OPINION: Q-and-A with State Representative Lee Chatfield

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OPINION: Q-and-A with State Representative Lee Chatfield

State Representative Lee Chatfield

State Representative Lee Chatfield

State Representative Lee Chatfield

State Representative Lee Chatfield

Isaac Martin, Political Contributor

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Do youth possess the ability to influence the affairs of state, or is that just a line peddled by practiced politicians hoping to win over a few votes? If you ask State Representative Lee Chatfield (R – Levering), one of the youngest speaker pro-tempores in the country, the answer would be a rather emphatic “Yes, your voice can make a difference!”

Sporting a close-cropped haircut reminiscent of his days as a Division II soccer player for Northland International University, Representative Chatfield, or Lee, as he prefers to be called, doesn’t fit the stereotypical mold of a staid statesman. And there’s a good reason for that: He isn’t your stereotypical politician.

Sworn in as the second-youngest member of the 98th session of the Michigan Legislature at age 26 in 2014, Lee has often been overlooked even, within his own district, because of his age. Once, while he was knocking on doors during his first campaign for state office, an elderly voter told the youthful Lee, “Tell your dad I’m voting for him.” During his freshman term in Lansing, however, Lee proved to be the picture of professionalism with a perfect voting record during his first term.

Recently, I had a chance to catch up with the new speaker pro-tempore and ask him a few questions.


 

Q: You chair the committee on local government, one of only two freshmen representatives to be given such a distinction. What are some things your average college student doesn’t appreciate about local government?

A: I think it’s important to know that we have different levels of government, and it’s important to know and differentiate what the roles are of those governments, and you will find the role of each particular government in each state and federal constitution. For younger people who might not know what their elected officials do, I would argue the reason they aren’t interested necessarily in what the local governments do is that they don’t understand it, and the more they understand it, the more they’ll appreciate it.

I think it is important to form a relationship with your local government elected officials and understand that you can have a real impact. Many people in America, as evidenced by the recent election, feel disenfranchised and feel out of the loop, and a part of that stems from the fact that they haven’t reached out and attempted to form relationships with any of their representatives at any level of government. I think that is a reason we feel that the system might be rigged because we’re not participating in it to the same level we should.

Q: How can young people, who perhaps feel that their voice is not being heard, be effective when they try to wade into the morass of government?

A: I would argue that perhaps the reason their voice is not being heard is that they are not communicating. Now, that is not always true, but you will find in life, to be successful, it operates on two fundamental things, and politics is no different. It operates on communication and building relationships. I would say, attempt to communicate with your legislator, whether it’s your city council, whether it’s township, whether it’s your county commissioner, state or federal, attempt to communicate, and over time, you will form that relationship with them, and you will feel you’re being heard. I do believe younger people are losing out on an opportunity to have some real influence, and rather than protesting elections, let’s get involved in them.  

Q: You received many awards when you were in college for your athletic ability. How did an athlete like you get interested in running for public office?

A: I think it is important for people to understand that, no matter what particular field they are involved in, we are a government of the people, by the people and for the people. In order for us to represent the people, it’s highly advantageous to have people from different fields involved in our government because our government touches all different fields.

We should not pigeonhole legislators into thinking that they have to be of one particular background or experience, and as a former athlete, athletic director, teacher and coach, I bring a different particular set of expertise than others do and vice-versa. I learn from many different people in the legislature who perhaps might come from an agricultural background, they might come from an education background, a physician’s background, and those different backgrounds and expertises allow us the opportunity to effectively represent every single field or person in our state.

Q: As a legislator yourself, what has been effective in influencing your opinion one way or the other, whether the source be from your constituents, special interest groups,or other sources?

A: Information. It’s going to [come] down to building relationships. I do my very best to rest on the experts of the particular field [and] of people in district. I am as strong as the shoulders of the people I stand on in-district. When they are communicating with me and telling me the issues and how it impacts their particular field, it gives me a better education and set of information that I can now bring to Lansing with me and help me represent them.

So, whether it is a special interest group or whether it is someone in-district, I think it’s important to have the legislator to hear all sides, deliberate over the issue with your colleagues and make sure what you are doing is in the best interests of the people you represent.

Q: What about when you have to make a controversial decision like the one on the roads that came up last year [2015]? How do you decide that and how do you talk to your constituents because there will probably be many that disagree with you and there will probably be many that agree with you.

A: Sure, I think what people value the most right now and what they’re craving in politics is genuineness and honesty. I have a particular set of values and beliefs that I will never compromise on, and I think it is important to note that, to be an effective legislator, you have to sometimes compromise on policy, but never on principle, and that necessitates knowing what your principles are. I will always fight and advocate for my set of beliefs and do to the very best of my ability everything that I can to ensure that the policy passed best reflects those. But you have to understand, you are never going to get everything you want in life, and the same goes for politics.

Q: So what does that look like, compromising on policy, but not necessarily on principle? Can you give us an example from your own experience?

A: I would say taxes are a policy issue. I am firm believer that the lower our taxes we have, the stronger our economy will be, the more money will be put in the taxpayer’s pocket and they can invest into the economy, and they can make the choices with their own money far better than what I can. Now, where that bar is set on sound, structured tax policy that’s low, it’s going to be a debate and there’s give and take. Now, I will always fight for lower is better. However, this is an issue where, at the end of the day, you are going to have to come to agreement to ensure that government is functioning and operating for people.

One of the issues that I drew a line on this past year that is truly a principle issue for me is regarding the life issue. Being a strong pro-life advocate, I felt it severely conflicted with my sincerely held beliefs that if we passed a budget that funded, that gave taxpayer dollars to an institution like Planned Parenthood, that I would violate my principles. That was a line I drew in the sand, I wasn’t willing to compromise on that.

This is a couple of examples, I could probably come up with a couple of more that clearly delineate that [idea]. Ultimately, you have to know what your principles are, you have to know what your policies are and do your best to be effective.


 

I guess, in some ways, Representative Chatfield doesn’t differ from a lot of other politicians: He enjoys talking to almost anyone and can sometimes talk his way onto a rabbit trail. Yet, as I listen to him, I hear different voices speaking, some in warning and others in instruction. I hear a history teacher rebuffing his students for being lazy, I hear a father encouraging his children to work hard and I hear a soccer coach cheering for his players to go for the goal. It is the wise pupil who heeds the voice of instruction, even if it does come from a slightly spryer source than usual.