Working for the City
Contrary to what her title may suggest, Senator Debbie Stabenow never planned on being a politician. But from an early age, she was moved by the compassionate work of some truly remarkable Americans.
“Growing up, I remember being very drawn to President Kennedy, and around the time I started high school, I became very interested in the civil rights movement and the work Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were doing.”
Those leaders — from the causes they championed to their ability to galvanize support for them — inspired her to cultivate her own burgeoning passion for fighting the good fight. So, after high school, she left her hometown of Clare, Michigan, for East Lansing, to attend Michigan State University.
“At the time, I wasn’t thinking about politics, but rather, I saw myself as a community organizer and activist. For me it was just about being able to speak out, being engaged and being able to stand up for what I believed in... Another inflection point for me was the Vietnam War; I got very involved in campus activism during that time. I was also really interested in community awareness and understanding of how the draft and the war were affecting my friends and family members… Then the riots happened in Detroit, which just broke my heart because I knew it was going to be so devastating for the city.”
The collective impact of those events and experiences only deepened her motivation for driving change from a grassroots level. So in addition to her studies, she began connecting with people who were doing precisely that.
“My undergrad was an honors program with three focuses — psychology, sociology and criminal justice — because I thought I wanted to go into some combination of social work and law enforcement, like working with young people who were coming into contact with the courts... During that time, I also became part of a progressive community group that was really trying to do things differently by connecting with the community and building neighborhood relationships, which was also very interesting to me.”
While working on her master’s in social work though, those plans took an unexpected detour when fate, quite literally, came knocking.
“I was living off campus during grad school and remember somebody from the Democratic Party knocking at my door, saying they were recruiting young people. So, I went to her house one Sunday and ended up getting involved with a Democratic women’s group.”
A critical local issue at the time was that the County Board of Commissioners was considering closing the only nursing home that accepted Medicaid. Healthcare had long been important to Stabenow — in part because her mother was a nurse — so she took the fight to heart.
“I led the effort to save the nursing home, so for six months, I was attending County Commission meetings and organizing community groups to support our cause. In the end, we were successful… It also turned out I lived in the same district as the Commissioner who had led the effort to close the nursing home. So, after that win, everybody asked me to run against him, even though I had never been formally involved in politics. I initially said no, but ultimately decided that it was a real chance to make a difference, so I ran. I was only twenty-four years old and, at first, they all called me ‘that young broad running against him’ — but by the end, they were calling me ‘that young broad who won.’”
It was the first of many victories she would earn over the next few decades. Just two years later, she was elected chair of that very same board. Next, she was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives where she served from 1979-90, then to the State Senate where she served from 1991-94, then to the U.S. Congress in 1996. And finally, in 2000, she made history by becoming the first woman from the state of Michigan to be elected to the United States Senate.
Today, her constituents know her simply as “Debbie.” From cutting taxes for small businesses and revitalizing the state’s manufacturing sector, to bolstering Michigan agriculture and making unprecedented investments in protecting the Great Lakes, she has made a profound impact on the state as a whole. But throughout her tenure, Detroit has always remained close to her heart.
“I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs in the Detroit narrative, but I’ve always been a supporter of the city because I believe that for our whole state to be strong, we need our largest city to be vibrant and strong as well. But over the years, I’ve seen a lot of divisive regional and racial politics splitting the east and west sides of the state… People who, for example, say there are too many resources in Detroit and that they need to go elsewhere, when in fact, they weren’t going to Detroit for too long, which was one of the issues…”
In spite of the countless challenges she’s faced, Stabenow remains one of Detroit’s biggest champions and is constantly finding ways to contribute to its renaissance — one of which has been her work in the urban agriculture space.
“Detroit has the best, most sophisticated urban farmers in the country. That’s a completely true statement, because as I go across the country expanding things like organic, local food systems and farmer’s markets, folks always say, ‘Why are you talking to us? The leaders are in Detroit!’ So, when I came in as Chair of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee in the Senate in 2011, Detroit was really picking up some steam in its agriculture production, and I wanted to figure out how to help build upon that.”
As it turned out, her opportunity to do so was waiting just east of downtown.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture funds and supports farmer’s markets, and Eastern Market is the oldest continuously operated farmer’s market in the country. So I reached out to Eastern Market’s director to see how I could help support his vision, particularly in reaching food entrepreneurs. The result was the creation of a wonderful community kitchen and kitchen incubators that give those who want to produce food products access to a commercial kitchen without having to spend $100,000 redoing their own. They can then get licensed to sell their products in grocery stores and restaurants around town. That project is really thriving now — we’re going to need another market soon.”
Another priority is removing blight in neighborhoods, which has long been a thorn festering in the city’s side.
“Two years ago, Mayor Duggan came to Washington, DC, concerned that he was running out of the central funds allowing him to remove blighted homes in neighborhoods. Together with leaders from the Detroit business community, we entered a long fight to get that funding back, and in the end, we got $262 million for the city and state to continue that work. Now we’re building new homes, community gardens and parks where those blighted properties used to be, and that’s creating stronger neighborhoods.”
Her efforts extend even further, though. Continuing her commitment to healthcare, she recently secured funding for the construction of a number of new community health centers in underserved parts of the city. She’s also bringing advanced manufacturing to Detroit, and even helped open the first-ever patent office outside of Washington, DC, because Detroit has more new technology and clean energy patents than any other city in the country.
Stabenow humbly credits her long list of accomplishments to the collective efforts of a city that never gave up hope. But much like the equally humble leaders who inspired her years ago, she knows the work is never truly over — and in Detroit’s case, it’s only just begun.
“I’ve been involved in so many different projects, and things are better today than they’ve been in some time. But still, we know that Detroit won’t be completely back until every neighborhood is strong. All Detroiters must have access to good-paying jobs that can help support their families… Neighborhoods must be safe, and public schools must be improved, because that’s what brings families into neighborhoods and really creates the foundational strength that will sustain Detroit long term… That all starts with community leaders defining what their vision is, then everybody working hard together to make it happen.”
For Stabenow, the hard work that lies ahead is not discouraging — in fact, it’s simply motivation to keep working for the city she loves and the state she’s proud to call home.
“I believe we have to show democracy works so people don’t lose faith in the system. So, even though it’s more divisive and difficult than ever, what keeps me going is the fact that I’m still able to get things done. I keep looking for ways to collaborate, because I don’t have to agree with someone on everything to work with them on one thing.”
Stabenow’s brilliant career is a testament to what’s possible when political lines are broken in favor of the greater good, and her perspective on democracy offers us all a powerful example to follow as we strive to keep Detroit’s evolution inclusive. And though that evolution will not be without its share of setbacks, leaders like her remind us that even the greatest of obstacles can be overcome if we are willing to work together.
Indeed, Senator Stabenow’s tireless work ethic, empathetic heart, creative and collaborative mind, and courageous spirit have not only helped transform our city and state, they’ve also cemented a personal legacy that will inspire the next generation of leaders to keep fighting for the future of Detroit… And that just might be enough to ensure that future is a bright one.