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Primary Elections 2022: 5th district Democratic primary race for the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners

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Washtenaw County District 5 map

Primary elections are a day away and the 5th District is among the contested races for Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. The 5th district covers the southeast portion of Washtenaw County, including a good portion of Ypsilanti Township and all of Augusta Township. There are two candidates challenging incumbent Justin Hodge in the Democratic primary: One is a current state representative and the other a longtime county employee.

31-year-old Justin Hodge is finishing up his first term on the commission and wants to continue the agenda he began after winning election in November of 2020.

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"I’m really focused on increasing and expanding and improving our delivery of health and human services. With my first term, I came in during the time when we were really trying to figure how do we go about getting out the vaccines to people most in need, developing a strategy that was racial equity focused. So, typically, whenever we're doing pop-up vaccination clinic, if they're in my district, I go out and help out the staff there. Also really focused on combating on racial inequality."

One of his challengers is Ronnie Peterson. Peterson is a former Ypsilanti City Council member and County Commissioner. Currently, he serves as 54th district State Representative but is being term-limited out of that office. He sees that housing is a top priority as he seeks to return to the county commission.

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Ronnie Peterson
"And once again, we got to rely on the private sector as well as government being a partner in this venture. It's got to be how people want a house. They want a house to raise their family. They want a house to have ownership. One of the greatest value investments you can have is home ownership. And I want to push toward that being a number one agenda and addressing the housing shortfall and housing for working and affordability."

Latitia Sharp is a newcomer to elective politics, but the 56-year-old understands the workings of government. She’s worked in Washtenaw County Administration for 34 years. She says she decided to try and become a decision-maker instead of a decision implementer during the pandemic as the Board of Commissioners make its first round of allocations with the $71 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds it received.

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Latitia Sharp
"The first allocation of the ARPA funds went to the broadband. And, when that happened, I actually cried. I thought it was a joke. I thought, 'They're not going to do this for real.' And they did it. And not only did they do it, they did it properly. Not that broadband is not necessary or needed, it just wasn't the time for it right now."

In addition to his work as the incumbent commissioner, Hodge works in family therapy with kids in crisis and is a clinical assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan teaching policy and politics. He says that background informs the work he is doing on the board. And one project he’s particularly passionate about is creating generational change by implementing a countywide children’s savings account for post-secondary education.

"Research shows that kids that grow up with that kind of account, even if there's not a lot of money in it, by the time they graduate, they're several times more likely to go on to post-secondary education because they grew up with this mindset that they're going to save, and there's something for them after. But what I would like for us to be able to do is to get the big donors in the community to add more money to the accounts."
(Peterson) "They're discussing about a college savings account. Mama need a job right now. Daddy need a job right now."

Peterson disagrees that now is the time to spend the county dollars on future educational goals. He wants focus on providing equity in economic and educational opportunities now.

"You cannot afford a house unless you've got a job. You got to have a job. We've got to create an environment to allow that to happen to you to have home ownership, so you have the ability to have to earn wages. We've got to get others on board to make sure we create a middle college--a middle college--or high school. So, young people could be a part of an early stage to prepare themselves for the jobs that are coming in this community."
(Sharp) "You have children who are walking around here without shoes on and will probably not go to college. So, let’s help them right now."

Sharp also agrees that focusing on children’s savings may be misplaced priorities by the incumbent. Instead, Sharp maintains commissioners representing the eastern side of the county should have been fighting to use the funds for affordable housing and inequities in the quality of education,

"Right now, we have disparity in education here on the eastern side. We have disparity in resources and infrastructure and gun violence. We have health services. And it's not because the county doesn't have resources. The county has a wealth of resources. But it's just getting the resources to the community."

All three candidates cite affordable housing, infrastructure, and racial equity among their laundry list of priorities. Whoever wins in Tuesday’s primary will face the Republican Brett Birk in November. He is unopposed in Tuesday’s primary.

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Cathy Shafran is WEMU's afternoon news anchor and local host during WEMU's broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered.
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