Student loans, small businesses, transportation and freedom of religion were all on the menu as five Democratic candidates for the newly drawn 14th Congressional district seat spoke to local business leaders at the Courtyard by Marriott in Farmington Hills Tuesday.
Southfield mayor Brenda Lawrence, 9th District Congressman Gary Peters, 13th District Congressman Hansen Clarke, former state representative Mary Waters and former 36th District Court magistrate Bob Costello, all Democrats, attended the breakfast hosted by the Greater Farmington Area and Greater West Bloomfield chambers of commerce. Republican John Hauler was invited but did not attend.
Clarke said his office would be a "business advocate". "I want to help you grow your business by getting you more customers," he said. "We need to free up money for people."
Among the initiatives he champions are the Student Loan Forgiveness Act, which would forgive loans based on income, after a student makes 10 years of payments. Clarke also supports legislation that would provide incentives to employers who hire people receiving unemployment benefits, to get more people back to work.
Having been on welfare, he said, he knows "what people need is dignity and self-respect, and that comes from working."
Lawrence stressed her experience with helping businesses and said the city hosts a conference to connect business owners with the federal government, bringing more federal dollars back to the city.
"We need jobs," she said, "and jobs are created by our business community. My job as an elected leader is to make sure those businesses can survive. Every type of incentive you can think of, I've used in my city."
Lawrence pointed to her 20-year record of public service and said her gender will also make a difference if she's elected. "I can tell you for a fact that the conversation changes with a woman at the table," she said.
Peters talked about his record with small business initiatives and said having a transportation system is key to the region's success. He said Cleveland, OH invested $200 million in a corridor that spawned $4.3 billion in development.
"The suburbs will not be successful without a strong and vibrant city of Detroit," he added.
The election is really about getting results, Peters said, and "I'm very proud of the accomplishments we have achieved so far, but now we have a lot more work to do in the business area."
People "under water" with their mortgages are also a priority, he said, citing proposed legislation that would "really give people the opportunity to have light at the end of the tunnel." The bill would allow people who continue to make payments over a 3-year period to have their mortgage reduced to the value of the home.
"It is absolutely essential for us to move forward on the mortgage issue," he said.
Waters: Combine DDOT and SMART
Waters shared her life story and noted she was the first black, female floor leader in Michigan State House history. She said she favors a merger between the Detroit Dept. of Transportation and SMART (Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation) bus systems.
"It's critical ... The federal government can no longer afford to pay two transportation subsidies to systems that are running down the same streets," she said.
She would like to see federal incentives for building hybrid gas/electric buses, and the engines could be built by Detroit automakers. Waters was openly critical of Clarke, who she said passed on the opportunity to sponsor legislation that would ban synthetic drugs.
"You've got to have people who can truly walk the walk," she said. "Take a look at how people are voting in Congress."
Costello, who served as a magistrate in the 36th District Court for 22 years, said he's the only candidate who doesn't have a title in front of his name. "I have more public service than any of the other candidates," he added.
Among his foreign policy positions, Costello said, is "to encourage trade, especially with the countries of the Americas." He said trading with South and Central American countries will also result in fewer people from those countries coming to the U.S. and will help the economies of those nations.
His primary reason for running, Costello said, is freedom of religion. He said he is Catholic and opposes an Obama administration policy that would require health care providers to fund birth control.
Patty Gelsomino, who lives in St. Clair Shores and works for Toshiba Solutions in Farmington Hills, said she found the breakfast informative. She asked a question about her home mortgage, because while she has always paid on time, her house is now "under water", and she doesn't qualify for a program that helps lower interest rates for some homeowners.
"I think I've got the right people to call now to answer my concerns about my mortgage," she said after the event. Asked whether she felt better informed, Gelsomino added, "I think I still need to do some more investigations."
Aaron Johnson, who works for Farmington-based Pro-Motion Consulting, said he thought Peters and Hansen stood out among the candidates.
"They had some passion about what they were saying," he said, adding Peters was more focused on transportation while Clarke spoke more about touching the individuals lives on the street and "really speaking life into the black community, which I definitely think is something that needs to happen."
He felt more attention should be paid to the development of the people that are going to run the businesses being supported by federal grants and programs.