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A New Generation of Leadership in the Great Lakes State: Ryan Fishman Runs For Mich. State Senate

12/16/2013 03:44 pm ET | Updated Feb 15, 2014

Ryan Fishman, a Birmingham-based attorney, wants to be the next state senator from Michigan's 13th district. Mr. Fishman, only 25 years old, isn't letting his age stand in the way of seeking elected office.

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Fishman received attention earlier this year when he announced that he would run for the state senate as a Democrat. He previously identified as a lifelong Republican, but broke away from the party due to disagreements on social and economic issues.

The 13th District is made up of Rochester Hills, Rochester, Bloomfield Hills, Troy, Birmingham, Clawson, Royal Oak, and Berkley. The district leans Republican, but with Fishman in the mix it's shaping up to be a competitive race.

Incumbent Senator John Pappageorge (R-Troy) is banned from seeking re-election due to term limits. Two Republicans are facing off in a primary for the nomination. Rep. Tom McMillin (R-Rochester Hills) and former Rep. Chuck Moss (R-Birmingham) are running to replace Pappageorge on the GOP side.

I sat down for an interview with Ryan Fishman to get his take on his race for the state senate, the modern Republican party, and young people in politics.

When and how did you know you wanted to switch from Republican to Democrat?

Though I didn't publicly register as a Democrat until I filed this Fall -- the writing was on the wall after the 2012 election cycle. The challenge for me has been since 2006 the Republican platform has shifted dramatically to embrace a moral agenda that is not reflective of the values that drew me to the GOP in the first place.

I worked very hard from within the party to help reshape its direction, from writing in the Detroit Free Press about its modern failures to calling for the resignation of RNC Committeeman Dave Agema last April. At a certain point it became clear that I was not able to help redirect Republicans from a path toward long term irrelevance. I realized, with some help from friends like State Representative Rudy Hobbs who encouraged me to run as a Democrat, that I could promote having two reasonable parties at the table by walking away from the GOP -- challenging Republicans to work across the aisle and promote a moderate, common sense agenda.

If I'm lucky enough to get to Lansing, I hope that I can get moderate Republicans to the table with a centrist like myself who does not dismiss an idea as bad or praise it as good simply based on party affiliation. You cannot govern in a democracy without compromise, and we really do need two parties willing to work together for the collective good.

You've described yourself as a lifelong Republican who grew up in a house full of Democrats. Can you elaborate on that?

My mom is a now-retired 40-year MEA teacher and my dad is an attorney, so it's not hard to guess their politics. My paternal grandfather was a long time union booster in the city of Detroit and my maternal grandfather was a Holocaust survivor from Ukraine who believed in the American dream and always taught me about the importance of creating opportunity in America for anyone, regardless of color, religion, sex, or or sexual orientation. Somehow they wound up with me, a young man who really came to embrace politics and the Republican party in the wake of 9/11 and the nationalist sentiments that I believe many of us shared.

When it comes to values, I consider myself a fiscal pragmatist, and I want to see common sense solutions for our economic problems that promote savings, investment, and long term strategic planning. I believe in a lean and efficient government that does what it does best and partners with the private sector to be successful.

Michigan needs to work with business leaders to encourage job creation while also working as a mediator with labor to ensure integrated solutions that allow workers and business owners to be successful. Those to me were "Republican values" when I was drawn into the party, but no longer are the party's values. I continue to be dedicated to moderate solutions that demand leaders work across the aisle to solve our collective challenges.

You were quoted saying: "We've had enough of partisan politics, It shouldn't matter if a candidate is a Republican or a Democrat. My direction isn't right or left -- it's up and forward." Does this mean you would cast yourself more as an independent candidate than a democratic one?

I am running as a Democrat and believe in the party's values. There is good and bad on both sides of the aisle, and while I don't necessarily agree with every facet of the platform, the modern Democratic Party is the new "big tent" party. There has always been a space for Blue Dog democrats who are more fiscally pragmatic but socially liberal and conscientious of the needs of the working class. I do believe we've had, as a state and as a country, enough of partisan politics, and I'm running as Ryan, someone who shares and reflects the values of the 13th District.

If I win with 51 percent of the vote I'm still going to represent 100 percent of the district, and my job as a Senator is to represent the values of my entire district, not simply to push my own agenda. That to me is the biggest failure of our current leadership in Lansing. Too many elected officials don't listen, and they don't have an open door policy for their constituents.

My commitment to the voters in the 13th District is that even when we don't agree, I am willing to work for a solution that can best serve all of us, because we are all in the same boat and sink or swim collectively.

You've received a lot of attention because of your age. How do you overcome the experience gap between yourself and more veteran politicians?

I have a few things to say about age and experience, so I'm glad you brought it up. First and foremost, I think we've seen where the career politicians in office today have gotten us, and that's to the brink of deadlock on far too many issues. We need fresh perspectives who don't owe favors to every special interest group in town, and who can be held accountable to the voters.

If I'm elected at 26, I'll live with the decisions I make in Lansing for, I hope, the next 50 to 75 years. Sending another 60-year-old legislator back to Lansing who can rip and run in eight years and only push the consequences of his or her actions onto that person's children or grandchildren is dangerous. That's why our state today doesn't take care of its infrastructure, doesn't take care for its public schools, and doesn't take care of our amazing Great Lakes.

I certainly don't purport to know everything, but I believe as a former journalist and as an attorney that we need legislators who are willing to hear both sides of the story and act with all the facts on the table.

I'd add one other point, and perhaps this is the most important one. Our state faces challenges in attracting young talent. The only way to get young people back in Michigan is to demonstrate that young leadership has a seat at the table. Sending a 26-year-old to Lansing is the perfect way to say to my contemporaries who have run off with their talent and energy to Chicago or New York that you have a voice right here in the great state of Michigan.

On that note, a big issue for younger voters is a lack of confidence in the two party system. You've pointed out some of the flaws of this system yourself. What do you think is an effective way to engage more young people in the democratic process?

Young adults need to know they have a seat at the table and a voice, and frankly one way to encourage young voters to get involved in the process is by giving them the opportunity to lead. Both in the business world and the not-for-profit world, I've been given the opportunity to lead, to sit down and work with fine men and women sometimes 50 or 60 years my senior. By giving me a chance to have a voice, I've always felt empowered, and it's time for government to approach young leaders the same way.

Millennials are aging into a place where they want to play a role in our state and country's future. My campaign is another way young people can get involved in the political process. But win or lose, I'm committing myself to put my skills to work for young adults willing to be a part of the political process in the future.There are plenty of opportunities, from precinct delegate or city council to the state legislature, where young leaders can jump in with both feet. It's time we encourage our children and grandchildren to think of civil service as an honorable calling where they can actually make a difference.

In light of Senator Rand Paul's recent visit to Michigan to engage in 'African American Outreach' do you think the GOP is finally catching up in terms of appealing to minority voters?

The Republican Party recognizes it has a perception problem, but the perception is the reality. In 2012, four years into the first term of our country's first African American President, the Republican party offered two white business men as its "modern image." Actions speak much louder than words, and even the ongoing words from the party continue to demonstrate that it ignores the needs and values of a growing Latino population, growing Asian and South Asian population, and a growing African American population in this country.

Rand Paul talked about the issues that he believes matters to those communities, but that left him talking about crime and jail sentences. It's indicative of an inherently bigoted approach to solving problems in the African American community that doesn't acknowledge whether you're black or white, we face the same challenges and struggles in America as a collective. They don't all have to do with poverty and crime. Instead of talking about creating opportunity or helping working class families to get back on their feet, he talked about everything that the Republican Party has perpetuated to keep them off their feet. Only actions to the contrary will demonstrate the party is changing.

What political figure would you say you are most inspired by?

President Bill Clinton. I have really fond memories of growing up while President Clinton was in the White House. I might not have known it then, but it's because he was willing to work across the aisle and compromise to move our country to what may have been the highest point in its history. He left office with a budget surplus, having achieved so much by simply being willing to lead regardless of the political consequences. If I can aspire to be like any modern American political figure, it would have to be President Clinton.

The Democratic and Republican party primaries take place August 5th, 2014, with the general election being held November 4th, 2014. Learn more about Ryan Fishman by following him on Twitter or liking him on Facebook.