Kalamazoo State Senate Candidate Forum

Oct 26, 2018

(Left to right) State Senator Margaret O'Brien, Libertarian candidate Lorence Wenke, WMUK Assistant News Director Gordon Evans, Democratic candidate Sean McCann; IGP Director Peter Weilhouwer
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

The race in the 20th State Senate District that covers Kalamazoo County is a rematch. Republican incumbent Maragret O'Brien of Portage again faces Democrat Sean McCann of Kalamazoo and Libertarian Lorence Wenke of Gull Lake. O'Brien emerged as the winner of the 2014 election by only 60 votes. Democrats hope it will go their way this time.

All three candidates spoke at a public forum at Western Michigan University on Thursday, October 25. It was sponsored by WMUK and the Institute of Government and Politics at WMU's Department of Political science. The forum was moderated by Assistant WMUK News Director Gordon Evans.

During the forum, the candidates addressed questions from the audience and from WMUK listeners on issues ranging from education and health care to statewide ballot proposals and the PFAS contamination crisis. Here are some highlights:


Michigan has suffered declining scores on student achievement tests in its K-12 schools. O'Brien says the state needs more paraprofessionals as well as reading and mental health counselors. But she also wants the state to set up a new bipartisan task force to address academic achievement and set a timeline for solving the problem. McCann says Michigan has been the victim of the "Betsy DeVos agenda," referring to President Donald Trump's secretary of education. McCann says that approach has resulted in charter and online schools that are unaccountable or held to lower standards than traditional public schools - all things McCann says he would try to reverse. Wenke, a former Republican state representative, says the GOP has been in control in Lansing for a decade but hasn't come up with a solution. He says Michigan should pay new teachers more but end teacher tenure and base salaries on the performance of their students rather than seniority.


People in communities around Michigan, including Parchment and Richland Township, have been forced to use bottled water because of contamination by a group of toxic chemicals known as PFASes. In Parchment's case, the city had to switch residents to Kalamazoo's water system. McCann, a former Democratic state representative who earlier served as a Kalamazoo city commissioner, says private companies should not be allowed to profit from toxic substances while forcing the public to pay for their effects. He also says Michigan needs more scientists and other resources at the Department of Environmental Quality to catch problems faster. Wenke says everyone should become more aware of the pollution they create. And he says the state needs a better way to monitor the quality of its water. O'Brien says the state should work with with EPA and bankruptcy courts to shift cleanup costs to responsible parties, where possible. She also wants to see a new "Clean Michigan" bond issue to raise hundreds of millions of dollars a year for clean-up of polluted sites.

Proposal 2

Michigan voters face three statewide questions on the ballot November 6. Proposal 2 has received much of the attention. It would create an independent commission that would draw political district lines after the Census every ten years, a job now done on a partisan basis by state lawmakers. O'Brien opposes Proposal 2. She says it won't lead to more districts where the major parties are evenly matched, and she says it might violate federal voting laws - something the group Voters Not Politicians says is not true. Both McCann and Wenke say they support Proposal 2. McCann says it's a commonsense, bipartisan approach to deal with the longstanding problem of gerrymandering. Wenke says both parties may be to blame, but adds that Republicans "refined it to a science" in the 2000's to make sure they get most legislative seats even though statewide returns are more evenly balanced between the major parties.

Guns in schools

This has been a "hot button" issue with a series of deaths and shootings at schools around the country. Michigan lawmakers approved a law that would have allowed people with a concealed pistol license to openly carry their guns on school grounds. O'Brien supported an amendment that would have let each school decide whether to allow firearms on their property. That amendment was rejected but the Michigan Supreme Court later ruled that schools do have the authority under the state constitution to handle the issue. McCann says he would not have supported any of the guns- in-schools bills, adding that the Republican- controlled legislature has done nothing to make schools safer. Wenke says schools should be allowed to decide. But he says "gun free" zones don't make students safer. Wenke says he's open to letting trained teachers carry guns at school to deal with emergencies.

There is a Kalamazoo League of Womens Voters voter guide for this race.

You can stay in touch with WMUK news on FacebookTwitter, and by signing up for our eNewsletter.