The Western Herald recently sat down with mayoral candidate and WMU professor David Benac to discuss his stance on some of Kalamazoo’s most pressing issues in advance of next Tuesday's election.
Benac, originally from Alpena, Michigan, went to Michigan State where he received a bachelor’s degree in history. After a brief stint as an assistant professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, Benac is now back in Michigan to teach at WMU where he is currently an associate professor in history as well as the public history coordinator within the department.
On his reasons for running:
Benac, who also ran for congress in 2018, said he is primarily interested in running for mayor and being involved in local politics because he does not believe that the city’s current elected officials are well-equipped to inspire change.
“Not that I think that I’m this savior who can come in and fix the world, but that I did not feel like there was someone running for office that could do the job in the way I felt like it needed to be done,” said Benac.
Local races are non-partisan, so although Benac is a Democrat, he does not and cannot run as one. Benac believes when the differences between Republicans and Democrats are set aside, politics becomes about improving people’s lives.
“Local government is where we make sure people have access to clean air and clean water. It’s the place where we make sure people have a secure home and where we deal with policies that keep our community safe," Benac said. "That is most interesting to me, how can we make someone’s life better every day?”
On the environment:
Although Benac holds strong convictions regarding a wide variety of issues, he said he is most passionate about environmental change. Benac believes that Kalamazoo can play a big part in the fight against global climate change by focusing on environmental health and ending environmental discrimination.
“The life expectancy between white and non-white populations in Kalamazoo is a 7 year difference. Kalamazoo is not a third-world developing country. Environmental contaminants and unhealthy environments are disproportionately externalized on to non-white populations,” explained Benac.
To address this issue, Benac said he plans on putting extra emphasis on water and green infrastructure, which can be used to create jobs and improve health outcomes.
“For example, we can use natural elements to absorb water rather than fight against nature and push the water where we want it. Clean water saves money and improves outcomes in the end,” he said.
On Kalamazoo's most pressing issue:
Despite his passion for the environment, Benac further said he believes the biggest issue facing Kalamazoo is its poverty and homelessness crisis. The city has over a 30% poverty rate, while the national average is about 13%. Benac attributes this to stagnating wages for workers and ever-increasing profits for corporations all across the country.
“Workers are providing more profit for their employers while not getting benefits themselves,” he said.
Benac wants to partner with labor unions to fight for worker’s rights and said he hopes to focus on providing more affordable housing in Kalamazoo if he is elected. In regards to addressing homelessness, Benac believes employment transition programs and improving infrastructure will go a long way towards correcting the situation.
Benac is also interested in creating a city ethics office to provide some oversight and develop more trust with community members.
“We need to do better about overseeing elected officials… If we want to change people’s lives, we need people to trust that we are implementing things for the best reasons. If we want to accomplish anything, we need the public to trust us,” he said.
On WMU's relationship with Kalamazoo:
Despite WMU being one of the largest research and educational institutions in the state of Michigan, Benac believes that the city of Kalamazoo has underutilized the resources found on campus for a long time.
“If we want to address some of the issues of the city, one of the best ways to do that is to use the resources and the political and cultural clout of the university,” he said.
Benac called this disconnect the “town and gown divide”, where community members who are not affiliated with the university feel like the school is out of touch and elitist. At the same time, students and faculty on campus believe the local residents are generally not supportive of higher education and learning.
On the importance of student voters:
Last Friday, Benac made a public appearance on campus to speak at a "Get Out the Vote" rally hosted by the WMU College Democrats. During the event, the WMU College Democrats officially endorsed Benac for mayor and Jacob Andrews for city commission.
Benac said the purpose of the visit was to generate some enthusiasm within the student body and to encourage broncos to vote.
“If you are a student and you want a better paying job, you want to know that the environment is sustainable and clean, make sure you have better transportation, more cultural opportunities, better roads, better housing… All of these things the city can either make easier or harder. Right now, the city doesn't really have students in mind,” he said.
Benac spoke about the importance of voting and the potential impact students at WMU could make in the election.
“I really want to see more students vote. You would decide the outcome of the election. A couple thousand student votes would make the difference,” said Benac.
The City of Kalamazoo’s 2019 Municipal Election will take place on Nov. 5 and will include the names of four candidates, including Benac, on the mayoral ballot. The other candidates are City Commissioner David Anderson, Esteven Juarez and Corey Smith. As the election draws near, check back for further explorations and conversations on where these candidates stand on the issues facing the city.