State - Benson approaches campaign like a training for a marathon

By Corey Williams

Associated Press Writer

DETROIT (AP) -- Wayne State University law professor Jocelyn Benson says the lessons she has learned training for marathons have come in handy in another kind of run -- her campaign for Michigan secretary of state.

"This campaign has definitely been a marathon," Benson tells The Associated Press in a recent interview. "If you can stay really focused and committed to training, you can run significant distances than you'd ever thought possible for yourself."

The secretary of state post would be the latest career achievement for Benson, who by age 32 has studied at Oxford University, interned at a civil rights organization, worked as a law clerk for legendary civil rights Judge Damon Keith in Detroit and achieved tenure at Wayne State University Law School.

Benson, of Detroit, has taught election and campaign finance law since 2005 at Wayne State and preaches the importance of voting rights. She began working on her campaign to succeed outgoing Republican Terry Lynn Land as secretary of state after the 2008 presidential election.

It was a voting rights issue -- rumors that individuals going through home foreclosure might be blocked from voting in elections that year -- that helped push her to run. Michigan Democrats filed a lawsuit to stop state Republicans from challenging voters. The two sides, eventually, reached an agreement.

Benson testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on the issue and called on Land to ban using such lists to challenge a person's right to vote.

"I wanted to stand up and make sure the secretary of state office ... was an office that works to make people's lives better and protects their rights and protects their ability to interact with the government," she says.

Benson spent the first half of 2009 touring Michigan, speaking with voters in all 83 counties. Democratic Party activists endorsed the Harvard Law School graduate in April and officially nominated her in August.

She has received labor's support, including endorsements from the Teamsters, Utility Workers and the American Federation of Teachers in Michigan.

Benson also has raised and spent more money than her Republican rival, Oakland County Clerk Ruth Johnson. Three third-party candidates on the Nov. 2 ballot are Green Party candidate John Anthony La Pietra, Libertarian candidate Scotty Boman and Robert Gale of the U.S. Taxpayers Party.

Through September, Benson's campaign brought in more than $627,000 and spent close to $169,000. Benson contributed $9,000. The Michigan Education Association's political action committee chipped in $17,000. People in 60 counties have donated, Benson says.

Johnson raised nearly $490,000 through September, with more than $59,000 spent. About three-quarters of what she raised -- $354,000 -- came from Johnson's own pockets. Another $61,000 was donated by the Michigan Republican Party.

Benson would bring a different and "very much needed" set of skills to the secretary of state's office, says Keith, now a judge on the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

"The secretary of state in the past has been someone who issued you licenses and things like that," Keith says. "Having been involved in issues that affect our state beyond issuing license plates, there is more to that office."

Benson said she came to Michigan specifically to work for Keith after interning at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama. She also served as a general editor of Harvard's Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.

"Those are the things I look for in law clerks, not just all 'A's,'" says Keith, who gets about 160 applications each year and selects only three as clerks. Gov. Jennifer Granholm also clerked for Keith before getting into politics.

Helping others was one of the ideals Benson learned from her parents, both special education teachers.

She was born in Boynton Beach, Fla., north of Fort Lauderdale, and raised near Pittsburgh. Benson graduated with a bachelor's degree from Wellesley College in Massachusetts and was a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University in England.

She wrote the book, "Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process," to more clearly define the role secretaries of state play in protecting voters' rights.

"I intrinsically believe that ensuring that everyone has a voice is critical in making sure that the decisions our government makes are ones that are effective and serve the public," Benson says.

She's on a leave of absence from her teaching job, but has found the time to continue training for Sunday's Detroit Free Press Marathon, which will be her eleventh 26.2-mile race.

Running is something Benson, an avid sports fan, started after arriving in Detroit. She ran a half-marathon in 2005, then decided to run the Free Press Marathon that fall after learning that the finish line was in Ford Field, home of the NFL's Detroit Lions.

Benson since has run the Boston and New York City marathons. Her fastest finish was three-and-a-half hours.

Her husband of four years, Ryan Friedrichs, helped launch Michigan Voice, an organization that worked with various groups on voting, volunteerism and other issues. He also has served as executive director of State Voices, a collaboration of Michigan Voice and other state-based organizations.

Friedrichs also runs marathons. The adventurous couple celebrated their wedding by skydiving.

"I jumped out of a plane as sort of a statement about taking a leap of faith to a new life," she says. "That's just who I am. I'm someone who believes in taking chances and really standing up for what you believe in."

Published: Wed, Oct 20, 2010

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