigan.

HD: So do have any concern that people will perhaps identify you as a one-issue candidate?

RW: I have had a couple of people ask that question and I hope they don't. I think my involvement around the city, my work on a lot of other different issues, I think people know me in different capacities as well, so they wouldn't hopefully just pigeon-hole me as the pro-choice candidate, where that's all she cares about. But if some people do, I guess that doesn't bother me, either. Because what I have long thought about the choice issue is that it's an important values indicator. If someone is pro-choice and they're running for office, to me, what that says is that this is an open minded person, this is a person who trusts women, this is a person who thinks that individuals should have both the responsibility and accountability that comes with making decisions and also the ability to make those decisions. So if all they see me as is pro-choice then that's okay too.

HD: Reproductive rights and choice issues, is that something that you'd like to work to see the Democratic Party at the state level put on their legislative agenda? Because they've got something online that actual goes under the label of Our Agenda and it's not on the list. Things like, um, garbage management are on the list, though. But reproductive rights didn't make the cut. So is that something that you would like to see happen?

RW: Absolutely, and in looking at your website I've seen a couple of people on your website who've been here and talked about party labels ... do we have enough labels? Do we have too many labels? ...

HD: Actually, it's remarkable, because what you said about 'pro-choice' is exactly the kind of thing Tom Bourque reported Larry Kestenbaum saying on his website, not about the pro-choice issue but rather with respect to party labels, ..., that with a party label you can get at least get an idea of how someone might think ...

RW: ... I think what's challenging for Democrats, not just here, but nationally as well, is we took such pride in being a big-tent party that there are so many people with so many different values. But what has happened almost is that people don't know what we stand for any more. There's a significant number of Democrats elected at the state level who are anti-choice. And there are Republicans who are elected who are pro-choice. So the party label doesn't mean anything with regard to a person's position on choice. In that sense, I wish it would be on the Democratic Party's agenda. And I think it needs to be on more people's radar. In my tenure in the organization ... six and a half years ... I watched us go from ... issues like late-term or so-called partial birth abortion and now we're talking about birth control. I spend more time working on pieces of legislation that are trying to restrict women's access to birth control than I do on actual abortion issues. As much as people are willing to understand or accept that abortion is controversial ... and there are always going to be people who have extreme opinions about abortion ... I think that most people think that birth control is safe as a political issue. But that's something that astonished me: that there are people out there who politically who would like to turn the clock back 40 years so that women, even married women, wouldn't necessarily have access to birth control.

HD: So tomorrow night is volunteer night at MARAL here in Ann Arbor and you're going to be assembling some huge mailing? What's that mailing about?

RW: Yes, obviously January, being the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that the Supreme Court handed down, is an important time for us to talk to our members about what's happening in the state, about what pieces of legislation we'll be facing at the state level, and different activities there are in celebration of Roe v. Wade anniversary. There are a lot of great speaker panels, we have a candlelight vigil, we have speak-outs of women telling their personal story about how the laws about access to abortion have affected them personally. So the mailing really is informational educational materials for our members ...

HD: ... so calendar items ...

RW: ... 2006 membership renewal ...

HD: How many pieces in the envelope?

RW: Not very many. A couple of pieces of paper and a reply envelope with a little reply ...

HD: ... and you're stuffing this all by hand?

RW: Stuffing it all by hand! We are the grassroots! It's a true grassroots organization. We do a lot of our stuff with volunteers. We have amazing, amazing people who are willing to come and help us do everything that needs to be done.

HD: Do you at least have one of those little automatic gadgets to moisten the envelopes?

RW: We have the little sealers, it's like a little tube that holds water with a little spongy thing on the end so that sponge off ...

HD: And there's going to be snacks?

RW: There's always drinks and snacks and good conversation. What's really great about this community is that it's a college town, so a lot of great young committed people who will come out and a lot of people who've been around who've been activists for a longer amount of time. So you've go these groups ... very diverse across the age spectrum. You have women who really have friends or personal experience before Roe, who know what it was like before abortions were illegal, and you have college women who haven't had to ever think about it, because they've lived their whole reproductive life under the blanket of freedom that Roe provided. The conversations are great and it's not always about Choice. I mean we talk about movies and music or whatever, but it's just such a great interesting dynamic for conversation.

HD: I would think though that for envelope stuffing, there's a lot of the very best snacks that wouldn't be allowed. Like Cheetos, for example. So what is on the snack menu?

RW: Actually my organizer, Sarah, is the one who determines the snacks. And we have definitely had meetings where we've figured this stuff out. Several of us in the office are big fans of Doritos. And Doritos are definitely not a good mailing snack. So it does tend to be either a break in the middle and we have pizza or else pretzels and things that don't leave greasy film on your fingers, and don't leave orange or chocolate prints on the mailing.

HD: Well with chocolate prints, the solution there is M & M's, you know, it's their in-your-mouth-not-in-your-hand slogan.

RW: But if you are a MARAL member and you've gotten a mailing with someone's Cheeto thumbprint on it, which I'm sure has happened over the years, I hope people will be not offended but recognize that ...

HD: ... they'll be charmed ... Is there anything you were hoping we would talk about that we haven't managed to at least hit on briefly?

RW: Well I have to say, this being my very first conversation as an adult on a teeter totter I didn't really know what to expect, so I don't think there was anything that I was expecting that we didn't cover. But in the invitation you did promise me that if this went well that maybe I could come back, so maybe in the summer when it's a little warmer ...

HD: Absolutely ... alright. Wait, you need to stay on the totter while I snap your picture.