Google images for Thomas Morgan. You’ll see a trim, bespectacled man in a suit and tie smiling at you.
Now, Google Bob Peña. You’ll see a man with a pudgy face in work clothes holding a chicken.
That contrast offers one explanation for Peña’s victory over Morgan last week in the race for the Democratic nomination to represent the east side of Lansing (and a little of East Lansing) on the Ingham County Commission. Voters on the east side are pretty much everywhere on the social spectrum, and by a 52-vote margin this time they went with a chicken farmer (Peña is raising five of them in his backyard for the eggs), turning out incumbent Morgan, who at 40 has staked out a piece of the Establishment pie.
That’s no knock on Morgan. Even Peña is quick to say that Morgan “did great things” in his two years on the commission. For example, Morgan wrote the language for the seniors millage that Ingham County voters just approved by a wide margin. That’s just one of a half-dozen solid accomplishments by him, a commendable track record for a rookie commissioner.
If, as expected, Peña beats Republican Kelly Christopherson Nov. 3 in the heavily Democratic 10th District, its residents will find out if an amateur chicken farmer with good intentions is right for the job.
Look for Peña to pursue two of his longtime passions: cycling and food distribution.
Peña, who cycles for transportation as much as possible, represents a large biking community on the east side. He plans to be cycling’s voice on the county commission.
As for food distribution, Peña brings a personal awareness stemming from a family of migrant workers on his mother’s side and tenant farmers on his father’s. “Agriculture has been in the background in the development of my values,” he said.
Those values were learned in a “humble background.” His dad was in the military, so Peña grew up all over, with many stops in Asia. Peña, a first-generation college graduate, earned an undergraduate engineering degree at the University of Texas in Austin. For grad school in engineering, he chose MSU because of an excellent work program.
He well remembers arriving by railroad in East Lansing on Valentine’s Day 1986. “I had nothing when I got off that train” that didn’t fit in a backpack.
Peña spent 35 years working for the state Department of Transportation as an engineer before retiring.
“I did a lot of policymaking for the way MDOT did testing and designed new details in road and bridge construction. I can offer those skills to the commission,” he said.
Four years ago, Peña decided to see if voters wanted him to. In 2016, he ran second to incumbent Brian McGrain for the Democratic nomination, losing 59% to 41%. Two years ago, Morgan and Peña took on Dennis Louney, who was appointed to finish McGrain’s term after he stepped down to join the Schor administration as development director. Morgan prevailed, but Peña came in a strong second, getting 34% of the vote versus 40% for Morgan and 26% for Louney.
And this year, Peña beat Morgan by 52 votes, with less than 1% of the vote dividing them.
One factor may have been Peña’s support from the same set of progressives who helped put Brandon Betz on the City Council, replacing Jody Washington (Morgan’s mother-in-law). She held down the more conservative end of the Council with Carol Wood. In choosing Betz, voters opted for a proud socialist. While Peña has not made as much of it, he too identifies as a socialist.
“He was 100% there for my campaign,” said Betz. “I wanted to return the favor.” He and fellow progressives volunteered for Peña.
The pandemic limited all-important door knocking, but Peña still got around on foot to at least leave campaign literature. Morgan did the doors multiple times two years ago, but for safety sake used the mails this time, part of the $15,000 in expenses he said he incurred. Peña, meanwhile, pledged to keep his campaign fund below $1,000, allowing him to opt out of reporting requirements.
Betz lauded Peña as the “nicest, most wonderful person on the east side.” No one else I talked to disagreed with that. But the others wondered if Peña knows what he has gotten himself into.
“There so much unsexy, behind-the-scenes stuff,” said one public servant who lives on the east side. “You don’t realize all the detail. It’s a one-term learning curve.”
Still, the end goal is how to improve the lives of residents, and Peña has a handle on the problems facing east siders struggling in a quickly worsening economy. Peña, who lives alone in a neat bungalow in the Foster neighborhood, said the pandemic has been hard on the many waiters and cooks living on the east side, particularly in his neighborhood, which is near Frandor, and in Urbandale on the other side of Michigan Avenue.
How he translates that into action as a commissioner remains to be seen. Meanwhile, though, he will continue his volunteer work, which right now includes serving on the Capital Area Food Council, which he described as a consortium of local farmers and institutions trying to get fresh local produce into schools, hospitals and restaurants. “The community is asking for better stability of the food supply chain,” he said.
Another concern he brought up was cycling safety.
“Right now, one of the biggest concerns for the bicycling community are the underpasses on Kalamazoo Street beneath 127,” he said. “They’re horrid, really tough to ride, and there’s a huge contingent that lives west of that and works and goes to school at the university. It’s just not safe. We could improve that. These are the kinds of things that get left by the wayside.”
Peña has two years to figure out how to get such issues front and center.
If he doesn’t, Morgan may try to convince voters to let him pick up where he left off. He said Monday he does not rule out running again.