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Women's History Month: Reflections On A Life Of Service With Alma Wheeler-Smith

Washtenaw County resident and politician Alma Wheeler-Smith has dedicated most of her life to helping others.  She has served the community in many roles:  school board member, county commissioner, state representative and state senator. Wheeler-Smith even declared candidacy for governor in 2010, but decided to end the campaign to prevent a split, progressive  vote in the Democratic primary.  WEMU’s Jorge Avellan made occasion to meet with Alma Wheeler-Smith at the county administration building in Ann Arbor. 

"I guess my style was never to sit."

And, it still isn’t for Alma Wheeler Smith.  The veteran politician retired from politics in 2010, but she continues to serve on many boards, including the Regional Transit Authorityand the Michigan Campaign Finance Network

"I just can't stay out of the mix."

Alma graduated from the University of Michigan with a journalism degree, but politics is in her blood.  Her father, Albert Wheeler, was Ann Arbor’s first African-American mayor.  After working nine years at the University of Michigan’s Television Center, she made the leap into politics as a staffer with then-Democratic State Senator Lana Pollack in 1990.

"Lana Pollack was an amazing elected official, one of the first women in the Michigan legislature, definitely in the Michigan Senate, and Lana made it her goal to make sure that women learned the political process, ran for office."

The mother of three believes women still face challenges in politics, but change needs to come from more than just men. 

"I think women have to change, the people who want to run for office are the ones who have to change. They have to say, well, I have a husband and he is equally responsible for the children and he has agreed that when I’m working and he is available he has the kids. We have to let that not be a guilt point for us as women. We are working to better the community and for children’s opportunities."

After Pollack left the state Senate, Alma decided she would run for the 18thDistrict seat to represent Ann Arbor.  She won and served eight years until she reached her term limit. 

Alma went on to serve Washtenaw County as the54thDistrict Representative for six years.  There, like at the Senate, she focused on  issues such as the environment, education, and healthcare.

Conan Smith, who is a Washtenaw County Commissioner and Alma’s son, remembers his mother’s passion for her work.

"My mom would come to pick us up at school, and she would be engaged in conversations with other parents for thirty minutes or an hour, and we would sit there impatiently tapping our toes ready to go home as she took on someone’s issue, helped someone’s child get access to the support they needed from the school. It was, as a young person, mostly annoying, but I’ll tell you, as an adult, I started to really recognize how remarkable that is. One of the things I try to emulate the most in my mom’s leadership is her sort of natural inclination to listen."

Alma supports the new women’s rights movement that’s taking place at a national level, including right here in Washtenaw County.  She encourages women to run for office but believes we would see more women running if an independent commission and not the Michigan Legislature would decide how the districts are drawn.

"If women felt they had a real opportunity to run with the issues and the perspective on the issues that they hold and have a chance to win, you might see more women running. But when the district is cast and in a truly conservative kind of right-wing, I think you have trouble finding women who really honestly hold that perspective."

There’s a good chance that if Michigan didn’t have term limits, Alma Wheeler-Smith would still be running for office at the state level. 

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu

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