From Crisis Comes Opportunity
The novel coronavirus pandemic has affected the 2020 election cycle in countless ways. One extreme example is candidate Greg Reyner's campaign: to begin with, Reyner is running for Michigan's 4th State House District, a seat vacated when Rep. Isaac Robinson died from the virus in March. As for Reyner's personal circumstances, he faces the challenge of keeping a restaurant afloat during this turbulent time: Reyner is co-owner and chef at the award-winning Café Muse in Royal Oak. Now, he says, he's doing less cooking and more dishwashing and bussing tables.
"It's basically derailed it," Reyner said, describing the pandemic's impact on his campaign for the district comprising Hamtramck and most of Detroit's Midtown and New Center neighborhoods. "My biggest thing going into this, being in the restaurant industry, I just assumed I would have all of this time, when in actuality, David — my business partner — and myself are working more than we ever have.
"Also, any campaign I've ever been associated with, it's been face-to-face, being able to see people. And campaigning without the actual ability to canvass or able to have fundraisers or anything like that, it's just made it crazy," he said.
Reyner talked about his interest in politics — he studied political science at Wayne State University — and the fact of it being an open seat.
"I've always been fascinated with politics," Reyner said. "I didn't necessarily want to be a politician, but I've always hosted fundraisers, I've always been very politically active and I thought again with COVID-19 and the fact that the seat was vacant for tragic reasons, that it was a good time [to run]."
As a business owner and chef, Reyner is constantly interacting with employees, vendors and the public, which can make for a solid foundation to be a politician. Reyner listed some of the skills he's acquired during his career that prepare him for a future in elected office.
"The ability to listen, the ability to problem-solve, the ability to compromise, the ability to make sacrifices for the greater good," Reyner said. "A prime example is what we're doing here right now. David and I are, like I said, working insane hours and not paying ourselves. But this is to make sure that we have an establishment that stays open for everyone."
Another quality that Reyner has modeled is the ability to play fair, which means everyone who enters Café Muse must wear a mask — per the governor's executive order — even when it means turning people away at the door. He compared some of the behavior that customers exhibit about mask-wearing at the restaurant with the polarization in politics today.
"You're dealing with a society [that], for whatever reason, is not as polite and friendly as it used to be," Reyner said. "People are making a political stance over a mask. We've had to call the police on customers. We've actually banned regular customers from the restaurant because they refused to wear a mask. It shouldn't be our place to police them. But I think it's the fact that people aren't as compassionate as they used to be."
On the Issues
Bringing compassion to Lansing is certainly something a lot of Michiganders would like to see as well. Reyner also has "a good list" of other issues he'd address if elected. For statewide concerns, he'd focus on education and infrastructure.
"Obviously infrastructure issues," Reyner said. "We have some of the worst roads in the region. They're horrible. School systems — the fact that this is the state that produced Betsy DeVos is questionable. I think we really need to focus on education as a whole in the state; we need to definitely improve how we get from point A to point B."
In his district, Reyner would address is the way discriminatory systems, including environmental racism, impact his constituents. Environmental racism refers to the ways in which minority neighborhoods are disadvantaged with a disproportionate number of hazards that lower residents' quality of life.
"One of the things I never really thought about until recently is how our system is geared to actually not only disadvantage people to pay them less than they should be paid, to throw barriers in their way to actually succeed as far as lack of transportation — or lack of mass transportation — but also the fact that how we zone where a highway is going in, how we zone where an industrial park is going in," Reyner said. "It's to an extent, environmental racism. The fact that we would rather put these industries close to a poor district, versus a Bloomfield Hills or a Birmingham. And it's something that's a big problem in Detroit as a whole and Hamtramck."
As an openly LGBTQ candidate, Reyner has some insights that will serve him well as a state representative: in particular, not just that he's part of a minority that's only recently achieved things like marriage equality and the right to work without fear of losing one's job for being oneself but also in the way he's keenly aware of how certain minorities within the community are treated. Specifically, he recognizes the plight of transgender women of color, some of whom are the sex workers he sees on his way to work every day at dawn.
"You see how certain subsets of this big group are treated — how we allow that to happen. It's really opened my eyes as far as how minorities treat other minorities. The way that we as a community don't necessarily embrace the trans community is, I think, shocking. And it's really given me the ability to walk in someone else's feet. And just to understand that not everyone's life experience is the same as mine.
"I think they're just seen as the throwaway part of society. A lot of them are sex workers because that's the only option. I think we don't have enough of a safety net in place to support people that are going through this, and we need to change that. We need to change the fact that we don't necessarily embrace them when we embrace everyone else in this community."
Bridging the Divide
Even though this isn't the campaign that Reyner — or anyone — could have imagined for 2020, the candidate offered several reasons that people in his district should consider voting for him. First of all, he's said, he's opinionated — but not rigid in his thinking.
"I am very opinionated as far as my views; however, I'm willing to listen to other people and other people's views," Reyner said. "Like I said, I haven't walked in your footsteps; I don't know what your life experience is. I know what I think should be done and how it should be done. But I'm not going to attack you because you don't necessarily hold that same view."
"I think the biggest problem with politics today is everything's so polarized. And you're dealing with most of the elections being 'safe' elections so that whomever's in the primary, whether that's a neoconservative or a socialist Democrat, they're going to win if they have the votes in the primary," he said.
Reyner believes that once redistricting addresses the gerrymandering problem, and seats are competitive, it will be much easier to have a dialogue and hold politicians accountable.
"It doesn't matter if you're the most liberal or conservative person within your [district], if you can't get anything done, it doesn't matter," Reyner said. "And I'm seeing that a lot of the left-leaning politicians have an agenda and it's 'my way or the highway—' and that's not how politics works. It's a matter of compromise, and it's a matter of being able to be articulate — get your point across — but also listening to other people and what their points and opinions are."