BY ALEX PIAZZA
TRAVERSE CITY —
A county commissioner believes his opponent in the race for 86th District judge spent too many years in Lansing and lost touch with the local court system.
The opponent, a state representative from Bellaire, refutes that stance and contends he can utilize his legislative experience on the bench in northwest Michigan.
Mike Stepka, a Republican Grand Traverse County commissioner and private practice attorney, and Kevin Elsenheimer, the House Republican minority leader, will square off next week in a hotly contested race for the 86th District Court post held by retiring Judge John D. Foresman.
Stepka, 47, plans to rely on his nearly 20 years experience handling cases in 86th District Court, which seats three judges and covers Antrim, Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties. He doesn't believe Elsenheimer's time in Lansing has any significance when it comes to courtroom proceedings here.
"I don't believe that legislative experience is relevant to the 86th District judge," Stepka said. "That's not actual district court procedure. They're two completely different statutes."
Elsenheimer, 45, said he continues to practice law in Bellaire and contends his legislative work can carry over to the bench.
"I've kept my hands in the practice of law," he said. "My hope is to grow old sitting on the district court bench."
Stepka touts relationships he's built with court staff and, if elected, believes it would help him successfully transition from an attorney to a judge.
"I know exactly what the court is all about," he said. "I've known all those people for years and years and years. We've all worked together as colleagues. I have that because I've been there. Kevin doesn't have that."
But Elsenheimer has Foresman's endorsement. Foresman commended Stepka for his legal experience, but said Elsenheimer's communication skills earned him his nod.
Elsenheimer believes his experience as an Antrim County assistant prosecutor, then as a legislator who drafted law on criminal activity, including serial drunken driving offenses, gives him an edge.
"That experience is useful," he said. "Mike would make a good judge, I just hope I have one more vote than he does next week."
If elected, Stepka plans to implement classes to discuss the ramifications of popular crimes, including retail fraud and drug possession. Stepka said the classes would help prevent young, repeat offenders from returning to the court system.
"This is something I've wanted to do for many years," he said. "You need a judge who is connected to the community."
Elsenheimer, if elected, would research plans by the state to restructure the judiciary, which could include cutbacks for judgeships. He also said he would take a closer look at indigent defense contracts, and consider whether a public defender's office would be more efficient than using court-appointed attorneys.
Elsenheimer handily won Antrim, Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties over four others in the August primary election. He continues to campaign throughout the area, and said he and volunteers knocked on thousands of doors in recent weeks.
Stepka finished a distant second in the primary, but canvassed the three-county district with yard signs and door-to-door visits in recent months.
"I absolutely believe in door-to-door," Stepka said. "We owe it to the voters to go out there and meet them."
The candidate who garners the most votes on Nov. 2 will have a six-year term.
Coming Wednesday: 86th District Court race grows increasingly contentious.