House candidates square off

From left Nicole Walton, Don Ryan, Mary Wardell, Republican candidate Rich Rossway and Democrat candidate Sara Cambensy participate in a panel debate at Northern Michigan University on Tuesday. Rossway and Cambensy are running for the vacant 109th District House of Representatives seat. (Journal photo by Jaymie Depew)

MARQUETTE — Two of the three candidates running for the vacant Michigan 109th District House of Representatives seat participated in a panel debate in Jamrich Hall at Northern Michigan University Tuesday evening.

Republican Rich Rossway and Democrat Sara Cambensy are running for the House seat in a special election Nov. 7. The seat became vacant May 9 after former state Rep. John Kivela committed suicide a day after his second drunken driving arrest.

Wade Roberts, a candidate who’s running on behalf of the Green Party, was not a participant because he didn’t achieve 10 percent of an online vote that was required to participate in the debate, organizers said.

The event was a WNMU-Public TV 13 production, with support provided by local media outlets. Steve Asplund from WLUC TV6 moderated the debate while questions were presented by Public Radio 90’s Nicole Walton; Don Ryan, host of TV6’s The Ryan Report; and Mary Wardell, a staff writer from The Mining Journal.

Rossway, a U.S. army veteran, has served the Marquette Area Public Schools Board of Education for 17 years and has been president for the last five years.

Cambensy has worked as a zoning code enforcement official, and has held different roles in the Marquette school district. She also served on the Marquette City Planning Commission from 2009 to 2012 and has been on the Marquette City Commission since 2012.

The forum, attended by more than 50 people, focused on popular issues ranging from education, health care, state and local governments, marijuana regulations and employment rates in Michigan, specifically the Upper Peninsula.

Candidates each incorporated main stances throughout the debate. Cambensy often weighed in on big corporation tax breaks, stating that $2 billion is coming out of other taxpayers’ pockets when the corporations should be held accountable. Rossway focused on the contentious Marquette County Road 595 issue, claiming the road would bring a lot of jobs to the community.

To remain neutral and fair, The Mining Journal selected one question to feature the candidates’ answers.

The selected question focuses on unemployment in Michigan. Candidates were asked: “Since unemployment in Michigan peaked during the recession at 15 percent, it’s fallen steadily to around 4 percent this year. That is great news, but some people point to evidence of a grimmer reality, like high child poverty rates, low workforce participation rates, stagnant wages and many tens of thousands of workers that have simply left the state. Are we headed in the right direction, and how will you work to improve job opportunities in the U.P.?”

Since Rossway won the coin toss before the debate, he chose to answer first.

“I think the first thing we start with is County Road 595. We build that road, that creates jobs and it continues to create jobs. I think that’s something that’s really important for our long-term liability and success of our area,” Rossway said. “We need to be able to train our youth and expose them to building trades. When I look at all the building that’s been going on — Marquette with the hospitals and schools, etcetera — we’re all behind schedule.”

Rossway said the U.P. is unable to employ enough workers and that a transition is needed in school systems to provide students with trade skills as well as college preparation.

In turn, Cambensy said Michigan needs to start investing in its people.

“We have a state that wants to take away pensions, benefits, and not raise the salaries on those jobs, whether it’s in government and even the private industries. I think education is a big one as well as skill trades. Our standard of living keeps going down. Other Midwestern states are growing and how are they doing that? They’re investing in people,” Cambensy said. “They’re making sure they’re not selling their people short by continuing to give big tax breaks to the corporations and making their people pay more, whether it’s raising their car registration rates, auto no-fault insurance and high-energy prices — all of those things add up. People are hurting right now and that’s why we need to get our state back to a state that invests in people.”

Jaymie Depew can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. Her email address is