Geared to Break Stereotypes, Confront Tradition, and Challenge Career Politics in the 95h District

Posted In: Politics, Local, Candidates, Interviews,   From Issue 622   By: Robert E Martin

21st September, 2006     0

As the rhetoric heats up with mid-term elections looming in November, one of the most fascinating races in the mid-Michigan area centers around a face-off perceived by pundits to be cut & dry:  the 95th District House of Representatives   contest between Democrat Andy Coulouris and Republican newcomer Joel Wilson.

While Coulouris is well known throughout the district, having been covered thoroughly in these pages, and by other major media outlets during the August primary battle between Democrats Joyce Seals, Charles Braddock, Terry Sangster, and Roma Thurin; Wilson is a relative enigma, which makes him fascinating in this age of pre-packaged, digitally polished, and predictable politics.

Biographically, he shares many similar attributes with Coulouris: both candidates are in their early to mid-twenties, both graduated from Arthur Hill High School, and both are lifelong residents of the City of Saginaw.
What makes Wilson's bid so intriguing is that he is an African-American Republican running for an office that traditionally has gone Democratic in a district that consistently votes along racial lines. 

When former Rep. Mike Hanley nailed the seat, he ran against two African-American opponents.  Similarly, when current State Rep. Carl Williams ascended, he faced off against two Caucasian opponents. 

Now, with Coulouris surpassing a field of five African-American challengers in the August Primary, this is the first contest in memory that actually pits a white Democratic primary victor against a black Republican challenger - an irony certainly not lost upon  Wilson, though something he refuses to accept as coincidence.

"There is no doubt that Race Politics exists," admits Wilson,  "but I don't believe in destiny.  I do believe in open-mindedness. If this race is Republican vs. Democrat, Andy wins. If this race is Andy Coulouris vs. Joel Wilson, I've got a good chance. The race becomes something to look at."

Fair enough, so let's start looking.


Joel Wilson attended Handley and North schools, followed by stints at Arthur Hill and the Saginaw Arts & Science Academy, which he says "gave him wings" to graduate from Boston University and explore the world, working in London, Stuttgart, and Dresden.

A nephew of Saginaw High sports legend, Reginald Jones, and the son of Benjamin Pruitt, Chairman of UAW 455 and the first Saginaw man elected to the UAW national bargaining team, Joel says he returned to Saginaw to make a difference for the people in his hometown.

"I had excellent teachers at SASA who allowed me to express my opinions in class about politics," reflects Joel. "I won a National Achievement Scholarship final at Arthur Hill and then used that to go to Boston University & Germany, where I studied theatre, language, and culture."

"To my mind, this race is not Republican vs. Democrat. It's new vs. old, honest vs. corrupt, ideas vs. rhetoric.  When I was in living in Germany, I would keep up with the news back home and started looking at City Council, asking myself how it was possible a body could vote 30 times on replacing one member?"

"Then I looked at the State Rep race and saw these names of former City Council members, many of whom were the same people bouncing around for the last 15 years or more, and thought how can you get promoted to state office for doing a bad job? We're a hard working state, and I don't think someone who fails to build coalitions in a body of 8 or 9 members is going to function that well in a body of 110. We need to reach across party lines."

"I think in a time when leadership is required, we need a different type of candidate, which is evident when you get such low voting turnouts."

Being an African-American running for a major seat on the Republican ticket, Joel is obviously 'different'. But at what point did his conversion take place?

"It's funny," he laughs, "being a Black man we are born Democrats.  Most people aren't born into political parties, but we get it with the mother's milk.  The change happened swiftly for me, but had been building through my college years when I started examining what I believed in."

"Assuming the Democratic Party was 'mine', I started doing research to determine where the two parties stood on issues and found that I have problems with the Democratic Party, particularly in Saginaw.  The system of 'favorite sons' and 'merits' reeks of the 'good ole' boys' network and in my opinion is part of the problem."

"Ask yourself, has the Saginaw County Democratic Party earned your loyalty? Are they living up to their glorious tradition and actually serving the people of Saginaw? Are you better off than you were five years ago?  In truth, the party to which I was loyal is similar only in name."

"I represent a 21st Century way of thinking," stresses Joel. "My opponent is still stuck in the '80s. We need modern solutions to our modern day problems. Times have changed, but the politicians in Saginaw have not."

"We need to get crime under control, establish an education system that works, create jobs, and update our infrastructure. We've needed to do this for the past 15 years, but the politicians have just talked about it. I want to get these things done in Lansing. These are not goals. These are fundamental things we need to meet before we can achieve our goals."

Enough said.

Time to move into specifics.

Three Top Priorities & the Ghost of Affirmative Action

If Joel Wilson is indeed a new type of Republican, tired of the good ole' boy network of his former party, what is his take on affirmative action, which many perceive as nothing more than discrimination in reverse employed to reward mediocrity.

"When I went to college there were two types of people at Boston University," explains Joel. "You had those on scholarship and those with the last names of 'Spears' and 'Bush' - people that could buy their way into school. They even had special general study programs for people that paid to get in."

"That aside, even those that worked hard would e-mail their papers over to their fathers who were doctors and lawyers, so they could 'brush it up'."

"I had to work three times harder because my Mother couldn't help me with homework after the 8th grade, simply because of the conditions at the time when she grew up."

"I believe affirmative action works when it's conducted properly. With the California proposal that eliminated it, minority enrollment at UCLA is down almost 50 percent, so I think this new proposal on the ballot for Michigan in November is harmful to women, minorities, and a lot of people. The way it is worded will present problems, even in health care. It will foster preferential treatment, which affirmative action is designed to discourage."

"After defeating Proposal Two in Michigan, we need to define a new middle ground with articles that deal with education, not just by looking at race, but looking at financial situations, opportunities, and health care, because there are a lot of white young men who are underprivileged and don't have these options.  They need to be included as well. The system is not perfect."

And if elected, what would comprise Joel's top three priorities in terms of issues?

"Jobs, crime, and education, which all interact together in terms of forging solutions, answers Joel.

"During one of the primary debates, Joyce Seals actually said, 'You can pull people out of the river, but eventually you have to find a way of falling in'.  We're good at arresting and incarcerating people, but the problem is that it does nothing to stop crime from re-occurring. We release prisoners and they're back on the streets in 60 days. The recidivism rate is more than 50 percent!"

"Michigan does have a prisoner re-entry initiative, but Saginaw is now only a Round Two site, which is silly. We should be a Round One site, only nobody was in the room to say 'What about Saginaw County?'  I will be Saginaw's voice in the rooms of power - in both the Republican & Democratic rooms - I will fight my way in there."

"In terms of jobs, we need to train people once they leave jail and we need to provide viable income opportunities for young people so they don't wind up in jail. If they're going to make mortgage payments and save for college, we can't have them robbing the 7-11. We need to give people hope and teach people how to fish rather than giving them the fish."

"That's the biggest straw that broke my back in terms of why I'm not a Democrat - this idea of handouts. It makes an entire black community dependent. We need to help them, but not by handing out fish. We need to teach them. Teach them how to manage their assets. Children of wealthy families learn this right away. They inherit money and know what to do with it. Minorities and poor white people need to learn these skills as well. They need to know what a 401 K is. This should be taught in public schools. We need to cut through the red tape and do what makes sense."

In terms of building an economy to provide these jobs, in tandem with addressing issues of crime & education, a lot has been made about this proposed elimination of the Single Business Tax in Michigan. What is Joel's take on this?

"I favor asking economists on both sides of the aisle, because I'm not an expert in tax law.  I don't want to dodge your question, but that's my honest answer. Frankly, what I'm leaning towards is replacing the SBT with a Value Added Tax, which is what things should have been in the first place before the legislature messed them all up."

"It's clear that Michigan is not competing and our jobs are going elsewhere. 48 states are doing well, while one got hit by a hurricane, and then there's Michigan."

"We need to think of a better way to address our infrastructure rather than mess around with the tax code. There are places in Michigan where you can't get sewage and power! One big plus of Michigan is that there is a lot of land and its relatively inexpensive. But businesses look at taxes and the lack of infrastructure, and they say, hey, they've got reasonable land in Ohio and Indiana as well."

"Mainly we need to step up high speed Internet access across the state," emphasizes Joel. "If that is lacking, the future will pass us right by, like the highway not going by the ghost town that is completely off the map.  If I'm setting up a business and can't communicate with Japan, or London, or California, it's going to be impossible to attract my business."

And what about the impact of NAFTA, which as Ross Perot once warned, would signal that 'big sucking sound of jobs being lost overseas'?

"Who would have thought Ross would be right 10 years ago," asks Joel. "It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the problem with NAFTA is that it promotes lots of FREE Trade at the expense of FAIR trade."

"Honestly, our future in Michigan needs to center on ethanol production and alternative fuels, the medical industry, education, and most important, NANO technology," he states.

"I want to see Michigan leading the nation in this new wave of technology that borders on science fiction, but is happening today. You can set up a car plant in India now and turn out a decent auto. That wasn't the case 50 years ago. Unfortunately, we rode the good times of the auto industry a little too long."

"On the positive side, at the Saginaw Career Complex, 35 percent of those young men and women are getting into medical fields, so our job in Lansing needs to focus on bringing those high tech jobs here NOW, which goes back to building up our infrastructure."

Legacy Costs, The Minimum Wage, & Lifestyle Legislation

With 'legacy' costs and the expense of financing retirement & health plans eating up business & government alike in a pattern similar to other great civilizations of the past like Britain and Rome, what are Joel's thoughts about addressing the hemorrhaging?

The concept of cradle to grave employment is something I don't believe exists anymore in America. Those days are gone and there is a reason for that, though it hurts us now to think about it. But we need to maintain dynamism in our economy. Look at China. Millions of dollars are being made and lost, but it's the most moving economy in the world right now. We move a lot, too; but Europe is stagnating."

"I lived there for two years and the welfare states are collapsing on themselves. This is why you have race riots in France. The idea of having one employer for life needs to change. The idea that it's the state's job to take care of me needs to change.  We need to get into an  'ownership' society, with people managing their own systems. We also need a safety net because this is America and we don't want people starving on the streets, but we need to develop more dynamics and stop looking at those old models that have failed us."

"France is looking at two more years before it all blows up and we need to accept the fact it's now a global economy. We need to stay mobile and move. We're losing that sense of 'risk' in our economy, which is essential to make it viable. The Top 20 companies in France haven't changed in 50 years.  America and Michigan cannot fall into that boat."

"As for the minimum wage, I think its due for an increase. I worry, however, because its one of our psychological hedges against inflation, and not that many people are making it. For some strange reason when the minimum wage increases, prices go up at McDonald's,' he laughs. "But seriously, inflation has occurred enough without an increase in the minimum wage destroying our social system."

And what does Joel feel about the recent anti-smoking ban enacted in Saginaw County and the Democrat's plan to move that ban over to bars & restaurants?

"It's one of those issues we need to step back from a little. Most restaurants offer smoking & non-smoking sections, so what's the problem.  A couple restaurants & bars have already voluntarily gone all non-smoking in Saginaw County, but why not offer both options?  This is America, after all. When I go out to eat with my family, my brothers do smoke, so they'll go over to the smoking section for a while. I think its being made an issue and it's not. Why are we even dealing or talking about this?  The market place will take care of it."

For Whom the Bell Tolls * Battling Stereotypes & Machine Politics

As our conversation comes full circle, I rephrase a question submitted to Joel at the start of our interview:  Does Joel Wilson have a chance to turn the tide and actually win this House seat?  Will the mindset and sensibilities of African Americans be open enough to entertain the notion of splitting their ticket and voting for a Black Republican?

"There will be a lot of close-mindedness and some African Americans that I've encountered going door-to-door won't even take my literature and look like they're going to spit on me. Others see me as one of them and ask why I'm a Republican, so I get a chance to explain.  Those people I can give my literature to get sold pretty quickly, not on the Republican Party, but on me."

"The funny thing is, if you look at core values, most Blacks tend to be pro-life, church-goers, and fiscally conservative. They don't like taxes, so you would think they would break ranks more. But it comes down to that 'mother's milk' that we're fed from birth."

"If nothing else, my candidacy changes perceptions, because Black issues are not Democrat issues - they're about the right of representation, which should be taken to Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and Greens."
"Having said that, I'm not going to be the 'Black' candidate. I don't want this race to come down on racial lines. I want to have an open and honest debate on the issues."

"The Saginaw Area Democratic Club actually stated on their website that I have  (quote) 'shamelessly attempted to make race an issue in this campaign in order to distract voters from my glaring inexperience for this key office.'

"But the truth is, Andy won't debate me. I would love to hear where he stands and let people judge from that, because I think more people agree with me on the issues."

I think if Andy stays home and puts his picture out there with that great smile, he's in. I've challenged him to five debates and SASA agreed to host the first, but he's yet to respond.  He hasn't refused to debate me, but has yet to respond to my challenge."

"Politically, I understand he has little to gain and quite a lot to lose, so my campaign reverts to the old fashioned way of knocking on doors."


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