Back to the Future For Young G.O.P. Lawmaker
Ward, working both sides of aisle, invokes the spirit of Lincoln and Roosevelt
September 19, 2004 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
Representative Chris Ward
Governor Jennifer M. Granholm has signed 16 news laws initially proposed by state Representative Chris Ward of Brighton Township. That is more new legislation than any other member of the state House.
In 1980, when state Representative Chris Ward was six years old, Ronald Reagan won election on a Republican platform that famously declared that “government was the problem.”
Last month, President George W. Bush signaled at his own nominating convention that his party may be ready to return to its roots in Lincoln and Roosevelt, telling delegates that “government should help people improve their lives, not try to run their lives.”
Mr. Ward, who on the strength of a remarkable 20-month legislative record is fast emerging as one of the prominent young Republican leaders in Michigan, clearly anticipated that change. Since arriving in Lansing in 2003 for his first term in state office, Mr. Ward has proposed an array of new laws that plainly view government as a virtue, and governing as an adult responsibility. Among the 30-year-old representative’s primary interests is taming sprawl, improving public oversight of state elections, strengthening state water quality laws (including a pending proposal to double pollution penalties), and giving communities more authority to build pools, community centers, and parks by establishing regional authorities to raise money for recreation.
Of the 57 measures that Mr. Ward has proposed so far, 16 passed the Legislature and were signed by Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm; that is more new laws than any other member of the House. Just as impressive is that most of Mr. Ward’s proposals passed unanimously, or nearly unanimously, in both chambers, evidence not only that Mr. Ward’s ideas have credibility with his colleagues, but also that he is taking the time to cultivate members on both sides of the aisle. His ability was recognized very early by House Republican leaders, who named him chair of the House Local Government and Urban Policy Committee.
Mr. Ward began his political career in 1992 when he was elected as an 18-year-old trustee of Brighton Township in Livingston County, the fastest growing county in Michigan during the 1990s. He served for six years as the township’s elected clerk. Those who know him say Mr. Ward possesses a keen intellect fueled by a voracious appetite for new knowledge. He reads everything, say colleagues, and very quickly develops true expertise in his areas of interest. Married and the father of three children, Mr. Ward is seeking re-election in November and is expected to win easily. Republicans are likely to maintain control of the House and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say he is almost certain to rise to a majority leadership position.
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service: As a former local elected official, what knowledge or insights did you acquire that have helped you in your freshman term as a legislator?
Representative Ward: Actually I think it’s been a tremendous asset. I had the benefit of serving local government for ten years before I came to Lansing. More so than anything else, just the activity of problem-solving at a local level. Many times in local government we really get beyond the philosophical fights, the partisan bickering. You just get down to the point where a real problem needs to be solved. That is something I think I have been able to bring to the job in Lansing.
And certainly an understanding of how all the laws in Lansing affect local communities. In my perspective, many times Lansing sort of ties your hands from being more creative. Certainly in the areas of land use. Sometimes there is less incentive to work on a regional basis.
Election Consolidation, Land Use Policy
GLBNS: As you move towards the final months of your freshman term, what do you consider to be the real highlights that will make the first term even more special for you?
WARD: Well, I have to admit I’m something of a policy wonk. I do love the legislative process. I love looking for solutions to problems.
I guess legislatively, certainly a highlight was passing my new election consolidation law, which will be enacted starting next January and will put the state on a regular election schedule and limit the number of elections in the state. Basically we make a deal with the voters to give them a regular set of dates for elections and hopefully we will get more turn out. That’s a highlight.
The election law was something that had been around for many, many years. The first attempt at passing election consolidation was about 15 years ago. Working with some of the senators, Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, I’m very proud that we were able to bring it to fruition in a bipartisan way because it had been a partisan issue in the past. And bringing together some new interests groups that weren’t supporting it before such as the Michigan Education Association, and then garnering the governor’s signature.
On the land use agenda, the report that the Institute did in cooperation with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce regarding public school construction -- how those costs passed to taxpayers and its related impact on sprawl -- was the impetus for me to sponsor a bill. That bill, which authorizes a member of the school board to serve on county planning commissions, has now been signed by the governor. It’s at least started an important dialogue between school officials and county planning commissions, giving input to county commissions on what various decisions there are on schools by participating in the planning process. It’s been very dysfunctional until now. Hopefully in a few years, it will make a significant difference. And I want to thank the Institute for their work on this issue.
I’m also certainly proud of the package of three bills [HB 4666, 4667, 4668] signed by the governor sort of kicking off the legislative action from the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council. These three bills provided a new incentive and a new flexibility to preserve large tracts of open space. It attacks this issue of preserving open space in a different way than maybe some of the traditional discussion of transfer development rights, which gets bogged down in philosophical debates. We just tried a different approach.
GLBNS: When it comes to preserving open space, how do you think that new law will preserve the quality of life in your local community of Brighton?
WARD: First, let me say all of these laws that we pass in Lansing are nothing unless they’re enacted on a local level. It is yet to be seen on these three. They’ve been in place for about eight months or so.
But specifically on this issue, the big trend over the last few years is to move toward planned unit developments where you’re preserving some open space in exchange for greater density. What that happens to look like in a community like mine is really unusable open space that winds up looking like an extended back yard.
I wanted to take the idea of a 10-year development a step farther. Give the community the right to get some more density and move out; but then allow the developer to donate a large tract of open space off site, so that it stays in its natural state, which would be of benefit to the community and the environment. That way both parties can get something out of it. The local community gets open space and park land; the developer might be able to put a few more housing sites which helps with another issue, affordable housing, which is very important in my district. It’s something that would be useful if it is used.
As a legislator you get so many good ideas presented to you from so many people, constituents, and organizations. And as I said, I’m a policy wonk, so I’m always interested in delving into an area -- even one that I might not have a lot of background in -- and learn as much as I can. And then see if I can move an issue forward or try to solve a problem.
Connecting Detroit and the Suburbs
GLBNS: When you assumed the chairmanship of the House Local Government and Urban Policy Committee did you bring a particular vision or specific goal.
WARD: No. To be honest, it was simply a new experience for me. I never attended a committee hearing before. And of course in this era of term limits, you have a unique situation with freshmen members sometimes chairing committees. I guess I brought to it an attitude -- coming out of local government -- of wanting to work on many different areas of law that affected government and see if we could make some improvements.
One area I wanted to beef up was urban policy. Coming from the suburbs and living in the suburbs all my life, I really didn’t have a strong background there. So as a committee we spent some time traveling and having field hearings in urban areas of the state -- major cities such as Grand Rapids and Detroit but also in some of the inner suburbs like Eastpointe. I think I gained a whole lot of new perspective on how policy on a statewide level affects different kinds of communities.
GLBNS: As you held those field hearings, what were some of the comments that you heard that were new or revealing, compared to what you typically hear in the Capitol?
WARD: If you’re talking about me, coming from a suburban community going into an urban area -- one thing is the real gap in perception between public policy leaders in the two areas. In the suburbs, some might think of the problems in a city like Detroit causing sprawl and contributing to people moving out. While a leader in Detroit might look at a suburban community like mine as attracting development away from them that naturally should be in the city. There’s just a real perception gap.
Overall, as state leaders we need to find a way to bridge that gap because our interests are so reliant on each other. My community cannot be successful without the city of Detroit being successful. The city of Detroit cannot prosper without a proper relationship with my community. As a region, we have a long way to go.
GLBNS: So is that co-dependence between core cities and their suburbs a part of land use reform’s unfinished agenda?
WARD: Absolutely. I think it’s not only a dialogue issue but what we need to look at it on a statewide basis. The Michigan Land Use Leadership Council report provides an excellent blueprint for how we start that work. We need to continue to revisit and add to those recommendations as time goes on and new issues arise.
Improve Public Transit
GLBNS: As you know, the Institute has a standing policy interest in transportation. And of course, you sit on the House Transportation Committee. What do you think are the major challenges facing transportation in Michigan?
WARD: Well there is certainly a tie to the land use agenda. From a fiscal standpoint, we can ill afford to have so few people living on so much infrastructure for very long. We won’t be able to afford it. And that’s why as a Republican I might approach some of these land use issues looking for reform, working with Democrats, Republicans, conservative legislators -- people on both sides of the aisle -- because I see that perspective. We just can’t continue to afford miles and miles of roadway just to reach a few people. That is certainly a challenge.
The transportation budget as a whole is under-funded. We have a bipartisan group trying to get a fair return on our dollars from Washington, which both Governor Granholm and the Republican leadership in the House have been very vocal on.
And certainly on transit issues, we need to do a better job. As a representative of a suburban area, I see a need for us to try to find some dialogue whereby some of the transit proposals, such as DARTA, can be better explained to people in my community so that they can see how it’s going to work and how it’s going to be beneficial to them.
My constituents spend hours a day, weeks, if not months of their lives in traffic jams commuting to work. If they could see a transit program that would be useful to them to commute to work, that would save them time, give them more time with their families, and show them the dollars in their wallet, then I think you would see a great deal more support, especially from me. To the extent that I can be helpful in trying to make that dialogue happen, I’m seriously interested in doing that.
People Want More Transit
GLBNS: Recently the Institute reported on the transit millage increases across the state. There were 14 communities where millage votes were a part of this year’s primary, and only one failed. Does that suggest that around the state -- votes taken in the UP, Flint, western and mid-Michigan -- voters are more willing to support transit than some of their own legislators?
WARD: It may very well be. I think that in my community we have a wonderful county transportation department that is specifically for the senior population and people with disabilities, to get them in touch with vital services such as health care.
I want to hearken back to a challenge here. Obviously, many people in the state reside in the tri-county area. We’re transporting ourselves across town boundaries to get to work, to college, health care, cultural institutions. One of the challenges is allowing a transit system strictly driven by a local perspective to take the next step between those people who need it for daily life as a necessity, and those who would utilize transit for both work and pleasure. We need to find a way to bridge that gap -- especially in the major regions of the state.
I perceive a weakness on the part of existing attempts to do that -- explaining to people in suburban areas how it’s going to work for them, especially when we’re so dispersed.
GLBNS: In light of your many legislative successes, have there been disappointments?
WARD: Oh, sure. One thing as a legislator, you do take some chances. Sometimes they blow up in your face. But you have to just pick yourself up and move on to the next one.
Being able to throw out ideas. You have to be willing to hear the negative feedback when people don’t like your ideas. But I believe in that old saying, ‘the states are the laboratories of democracy.’ We are the source point for new ideas, new solutions to problems. And as a legislator, it is part of my responsibility to put out some of those new ideas for the public debate.
One that easily comes to mind is a campaign finance proposal that I had suggested mirroring the McCain-Feingold bill enacted on the federal level, but on a statewide basis. I was ill-prepared for some of the problems I encountered on the left and on the right of the issue. And I wound up giving up on the issue as a short-term project; but one for the long-term.
A Master at Bipartisan Partnerships
GLBNS: One of the things that distinguishes your first term has been your ability to develop productive working relationships across party lines, across demographics from the city to the suburb. Was that intentional?
WARD: I think all of us should come to Lansing with a basic respect for each other. We represent an equal number of people and all of us deserve a certain amount of respect. The political reality in Lansing is that we have a bipartisan government now. So you can’t run roughshod over the other party even if you would like to.
I certainly am a firm believer in trying to reach consensus and compromise where it is possible without losing my core principles.
I also have the benefit of working with some wonderful people who come from the other party and other areas of the state. Certainly, Representative Ruth Ann Jamnik, the vice-chair of the House Local Government Committee, has been a great friend and partner on many issues with me including that election reform, and manufactured housing reform. With term limits, she’ll be going right back into local government.
Term Limits Need to End
GLBNS: Let me ask you about term limits. Should that be changed? Are the current three terms in the House and two in the Senate enough time to get to know the lay of the land and do some meaningful things?
WARD: I think it should be revisited. We have some of the most restrictive terms in the whole country. Not only are our terms short, they are lifetime limits. In Ohio, you could serve their eight-year limit and come back again later in life. The difficulty in Michigan comes on very technical issues. It’s very hard to get the technical expertise within the body to solve those problems. So we become very reliant on outside influences.
The other thing that I don’t think people notice that affects the process is that it has increased the fund-raising focus of the legislators much more than it did in the past. We used to fight for a majority over one or two seats. Now we fight over 20 seats. So we’re talking about the difference in possibly raising a million dollars, to now $3, $4 or $5 million each. And the fund raising is year-round, taking a lot of the legislator’s time and, of course, an influence on the process that is not always healthy.
So that is something that ought to be looked at. But it’s going to be very challenging. Not only moving it through the Legislature, but also having the voters approve any reform that would be necessary because of the amendment to the Constitution.
GLBNS: Looking ahead to the new term that will begin in just a couple of months What advice would you offer to your colleagues on either side of the aisle to make the best use of those limited years?
WARD: A couple of things. First, I think it’s very important that everyone comes in and recognizes the skills, talents, and knowledge bases they come in with and put them to use right away. For instance, we discussed that I came from local government. And I went to work right away on local government issues and was able to get moving quickly.
I think understanding and working with your colleagues, both in your party caucus and across the aisle, gives you an opportunity to learn so much from each other. You can get so much done if you have just a basic level of trust and understanding of each other.
And because we have such a short period of time, you have to decide what kind of legislator you want to be and what you want to put your focus on. Is it going to be the political end of the job? Is it going to be policymaking? What area of policy? You have to focus your time particularly if you’re going to tackle big issues.
GLBNS: So with the years available to you in Lansing, what would you like for people to know and remember about your service?
WARD: More than anything else, I’d like for people to remember that I was someone willing to work across the aisle and develop coalitions to solve problems. And that I made an impact. I try to take every day I serve in the Legislature seriously.
Charlene Crowell is the Michigan Land Use Institute's Lansing policy specialist, and directs the Institute’s statewide transportation and land use coalition, and a regional equity project in Detroit. Reach her at email@example.com