As the first Democrat to serve as Michigan Secretary of State in almost 25 years, Jocelyn Benson is also part of a brand-new leadership team in the state.
Michigan is the only state in the country with women in top four leadership posts: Benson, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Chief Justice Bridget McCormack. In a sit-down interview with the Advance on Thursday, the new SOS also mentioned serving with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and state House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills).
“It’s a win-win on all fronts and it’s a great sisterhood that we’ve found together,” Benson said.
The 41-year-old Pittsburgh, Pa., native previously served as dean of the Wayne State University Law School in Detroit and is a board member for the Southern Poverty Law Center. She also served as CEO of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), a coalition of all major sports leagues “to empower athletes to advance equality.”
Benson earned her bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College in Massachusetts and a master’s degree from Magdalen College, Oxford in the U.K. as a Marshall scholar. Her J.D. is from Harvard University Law School, where she was a general editor of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.
The Advance talked to Benson about why she asked Nessel for an opinion on the new law former Gov. Rick Snyder signed last year tightening up requirements to get citizen initiatives on the ballot by capping the amount of signatures collected to 15 percent from any one congressional district.
Benson also discussed working with the GOP-controlled Legislature, particularly House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) on issues like her campaign promise of a 30-minute guarantee for people doing business at Secretary of State offices. She also talked about reaching Detroit residents.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
Michigan Advance: It is the first time in Michigan history that the governor, attorney general, secretary of state and Supreme Court chief justice are women. Is that important?
Benson: We all are individual experts in our own field. The fact that we are all women is secondary to that, but it is a great symbolic statement for young women all over the state to demonstrate that there are fewer and fewer barriers standing between women and success, showing in all ways, from Sen. [Debbie] Stabenow and Christine Greig in the Legislature [and] Bridget McCormack, that woman can lead.
It’s a great thing for the state. But not to be lost is the unique qualifications that all of us bring to our jobs. Attorney General [Dana] Nessel, of course, [is] a long-standing legal expert and prosecuting attorney. The governor [Gretchen Whitmer] has this extraordinary experience from the legislative area and her service to our state.
And, course, my background in voting rights and election law uniquely prepared me to take on the job as secretary of state. It’s a win-win on all fronts and it’s a great sisterhood that we’ve found together. I really love working with them.
Michigan Advance: Have you met with the other executives since taking office?
Benson: We all speak regularly because we are very much in alignment on our commitment to amplifying people’s voices in Lansing and throughout the state. And so you’ll see a lot of patterns to our leadership with Chief Justice McCormack to open up the doors of state government and engage with citizens. And that’s what I’ve been focused on throughout my career and as secretary of state working to facilitate.
The other thing that I’ve seen thus far — and it’s only been two weeks on the job — is that when we meet and talk — and we all do so regularly — there is a great deal of synergy in terms of how we are working to lead our respective offices. Sometimes we don’t need to communicate. It’s so synergistic because we’re leading with similar principles. It’s been very exciting. I’m extremely fortunate to working with such a great governor, lieutenant governor [Garlin Gilchrist II]. It’s a real privilege.
Michigan Advance: Attorney General Nessel hired former state Sen. David Knezek to be her assistant in legislative affairs. Do you have similar plan in that area?
Benson: I’m taking a slightly different approach. I’m appointing Heaster Wheeler as my assistant secretary of state. Heaster has a background in legislative affairs, He’s worked at the Detroit NAACP as an assistant Wayne County executive and has worked in Lansing. He and I will be working hand and glove to advance our legislative agenda.
I’m also bringing on a legislative and policy director. To me, it is also important that I build direct relationships with our legislators so I want to meet and talk with as many as possible. I spoke yesterday with Speaker Chatfield. I hope to sit down with Majority Leader Shirkey soon.
I have a great relationship with Senator [Jim] Ananich and Democratic Leader Christine Greig. I want to be very much involved, so you’ll see a hybrid of leadership from myself and Heaster working directly with legislators and a policy team to help us do our research and make sure that we have that advantage, as well.
Michigan Advance: You have requested an attorney general opinion on the new law that makes it more difficult to initiative a petition drive in Michigan. What’s your reasoning on that?
Benson: I’m concerned with any laws that will affect people’s right and access to the political process. It’s an important right that citizens have. I know that there are strong constitutional, First Amendment protections for citizens’ access to the ballot initiative process, in particular. So based on that, I’ve asked the attorney general to evaluate the constitutionality of this new law.
At the same time, I’m going to be looking at ways to improve the ballot initiative process so that it is in line with the goal of engaging citizens in having their voices heard. Some of these important reforms are only enacted when you have citizens demanding them, particularly when it comes to increasing access to democracy. I’m going to be looking at many ways to improve access to the ballot initiative process for citizens.
Michigan Advance: You campaigned on ensuring a 30-minute guarantee of service when visiting a Secretary of State office. How are you coming along on that pledge? Is it an administrative function solely or do you need legislative help with that?
Benson: It’s a little bit of both. Primarily, I think that it is something that I can do administratively. I may need some funding support from the Legislature. We will see. Right now, I’m trying to evaluate why the average wait time and transaction time has increased over the past several years. I’m looking into that to understand where we are and be able to make reforms accordingly.
I’m making plans to visit every branch across this state over the next few months. Over the course of the next 100 days, my plan is to visit all 131 branch offices. And then I want to expand our appointment service that is currently only in a few branch offices. I want to expand that statewide, because that’s one of the most direct ways people can get in and out in 30 minutes or less by making an appointment ahead of time.
Michigan Advance: You are a Detroiter and you’ve heard concerns from city residents about what they feel is a lack of service from the department. What are your plans in that regard?
Benson: Look, I live at the corner of Seven Mile Road and Livernois. I drive down Livernois every day and see the line outside the branch there on many days. It’s important to me that we are recognizing the unique needs of populations, not just in Detroit, but elsewhere in the state that perhaps have transactions that may take a little more time or difficulty accessing important documents.
So I want to look into whether we can partner other institutions in the city where citizens are already going to provide Secretary of State services. In the Grand Boulevard office, parking is a big problem and there are other parts of the city where we can arrange for free parking. That’s some of stuff that we are looking at and being a Detroiter … I’m in close proximity to a lot of those challenges and they are the forefront of my mind as I try to solve them.