Jim Lynch, The Detroit News
(Photo: Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)
Southwest Oakland County is becoming one of the more intense battlefields targeted by Michigan Democrats as Republicans fight to maintain their control of the Michigan House of Representatives.
State Rep. Klint Kesto, the Commerce Township Republican and a former assistant prosecutor in Wayne County, has represented House District 39 for the last two terms. But Democrats see the district covering Commerce Township, Wixom and part of West Bloomfield Township as one of at least nine seats they hope to win to regain leadership of the House.
In 2014, Kesto won 52 percent to 48 percent as Republican Gov. Rick Snyder won re-election at the top of the statewide ballot. While presidential elections have produced six consecutive Democratic victories, the 35-year-old lawyer prevailed 53 percent to 47 percent in 2012 as President Barack Obama won Michigan.
Kesto represents a formidable obstacle as the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, where he has advocated for juvenile justice reforms. He is also the first Chaldean-American to be elected to the state House.
The 35-year-old lawyer has known Democratic opponent Michael Stack for several years. The 57-year-old Stack is a member for 10 years of Wolverine Lake’s village council, a former small business owner and a sales executive.
At the heart of Stack’s pitch to voters is a concern for Michigan’s at-risk youth – a concern borne from working with the Lakes Area Youth Assistance. The program works through Oakland County’s family court and Stack said he has become too familiar with the challenges faced by agencies in Michigan that lack proper financial support.
“Every year we try to expand the programs we offer to the kids in schools…,” he said. “And every year our funding has been going down and down.”
Of particular concern, Stack said Michigan lacks proper safety nets to deal with youth drug and alcohol issues. Those children are often sent out of state for treatment or placed in programs better suited for mental health care, he said.
“We get a lot of kids we can’t handle because there is more going on than we are equipped to deal with,” Stack said. He proposes having the state spend money to reopen one of the Michigan’s closed prison facilities to create a center for long-term addiction care and, more important, an alternative to the prison system.
“We have a lot of young people detained for addiction or issues related to mental health,” Stack said. “And their treatment is incarceration, not rehabilitation. Incarceration does not. Our recidivism rates are so high.”
The concern for children extends to Michigan’s priorities in education, where Stack opposes charter schools that receive state aid for each students who enrolls. Charters are independent public schools overseen by public universities or other public institutions such as intermediate school districts.
“With charter schools, I’m not a big fan,” Stack said. “Charter schools should not be getting state funding.”
He instead wants to steer more state aid toward existing public schools.
“We need to get the classrooms to a lower size,” Stack said. “The teachers are overwhelmed. We need to keep the funding for our public schools. The state’s newest budget includes $25 million that is going to private schools.
He also argues that Michigan’s taxpayer money would be better spent backing vocational and trade schools to help create the kind of workforce the state needs to bring back manufacturing.
Kesto is trumpeting his accomplishments, arguing that he has sponsored more bills that have been signed into law than any of other state House lawmakers who were first elected in 2012.
The 35-year-old, who helps manage his family’s business, Buscemi’s Pizza and Sub Shop, points to a string of accomplishments.
He was a main supporter of the genocide education bill signed into law earlier this summer that requires Michigan’s school districts to include instruction about genocide in the social studies curriculum for grades 8 to 12.
“It has our schools teach about the Holocaust, as well as the Armenia genocide…,” Kesto said, referring to the 1915-17 Ottoman Empire’s killing of 1.5 million Armenians in what today is known as Turkey. “It also creates a way where we can educate our youth in a positive way to identify genocides happening across the world today.”
Like Stack, Klesto focuses on juvenile justice issues affecting youth and what happens when they enter Michigan’s legal system for crimes related to drugs and alcohol.
“We’ve done a lot of punitive stuff, but what about the rehabilitation part?” he asked. “Our low-level offenders come out of jail and can’t work because they don’t have the necessary skill sets.”
Kesto is calling for improved skills training programs as well as the adoption of a certificate of employability program. It’s an issue that has been hampered in the past by concerns over liability for potential employers, he said.
In a more practical example of his work for the district, Klesto is touting the state funding he negotiated for key road projects, including Green Lake Road, Pontiac Trail and White Lake Road.
“I’m an effective representative,” Kesto said.
“I’m not there twiddling my thumbs. I’m working hard for the residents.”
Meet the candidates
Home: Commerce Township
Political and professional experience: Two-term state representative; chairman, Michigan House Judiciary Committee; Wayne County assistant prosecutor for five years; manager of family’s business, Buscemi’s Pizza and Sub Shop.
Home: Wolverine Lake
Political and professional experience: Village of Wolverine Lake council member for 10 years; board president, Lakes Area Youth Assistance program; vice president of sales and distribution, Penguin Toilets LLC.
Home: Commerce Township
Political and professional experience: Specialty health representative; no affiliated with any political party
Source: Detroit News research