Photos by Santiago Ochoa
UM-Flint Student Sets Eyes on Lansing
UM-Flint Senior Santino Guerra is eyeing next year’s state representative seat for the 34th District. After almost two years on the Flint City Council, he says he has what it takes to win.
Guerra became the youngest person to ever serve on the Flint City Council at the age of 19 when he was elected in 2017. Now, at 22 years old, he is looking to become one of the youngest state representatives in Michigan history.
As a council member, he has spearheaded the demolition of Shady Acres in Flint’s Rollingwood Neighborhood, as well as fulfilled the role of liaison between the city and Kuhmute, an electric scooter ride-share company created by Kettering University students.
While the councilman is happy with what he has done in the city, he believes a seat at the House of Representatives would provide him the influence, resources and connections necessary to tackle the issues closest to him — criminal justice reform and fighting for a larger city budget.
As a Flint native, Guerra grew up witnessing some of the city’s worst years and came into adulthood in the midst of the Flint Water Crisis. “Seeing the blight, seeing the abandoned homes, seeing the crime,” Guerra said, drove him towards public service in the first place.
Now, after having had a chance to see and be at the mercy of the city’s budget, Guerra believes a state position may grant him — and the city — a fighting chance when it comes to the distribution of state funds. He believes his experiences as a Flintstone will lend weight and perspective to the House’s understanding of Flint’s situation.
“I think a lot of the funding we receive at city level comes usually from the state or from federal grants, so being able to advocate for that at a state level, giving the voice there because it’s one thing for them to say ‘oh, we know what’s going on in Flint just by the report,’ it’s another thing being told by a representative that’s actually from the city and who’s lived through it,” Guerra said.
Equally as important to him however is the idea of criminal justice reform. In a 2018 interview for East Village Magazine, Guerra spoke about his personal experience with the criminal justice system and how it affected him: “My father got locked up when I was a baby. I went on to be raised by a single mother who I barely saw because she was working to support my sister and me.”
On top of these personal experiences, Guerra has seen situations like his affect many of his fellow citizens. “ … We’ve seen a lot of families impacted by legislation criminal justice-wise, families that have been torn apart.”
Similar to Flint’s budget, the majority of progress in criminal justice reform is made at the state level. The ability to create and vote on legislation directly related to reforming the criminal justice system would impact not only his district, but the state as a whole.
More specifically, Guerra aims to lessen sentences for certain crimes. “Every law is different, there could be multiple aspects with it. Tweaking it, seeing what works better.”
Rather, he is opting for what he sees as a more viable solution. “I’m more focused on community service sentencing, less on the mandatory minimums we require.”
But in order to get other members of the House on board, Guerra knows he will have to work closely with those outside of his own party.
“I see myself as more of a moderate. I like to understand both sides of an issue. And I’m not saying I agree with every single issue the Republican Party has, I don’t agree with every single issue the Democratic Party has,” said Guerra. “It should be based more on the specific issue and the content for each piece of legislation and what’s going to be best for the state.”
If he were to win the seat, Guerra would become a spokesman for UM-Flint at the state level as the university would fall within his jurisdiction. This would give him the opportunity to weigh in on the One University Coalition’s demands, a movement fighting for equitable funding at each of the University of Michigan’s campuses.
“I am aware of the 1U, I’ve actually had a few meetings with some of the organizers … it’s interesting to see some of the things they are fighting for because a lot of them seem like common sense things that the university should have,” said Guerra.
“There’s a lot of it I do support in 1U … All of our degrees say ‘University of Michigan’ on them and we represent the same establishment.”
Despite this, Guerra says he tries to see both sides of the argument. “However, understanding that they’re all slightly different with a different demographic, there is that political and budgeting side where you can see issues and see where they’re coming from but there’s that ethical and moral side where you see well, this is more right and better for the individual student.”
However, the greatest obstacle that Guerra had to overcome in his council race will likely come up again in this campaign: his age.
“It’s definitely going to play a little bit of a role, I think it played a role in my council race,” said Guerra. “I think I kind of established a base now so people know I actually know how to do legislation, I think I have a pretty good track record.”
Guerra feels working on the Flint City Council has also given him the experience necessary to become a state representative. “I would say right now I’m pretty qualified. I think I kind of got a baptism by fire being on the Flint City Council. We deal with multi-million dollar budgets, legislation, the water crisis, the blight issues, the policing issues, there’s the lawsuits, we deal with a lot of stuff on the Flint City Council.”
The young councilman has faced backlash in the past from his constituents in the 3rd Ward. Earlier this year, Guerra was subjected to a potential recall over his support of the controversial extension of the city’s waste management contract with Republic Services.
Controversy over the contract arose when former Flint Mayor Karen Weaver wanted to award the contract to Rizzo Environmental Services despite Republic Services offering a lower bid. Almost every council member, including Guerra, overrode Weaver, angering some Flint residents into moving for a recall.
Partisanship among voters may also stand in Guerra’s way to the seat. “There may be an appetite for moderation amongst general election voters,” said Kevin Lorentz, a political science professor at UM-Flint. “But the problem is twofold: how do you convince decidedly un-moderate primary voters that he is the right standard-bearer for the Democratic Party but at the same time not appear to be too partisan for the independent and center-leaning voters in November?”
The same issue that all other political candidates must face — generating enough votes for a victory — will also have to be overcome by Guerra. However, his background in the Flint community may serve him well.
“Guerra is a Flint native and an active member of the community. I can definitely see his profile working with the people of Flint and the larger House district,” said Lorentz. “After all, he did win election to the Flint city council. Having said that, the question is if his appeal can extend to a larger constituency base and whether he can swim in the deeper pool of partisan and state politics.”
But moving on to the state level will bring new challenges. “I don’t think I know everything in politics,” said Guerra. “There’s a lot of different issues and it’s hard to know every single specific, so it’s definitely going to be a learning experience.”
As of right now, those challenges may be very real. Guerra is currently running unopposed and has seen little to no opposition towards his campaign — so far.
Regarding the reasons for the lack of competition, Guerra said, “I hope it’s because they are going to support me!”
34th district state Rep. Sheldon Neeley, resigned from his position after being elected mayor of Flint. Per Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s announcement on Tuesday, Nov. 12, a special election for the 34th district seat will be held Jan. 7, 2020 and the general election will be held March 10, 2020.
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 11 print issue of The Michigan Times and has since then been edited for clarity.