By Brenda Ortega
MEA Voice Editor
U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin said she received her proudest endorsement when MEA announced its recommendation of the third-term 7th District congresswoman in her bid for the U.S. Senate in 2024.
Educators are mission-oriented people, and she feels kinship, she said during a meet-and-greet event with MEA members on Saturday in Macomb County.
A Holly native who grew up working on the family farm, Slotkin is a national security expert and former analyst who completed three tours alongside the military in Iraq and later served in the White House, Pentagon and State Department. Commitment to public service is something she has in common with educators.
“We don’t do it for the money; we do it because we believe in something bigger than ourselves,” she told an enthusiastic crowd of MEA members, leaders and staff who gathered in Sterling Heights to cheer her selection by MEA’s Statewide Screening & Recommendations Committee.
“We have trends going on in the world right now and in our state that make you all particularly important and make the relationship between educators and their lawmakers particularly important,” she said.
First, she noted, the post-pandemic era presents overlapping issues playing out in the public education arena: “learning loss, behavior issues in schools, mental health issues in schools, the lack of support, the lack of staffing… and lack of civility issues.”
Slotkin also pointed to “the incredible, once-in-a-generation moment” the labor movement is experiencing – with resurgent organizing across the country and ongoing job actions in Michigan by United Auto Workers, casino workers, and Blue Cross Blue Shield employees.
“There is something going around where people have caught the bug that when you collectively bargain as a group, you get more than when you go in by yourself,” she said. “It’s not a radical concept, but it’s nice to see it in vogue.”
In addition, she pointed out that extremely rapid shifts in technology are driving discussions around how to ensure students are prepared to “propel us forward” in a future world we can’t envision.
“Those are three major trends that you all are at the center of, and again – it makes me extremely proud to be involved with you and to take your counsel,” Slotkin said.
When MEA’s recommendation was announced last month, it became the 17th labor union – and largest public employee union to date – to support Slotkin in the race to replace retiring U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow.
The recommendation was made by a diverse committee of MEA members from across the state, including teachers, education support professionals, higher education faculty and staff, school retirees and aspiring educators.
“During her time in Congress, Elissa has been a steadfast supporter of public schools, educators and students,” MEA President Chandra Madafferi said in remarks at Saturday’s event. “MEA and our members have been sounding boards for her.
“She reaches out and asks us about key issues we’re addressing in public schools. She respects and relies on our expertise in public education to inform her work in Congress and to support our schools, our profession, and most of all our students.”
Since her election in 2018, Slotkin has advocated for increased federal funding for critical education programs like Title I and Title II. She has supported legislation that would fully fund special education and is committed to ensuring that all retired teachers receive their hard-earned Social Security benefits.
In response to questions at the event, she detailed her support for providing no-debt education and training to aspiring educators who commit to a term of post-graduate service in the state and she advocated for improved education funding formulas to better promote equity in high-poverty areas.
Anyone seeking public office should have an affirmative reason for running and make the case with what they would do if elected, Slotkin told the crowd.
“For those of you who teach your kids about debate and how to make a good argument, saying the other guy stinks is not a great way to get an A on that test. So I’m running for Senate for four very specific reasons. Three are substance; one is style. And educators – again – are a cornerstone of each.”
Ensuring folks can reach and stay in the middle class tops her list, because without it “we’re in trouble as a country,” she said. That requires policies to create jobs with dignity and tackle disproportionate costs of health care, prescription drugs, housing, post-secondary education and child care.
“You all as educators are helping us achieve it by teaching young people and helping them aim for those goals,” she said. “Their right as an American is to have that opportunity, and you help them get the skills to make it happen.”
Another goal: Slotkin wants to make more products in the U.S. – “certain critical items,” such as emergency public health supplies; microchips for computers, cars and devices; and pharmaceuticals. “Coming from a national security background, I know you always want to mitigate risk.”
And she wants to focus on addressing what is truly harming our kids, Slotkin said, noting: “This is the one that I know you feel and are quite literally on the front lines of… The number-one killer of children under 21 is gun violence in our communities, in our schools, by suicide and by accident.”
Slotkin is the first member of Congress to have two school shootings in her district, in Oxford in 2021 and last February at Michigan State University. After the tragedy at Oxford High School, she introduced legislation to require safe storage of firearms in homes with children and won bipartisan passage in the House.
She also supported commonsense gun laws requiring universal background checks and extreme risk protection orders.
“I have seen terrible things. I did three tours in Iraq alongside the military. I carried a Glock and an M4 semi-automatic, and I thank God every day that I did to protect myself. But I have never seen something worse than the experience of a school shooting and what it does to that community and that school.”
Decrying the politicization of issues surrounding guns and safety, she added to applause, “I grew up with guns; I’m sure many people in this room did, but you can be a responsible gun owner and care about the safety of children.”
In addition, she said, climate change is happening. Diseases of despair – mental illness and drug addiction – are truly harming our children, and educators are on the receiving end of those stresses. The mental health system needs revamping. We need more professionals to work with kids in schools.
“I want to focus on those issues, not the non-real issues,” Slotkin said to growing applause as she listed non-threats to children which have been whipped into false controversies by well-funded far-right groups.
“You know what’s not a threat to our children? Books. Books are not a threat to our kids. Ideas and access to ideas are not threats to our children, nor is teaching Black history. And neither is being a welcoming, inclusive community.”
Her final reason for running, she reminded those in attendance, involves “more style than substance,” yet it matters: if elected, the 47-year-old will be the youngest Democratic woman in the Senate. “And while it’s not just an age thing, I do think the place could use a bit of new energy,” she said.
Slotkin wants to bring forward her experience in strategic planning to stop playing “shallow defense” and instead legislate affirmatively to protect our democracy and our rights.
“That is why I care about what you all do, because you hold up our state,” she said. “It all comes down to our education system. If we don’t believe in our education system, we’re not going to be able to turn our state into what we know it can be – a powerhouse in the country.”
It’s time to do for Michigan what has made the long-suffering Detroit Lions into America’s team, she quipped. “We’re going to rebrand. We’re going to revamp. We’re going to get our fundamentals right, and that starts with you all.”
Antonella Piccirilli, president of the paraeducators union in Utica Community Schools, said Slotkin’s message resonated with her and others in the crowd who are so passionate about their work. Schools in communities across the socioeconomic spectrum are facing the same struggles, she said.
“We’re the largest para unit in the state, and we are here because we care about helping students,” Piccirilli said. “But we’re not paid enough, and we don’t have the support we need, so we still have job openings and our staff is worn out from all they’re being asked to do.”
Slotkin’s no-nonsense approach is a breath of fresh air, she added. “She’s committed to doing whatever she can do at the federal level to make sure we’re equipped and supported, and that’s what I need to hear. We need it – we truly do.”
Kristi Craig, president of the Howell Education Association, said she already recognized Slotkin’s superior abilities even before attending Saturday’s event. A 25-year history teacher in Howell, Craig lives in the 7th House District which the congresswoman currently represents.
“I think it’s her military experience, but from what I’ve seen with Elissa Slotkin she has the ability to zoom in on what the mission is and then figure out a plan of what to do and who can do it,” Craig said. “She’s the kind of leader who gets the job done.”