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In Michigan, an election cycle dogged by environmental issues yields crucial wins

It wasn't a green wave, but the night brought advocates major victories.

Michigan Governor-elect  Gretchen Whitmer. CREDIT: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Michigan Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer. CREDIT: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Hopes for a decisive “green wave” in Michigan fell a bit short on Tuesday night, which saw only a spattering of victories for candidates with strong environmental platforms. But advocates pointed to several key victories as critical wins following an election cycle that largely centered issues like clean water and pipeline opposition.

On a statewide level, top ballot races netted crucial victories that could shape the future of the state’s response to its contaminated water crisis. A number of candidates in tight local races, however, saw themselves edged out as the night drew to a close.

Democrat David Lossing, who ran to represent Michigan’s 51st district in the State House, lost to Republican Michael Mueller, who took in just shy of 60 percent of the vote according to unofficial election results.

A similar fate befell Tanya Cabala (D), who lost to Greg VanWoerkom (R) in the race for Michigan’s 91st district by around 10 points. Both Cabala and Lossing made environmental issues core parts of their campaigns, with an emphasis on clean water.

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“Running to represent the 51st District has been a humbling experience,” said Lossing in a statement. “I look forward to continuing to serve our neighbors and making the 51st House District a better place for all our families.”

But other candidates in tight races prevailed, including Rachel Hood, a Democrat who reportedly declared victory late Tuesday night over her Republican opponent Amanda Brand in the race for Michigan’s 76th district. Hood has a background in water infrastructure and drew support from green groups during her campaign.

Elsewhere, Rebekah Warren, a Democratic state senator running for state representative, easily sailed to victory, as did current Democratic State Representative Stephanie Chang, who ran for state senate. Warren has actively pushed renewable energy as part of her campaign, while Chang is considered one of the state’s leading lawmakers on environmental issues. Chang currently represents southwest Detroit, home to the most polluted zip code in the state.

In a tweet Tuesday night, Chang, who triumphed with well over half the vote, thanked her supporters. “It will be an incredible honor to serve District 1 as MI State Senator! I will continue to work hard for Detroit and Downriver,” she wrote.

Further up the ballot, environmental advocates saw bigger wins, as Democrat and former Michigan Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer triumphed over Republican and current attorney general Bill Schuette in the state’s gubernatorial race. Activists have said Whitmer’s win will be critical to green efforts in the state.

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But perhaps even more significantly, Democrat Dana Nessel emerged victorious in Michigan’s attorney general race, catapulting her into a role green groups say is key to environmental justice in the state. Nessel garnered praise from supporters of early Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Abdul El-Sayed, who championed environmental justice issues and conceded to Whitmer after the state’s primary.

Nessel will become the first openly queer person and lesbian to hold statewide office and is set to dramatically shape Michigan’s green landscape. In addition to tackling investigations into the Flint water crisis, Nessel has said she will shut down the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline, look into toxic water contaminations, and focus on clean air issues.

Those key wins come after an election cycle that largely centered environmental issues in Michigan, with an outsized emphasis on water.

Residents in Flint still don’t trust their water four years after the city’s crisis first exploded, but they aren’t alone in experiencing water issues. Detroit has been plagued by water shutoffs for years, while two communities in Kalamazoo County reported “high amounts” of PFAS in their water last July. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, can impact the immune system and increase the risk of cancer and other diseases.

The Enbridge Line 5 pipeline has also been a source of consternation. The aging pipeline runs under the Straits of Mackinac, between the Great Lakes Huron and Michigan, and activists have worried for years that a spill could be imminent in the environmentally fragile area.

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Those issues played a key role in the months leading up to Tuesday night. On a statewide level, environmental concerns played a leading role, especially in the gubernatorial race between Whitmer and Schuette. Endorsed by green groups across the state, Whitmer touted her commitment to clean water and belief in climate change. Schuette countered by emphasizing his role in bringing the initial prosecutions in Flint’s ongoing water crisis fallout.

A heated war of words over Flint dominated the final days of the campaign, with both Whitmer and Schuette accusing the other of failing Flint. Whitmer ultimately ended the night on top, beating Schuette with 53 percent of the vote.

Mike Berkowitz, who works on political and electoral issues for the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter, told ThinkProgress the night was an overall success for green efforts, and not only for candidates. He hailed the passage of voting rights and redistricting efforts in the state, which won the support of green groups looking to advance their efforts through voter enfranchisement.

“This will not be a silver bullet, but it will empower environmental voters to better hold their elected officials accountable, it will help prevent future environmental injustices, and help shield conservation issues from hyper-partisan politics,” Berkowitz said in an email Wednesday.

Michigan’s green representation in the U.S. Congress also expanded on Tuesday. The Democratic candidate for Detroit’s 13th district, Rashida Tlaib, sailed to victory after running virtually unopposed. Tlaib laid out her green vision to ThinkProgress in August, emphasizing environmental justice and calling for a shutdown of Line 5, among other stances.

“Unlike previous election cycles, it is clear that environmental issues were a top concern for Michigan voters,” said Berkowitz. “I was proud to see countless candidates prioritizing clean drinking water, climate change, and protecting the Great Lakes in their campaigns, and I think this will be a consistent theme for Michigan political candidates going forward.”