Before Michigan voters approved term limits in 1992, the office of county commissioner was frequently a stepping stone to the state legislature. After all, county commissioners are part-time officials, while being a state legislator is a full-time job. There’s a considerable pay differential as well, with state legislators being paid $79,650 a year, compared to $33,782 for Wayne County commissioners.
Since 1998, the first time legislators could be term-limited out of office, those looking to remain in some elected position have found a home in going down the political ladder and running for county commissioner. While there is less pay and fewer perks, there are also no term limits, along with the electoral advantages of name recognition and access to campaign money.
As a result, after the Nov. 2 election, we can expect that nearly half the Wayne County commissioners, 7 of 15, will be term-limited ex-legislators. There are already four of them on the commission. They are Ilona Varga (D-Lincoln Park) in the 5th District, Burton Leland (D-Detroit) in the 7th District, Gary Woronchak (D-Dearborn) in the 13th District, and Joseph Palamara (D-Grosse Ile) in the 14th District.
They will be joined by three term-limited state senators who won Democratic county commissioner primaries on Aug. 3, in two cases defeating incumbents. In the 3rd District, Martha Scott (D-Highland Park) won with 4,436 votes (49 percent), defeating incumbent Moe Blackwell, 2,854 (31 percent); Tom Jankowski, 937 (10 percent); and Ken Scott, 888 (10 percent). Similarly, Irma Clark-Coleman (D-Detroit) won in the 6th District with 7,726 votes (57 percent), defeating incumbent Keith Williams, 4,555 (34 percent); David Murray, 879 (7 percent); and Willie McLeod, 348 (3 percent). The third term-limited state senator, Raymond Basham (D-Taylor), easily won the primary for the open 15th District seat being vacated by retiring Commission Chair Edward Boike over Edward Mulka by 4,359 (69 percent) to 2,002 (31 percent).
Leland and Varga easily won their primaries, while Woronchak and Palamara had no primary opposition. All seven are running in safe Democratic districts, with Scott, Clark-Coleman and Leland having no Republican opponent.
Advocates for term limits claimed that they would do away with career politicians, but the Wayne County experience shows that a lot of politicos are always ready to seek any available office, even if it means a big pay cut.