Freshman U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) may be relatively unknown to the casual Michigan news consumer, especially compared to some of his peers from the state who have been near-ubiquitous on cable news as of late.
As he kicked off his fourth annual motorcycle tour across the state Monday, however, it was apparent he doesn’t necessarily see that as a weakness. And neither, possibly, did the voters with whom he met during a trip from Farmington Hills to Flint, where he sat in on a panel at Mott Community College to discuss the state of Michigan’s skills training and vocational programs — just a few of the “kitchen table” issues Democrats see as key to retaking the Senate.
“There are some folks that will run to a camera or a news reporter whatever they can, and I’m not that kind of guy,” Peters said. “I think what people want is someone who actually gets things done, somebody who’s working every day, not not a show horse, but a workhorse.”
As Peters gears up for his first U.S. Senate reelection campaign in 2020, he’s planning to make sure that Michiganders know his name, regardless. The former U.S. Representative, Naval Reserve veteran and businessman had almost $5 million in campaign cash on hand at the end of last quarter, shattering records as he prepares for a competition with Republican businessman John James, who unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate last year.
The Advance followed Peters as he kicked off his annual tour at the Harley-Davidson dealership on Haggerty Road in Farmington Hills, speaking with him one-on-one ahead of the Mott panel with a wide-ranging discussion that touched on everything from his upcoming campaign, to the recent tragedies in El Paso and Dayton, to the relative merits of riding a motorcycle in the rain.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
Michigan Advance: You were the only non-incumbent Democrat to win a Senate race in 2014, and you did it pretty handily. How will that experience inform how you approach your 2020 reelection?
Peters: Well, the way I’ve always run, we run aggressive races and we work hard, and make sure we’re out talking to folks and listening to them as well. … When I won my [U.S.] House seat in 2008, I was the first Democrat since 1893 to represent that congressional district. I beat [former U.S. Rep.] Joe Knollenberg, a 16-year incumbent.
And then in 2010, which was a really tough year for Democrats, [Republican former] Gov. [Rick] Snyder won my congressional district by 26 points and I still got reelected. So, you know, we’re used to being in tough races, and that’s nothing new for us, so I’m not expecting anything different in 2020.
We had a great race in 2014 [against Republican former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land]. I was the top vote-getter, as you recall, in 2014, and the only Democrat to win statewide, and I received more votes than anybody around, including the Republican governor [Snyder] and others who won. So I think we just keep doing what we’ve always done, being out there, being present, and talking about issues that matter to people.
Michigan Advance: There was an NRSC [National Republican Senatorial Committee] ad campaign against you recently that seemed to confuse a lot of people, playing on your lack of name recognition. Does that particular measure factor into how you campaign?
Peters: It’s not unusual for a first-term senator in a big state. … It’s different if you represent a state with a million people vs. 10 million people. So it’s not something new. If you look at my name ID versus other folks, like [Republican U.S. Sen.] Rob Portman in Ohio when he ran for his reelection, he had similar name ID to mine. … When this campaign is over, we will have name ID. Name ID is simply a matter of putting ads on TV, and getting people to know who you are.
[On this subject at a later stop, Peters said the following: “Part of why I’m not concerned about that is the fact that there are some folks that will run to a camera or a news reporter whatever they can, and I’m not that kind of guy. I think what people want is someone who actually gets things done, somebody who’s working every day, not not a show horse, but a workhorse.
And that’s why I’m very proud to have been recognized by the Center for Effective Lawmaking as one of the most effective U.S. Senators… as number four out of 48 Democratic senators. I think ultimately … someone wants [a senator] representing them in Washington D.C., who is getting the work done, has proven to be effective, and not necessarily one that runs to the cameras with whatever’s on their mind.”]
Michigan Advance: You’ve supported a number of policies that have a fairly strong bipartisan consensus around them. What is it like to be in the Senate and seemingly bang your head against the wall trying to pass legislation when [U.S. Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) won’t bring any Democratic-sponsored bills to the floor?
Peters: It’s very frustrating right now, because you have Mitch McConnell who basically doesn’t want to do anything. I mean, all we have been doing in the Senate are judicial nominations, and one after another very far right-wing federal judges are being appointed in the Senate, which I think just shows how important it is that we win back the Senate.
The Senate races are every bit as important as the presidential race, and we have a real shot at taking the majority. We have to make sure we win Michigan or hold Michigan so that we can go on offense in a number of other states. I think people in this country want folks who are getting things done, and the Republican leadership of the Senate has no desire to get things done.
Michigan Advance: Last week, there were presidential debates in Detroit where a number of your colleagues in the Senate were on the stage, some of whom were arguing for policies that don’t necessarily poll well with the average voter. How does the nationalization of politics through media affect your campaign in Michigan?
Peters: We have [about] 20 candidates now, and they’re talking about a variety of ideas that they support. That’s all going to evolve in the months ahead, and I think we have to wait and see who our actual nominee is and take it from there.
Michigan Advance: Do you plan on endorsing in the Democratic presidential primary anytime soon?
Peters: Right now, I have no plans. That could change. I still have, as you mentioned earlier, a lot of my colleagues who are running for president right now, and for the record I like them all. They’re all great people. There’s a possibility that one of them may not be coming back to the Senate because they’ll be president, but the other ones will be coming back to the Senate, and I look forward to continuing to work with them.
Michigan Advance: Recently, your colleague, [U.S. Sen.] Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), said she supported [President Donald Trump’s] impeachment. What are your feelings on that topic?
Peters: Well, she clarified that. … It wasn’t about impeachment proceedings; it was that as they continue the investigation, the investigation should continue to go forward. [Ed.: Stabenow’s statement said, “I support the ongoing investigations in the House of Representatives and would stand with my colleagues in the House if they decide to launch a formal impeachment inquiry. No one is above the law.”]
The Constitution is very clear that Congress needs to provide oversight of the executive, and you need to have oversight hearings. And I think the House should continue to be aggressive in engaging in our congressional oversight, and constitutional oversight of the executive.
Michigan Advance: As a veteran of the armed forces who’s been in politics for a long time, how have you seen attitudes change regarding veterans’ issues during almost two decades of continuous war?
Peters: I think people are very focused on making sure that veterans get the care that they deserve, and they have earned, and making sure they are afforded opportunities that they should receive as a result of their service. I spend a lot of time working on veterans’ issues.
At Mott [Community College] we’re going to be talking about apprenticeship programs, skill training, and I talked about that at the motorcycle dealership earlier. That’s something I take very personally; I’ve always leaned forward on issues that impact veterans and will continue to do that in the years ahead.
Michigan Advance: You’ve spoken previously about how you’re a gun owner, and you’ve also been an advocate for gun control. In a moment like this with these recent mass shootings, when emotions are understandably pitched, how do you as a gun owner communicate with your colleagues who aren’t supportive of gun control and try to persuade them?
Peters: I’m a gun owner, and I believe in Second Amendment rights. But there are also common-sense things we can do to stem the tide of gun violence that we’re seeing across the country.
I put out a tweet after the horrible, tragic incidents of the last day, and I think it’s important, as horrible and tragic as these as these events are, for us to remember that over 30,000 people are dying from gun violence in our country every year. A hundred people today will die of gun violence.
More than 36,000 Americans die every year from gun violence. While there is no single solution, there are commonsense steps we can take to end this epidemic.
— Senator Gary Peters (@SenGaryPeters) August 4, 2019
We saw mass shootings involving 10, 20, 30 folks, which are horrible and tragic, but today, 100 people are going to die of gun violence. Tomorrow, 100 people are going to die by gun violence. This is something that we must deal with, and some common-sense things we can do are comprehensive background checks.
There’s no one solution, no one fix to gun violence. It’s going to take a variety of things. Some things we should be doing, and I’m very frustrated we’re not, are things that the American people very broadly agree we need to do when it comes to comprehensive background checks. Ninety percent of the American public thinks it’s a good idea. How can we not pass a bill that 90% of the American people agree on? There are very few issues that I deal with as a senator, where 90 percent of the people agree that that’s what we should do.
It is beyond frustrating that Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans refuse to even put a bill like that on the floor. A bipartisan bill passed the House, and we should take that bill up and vote on it. If you look at the opinion polls on comprehensive background checks, you look among NRA members, numbers I’ve seen, around 70 percent of NRA members think it’s a good idea. If we can’t pass that how can we pass the tough stuff?
We should definitely start with background checks. And if you look at the folks who’ve died from gun violence, it’s because of these big loopholes for gun shows, and for online purchases, you have a large number, 20 to 30% of our weapons are sold without any background checks.
And you’re likely to stop some of the deaths from domestic violence, for example, there’s no shortage of stories of where someone in a fit of rage will go to a gun show, buy a gun without a background check even if they have a personal protection order against them because they’re in a heated divorce, and then they go and kill their estranged wife. Those are things we can prevent. There’s no question that comprehensive background checks would save people’s lives.
You’re not going to save everybody’s life, not going to fix the problem in its entirety, but it’s going to make for a meaningful step forward. We’ve got to be prepared to do that. You should take these incidents that we’ve seen, and use that as a motivation to start taking the steps necessary to start bringing down the number of deaths associated with gun violence.
Michigan Advance: If there’s such a near-unanimous consensus around background checks, what is stopping your colleagues from supporting the legislation?
Peters: Right now, it’s that Mitch McConnell won’t put it on the floor. I say put it on the floor and let folks vote. Let people vote yes or no, and let them go back to their states and explain their vote. I would think that a lot of my colleagues are not going to want to explain a vote against something that 90% of their people back home think is a good idea. I know they wouldn’t want to explain it.
Michigan Advance: How optimistic are you that the more stringent PFAS regulations you and others have put into the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] will be passed into law?
Peters: We’re still cautiously optimistic. We’ve got broad bipartisan support; the language that I was able to get into the NDAA received unanimous support, for the most part, within the committee. My Republican colleagues realize this is an issue that impacts their states. PFAS is not just a Michigan issue, or one that affects a handful of states, it’s clear that it’s going to be impacting every state of the union, so we’re cautiously optimistic that we’re going to be able to keep most of it in.
Michigan Advance: What makes running a statewide race in Michigan unique from your past congressional campaigns?
Peters: I mean, you’ve got to be in a lot of places. This is a big state. So that’s why it takes a while to be known, you know, because you have to be known to 10 million people in the largest land-mass east of the Mississippi River. So it’s a very big state. But … the message, the things that I talk about, that I fight for apply to people wherever they live in Michigan. Folks want to have a good-paying job; they want to be able to afford health care and have good schools for their children, and to be able to retire with dignity, for Social Security and Medicare to be there.
These are issues that bring us all together. There are some specific things that are more important for people in some areas, so when I’m in the rural areas in Michigan, for example, I’ll talk a lot about broadband internet and how we have to make sure that everybody, no matter where they live, has access to high-speed internet. That’s a bigger issue in rural areas than it is in suburban areas. But nevertheless, it’s tied to the overall message of making sure everybody has the opportunity to be successful.
Michigan Advance: Where did the idea for the motorcycle tour come from, aside from just your innate love of motorcycle riding?
Peters: That was the start of it. I’ve always enjoyed motorcycling since I was really young, and I got my first mini-bike when I was 12 years old. So I travel around the state because it’s important to be everywhere, and in August, especially when I have days where I can spend a lot of time on the road and have meetings all across the state.
It’s always been my view, if you’re going to go from point A to point B, why not do that on a motorcycle? So that’s how I decided to incorporate that into my normal travels around the state. It also gives me a great opportunity to have guest riders, people who share a passion for motorcycling. They’re from all walks of life and all sorts of backgrounds, and everybody comes together to share that passion. There’s no question there’s no better way to see Michigan than on a motorcycle.
Michigan Advance: Have you had any experiences while doing this that have necessarily surprised you, or were unexpected riding across the state?
Peters: The one thing that’s a little different, because I’m on a schedule with meetings that I go to, is that normally if you’re riding your motorcycle and a big thunderstorm comes, or some other bad weather, you can go into a coffee shop and let it blow over. I don’t have that luxury on this trip. So we ride through through heavy rain and bad weather, and that’s something new. Usually I was able to adjust my schedule according to Mother Nature, and not having that luxury toughens you and hardens you as a motorcyclist.
Michigan Advance: That must be strange — normally one would think of crossing the state on a motorcycle as this very Zen experience, but you’re on a pretty rigid schedule.
Peters: There is no better Zen experience on a motorcycle than riding through heavy rain. As you’re going through the heavy rain, you just have to be totally focused. It’s more dangerous. You’ve got water on the road, and it’s slick, cars don’t see you as well, visibility is low, so you’d better be in a Zen mode to focus and concentrate. Nothing focuses your concentration more than a rainstorm on a motorcycle.