Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Michigan senator able to ride the political winds

YPSILANTI, Mich. - U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow got a little good-natured teasing last week when she came to tour giant drug company Pfizer, Inc.'s research facilities in Ann Arbor. (As in, don't try any free samples.)

That made her laugh. The Michigan Democrat isn't exactly the pharmaceutical industry's favorite senator. She made prescription drug pricing reform a major issue three years ago while running against a well-financed incumbent.

In return, she estimates drug companies dumped $1.3 million into her opponent's campaign. Still, Ms. Stabenow, who heads the Senate Democrats prescription drug task force, says she is “very much in favor of pharmaceutical research.”

But she is even more in favor of affordable medication. Last year, the freshman senator introduced legislation to allow states to pass on Medicaid drug discounts to uninsured people. She has taken busloads of seniors to Canada to buy cheaper drugs, and is now fighting to make cost-saving generic drugs more readily available.

That's an uphill battle, given that the Democrats don't control any branch of government. Still, while the job is not without frustrations, Michigan's first female U.S. senator is having a ball. “I love being in the Senate,” she said. “It is so much easier for an individual to do things than in the House.”

Her election itself was a considerable upset. Incumbent Spencer Abraham outspent her by millions and sarcastically tried to demean her as “liberal Debbie.” But Ms. Stabenow, at 52 actually one of the state's most seasoned politicians, ran a tremendously disciplined campaign. She saved her money and poured it all into a last-minute ad blitz. Her goal was to convince voters she was on their side and that Mr. Abraham represented the interests of large corporations.

That ended up working brilliantly; in the end, she won by 67,000 votes out of 4 million. “He was very gracious when he called to concede,” she said. Two months later, she reciprocated. In a move that won praise for class, she endorsed Mr. Abraham when President Bush nominated him as Secretary of Energy, and introduced him to the Senate.

Now, she's nearly halfway through her term, after a fascinating, roller-coaster two and a half years. Only weeks after she was sworn in as a minority freshman, Democrats reclaimed the U.S. Senate. Ms. Stabenow, whose bright blue eyes and copper-red hair make her easy to recognize, soon found herself presiding over sessions.

“That was a good thing,” she mused. “You learn a lot about what's going on and the Senate's very complex system of rules in a way you never could if you are rushing around from committee to committee. It also helps you learn everybody's name.”

That was followed by Sept. 11 and the anthrax scare. Evacuated from their offices, her staff spent weeks working off a loading dock permeated by the odor of garbage.

Last fall, Democrats lost control of the Senate, and it was back to minority status. Still, she keeps working hard. She does have a long history of building coalitions; she is one of very few politicians who has held all the possible legislative jobs. Ms. Stabenow was a child of the 1960s who put herself through Michigan State University by playing guitar and singing folk music.

Trained as a social worker, she got into politics to protest the closing of a nursing home, and got elected to the Ingham County commission at age 24. Four years later she was elected to the state House. After a dozen years, she moved on to the state Senate, where she helped reform education funding.

Her only major defeat was a blessing in disguise; she narrowly lost the nomination for governor in 1994. No Democrat could have won that year.

Two years later, she took on and easily beat a freshman Republican congressman, Dick Chrysler, and moved up to the Senate four years later.

Now, she is waiting for the political winds to change. She doesn't have much good to say about the Bush team. “This administration is embracing the failed supply-side economics that didn't work in the 1980s and aren't working now.”

Though she voted for the Patriot Act - “with reservations” - she says she won't vote to extend it. She did not vote for the resolution authorizing war with Iraq. “[The administration] could tell us what their plan was for running the oil fields, but not what their plan was to bring democracy to the country,” she said. Wisely, perhaps, Senator Stabenow says she's unlikely to endorse anyone for the Democratic presidential nomination, though she will strongly support whoever that is.

She did make a surprising endorsement of another kind in February, when the senator, divorced for many years, married Tom Athans, the executive director of Democracy Radio in Washington. He's 41; she's 52, and that, she said, makes perfect sense.

“My kids always said that with my energy level I'd better find someone younger,” she said, chuckling. “We're very happy.”

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