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For Sara Cambensy, being a Democrat from the UP means being a lone wolf

Michigan House Democrats

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula used to be represented by Democrats in Lansing and Washington, DC.

Now there’s one left: Sara Cambensy from Marquette represents the 109th District in the Michigan House of Representatives. The UP Democrat attacks her governor and sometimes votes with Republicans.

That is what kept Rep. Cambensy in office, but she might be the last of a dying breed.


Credit Office of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a press conference in September

Gov. Whitmer

Lansing’s been gridlocked over Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency powers for months. Democrats applaud the restrictions her administration has imposed while Republicans are fed up with them.

Rep. Sara Cambensy is an exception, who in February blasted her Democratic Governor on the House floor. She said Governor Whitmer was making policy with no input.

"If my colleagues on this side of the aisle were honest, we’d admit that even as House Democrats we’ve had a hard time having our voices heard, from bringing our constituents voices forward and being part of that decision-making with our governor," she told fellow lawmakers.

Cambensy said the statewide shutdowns have led to confusion and frustration in the UP. Cambensy favors a regional approach.

"This is what I believe my Republican colleagues are asking for with these bills," she said. "To get rid of that groupthink mentality."

Her comments made waves as no Democrat has publicly gone after Gov. Whitmer, who’s still deadlocked with Republicans.

The Governor has not publicly responded to Cambensy’s criticisms.

The Upper Peninsula

Sara Cambensy was born and raised in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The lawmaker calls herself an old-school, labor democrat.

"Jobs and the economy has always been -- and always will be -- the number one driver for us."

In 2017, Marquette’s Democratic State House Representative John Kivela died. Sara Cambensy then beat stiff Republican opposition to win the seat. She says her ideology isn’t formed by any party but instead by her home of the Upper Peninsula. Things move a little bit slower there, Cambensy says, but that's a good thing.

"With that comes a unique set of gifts ... and the ability to just be who you are," she said.

Rep. Cambensy has progressive views on school funding, social issues and investing in renewable energy, so she thought she would fit in with the House Democratic caucus.

"And I came downstate and it was a whole different world," Cambensy said. "I think there’s a lot of things about a rural dem district that my caucus downstate can’t relate to."

Line 5

One hot-button issue Cambensy differs with downstate Democrats on is Line 5, a controversial oil and natural gas pipeline that runs through her district. Rep. Cambensy supports a proposal to put it in a tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac. She says Line 5 is key to the region’s energy and economy.

That’s drawn the ire of the party’s environmentalists, who say the risk of an oil spill is unacceptable.

"Probably my harshest critics right now are from my own party," Cambensy said.

In 2018 the Michigan League of Conservation Voters gave her a 65 percent approval rating and an endorsement.

They didn’t endorse anyone in her re-election race last year.

Reaching across the aisle

Sara Cambensy’s rebellious streak may seem odd to people not from the Upper Peninsula, but Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Waucedah Township) recognizes it.

"To those of us who live there, it’s kind of par for the course," McBroom said.

The Republican represents 12 Upper Peninsula counties in the State Senate. McBroom and Cambensy, both  Northern Michigan University graduates, worked together on mining legislation.

Sen. McBroom says collaboration across party lines is the only way to get the UP’s problems fixed.

"If we were all running around completely on our own, doing our own thing, and advocating for our own view of the UP independent of each-other, we would be very ineffective," McBroom says.

Taking notice

Zach Gorchow, editor for Gongwer News Service, says no one paid much attention to Rep. Cambensy when she attacked the Governor in the past.

But Gorchow, who has covered Lansing for nearly 20 years, says things changed this year after Cambensy called a proposal for alternatives to Line 5 "vague ideas that only appease environmental groups."

"It has caused some people to blink their eyes a little bit, and take notice and say, 'well, that’s more than ‘I just disagree,'" he said. "It really mimicked the Republican response."

Rep. Cambensy is now the only Democrat in the Michigan House from north of Saginaw. She beat her Republican opponent by 14 points last year, but Cambensy is term-limited out of the State House next year.

Gorchow says there are rumors Cambensy will run for the Michigan Senate, which would pit her against her friend Sen. Ed McBroom.

Gorchow says the seat she will leave behind, Marquette's 109th District, will get more competitive.

"The district is gonna become less and less reliable for the Democrats," Gorchow says. "The other seats in the western UP ... those areas are just going to become more and more Republican." 


Credit Kaye LaFond
The straits of Mackinac

Rural Democrats

Gregory Thomas Long was a Democratic party organizer in northern Michigan for nearly three decades when Democrats from the Upper Peninsula held state and national office.

"The Western UP was very Democrat, the Eastern UP was pretty much Democrat, and below the bridge… we were just working to get them blue," he recalls.

Long says the decline of the Upper Peninsula’s labor unions and boom of the Tea Party flipped the region red during the Obama administration. Now he says the Democratic party has essentially given up on rural districts like the UP.

"I think after 2016, they took a look at the numbers and they basically said, ‘We can’t win, so let’s put our money somewhere else,’" Long says. "I think that was a major mistake."

Long says the UP's voters demand centrist Democrats like Sara Cambensy.

They may be the only ones that can win seats up there, Long says, but they might have to do it without a party behind them.

Max came to IPR in 2017 as an environmental intern. In 2018, he returned to the station as a reporter and quickly took on leadership roles as Interim News Director and eventually Assignment Editor. Before joining IPR, Max worked as a news director and reporter at Michigan State University's student radio station WDBM. In 2018, he reported on a Title IX dispute with MSU in his story "Prompt, Thorough and Impartial." His work has also been heard on Michigan Radio, WDBM and WKAR in East Lansing and NPR.