Find all of our Election 2020 coverage and other candidate interviews here. More interviews will be added as the election draws closer.
Samantha Steckloff eyes State House seat from Farmington and Farmington Hills.
Samantha Steckloff, a Farmington Hills City Council member since 2013, is a Democrat running for the Michigan House of Representatives 37th District, which comprises Farmington and Farmington Hills. Steckloff is running against Republican Mitch Swaboda, who has not responded to an interview request from the JN.
Here is Steckloff’s telephone interview with the JN, edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell us about your background as a candidate?
I have served on the Farmington Hills city council for the past seven years. I have always been involved in politics and policy starting at a very young age, helping create our after-school programs, creating programming for my age demographic, moving into creating after-school programs around the county area, and then eventually moving on to create youth councils, allowing young people to have an actual voice and a say in what their local government does.
Originally, I went to school for foreign policy. My emphasis was on crimes against humanity. And the original plan was to enter the foreign service and become, hopefully, an ambassador in a Western African state.
Well, as we know, things change. In the second semester of senior year, I had just gotten back from a Birthright Israel trip and learned about a fellowship program through Hillel International. So luckily, I was able to be a fellow at University of Kansas Hillel and fell in love with the program and eventually moved to University of Michigan.
How I got onto city council? In 2012, during [the] lame duck session, when the state decided to create an emergency financial manager, even though just one month prior this state overwhelmingly voted against it. That’s when I had had enough.
That means they took away your vote. They took away your voice, then rammed through right-to-work in just 24 hours, not allowing even hearings on that. That’s when I decided it was time to take my talents and go into an elected office. And I ran for city council in 2013, and I won.
It’s been a very, very long road, full of ups and downs. The downs have mostly been about my cancer treatment. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, and at 31 years old, it really takes a toll on you.
Going through that process and learning about the healthcare system in the state and learning about how an insurance company works, learning about just things as simple as surrogacy laws, looking for family planning, everything was kind of flipped upside down, and that’s why I’m here today. I’m here today to run for the needs that we’ve seen lacking in the state, whether it’s from our educational funding, whether it’s from our infrastructure and roads and lack of revenue sharing from the state, as well as how we treat our healthcare system. That is why I’m running.
If elected, what would your top three priorities be in the state house?
One of my top priorities is creating a public health option. We already have about 90,000 people currently on this option, so it can be expanded, and it can be done. We’ve seen through the COVID pandemic, how our Department of Health and Human Services has really risen to the challenge. And they’ve been able to expand in a very, very short amount of time. It would be going through their office. We already have the infrastructure in place. Therefore, it can be done in a very quick time.
Many Michiganders don’t realize, but Medicaid used to be provided through the state. It no longer is. It’s actually provided by private health insurance companies. That is one of the issues that we need to make sure that since it’s a government program, the government is still overseeing it. And we need to bring that back to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Another thing is, is making sure that our school aid fund is completely funded. We are currently receiving about $9,600 per pupil.
And I was just on an interview a little bit ago, and we keep hearing the argument that we’ve expanded the school aid fund. We’re putting more money into it, but based on the numbers, it’s completely false. We are receiving the same amount per pupil funding based on the when I was in high school 20 years ago. We have a huge problem, and this doesn’t even include things for some of our special needs programs. It doesn’t include broadband and expanding throughout the state since so many kids are now virtually learning. A lot of opportunities not all students have.
We also need to make sure that we are providing adequate funding for public schools by taking away these funding that is going to for-profit charter schools. For-profit charter schools do not have to follow any of the same regulations that our public schools do.
So many times you hear about someone who’s graduated college and they get a job at a charter school, even though they don’t have a teaching degree. These are the types of things we are fighting with these for-profit charter schools, and they aren’t technically illegal in the state of Michigan. The reason they get around it is because they go through an agency. You see a lot of universities will own a lot of these charter schools. Grand Valley has a few, Central Michigan has a few, but they get away with this by having an administration looking over it. Per pupil, this administration cost takes 3% per pupil off the top. We are literally seeing money being stolen from our students.
I was a manager of admissions at Wayne state University, and I saw the devastation this causes as far as students. Every time I would get an application that had a [low] eight ACT score and a [high] 4.0 GPA, there’s a complete miscorrelation, and we really need to focus on that because that’s really hurting the future of our state, not just the future of these individuals.
And then, of course, we need to deal with the ever-changing climate crisis we are facing. We have seen so much of how the social justice and labor and climate crisis all work hand-in-hand. It’s not just creating green jobs and getting rid of others. This is not bad. This is creating new jobs that have some sort of funding element tied to it. So those people in other positions that are fearful of their job can move into this seamlessly.
There’s a lot of programs I am working on. I have been very involved with working with our League of Conservation Voters, making sure that not just we are working on our climate process, but also making sure it is done in an economical way, letting the economy drive this change.
Some people in the Jewish community and in the Democratic Party have a more critical view of Israel and support BDS. And you said you went on a Birthright Israel mission. Tell me about Israel.
The BDS movement, I don’t agree on. I think it only incites more division. My personal opinion on that movement is that it’s too extreme. I am a proponent of a Jewish state, but also as a foreign policy major, I understand the human rights that comes with that and the violations we’ve seen. And so, just because I am for a Jewish state doesn’t mean I still don’t have criticism, just like this country. Many of us love our country, but of course we have things we’ll criticize.
I was fortunate enough to staff about five trips to Israel, and being with young Jewish students, their first time coming to Israel, their first time going to the Wailing Wall. It’s such a special moment to see from behind, to see standing back and seeing people fall in love with this country. But again, those are two different things, falling in love with a history and culture of a country that you’ve studied your entire life, knowing that your ancestors come from, is completely different than not being able to criticize the thing that this country does.
What realistically can be done to aid people with medical insurance insecurity whose insurance is linked to their job, or they are without a job, or they have preexisting conditions?
Not being able to get health insurance stifles innovation. I was one of those people that was stuck in a job that I couldn’t leave, because I needed the health insurance, because I was going, unfortunately, through a cancer diagnosis. This is a real problem. This is why I am such a huge advocate of a public option. I eventually had to go on a public exchange. And even for me on that public exchange and the ACA, I was paying double the amount each month in my health insurance than I was my mortgage. This is a real problem.
So, by going through all the numbers, by creating a third-party public health option through the state, someone like me, my bills would go down 80%. Now, is it a perfect system? Are we going to be able to solve all of healthcare with this one initiative? No, but can we help the people of Michigan? Absolutely. Everyone should have affordable and quality healthcare. It is not a luxury.
What is the responsibility of the private, independent Jewish day schools and parents who send their kids there to improve quality of public education in the district?
I believe in the separation of church and state, and I myself will most likely be sending my children on to Hillel at least for kindergarten and lower. I love Hillel. I have many friends that send their kids there, and it’s great, but I also know that I will have to pay for it. We cannot divert public dollars to a private school, especially a private religious school. They are very expensive, but that’s a discussion we need to have with the school. Not necessarily just looking at how can we get more public dollars.
And I know that’s not what a lot of people want to hear, but at some point, there has to be a line. And that line that I strongly hold very dear is the separation of church and state. Now, when I was in elementary school, I was in a school that had a very, very low Jewish population. And I remember in fifth grade, my mother had to come in to speak with one of my teachers who refused to speak about any type of Judaism, any type. So, any holiday that was being celebrated was not only a Christian holiday, but it focused on the actual religious side of that holiday. This was a public school receiving public dollars. That is not right at all.
And that’s why I fully believe in this separation. I have a lot of friends that have their kids in private schools, Yeshiva especially, and I know it’s expensive. But again, the cost of the school needs to be taken up with the school because they are private. And as a private school, you cannot accept public dollars. I know this isn’t an answer many of my friends and parents want to hear, but it’s government. It’s the truth. Unfortunately.
Environmental concerns are a big deal in Michigan with the Great Lakes and with the recent flooding, and many other areas. What would you like to see done on the state level? What environmental issues can be tackled in the House, even if you wind up with a Republican-controlled House?
Many people fail to realize that when it comes to the climate and the beauty of the state, Democrats and Republicans agree. I don’t know a single Republican who doesn’t love Michigan because of its beauty and because of its lakes. Many of my Republican friends go hunting, fishing and boating, and they don’t want to see this egregious lack of laws being provided to companies.
Then I say this because of EGLE [Environment, Great Lakes & Energy]. EGLE is one of our top state programs that is for pollution and companies. And the way it currently is set up, companies police themselves. So, if you were to contaminate the Great Lakes with that ooze that came out in Madison Heights, these companies are supposed to police each other so this doesn’t happen. Well, that doesn’t work.
So, we really need to change some of those laws and the structures. Once that’s done, we can move on, but until we get our companies under control, there’s not much we can do. On top of that, we need to start shifting our jobs. We need to start investing in quality environmental jobs. And this can come from many different places. If we’re going to continue to stay on this current trajectory, we’re going to be left behind.
I mean, Michigan, the most beautiful state in this country, the state surrounded by Great Lakes and extreme beauty, we should never have to worry about our water quality. We should never have to worry about PFAS [a toxic chemical] and our lead pipes. It’s an embarrassment of where we are in Michigan. The fact that we don’t invest in our infrastructures, so dams like the one that broke in Midland don’t happen. All of this needs to become a policy at the forefront of every decision we make, if it’s not going to happen tomorrow, but it needs to start.
We have the technology to do these things in a very short time, but sometimes it takes a government regulation to force that. Unfortunately, I hate to have the government have to enforce regulation, but because we haven’t done so in the past, we’re at the situation we are now.
One of the other key platforms you talked about on your website is equality for all groups, and many Jews are concerned about the rise in antisemitism, especially on a state level with the protests and Lansing, the rise of the Proud Boys statewide. What will you do to address these concerns among our readership should you be elected?
I understand why anyone could be frightened. I remember working in Kansas at a Jewish organization, and I can’t even tell you the amount of people that came out and said I’m going to burn in hell and all of these things. Just every type of horrendous thing that you heard people call Jews is what I have heard, and it’s scary.
I know what it’s like to be targeted. But, I also have white skin, so I can hide my Judaism. Other people cannot hide whether they have brown skin or black skin. So, when the Holocaust happened and we all said “never again,” “never again” was not just for us. It was for all people to make sure that no genocide or no type of this ever affects anyone out in our country and in the world.
Am I ready to go to Lansing as an openly strong Jewish person, knowing that, what I’ve seen on television, the Proud Boys and these militia groups will target me? I decided to move forward. It was a discussion I had to have with my family. As I am the only Democratic Jew running for office, I will probably be the only Jew in the state House. So, I know I have that target, and it is scary. I’m with you all. It is petrifying.
Can you speak more about COVID-19 issues?
In Farmington Hills, we were hit hard. It costs our local government so much money, not just because of testing, but because of hazard pay for our first responders. We were doing overtime like no one’s business. We have a hospital on either side of us from the north and the south.
It costs money. It costs money to open a school up with the safety precautions that are needed. It costs money for a business owner to be able to open their business where people will come and feel safe. If you want to know the answer for how we can fix so much of COVID problems, it all comes down to money, money being able to afford PPE, money being able to afford rapid COVID testing, money to make sure schools are state and wanting to make sure businesses are safe.
That’s the stuff where we can band together because this should never have been partisan to come up with a plan where we can make sure schools can open because not as single person in the world doesn’t want their child in school. Kids need to be in school. Parents need to be able to go to work and not have to worry about childcare. And so many school districts have been forced to go to virtual learning because they do not have the money to get the schools ready.