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Senator Debbie Stabenow - Driving Issues That Matter

By Patti Schmidt

What drives Michigan's Senator?
Well, usually staffers, but when Senator Debbie Stabenow is in Washington, a Cadillac Catera is her automobile of choice, and in Michigan, it's an Olds '98. But what really drives the Great Lakes state's first female Senator is her passion for people, a long-term commitment to causes, and a keen desire to get things done.

Catch up with Michigan's U.S. Senator, Debbie Stabenow, as she battles pharmaceutical and insurance companies, violence against women, the system and long hours.

In late 2000, when Michigan's Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow had finally gotten through a bitter campaign in which her Republican opponent called her "Little Debbie" and outspent her nearly two-to-one, she should have gone on vacation.

But she'd promised to make the pharmaceutical industry lower prescription drug prices, to maintain Social Security benefits and to give Medicare a new prescription drug plan. Before she was even sworn in, Stabenow had pledged to solve Congress' three toughest topics and fight the pharmaceutical and insurance industries — the two industries that spend the most money lobbying federal officials.

The non-profit, public interest organization Public Citizen reported in 2000 that the drug industry spent more than any other — $235.7 million-lobbying federal officials between 1997 and 1999. Millions more were spent on advertising and campaign contributions to friendly Congressional committees, candidates or causes. The insurance industry is usually second.

"The pharmaceutical industry is making up to 20 percent net profit each year, unfortunately on the backs of families, seniors and businesses," Stabenow said. "There are six prescription lobbyists for every U.S. Senator. So we're going to create a coalition where individuals, seniors, families, businesses, farmers — everybody that's affected — can join together and solve the problem."

"In the last election, I think the pharmaceutical industry spent more campaigning against her than any other candidate," said Stabenow's spokesperson Dave Lemmon. "She was enemy number one."

Stealing the show
If her willingness to wage war wasn't enough to prove her pluck, this was: when she met the Washington press corps during her first press conference, Stabenow unhesitatingly answered a question directed at Senate Democratic Leader Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota.

Gabe Martinez, a reporter from the Detroit News' Washington bureau, reported that Stabenow explained, "I didn't mean to interrupt," to the amused press and a surprised Daschle. Then she explained how women — in the Senate and in their kitchens — can help make better choices for families, the economy and schools.

She stole the show. That's quite a feat, considering she was surrounded by eight other, freshly sworn-in Senators, including Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, and party leaders from both sides of the aisle.

"It's rare for her to shy away from an opportunity to weigh in on an issue she campaigned on, or was elected on," Lemmon said. "She thought the question was for her."

Senator Daschle said afterward that he remembered a pre-election prediction made by House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, who told him, "Debbie Stabenow is going to win her race, and you're going to consider her the MVP in the first year."

"He was right," Daschle said.

Others took notice, too: the December 2001/January 2002 issue of George Magazine named Stabenow one of "10 Powerhouses Who Really Rule Today's Divided America."

Influential appointments
Stabenow wasn't a stranger to governing — at age 25, she dug her husband's campaign signs out to run against the man who'd beaten him a year before so she could help keep the county's only nursing home open. At 27, she became the youngest chair of the Ingham County Board of Commission. She was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives and state Senate before being elected to Congress in 1996, and to the Senate in late 2000. Stabenow is only the second woman to have served in both houses of the state legislature, and in both houses of the national legislature.

Well versed in bipartisan politics, sticky legislative issues and male-dominated political bodies, she was able to accrue an unusual amount of influence for a freshman senator. She was assigned to committees that let her legislate agriculture and aging, banking and housing issues. But her best assignment — and where she made her mark — is the Budget Committee.

First, she dedicated herself to listening to 16 hearings. When the Senate budget debate began, she devoted a week to button-holing moderate Republicans and helping Democrats set priorities for education and a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Stabenow showed she was a bona fide member of the Centrist Coalition, moderate Democrats and Republicans who try to put aside party politics and get things done. Although she argued with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), and was just three votes short of adding a $13.3 billion amendment to the budget for home health care, she supported Collins' alternative rather than her own.

Her reward — for hard work and bipartisanship — came when the Budget Committee's top Democrat, Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, asked her to help manage the Democratic floor debate on the budget.

"That's highly unusual for someone of her length of service in the Senate," said Conrad. "[I appointed her] because of her performance in the budget committee and her knowledge."

She also was appointed head of a Democratic prescription drug task force and head of the Women's Senate Network.

Commitment to women's issues
Stabenow's commitment to women's issues led her to use her 2000 Congressional pay raise to buy whistles for young girls in an area that suffered a rash of assaults.

When she mentions she's been championing women's issues for more than 25 years, she laughs and says, "I must have been five when I started."

"When I chaired the Ingham County Board of Commissioners, I asked the Sheriff's Dept. to report on domestic violence incidences in the county. They didn't keep statistics then, so we [began] hearings and task forces, and we pulled together advocacy groups and law enforcement. We developed one of the first two domestic violence shelters in Michigan. It's still there in Ann Arbor — and it's something I'm very proud of."

The move was so controversial then, people blamed her for "breaking up families" and "trying to take wives away from husbands." Now, she says, "when my male colleagues want to demonstrate their concern for women, domestic violence is one of the first issues they talk about."

"We've come a long way," she said. "We've got shelters all over the country, extensive training programs for law enforcement officials and better laws."

Now the challenge is rape and sexual assault, she believes, particularly date rape or assault by someone familiar.

"I have a 22-year-old daughter, so I'm concerned," says Stabenow. "Young women her age are afraid to report [such things]."

"So we have to make it very clear that when a woman is a victim of violence, it's not her fault," Stabenow said. "And the people around her must respond supportively; we must ensure that law enforcement and the system don't victimize her further."

She believes most violence stems from family violence. "The most important message comes from a child's own home," she says. "Then there are the violent images on TV and movies. I think we've created a level of tolerance for violence that should be very unacceptable. We need to change the messages our children receive."

Such commitment earns her life-long supporters.

"Tricia and Calvin Luker did a commercial for me during the campaign which talked about what happened to their daughter — she had problems with an HMO and she died," remembers Stabenow. "I'd promised them that I'd take Jessica's picture with me to the Senate and keep it on my desk until we passed the Patient's Bill of Rights. We did pass it, but it's not become law yet. I still have the photo on my desk, and I think one of the most touching moments for me was when Calvin and Tricia came in after we passed the bill — they were so excited, they really felt that this was something that they'd helped to get done."

D.C. surprises
Despite her previous experiences, Washington had a few surprises.

"The process didn't surprise me, you know, I'd been exposed to the legislative process before. The surprise was the incredible volume of work and lack of time," she said. "Fortunately, my children are 22 and 26, and so they're out and about," she said. "I've learned to be extremely organized in order to protect some personal time."

In those few hours when she's not working, you're likely to find Stabenow listening to music, playing the piano or strumming away on a guitar.

"I love music!" she says enthusiastically. "I played clarinet in high school, and I had eight years of piano lessons. I'm a so-so guitar player, but a decent piano player."

Her favorite entertainer would have to be Barbra Streisand, but Bonnie Raitt is a close second. The Senator also likes show tunes, and remembers every word on Carole King's Tapestry album. She also likes to sing blues and folk tunes.

"Music is one of the important pieces in my life," she says, mostly because it offers her peace and relaxation, things a busy Senator often finds in short supply.

Stabenow with Jack Smith, General Motors CEO

Driving
Stabenow says getting behind the wheel is a treat.

"I love to drive. I'm a born-and-bred Michiganian, home of the automobile," she said. "When it's business, someone drives me so I can work. But I love to get out and go. I have a Cadillac Catera in Washington, and I have an Olds '98 — which they're no longer making but I love — in Michigan."

The Senator has driven Oldsmobiles for decades.

"My father and grandfather had a small Olds/Cadillac dealership in Clare, so I practically grew up on a car lot," Stabenow said. "Later, I usually got a beat-up used car. But I always had a car, so I've been partial to Oldsmobiles, although I really like the Catera."

Staffers point out that she rarely relaxes, due to a crazy schedule that too often includes seven days of meetings. Staffers often drive frantically between them, feeding her facts and figures on the way.

"I like to say yes, and meet with everybody," she'll tell you.

"She's one of those people who gets energy from other people," explains spokesman Dave Lemmon. "As the day goes on — as she goes through more meetings and meets with more people — she gets more energy. Some people tend to wind down as the day goes on, but her energy continues to build. It's great for someone in her line of work."

Stabenow says, "The real challenge isn't the workload or the time crunch, though, it's representing nine million people in a very diverse state."

Travel...and that crazy commute
A lifelong Michigan resident, Stabenow flies round-trip between Lansing and DC each week, leaving Washington Friday afternoon and returning to the Hill for work on Monday afternoon.

She travels light, keeping a small essentials bag permanently packed and clothes in both places. She uses the time during the flights to read, write or "do homework."

"I really feel it's important to view this job as a long-distance commute to work," she says. "I live in Michigan — it's my home."

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