Making History in the U.P.

A lifelong Yooper, one of the state House’s newest additions is not just one of the many women across the country who rode a wave of enthusiasm to secure a victory to elected office a year after President Donald Trump was elected, she is the first woman to ever represent Michigan’s 109th House district.

But Sara Cambensy (D-Marquette) isn’t new to elected office, nor did she think holding the first woman distinction played as much of a role in her campaign as simply being “fair in my decision-making, consistent and honest” in the elected office she has held to this point, she said.

“Whether or not I’m male or female didn’t play as much a role as an elected official working on behalf of the people. I didn’t focus on it,” Cambensy said.

What was more rewarding, she said, was seeing other women be inspired by her run, seeing her succeed and start asking how they can be more involved in policymaking, whether at the local level to succeed her city commission seat or elsewhere. Her district includes all of Alger, Luce and Schoolcraft counties, as well as a portion of Marquette County that includes 17 townships and Ishpeming, the city of Marquette, and the city of Negaunee.

Cambensy credits her father for first piquing her interest in government. He worked as a land surveyor and engineer, she said, and watching him testify in court on land disputes and other matters, as well as file certain documents with the Registrar of Deeds, got the wheels turning on how government operates.

“It piqued my interest in where the decisions get made and how do I stand up to try to do something about it? That’s what led me to my local experience, but (also) to make sure Michigan is a state that works for everyone, not just the wealthy or those getting attention from special interest groups.”

Seven years after earning a degree in education from Northern Michigan University, Cambensy was appointed to the City of Marquette Planning Commission, then elected to the City Commission in 2011. She has also served as the director of adult and community education in Marquette Area Public Schools since 2007.

“I grew up feeling pretty secure, feeling that Michigan’s economy works for my family. Living in the U.P., it gave me a sense that I lived in a place that was not only naturally beautiful, but you could make a living doing it,” she said of what made her decide to run for state House. “In the last eight or nine years, it doesn’t feel that way anymore. I noticed my generation is struggling more.”

Cambensy named lowering auto insurance rates, energy issues such as affordable electricity, and education, especially in trying to attract talent to teaching, as her top three issues.

“I feel like we’re finding there’s not a lot of people who want to go into teaching anymore – is that because we don’t pay? Because we don’t have the healthcare or pension benefits that are attractive to some people?” Cambensy questioned.

And she said healthcare weaves into some of those priorities as well. As a Type 1 diabetic for 30 years, she said she understands the stress level people have in terms of not knowing how much they might have to pay for health insurance and how such a critical aspect of living plays into month-to-month finances.

Cambensy came in at an oft-divisive time of year for the state legislature, but she was pleasantly surprised by how nice people were in her first week (last week). She said that because of the major issues the legislature is already handling, such as pensions for police and fire, she will likely hold off on introducing her own until after the New Year.

“I had so many people across the aisle that welcomed me … not only to the floor but to my committees. That made me feel almost right at home at the beginning,” she said. “I know sometimes we have very divisive issues, but on the floor you’ll see legislators talking and mingling and that gives me hope. And I think that’s what people want to see is … working hard and finding solutions together.”

She said in talking to some of the police and fire individuals rallying last week to save their pensions, they, like teachers, are having a hard time finding people to get into their line of work – something she can certainly identify with as having originally gone into education.

“As a legislator, what we do every day down here impacts people … and I think being aware of that will go a long way in my career here,” she said.

Cambensy comes to the legislature after the untimely death of her predecessor, former Rep. John Kivela (D-Marquette), and has been assigned to the House Agriculture Committee, as well as the Local Government and Natural Resources committees.

Danielle Emerson

Danielle Emerson