WASHTENAW COUNTY, MI – When selecting their next representative on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, Democratic primary voters in southeastern Washtenaw County have a full field of candidates to choose from that includes an incumbent, a term-limited state lawmaker and a longtime county employee.
One-term Commissioner Justin Hodge, a clinical assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan, is seeking reelection in District 5, covering much of Ypsilanti Township and all of Augusta Township.
He faces primary challenges from state Rep. Ronnie Peterson, D-Ypsilanti Township, who is nearing the end of a third term in the Michigan House of Representatives representing the Ypsilanti-area 54th District, and Latitia Sharp, who has served as executive assistant to the Washtenaw County administrator.
The winner of the Aug. 2 primary will face Republican Brett Birk, though Democratic candidates have traditionally carried the district by large margins. Nonpartisan candidates also have until July 21 to file to run in the Nov. 8 general election.
Hodge, first elected to the county board in 2020, currently chairs the body’s working session.
After making the jump to Lansing in 2016, Peterson aims to return to Washtenaw County local office, where he previously served eight two-year terms as a county commissioner and was also an Ypsilanti City Council member.
Sharp — who is on temporary special assignment in the Washtenaw County Public Defender’s Office during her campaign to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest and plans to retire from the county at the end of the year — aims to make her first foray into local elected office.
The boundaries of District 5 remain the same as they have for the past decade, after a process last year of redrawing local political maps largely maintained the status quo for the county board races.
MLive/The Ann Arbor News partnered with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Michigan to provide candidate information for readers. Each candidate was asked to outline their stances on a variety of public policy issues listed below.
The candidates also participated in a League of Women Voters of Washtenaw County candidate forum, a recording of which is available online. Information on other state, county and local primary races can be found at Vote411.org.
All responses in the voter guide were submitted directly by the candidate and have not been edited by the League of Women Voters, except for necessary cut if a reply exceeded character limitations. Spelling and grammar were not corrected. Publication of candidate statements and opinions is solely in the interest of public service and should NOT be considered as an endorsement. The League never supports or opposes any candidates or political parties.
What in your education and experience make you the best qualified candidate for this position?
Throughout my career as a social worker providing healthcare and financial services, I have gained an understanding of the challenges faced by our frontline workers and how policy can better support them. Now, as a professor of social work at the University of Michigan, I prepare my students to find policy solutions to address the most pressing problems impacting our society.
During my first term as your county commissioner, I am proud to say that I have already delivered on many of the priorities that I campaigned on. From increasing our investment in our Health Department, to committing funds to launching a countywide Children’s Savings Accounts Program, to getting resources to our most vulnerable residents, I have worked tirelessly to ensure that our residents have access to the resources needed to thrive. With your support, I will continue building on that work.
I was born and raised in Ypsilanti and have lived in the community all of my life. Over the past four decades, I have served the public as an Ypsilanti City Councilperson, and Washtenaw County Commissioner, and currently, I am completing my third term as State Representative for the 54th District. My record of delivering services and resources to the community speaks for itself. From establishing the Washtenaw County Human Services Center and instituting the Washtenaw County Dental Clinic, to the West Willow area US-12 road reconstruction and the long-awaited Huron St. Pedestrian Pathway over I-94 – I have consistently demonstrated my effectiveness as an advocate for the people of Eastern Washtenaw County.
I attended Ypsilanti Public Schools, graduate of Ypsilanti High School, class 1984. Associate of Applied Science degree from Washtenaw Community College and a Bachelor of Science degree from Eastern Michigan University. Continue professional development through workshops, seminars, and trainings. As County Commissioner, I would arrive on Day 1 with an immediate understanding of Washtenaw County as an organization. I have 34 years of tenure and unique experiences to do the job. I bring experience with; Independent authority forms of government from years with the Parks and Recreation Commission, Labor Unions as a member, and Officer of AFSCME Local 2733, Employment Compensation and Classification, from role as a Human Resource Manager, Operations of County Administration, in my role as Executive Assistant to the County Administrator, help to develop the strategies, policies, and execution plan for operationalizing the priorities of the current county board.
What are your goals should you be elected and how will you work to accomplish them with current resources?
I believe that everyone across our county should have the opportunity to be healthy, build wealth, and be safe. I will continue to strategically leverage American Rescue Plan Act funds and existing funding to invest in programming to create generational change. I will continue working to increase the availability of home-based and community services, such as through our Health Department, so that all residents have access to the healthcare that they need to live full and healthy lives.
I will continue working to promote economic development by increasing access to financial services, such as financial counseling, that will help residents build wealth and reduce reliance on predatory lending agencies.
I will make our county safer by continuing my work to end community and gun violence. I have worked with community leaders and elected officials to develop a plan to interrupt violence in our community and it is one of my top priorities to see that work through.
Whether as a city, county or state official, my goals have remained consistent. I will continue to serve as a strong voice for sustainable economic growth and regional cooperation in greater Ypsilanti. I will stand for environmental justice and continue to oversee the mitigation and restoration efforts of various sites that I began as State Rep. I will advocate for senior rights and protections including efforts to increase affordable and subsidized housing. I will continue to combat crime in our community by promoting my plan for enhanced police training and community engagement, as well as after-school programs to engage area youth in productive activities. And, I will focus on education. Our children deserve a world-class education to prepare them for college or a career. Our teachers do an outstanding job – but they must have additional support from the county and state levels. My goals are not uncommon; the difference is that I have 40+ years of documented results to point to.
My overall goal is ensuring Washtenaw County reaches its fullest potential, with the understanding that district 5 will have to grow and thrive to make this a reality. I will advocate for the residents of district 5, listen to them, take their input, and cultivate it into a vision and a strategy. I will work with all local units of government, elected officials, and fellow commissioners to create community success throughout the county. My goal is to be open and transparent with every project, policy, or priority developed by the Board. I will utilize or create community platforms and/or media forums and newsletters to ensure transparency and information. My goal is to MOVE on the building of a recreation center on the eastern side of the county, furnished with fitness, nutrition, programs, mentors, the latest technology, and tutors. I will work with all units of government, elected officials, and community partners to pool together all resources to move on this stalled project.
What are the most serious problems facing the County and how will you work to solve them?
COVID-19 has shined a spotlight on the extreme health, economic, and racial inequality in our county. Life expectancy for residents of my district is about 6 years less compared to Ann Arbor. Countywide, African-Americans live on average 10 years shorter than their white neighbors, while Latina and Latino residents live 16 years less. Average household income in Ypsilanti Township is about $12,000 less compared to Ann Arbor and the median income for African-American households is about half that of white households.
I live in the 48198 zip code and my neighbors, along with residents of 48197, have been hit the hardest by COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, I provided food and household supplies to hundreds of residents, distributed 30,000 masks into my district, and worked at vaccination clinics to support our residents. In addition to continuing to provide resources directly to people that need them, I will continue to push policy solutions to address the root causes of these issues.
Our county needs to continue recovering from the effects of the pandemic, combat the rising cost of living and get our economy back on track. The solution is experienced leadership. Over the past 2 years, I used the power of my office to assist county residents, businesses, and local governments with the challenges posed by COVID. I made sure my office was open and available throughout the pandemic. When the House print shop was closed, my staff and I hand-printed and mailed more than 27,000 newsletters to keep residents in touch. I assisted over 2,000 residents with their unemployment claims, and, on several occasions, I brought top-level, state officials to Ypsi to advise business owners how to apply for state and federal grants. I secured mask donations from area businesses and worked with Ypsi Twp. Supervisor Brenda Stumbo to ensure that anyone who needed masks would have them. At the same time, I captured over $30 million for economic development and public infrastructure.
Public Safety – Ensure resources that support gun safety and education in schools and the community. Work with the County Sheriff, in partnership with grassroot organizations in community programs geared towards interrupting violence with community engagement. Education Disparities – Encourage innovative education pathways to higher learning. Support non-traditional learning opportunities for career development and fill in the gap during the summer months, and after school with enrichment programs. Housing disparities – Address fair market housing and affordable housing to support sustainable housing. Economic Development – Support initiatives to increase awareness and opportunities for financial literacy and sustainability, promote new business that encourage healthily living for our residents. Health Services – Increase access and resources to our most at-risk populations, this includes seniors, mental health clients and low-income families.
What are Washtenaw County’s greatest assets and how can they be used to help the community thrive?
Our county is home to both the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, which provide access to a wealth of resources for residents. Not only are they two of our largest employers, there are research and projects currently underway at both that should inform the decisions made by our elected officials. For example, Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan promotes programming to increase economic mobility and provide youth employment opportunities, which can be used to combat the economic inequality and segregation in our county.
Having the American Center for Mobility (ACM) located right here in Ypsilanti Township is another tremendous asset for our county. The public and private partnerships that made the AMC possible, including the sponsorship from Microsoft, will lead our county to be a global leader in automated and connected vehicle technology, bringing much needed economic development and attention to the county, specifically to residents of my district.
The strength of Washtenaw County is its people. We are a diverse and inclusive community, and though we sometimes disagree, we understand that the mix of cultures and wide range of life experiences among our citizens yields stronger, more comprehensive plans to improve everyone’s quality of life. During my time as an elected official, I have prided myself on my ability to work productively with my colleagues no matter their political philosophy. I know I will not always agree on every issue with those who serve beside me but, my duty, as I see it, is to find common ground and continue moving forward for the good of the people. Voters expect results from their elected leaders – not excuses. I am proud of my record serving the residents of greater Ypsilanti. During these challenging times, Washtenaw county needs proven leadership. I am humbly asking for your vote this August 2nd.
The county’s biggest asset is its competent employees that provide services and resources to all residents, committed partners who work to support our residents, and businesses that provide services and goods. These assets can be used in conjunction with elected officials to produce good government. Good government is transparent, honest, open to feedback. Good government is community focus, and looks for opportunities to enrich, care, protect, and serve its residents. Good government is local government and local government starts with local people. When we all residents can thrive, we all thrive.
Read more Washtenaw County election coverage here.
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