“Honesty. Integrity. A Voice for You”
When Between The Lines caught up with Garnet Lewis, Democratic candidate for Michigan’s 26th State Senate District, she had just finished a campaign-related breakfast meeting at the Blue Star Café near Saugatuck. “It’s wonderful, it’s going very well,” she said, when asked how her campaign was shaping up, having announced her candidacy in March.
“It’s happening all across the state, but especially over here in west Michigan, which is known to be a little more conservative … certainly the energy and enthusiasm for Democratic candidates is absolutely wonderful,” she said. “The fundraising’s gotten off to a great start, so I couldn’t ask for a better environment, really. I couldn’t ask for a better year.”
Dr. Lewis serves as chair of the City of Saugatuck Planning Commission and a is member of the City of Saugatuck Board of Review. She brings with her more than 25 years of professional experience in higher education, serving as the associate director for professional education at Central Michigan University and director of institutional research at Saginaw Valley State University. Currently semi-retired, she and spouse Vicky Cobb own and manage three commercial properties in Michigan.
Lewis seeks to replace term-limited Tonya Schuitmaker, a Republican now in the race for attorney general. Lewis is the lone Democrat in the field, and in November will face a Libertarian and one of three Republicans who have filed. Of those three is Bob Genetski, Allegan County clerk and former state representative, who recently attracted national attention for attacking the credibility of the students who survived the Parkland shooting. He’s also known for his anti-LGBTQ voting record as state rep. In 2014, he co-sponsored Michigan’s odious “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which legalized discrimination, if in accordance with one’s religious beliefs.
At 56, Lewis is not new to state politics. In 2008, she ran for state representative in the 98th House District, which included portions of Saginaw and Midland Counties. She won her primary but lost in the general election to Republican Jim Stamas. In 2014, Lewis made a run for the 32nd Senate District, but lost in the primary.
Called Out of Retirement
When Lewis and Cobb moved across the state to Saugatuck in 2015, they planned to retire. However, Donald Trump had other plans for her. When he was elected, everything changed.
“I told Vicky, the day after the election, I can’t just sit here. I can’t not do anything,” she said.
So Lewis and Cobb headed to Washington, D.C. for the Women’s March, which she called “a phenomenal experience … amazing.”
“As tragic as I think it is that Donald Trump’s been elected, it’s also been an extremely good thing for folks like myself and folks that were probably nonvoters in the past or chose not to show up for that election,” she said. “It’s a big wake up call.”
Lewis explained that a notice was posted on her Facebook group asking for a good candidate for state senate. She and Cobb were up North, without internet access at the time, and was a little overwhelmed to return home and see the unanimous response: “Garn! Garn! Garn! Garn!”
At first, Lewis was reluctant to jump in the race. She was quick to remind her supporters that she had failed twice. But, perhaps they felt that the third time’s the charm. In fact, one of her “gals” in Douglas, an Episcopalian priest, was quick to point out how many times Abraham Lincoln had run and lost. Finally, Lewis was persuaded.
“By that time, Vicky said, ‘If you want to run, I’ll support you,’” she said. “And that was it. I’m like, ‘Alrighty then, let’s do this!’”
Due to the size of the 26th Senate District — Allegan County, Van Buren County, Kentwood City and Gaines Township in Kent County — the concerns of citizens are varied. But regardless of where Lewis asks, healthcare is right at the top. In Saugatuck and in South Haven, the environment is another focus, specifically, taking care of Lake Michigan, the Kalamazoo River and the watersheds, which are the main economic points for those areas. Education is on many people’s minds, including the loss of school funding and asking teachers and administrators to do more with less. Finally, access to broadband is a big issue for the remote areas of the district, as it is imperative that students are able to do their schoolwork online.
Achieving any progressive goals won’t be easy, she acknowledges, as there are currently only 10 Democratic senators. As she points out, “that’s enough to fit in a passenger van.” Lewis sees herself as a problem solver. She recognizes the need to reach across the aisle and work on legislation with Republican senators, and her ability to bring groups together to find solutions that works for everybody will serve her well. For example, because Lewis’s passion, single-payer health care, may not be in the cards in the immediate future. What she can do is address issues like making it easier for constituents in rural areas to get their prescription medications.
She’d also like to reduce the barriers to healthcare that women in her district currently face, namely, having to drive to Grand Rapids for any of the many services provided by Planned Parenthood. As the “constituent-relations person,” she said, “I don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat or don’t identify with either party, when I’m elected, I’m here to serve you.”
Lewis faced a number of personal attacks during her 2008 campaign. Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association, and current representative for the 98th House District, was responsible for airing homophobic ads, and a later attack occurred via media release when Lewis was elected chair of the Saginaw County Democratic Party in 2010. His favorite taunt was to refer to Lewis as a “homosexual activist,” which perhaps to some is a scary thought. BTL asked if she expects those kinds of attacks to quiet down this time around.
“As a hopeful person, I’d say yes. So much has changed. Marriage equality is the law of the land now. The world didn’t come to a screeching end.” The scenario Lewis envisions is that whoever wins the GOP primary will assume that they can coast along until October. When that candidate does some polling and realizes Lewis has great name ID and is running a strong campaign, that’s when she won’t be surprised to see efforts to play the “gay card.”
“I don’t doubt that it will happen,” she said. “Personally, I don’t think it will matter.”
She’s All That
We also asked Lewis to talk about her political role models, and she responded with a list of the strong Michigan women she admires. First named was former governor Jennifer Granholm, who appointed Lewis to serve on the board of trustees of Northern Michigan University (Lewis’s alma mater) in 2009, a position she held until 2016. She spoke highly of Saginaw County Commissioner Cheryl Hadsall, whom Lewis called her go-to person and “shero.” Debbie Stabenow was praised as smart and savvy. But Lewis saved her highest and most enthusiastic praise for gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer.
“Love her to death. I watched when she was in the Senate and was the minority leader, and she is a no-nonsense kind of politician which I just greatly admire … Gretchen is all that, and a ball of wax,” she said. “She’s just awesome.”
Lewis can claim a couple of “firsts:” she’s the first openly gay person appointed to a governance board for a Michigan university and Michigan’s first openly gay candidate for the Michigan House of Representatives (2008).
If elected, she would be the first openly gay state senator in Michigan — an honor Lewis would be happy to share with Jeremy Moss, for whom she expresses great admiration. When that “first” was pointed out to her, she remarked, “That’s funny, I never thought of myself in that direction, but I guess it’s true! It certainly was never my intent to be the first, so, well, it’s about damn time, don’t you think?”
Later she added that her sexuality is something she has never felt the need to hide.
“… from the very beginning, I’ve always been out. I’ve never had to hide. And it’s a wonderful place to be, and I know too many people who are gay or lesbian that aren’t out, even now, running for office, and I’m so glad … it’s just easiest for me to be my authentic self.”
“Oh my gosh, there’s no better time than now.” That was Lewis’s response when asked what advice she would give a young person in the LGBTQ community considering running for public office.
“The writing is on the wall,” she said. “This state and this country is so ready for young people to step up and out. Literally. Don’t wait. Do it now,” she said. “Set your eyes on your goals and go. Just go. Don’t wait for anyone’s approval. Build the relationships and do it now. There’s no better time.”
Finally, when BTL inquired about something people would be surprised to know about her, she paused to reflect, then explained that she had recently donated a kidney to an unknown recipient. Lewis said that this gesture of altruism was inspired by the people in her life who had either donated or received a kidney, and news of the advances in kidney donation, along with the knowledge of the number of people in Michigan alone who are on the waiting list — almost 2,500 as of this writing.
“It felt like the right thing to do,” she said. “So that would be a surprise to everybody, that I donated a kidney.” To those who know Garnet Lewis, and know her character, perhaps that act wasn’t such a surprise.
For more information, visit garnetlewisforstatesenate.com/.