One of the more competitive races for the Michigan House of Representatives this year is in northern Michigan. The 103rd State House District is among Michigan’s poorest districts but it might be in the midst of the most expensive race it has ever seen. And it features an unusual challenger, one Republicans are calling a carpetbagger.
Lon Johnson has a simple, straightforward campaign message: Republicans don’t care about anyone but business owners.
“They created a senior pension. They raised taxes on people making less than $20,000 a year and they cut our school by a billion dollars,” he says. “All to pay for a $1.8 billion tax break for corporations.”
Johnson keeps these points front and center when he talks to voters. And he warns that more tax cuts for businesses are on the way if Republicans remain in control in Lansing.
His opponent, Representative Bruce Rendon, is proud of the work his party has done in Lansing. Rendon says Michigan’s economy is improving and there’s not a budget crisis for a change.
“My predecessors have been avoiding the tough votes for the sake of getting reelected.”
For most of the past decade Michigan’s 103rd State House District has been held by a Democrat. The district was redrawn after the 2010 census and now includes, Kalkaska, Crawford, Missaukee, Roscommon and Ogemaw Counties. Rendon, a Republican from Lake City, is looking for a second term.
Speaking at a forum in Grayling he singled out his work on the Family, Children and Seniors Committee as the most meaningful to him. The state has long had a problem with a backlog of children awaiting adoption. Rendon says his first bill eased that bottleneck by allowing more people to sign off on adoptions.
“And that list went from over 3,000 children trying to get into a loving home to under 200 in a very short period of time.”
An unknown challenger with a huge war chest
Rendon has a fight on his hands for a second term.
During the primary, Lon Johnson raised $134,000, nearly double Rendon’s $71,000. The head of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network called that number “eye-popping” for a Democrat Up North who is not an incumbent.
Johnson’s agenda includes restoring education cuts, eliminating the pension tax and getting broadband service for rural Michigan. And he’d like to see trains run again.
Successful Democrats up north tend to favor gun rights and oppose abortion. Johnson got an A- from the National Rifle Association but he calls the right to abortion a “fundamental” right.
The issue, though, that Republicans are hammering is that Lon Johnson has hardly lived here. Johnson emphasizes his generational roots, and says his great-great grandfather was a pioneer in Kalkaska County. His family remained in the area until his father moved to southeast Michigan where the candidate was raised.
At the candidate forum in Grayling, Republicans in the audience pressed him about how long the Democrat has actually lived in Kalkaska County. Johnson said he first moved to the area in 2006, but then acknowledged he didn’t set up residency until 2011.
And Johnson isn’t your ordinary transplant to northern Michigan. His wife works for President Obama’s reelection campaign. Johnson is a vice-president at an investment firm based in Nashville. Their wedding was announced in the New York Times.
Attacks on Johnson constantly refer to him as an outsider. And Rendon’s campaign pointed out his connection to Obama in a mailer. Johnson says talking about his wife is a distraction from what is really at stake.
“The names of people who are important in this race are people who are paying the pension tax. The names that are important the kids that are in schools that have been cut by two-and-a-half million in this district alone.”
Democrats all over Michigan are using those talking points this fall. Lon Johnson hopes they’ll resonate in the some of the poorest counties in the state.