By Katherine Peach
Michigan legislative hopefuls spoke Wednesday Sept. 24 about their view of the future of Western Michigan University and the state of the budget crisis in Michigan.
The Friends of the Historic East campus held an open forum with six candidates running for state legislature in the 60th, 61st and 63rd districts at the Little Theater. The forum ran 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. free and open to the public.
Robert Jones-D serves in the House for the 60th district and is the only candidate to have served in the state legislature. The other five are Jase Bolger-R 63rd, Julie Rogers-D 63rd, Charles Ybema-R 60th, Larry Deshazor- R 61st, and Phyllis Smith-D 63rd, who did not attend the event.
The ground rules for the forum was two weeks prior to the event each candidate received the three questions conceived by community leaders and FHEC members to answer in four minutes, while also introducing themselves in that time. After the prepared answers, Candidates answered multiple floor questions from attendees in two-minute responses.
The forum ended with a one-minute closing statement from each candidate.
The FHEC is a group that aims to bring awareness to WMU and the southwest region. In doing so, the group’s ultimate goal is to preserve and restore east campus and bring it back into use. The forum attempted to give a face to the candidates to what the group considers a neglected region.
Incumbent candidate Robert Jones, a former Kalamazoo mayor, leadoff every round of questions. Jones said that there is no other way to succeed in this community than by funding higher education. He explained that by inviting political leaders to Kalamazoo would heighten the awareness of the region as one with powerful assets.
“We have to be politically active in the community and region,” Jones said. “When people come to Kalamazoo they are immediately impressed compared to what is going on with the rest of the state. We need to be aggressive and play the political game.”
Jase Bolger is a WMU alum who went on to start his own company that he still owns today. Bolger stressed using common sense to balance the budget by prioritizing how money is spent, a favorite theme of the evening. He said the “practical education” he and other receive at WMU will keep students in Michigan to “raise an elevated profile of the region.”
“It is not a matter that we need more money, but we need to prioritize the money we have,” Bolger said. “Let’s have uncomfortable conversations, let’s bring-up uncomfortable subjects.”
Charles Ybema graduated from Kalamazoo Christian schools and moved back to Kalamazoo three-years ago after working as an investor in Chicago. He kept his responses brief and attempted light-hearted humor lost on the crowd. He emphasized capital as the key to bring businesses to Michigan and currently Michigan is only driving capital away.
“My view on how government’s role should be is to ensure land rights and ensure stable currency and get out of the way,” Ybema said. “In terms of funding to Western we have to move to a system that the money follows the student and not the lobbyist that determines where the money goes.”
Larry Deshazor currently serves on the Portage City Council and was a former city commissioner. To the crowd’s amusement, Deshazor proudly trumped Bolger’s alumni status and Ybema’s current enrollment as a student by having two sons attend WMU, one currently a sophomore and football player. Deshazor said the nation’s economic downturn was only increased by the “red versus the blue.”
“We need to put partisan politics aside, find a way to reach across the table and find commonality,” Deshazor said. “We need to make education a priority and Michigan is dead last in state funding for univerisities.”
The last candidate, Julie Rogers works at Bronson Hospital and included her close ties to education with her mother and sister teaching in Kalamazoo. The crowd favorite and only candidate to get applause after statements said that focusing on the “gloom and doom” of the economy takes away from the focus of moving forward in the state.
More partner-private relationships, another popular theme of the night, by working with businesses to increase internships and possible tax incentives to assist students who stay in Michigan after school, Bolger said. “Western is the low-man on the totem pole, deserving of the top-tier funding.”
An open forum for questions followed including the community members and political leaders, including mayors, councilman, and senators in attendance.
Eliminating term restrictions, tightening budget appropriations and fixing the current Michigan business tax system were all agreed upon by the candidates. Bolger, Ybema and Deshazor all focused support on privatization as a positive alternative to underfunded government programs.
Rogers cautioned the hope of immediate turn-around of state funding with easy solutions. She cautioned against abolishing the Michigan business tax before a new standard was set in place. Each candidate reiterated that only through private and public linked funding would the current “deficiency” in money see an end.
“The campus on the hill really set the tone for the community and we need to find a way to preserve and find a use,” Jones said. “We can’t expect to fund Western by taking it from somewhere else.”