The Jobs First Agenda in Michigan

Exclusive interview with Senate Hopeful Terri Lynn Land

Terri Lynn Land
Terri Lynn Land / AP

Terri Lynn Land is hoping that her focus on kitchen table issues can convince heavily Democratic voters in Michigan to send a Republican to the U.S. Senate for the first time in 20 years.

Democrats have won the last two Senate elections by 30 and 20 points, respectively. Land seemed to be riding a wave of support in 2013, emerging with steady leads late in the year, but after a poor performance at a June candidates’ forum and a steady stream of attack ads financed by Sen. Harry Reid (D., Nev.), radical environmentalist billionaire Tom Steyer, and unions, Land now trails Peters by 6.5 points, according to Real Clear Politics.

The key to overcoming that deficit, according to Land, is focusing on the actual concerns of Michigan voters, rather than those of Washington. Her opponent, Democratic Rep. Gary Peters, can campaign all he wants on environmentalism and the bogus "war on women": Land says she is singularly focused on jobs.

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It influences every aspect of her platform. She believes global warming is real, but says stringent EPA regulations will do more harm than good. Illegal immigration may be important to the Chamber of Commerce and La Raza, but Land is more concerned about its contribution to falling wages for low-skilled American workers. A secure border will help secure stable blue collar paychecks, while streamlining legal immigration for high skilled workers will boost America’s economy.

Land hasn’t shied from breaking with national Republicans to demonstrate that her campaign’s "Put Michigan First" refrain is more than just a slogan. In June, Land announced her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement between the United States and more than a dozen Asian companies. She supports free trade, but not at the expense of Michigan manufacturing and the automobile industry, which suffer from large tariffs in Japan and South Korea, even as those countries expand their market in the United States.

"I want fair and free trade and want to make sure that it makes sure it benefits Michigan producers. Whether its agriculture or manufacturing, you have to make sure it goes both ways," she said in an exclusive interview with the Washington Free Beacon.

Limiting the harm of free trade agreements, however, will only stem the bleeding in Michigan’s job market. Land recognizes that the blue collar jobs that once made Michigan one of the most prosperous states for the middle class in the country are not coming back. But attacking the "1 percent" and engaging in class warfare, as Peters is prone to do, will do nothing to help unemployed factory workers. Land prefers to offer these voters a solution, rather than a bogeyman. One of her top priorities in Washington will be beefing up high skilled jobs training and establishing a student loan program for muscle labor.

"We really need high skill workers. That’s what I’m hearing from the businesses I talk to. So instead of focusing on just four-year college, they could get the same [student] loans and support as a person who goes to college," Land says.

The Republican said there is a key distinction between her program and the job training agenda put forth by President Obama. She wants the states, rather than the federal government, to steer the training program; federal bureaucrats have a hard time distinguishing the needs of Michigan and Mississippi businesses.

"Flexibility is the most important piece of my program. Every state is different, so it’s important that we allow states to make decisions about what type of training their workers need," she says. "We need to make sure that we work with the locals and local business. The federal government does not have the answers. The local folks understand what they need for their job training and businesses."

She points to the fact that America still faces a deficit in its high-skilled workforce, despite—or because of—the existence of 47 training programs housed in myriad government agencies. A federal jobs program intended to put people back to work may just as easily turn into a program designed to help green energy at the expense of workers and the economy. Land wants to consolidate these programs at the federal level, while expanding options in states.

Land knows a bit about revamping bureaucracy. She served two terms as Michigan secretary of state, which put her in charge of the most hated of all government agencies: the Department of Motor Vehicles. She streamlined the agency, adopted new technology to increase efficiency, all without laying off a single employee, she said. Wait times fell, office morale improved, and Land managed the impossible, increasing her popularity while serving as the public face of the DMV.

Land may have been trusted to make the DMV run on time, but voters are less enthused about sending the Republican to represent them in Washington. Michigan has been more than willing to hand Republicans control of administrative and executive posts in the Lansing statehouse. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder leads Democratic opponent Gary Schauer by 3 points, even as Land trails.

She is campaigning as a Capitol Hill problem solver, just as she was in the statehouse.

"As secretary of state, I had a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature, but we reformed the voting system and modernized the DMV because I recognized that you need to talk to everybody," she said. "There are 400 bills that have passed the House on a lot of issues that have Democratic support, but Reid doesn’t let them see light of day."

Voters can expect that to continue if Gary Peters is elected. He will serve as a rubber stamp for Harry Reid’s agenda, according to Land, while she will bring an administrator’s eye for effective governance to the post.

"People want government to work for them and they want to be able to see their elected officials pass bills," she says. "It takes a lot of work, but I showed that it can happen."