Skip to content

Blog

Blog Posts

by Zachary Gorchow, Editor

Rethinking The Governor’s Race In The Context Of Trump

Posted: November, 29 2016 4:17 PM

One of the lessons of President-elect Donald Trump’s surprise victory is not to rely too heavily on traditional measures when it comes to analyzing an election.

Mr. Trump was outspent, out-numbered in staff, got dominated on the airwaves, trailed in most polls, conducted himself in a way that broke all the molds for a winning presidential candidate (running with an angry, doom and gloom edge as opposed to the optimism about the country’s future that pervaded winning campaign’s post-Nixon). He struggled in two of the three debates.

But some traditional metrics held, namely the power of the change argument (the candidate of the party in charge of the White House for two consecutive terms was 1-6 starting in 1952). The candidate who inspired more passion among his/her voters again won. We also cannot overlook that for the 45th consecutive time, the country elected a man to the presidency, defeating the first woman nominated by a major political party for the office.

How do we reconcile these crosscurrents in the context of the upcoming 2018 open seat race for governor in Michigan?

Both parties are expected to field, by traditional measures, strong candidates.

On the Republican side, Lt. Governor Brian Calley and Attorney General Bill Schuette both are raising big money already. Both have many years of involvement in Republican politics. They know the drill.

Mr. Schuette has the useful perch of attorney general from which to run and a long resume (U.S. representative, Michigan Department of Agriculture director, state senator, Court of Appeals judge and now attorney general). He’s got a knack for retail politics.

Mr. Calley would have the blessing and curse of carrying the banner for the incumbent Snyder administration, a blessing because he can point to the administration’s successes and a curse because his opponents can link him to its defeats. Lt. Governors John Cherry Jr., Dick Posthumus and Jim Brickley saw their gubernatorial bids fail with Mr. Cherry and Mr. Brickley unable even to get past their party’s primary. He’d have youth on his side (he’ll be 40 when the campaign gets rolling).

On the Democratic side, there’s U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) and Ingham County Prosecutor Gretchen Whitmer, the former Senate minority leader.

Mr. Kildee has local and federal experience and has received enormous publicity in the past year for his efforts on the Flint water crisis. Ms. Whitmer has high level legislative experience, having worked the Appropriations process as minority vice chair in the House and risen to minority leader in the Senate. Both have strong built strong followings with Michigan Democrats.

But I can’t help but wonder, even as the early focus among those who work in and around Michigan politics and those of us who cover it is on these four names, whether someone – or someones – will shake up the race with an unexpected bid, similar to Mr. Trump. For that matter, who saw Mr. Snyder winning the Republican nomination when he entered the race against three far better-known Republican figures in the 2010 election?

There’s going to be an opening in both primaries for an outsider, someone not now in state or federal government, or only having recently arrived in one of those spots, to channel the same type of message that Mr. Trump, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and, yes, even Mr. Snyder used to win elections in this state.

Specific names of who could (and would want to) capitalize on that kind of message, I do not know. But Mr. Calley is joined at the hip to the incumbent administration and Mr. Schuette has served in government essentially for the last three decades. There’s an opening for someone to make the case provided they can capture the imagination of the Republican electorate and raise enough money to get their message out. When I recently spoke to Mr. Schuette, he didn’t want to say much about 2018, but one thing he did say is the “key thing” for 2018 is that “it has to be fresh. It can’t be more of the same.”

Mr. Kildee and Ms. Whitmer have an advantage over someone running on a Sanders-type platform in the Democratic primary to the extent that either would still represent an enormous change from Mr. Snyder, Democrats are hungry to win back the governor’s office and they will have the chance to denounce Mr. Trump early and often. Still, the space is there for someone with a populist platform a la Mr. Sanders.

Sure, the race could play out as expected without any surprises.

But if the 2016 presidential race taught us anything, it was to expect the unexpected. Or not to expect the expected. Or something like that.

Back to top

Revisiting Election Analysis: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Posted: November, 22 2016 3:42 PM

Before putting the 2016 election to bed, it seemed worthwhile to review some blog posts through the year to revisit what I had wrong since that happened more than I would like and on occasion what I had right.

As reporters, we review and critique candidates, elected officials, pollsters, political consultants and much more, it’s only fair to look in the mirror.

This was an election year that busted all conventional wisdom. As part of a media panel this fall the day after the first presidential debate, one of the questions was who we thought won that first encounter between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

I said at the time that by any traditional measure, Ms. Clinton mopped the floor with him. But then I also said that seemingly every time this year I thought Mr. Trump had erred or suffered a major setback, that usually proved not to be the case, so in the end I was uncomfortable saying who really won because Mr. Trump was tearing up all the usual rules in elections and writing new ones.

That’s the kind of year it was.

THE FIEGER-TRUMP COMPARISON WAS FLAWED: In February, I compared Mr. Trump to Geoffrey Fieger, the 1998 nominee for governor in Michigan, because of their penchant for trashing the establishment in their party in caustic, insulting terms. I suggested Mr. Trump was poised to do to Michigan Republicans what Mr. Fieger did to Michigan Democrats in 1998 – wreck the entire ticket.

Ooof. Talk about a whiff.

Not only did Mr. Trump win the presidency and put Michigan in the Republican column for the first time since 1988, but Republicans maintained all their seats in the U.S. House and held onto the 63-47 majority they won in the 2014 election for the Michigan House, only the second time in the term limits era that Democrats failed to gain seats in the Michigan House in the presidential cycle.

Yes, Mr. Trump’s style was very similar to Mr. Fieger’s. But the comparison failed for at least two reasons.

One, the pure hatred Republicans hold for Ms. Clinton was far more intense and widespread than the dislike Democrats held for Mr. Fieger’s opponent, two-term Republican Governor John Engler. Yes, some Democrats hated Mr. Engler, but people at Fieger rallies were not en masse calling for his imprisonment. Mr. Engler pulled more than 60 percent of the vote with a solid majority of the state content with his record and unwilling to hand the keys to Mr. Fieger.

Two, 1998 does not equal 2016. The partisan divide, while strong then, was not what it is now and there were a greater number of independent-minded voters.

Most Republicans in the end rallied to Mr. Trump. And enough voters who supported President Barack Obama either stayed home or flipped to Mr. Trump to put him over the top.

CORRECT ABOUT THE REPUBLICANS LIKELY TO KEEP THE STATE HOUSE, WRONG ABOUT DEMOCRATS MAKING GAINS: Everyone got this one wrong. Privately, House Republicans were telling people around town that they expected to win 61 seats in the closing weeks of the election, down from 63. That still would have represented a great performance for them by holding Democrats to less than the five-seat gain they have averaged in the term limits era in presidential election years, especially with all the open seats where term limits deprived the GOP of incumbents to seek re-election.

Michigan Republican Party Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel publicly predicted a 57-53 Republican majority in the House. And given that Republicans were not going on the offense anywhere with their investments, it seemed impossible that Democrats would not gain seats.

That said, it appeared consistent throughout the year that Democrats were going to fall short of the nine seats they needed to gain for majority. Five of the seats that were in play were in Macomb County or north of Clare, and it was clear Mr. Trump was going to dominate in those areas, creating bad dynamics for Democrats. And as I wrote, while Republicans have emerged as the dominant party in once competitive outstate areas, Democrats, while on the rise, have yet to gain sufficient strength in higher-income, higher-educated suburban areas traditionally dominated by the GOP to make seats there truly competitive.

It was easy to come up with how Democrats could gain four or five seats. But nine? No.

What turned the conventional wisdom on its ear and left Democrats with the same 47 seats as they had after the 2014 elections was Mr. Trump swamping the state outside of Oakland and Wayne counties. Subtract those two counties and Mr. Trump won the rest of the state by a whopping 10 percentage points. Promising Democratic candidates were buried.

RIGHT ABOUT WHAT TRUMP WOULD NEED TO DO TO WIN MICHIGAN, WRONG ABOUT WHETHER HE WOULD DO IT: In June, I looked at what Mr. Trump’s roadmap to victory in Michigan would look like. I said he would need to hugely outperform the traditional Republican vote in Macomb County, need a considerably weaker turnout in Detroit, crank up turnout with white voters outstate and need third party candidates to siphon away support from Ms. Clinton.

Every one of those things happened.

But I thought it unlikely that all four of those factors would in fact occur and said then that Mr. Trump was unlikely to win the state (*face flushes, awkwardly loosens tie*).

‘KNOLLENBERGMAN EFFECT’: I didn’t flat-out predict Jack Bergman was going to win the 1st U.S. House District Republican primary, but I feel good about this post.

POLITICAL REALIGNMENT ON STATE HOUSE SEATS: In September, I wrote that Michigan Democrats were facing serious problems in the Michigan House because outstate, mostly white, traditionally competitive districts with relatively low percentages of voters with bachelor’s degrees were moving in large numbers to the Republicans. Additionally, Democrats had not yet built enough momentum in suburban, increasingly diverse, highly educated districts traditionally in the GOP column to flip them to their side. That scenario played out.

MARINO ATTACKS DIDN’T STICK: After the Democrats bombarded Republican Steve Marino of Harrison Township with attacks based off of a series of clandestinely obtained audio recordings in which he made a number of statements he later recanted or were politically problematic, or both, I wrote that it seemed like a great bet for Democrats to win both Macomb County House seats under heavy competition. So massive was the Trump wave in Macomb County that the Republicans won both and neither was close.

Ugh.

RECOGNITION OF TRUMP SURGE, CHANCE TO WIN: On November 1, I wrote that Mr. Trump had stabilized in Michigan and nationally, Republicans were coming home and that had complicated the ability of House Democrats to make big gains in the Michigan House (true). I also wrote that Ms. Clinton remained the favorite (meh). Then on November 3, I wrote about how absentee ballot numbers out of Detroit were way down from 2012, how that could portend big trouble for Ms. Clinton and that several signs suggested Mr. Trump would make the election close.

Better late than never, I suppose.

This year was a reminder of the stock market axiom that past performances are not a guarantee of future results.

Back to top

Signs Are There For Trump Making Michigan Close

Posted: November, 3 2016 12:45 PM

Several critical developments are coming together in the final days of the presidential election that clearly have produced serious concern among Michigan Democrats and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign about ensuring she wins the state.

They *should* be concerned.

The biggest development, first reported here at Gongwer News Service for our subscribers, is that absentee ballot returns in overwhelmingly Democratic Detroit are well below where they were in 2012 (See Gongwer Michigan Report, November 2, 2016). I contacted several clerks in Michigan’s large cities Wednesday and most of them reported that they are on pace to match absentee ballot returns from 2012 with the current returns as of Wednesday at about two-thirds to three-quarters of the total absentee vote in 2012.

But Detroit as of Wednesday had seen absentee ballots returns equaling just 46 percent of the total 2012 absentee vote in the city, and the city clerk’s office is forecasting a decline of 10,000 absentee ballots compared to 2012, a fall of 12.5 percent.

Now, it’s possible that Detroit voters are taking more time with their ballots given the more than 60 candidates on the ballot for school board. It’s also possible more voters will decide to vote at precincts on Election Day, meaning while absentee ballots returns falls, total votes do not.

But it’s also possible that the falloff portends reduced voting at the precincts, in which case, according to my back-of-the-napkin math, Ms. Clinton could net something like 32,000 fewer votes out of the city than President Barack Obama did in 2012.

Earlier this year, I went through an exercise when Donald Trump was at a low point, yet putting considerable emphasis on Michigan, to see what it would take for him to win the state. Michigan has gone Democratic in six consecutive elections with the last two being huge wins for Mr. Obama.

One of those factors was the potential for a decline in the vote out of Detroit given the absence of Mr. Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, on the ballot. It does not appear Democrats are staring at as dire a falloff as I estimated would be needed to really put Mr. Trump into contention (20 percent), but the loss of 32,000 votes is serious.

Now, as I wrote in June, this all starts from a base assumption that Mr. Trump can at least match President George W. Bush’s 2004 performance in Michigan, the best of any Republican during this six-election stretch. John Kerry beat him in the state 165,437 votes.

The other factor I mentioned many months ago that is coming to pass is a massive win for Mr. Trump in Macomb County. He could very well get a 14 percentage point win there that would give him a 50,000-vote boost over Mr. Bush’s 2004 margin in the county over Mr. Kerry.

So at that point, Mr. Trump has now cut that 165,000 margin in half. It also appears that Green Party candidate Jill Stein will improve upon her 0.46 percentage of the vote in 2012, which produced 21,897 votes for her. Let’s give her 1.5 percent since her Real Clear Politics polling average is 2.3 percent and she will likely finish with less than that as voters fear “wasting” their vote. That would be a growth of 44,000 votes, enough to cut the Kerry margin over Bush to 39,000 votes.

Here’s a new factor. Libertarian Gary Johnson appears to be hurting Ms. Clinton more than Mr. Trump. Let’s pull away another half-percent of the vote from the Kerry-Bush margin based on how Ms. Clinton’s lead against Mr. Trump grows in a head-to-head race compared to a four-way race with Mr. Johnson and Ms. Stein. That’s another 22,000 votes. Now we’re down to just a 17,000-vote gap, an amount equal to just 0.3 percent of the total presidential vote in 2012.

At that point, it’s up to Mr. Trump to run up the numbers beyond what Mr. Bush could do in 2004 in his core areas and not see falloff in other areas like Oakland, western Wayne and the university counties wipe out his gains elsewhere.

Democrats have a mathematical advantage in federal races in Michigan. And everyone not blinded by partisan glasses knows it. The Democrat can run up the numbers in Oakland and Wayne counties, and there’s simply not enough votes elsewhere to overcome that margin, even if the race turns out close like 2000 and 2004. But that’s all predicated on Democratic voters turning out.

Right now, there’s 115,000 absentee ballots that clerks have issued sitting on voters’ kitchen counters in Oakland and Wayne counties. The smaller counties expected to support Mr. Trump in big numbers have returned their absentee ballots by a much higher percentage than Oakland and Wayne have so far. And Ms. Clinton spending the last week on defense in the wake of the FBI announcing it was looking into newly discovered emails that could pertain to its investigation into her use as secretary of state of a private email server is not helping on the enthusiasm front.

It’s trite, but true: turnout is essential. If Democrats can simply get their voters in Detroit and elsewhere to turn in their absentee ballots, Michigan’s likely out of reach for Mr. Trump, even if he improves considerably upon Mitt Romney’s 9.5 percentage point loss in 2012 to Mr. Obama.

There’s a reason Ms. Clinton is coming to Detroit on Friday for a get-out-the-vote rally, former President Bill Clinton made an unannounced stop in the city to talk turnout strategy and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker is visiting the city. Michigan Democrats emailed their members and supporters this morning with a clear, urgent plea: “If you requested an absentee ballot, you should mail it today” (emphasis theirs).

Ms. Clinton is still the favorite to carry the state because Democrats still control their own fate. If they get their voters out, they win.

But Ms. Clinton’s hold on the state is far less sure than anyone but the most devoted Trump supporters would have said just three weeks ago.

Back to top

Trump Recovery Complicates Dems’ House Hopes

Posted: November, 1 2016 2:34 PM

Democrat Hillary Clinton remains the favorite to carry Michigan in the presidential race, but the uptick Republican Donald Trump is seeing nationally and in Michigan signals that his campaign has recovered from the “Access Hollywood” video that hinted at a possible collapse and potential Democratic wave.

Nationally, this is now the sixth time this year that Mr. Trump has rebounded from a steep fall in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. The cycle goes like this. Mr. Trump commits a major gaffe (like the attack on the judge hearing the case against Trump University or the Khan family) or gets hit with a devastating revelation (like the “Access Hollywood” video where he talks about grabbing women “by the p---y”) and his support falls, usually because the segment of Republicans that is squeamish about him pulls its support.

But each time that has occurred, Ms. Clinton then falters, whether from the repeated problems with her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, the drumbeat of embarrassing hacked emails sent and received by her campaign chair John Podesta that Wikileaks is releasing or problematic news like the rate increases in insurance plans under the health insurance exchange. Eventually, many of those wayward Republicans start coming home and the race tightens.

The bulk of the polls suggest the race is in another tightening phase and the problem or Ms. Clinton and the Democrats is time is running out for another Trump fiasco to recalibrate the race again.

That doesn’t mean Ms. Clinton will lose. She’s still the favorite with her advantage in the Electoral College though Democratic dreams from two weeks ago of a runaway where she wins north of 350 electoral votes likely are out of reach now. And in Michigan, along those same lines, Democratic dreams of Ms. Clinton carrying the state by more than 10 points also look like a long-shot.

There isn’t much recent polling data to go by in Michigan. The last poll that used live telephone interviews (and therefore included calls to cell phones) was done by EPIC/MRA for the Detroit Free Press and several television stations between October 22-25 and showed Ms. Clinton ahead 41 percent to 34 percent, as opposed to the 43-32 lead Ms. Clinton enjoyed in the wake of the first debate and the “Access Hollywood” video.

But Michigan’s trend lines, while better for Ms. Clinton than she runs nationally, have followed the national pattern, so it’s reasonable to conclude the race has tightened up here, though to be clear, a five- to seven-point lead for Ms. Clinton is still a solid lead. The final RealClearPolitics average in 2012 had President Barack Obama up four points on Republican Mitt Romney, and Mr. Obama won by 9.5 percentage points, for example.

There’s considerable uncertainty given the uniqueness of this presidential election about what effect the result between Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump in Michigan will have down the ballot. One thing that Democrats had hoped for and Republicans dreaded appears unlikely compared to three weeks ago: Mr. Trump’s campaign is not in a state of collapse that would dispirit Republican voters and prompt them to stay home in the kind of mass numbers that would severely damage Republicans running in competitive U.S. House and Michigan House races.

That puts the dynamic of the race back to where it was before the “Access Hollywood” video, a five-ish point lead for Ms. Clinton in the state, with significant geographical variances (Ms. Clinton strong in Wayne and Oakland counties as well as counties with a public university or significant urban center and Mr. Trump strong in Macomb County, northern Michigan and other areas that are mostly white and with a relatively lower percentage of voters with a bachelor’s degree.

Of the most critical Michigan House races, seven have Clinton-friendly demographics, seven have Trump-friendly demographics and one is a wash.

A Trump collapse would have jeopardized Republicans in the Trump-friendly areas with his advantage lessened. Now he should still be a plus in these areas. A collapse also would have enhanced the Democrats’ chances of seizing some GOP-leaning seats in Clinton territory. She’ll still help there, but the height of the wave is in doubt.

There’s something else that comes back into play with Mr. Trump having stabilized: a return to the discussion in September about candidate vs. candidate dynamics having greater importance and more ticket-splitting than usual as voters isolate the presidential race from the rest of the ticket given the widespread unpopularity of both nominees.

That leaves these critical questions for Michigan House candidates:

  • Do new voters motivated to participate by Mr. Trump vote the rest of the ballot after the presidential race, and if they do, do they go straight Republican or make candidate-by-candidate decisions?
  • Do Republican voters with bachelor’s degrees who eschew Mr. Trump and instead skip the presidential race or vote for another candidate return to their Republican roots for the rest of the ballot?

The answers to those questions will go a long way to answering which party controls the House in the 2017-18 term.

Back to top

A Fun Bet On The Presidential Election

Posted: October, 25 2016 4:34 PM

The number almost everyone will watch on Election Day is 270, as in the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

Coworkers Nick DeLeeuw and Joe Becsey will have their eyes on another number: 150.

With expectations of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton winning decisively over Republican Donald Trump, Mr. DeLeeuw and Mr. Becsey, who work for the Resch Strategies firm, decided to spice things up with a bet, not over who would win, but whether Mr. Trump could even manage 150 electoral votes.

Mr. DeLeeuw proclaimed Mr. Trump would fall short of 150 electoral votes, which would be the worst performance by a major party candidate since 1988 when Democrat Michael Dukakis won just 111. Mr. Becsey, seeing a virtual lock on having Mr. DeLeeuw buy him lunch at the Lansing eatery of his choice (that’s what the winner gets), was all too happy to take the side of Mr. Trump hitting that meager 150 electoral vote threshold.

This bet was made many months ago. And at the time, it seemed Mr. DeLeeuw had little to no shot.

Ms. Clinton could win every traditional swing state, plus all the solid Democratic states, plus the congressional district in the Omaha region of Nebraska and she would have 348 electoral votes to 190 for Mr. Trump. In other words, even a very strong Clinton performance would still mean victory for Mr. Bescey and a lunch on Mr. DeLeeuw’s tab.

Even as Mr. Trump faltered after the conventions, this dynamic never really changed.

And in September, when Mr. Trump pulled almost even in national polls and the swing states began to tighten, it began to look like Mr. Becsey was not even going to break a sweat on election night with Mr. Trump passing 200, maybe even 250 electoral votes.

Now, however, with the three debates concluded and the revelation of the “Access Hollywood” video featuring Mr. Trump boasting about groping women "by the p---y,” the pendulum has shifted, and some once unthinkable results in longtime blood red states are becoming possible.

Arizona has gotten shaky and by all accounts is a tossup. Losing it would drop Mr. Trump to 179 electoral votes. The independent Evan McMullin could win Utah, whose heavily Mormon population has recoiled from Mr. Trump. If that happens, Mr. Trump falls to 173.

Mr. Trump has a small lead in Georgia. A Clinton victory there would drop Mr. Trump to 157 electoral votes.

Now is when the path gets really difficult for Mr. DeLeeuw.

Mr. DeLeeuw had once pointed to Missouri, its 10 electoral votes and onetime penchant as a bellwether, but that increasingly seems off the table and firmly in Mr. Trump’s possession.

The best scenario for Mr. DeLeeuw probably involves Texas. If Ms. Clinton somehow pulls off what most would have said was impossible – winning this longtime Republican bastion – then Mr. Trump falls to just 119 electoral votes and even flipping Iowa, where Mr. Trump is ahead, and Ohio, which is a dead heat, away from Ms. Clinton would still leave him short of 150 electoral votes with just 143.

Or Mr. DeLeeuw would need Ms. Clinton to hold onto Iowa and Ohio, and win a state like South Carolina, dropping Mr. Trump to 148, or a combination of states like Mississippi and Idaho, causing him to fall to 147 (Idaho almost surely would never vote for Ms. Clinton, but Mr. McMullin could have a shot there). Mississippi, with its large African-American voting population, and Idaho, with a large Mormon population, would be reaches but are getting at least a little attention.

So there you have it. If Mr. DeLeeuw is going to enjoy lunch on Mr. Becsey’s dime at The Creole, Soup Spoon Café, Meat, DeLuca’s or some other outstanding Lansing eatery, it’s going to come down to states like Texas, South Carolina, Idaho and Mississippi.

Now, if it wasn’t already clear, you know why Mr. Becsey was more than happy to take that bet.

Back to top

Dust-Up In MIGOP On Day Telling In Many Ways

Posted: October, 17 2016 4:00 PM

Hey, remember when Wendy Day was at the forefront of the tea party movement in Michigan? She was a key voice and organizer and memorably put together a “Snowman Protest” where she and other activists used the snow on the Capitol lawn to make scores of snowmen holding signs with conservative messages to greet legislators at the Capitol.

Now supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump are on the verge of convincing Michigan Republican Party Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel to evict her from her post as grassroots vice chair of the Michigan Republican Party because she refuses to endorse Mr. Trump.

The pro-Trump forces, not unreasonably, are furious that an elected officer of the state party refuses to support the Republican Party’s presidential nominee. The NeverTrump elements of the party, not unreasonably, are incredulous that the party would ostracize a longtime loyal member of the party who has a conscientious objection to Mr. Trump. Ms. Day, who was the Michigan director for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign, has long considered Mr. Trump anathema, even before the litany of Trump revelations that are too numerous to name here.

This appears part of the same strain of invective that prompted the Grand Traverse County Republican Party to declare it would no longer recognize former Governor William Milliken as a member of the party. Unlike Mr. Milliken, however, Ms. Day has made it clear she will not be voting for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. She has said she is on team “NeverHillary” though has left it vague on who will get her vote, if anyone. In a Monday post, Ms. Day said she has advocated voting a straight Republican ballot.

This is something of a curious move though by the Michigan Republican Party.

After four years of watching Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema cause the party all manner of problems with his reposting of various rants, tropes, and outright lies on his Facebook page about Muslims, gays and African-Americans and insisting it could do nothing to remove him, the party is poised to remove Ms. Day from office. Party spokesperson Sarah Anderson said Mr. Agema, as a member of the national committee, was not a state party officer subject to removal under the state party bylaw saying the chair could vacate the office of any officer who fails to support the Republican nominee for any office.

So it’s a different situation, they say.

Of course, does this mean that Governor Rick Snyder, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Cascade Township) are no longer considered de facto party leaders? They all have refused to endorse Mr. Trump. State Rep. Martin Howrylak (R-Troy) is another. Two Republican candidates for the Michigan House, Ben Frederick of Owosso and Steve Johnson of Shelbyville, also have refused to endorse Mr. Trump. What about them? And what of Lt. Governor Brian Calley, who withdrew his endorsement of Mr. Trump?

This is a curious fight to pick three weeks before Election Day. What’s more damaging, Ms. Day’s occasional anti-Trump Facebook post (and she has posted plenty of anti-Clinton material too) or a huge public fight that only stokes what’s already an incendiary topic in the party?

Ms. Day’s post is up for election next year before the Michigan Republican Party state convention. The smarter play would seem to be to challenge her then and leave it up to the party’s activists at the convention to judge her actions. But Mr. Trump’s closing message is all about rage and vengeance, so why should this situation be any different?

Back to top

Gongwer Election App Price Reduced

Posted: October, 17 2016 12:18 AM

Gongwer News Service has reduced the price of its 2016 Michigan Elections app by 57 percent with less than a month to go until Election Day.

Now for just $2.99, those with iOS and Android devices can download the app to keep on top of the latest analysis in races for the Michigan House, Michigan’s 16 electoral votes for president, key U.S. House races and more.

The app contains biographical information on almost every state and federal candidate, along with photos, contact information, endorsements, previous election performance, social media links as well as a push notification system to alert you to newly posted information and breaking news.

On election night, the app will provide live election results as well as notification alerts on key races.

Don’t miss out on the only native app available on Michigan elections this year.

Users of the iPhone and iPad can download the iOS version from the App Store: http://appstore.com/2016MichiganElections

Users of Android devices can download the app from Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.gongwer.mi2016

Quality. Speed. Portability. The vital information you need on the 2016 elections in Michigan.

Download the Gongwer 2016 Michigan Elections app today.

Back to top

Trump Collapse Would Imperil House GOP Majority

Posted: October, 11 2016 2:41 PM

If Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign is in free-fall, and the early indications following the revelation of a video in which he boasted about groping women by their “p---y” suggest it is, then the opportunity for Democrats to win control of the Michigan House goes from plausible to very real.

It’s not so much that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton would bring in a slew of Democrats on her coattails. She could help in a few select seats, but is struggling to gain traction in much of the state.

No, the concern for Republicans and the hope for Democrats has to be some type of reprise of what happened in 2008 that led to a Democratic tsunami in Michigan.

That scenario would look like this: Polls overwhelmingly show Mr. Trump falling far behind Ms. Clinton. A percentage of Republican voters become dispirited and decide not to vote. Democrats show up in numbers roughly equivalent to 2012.

If those events occur, and the chances of them occurring today are real (as opposed to prior to the first debate when they were not realistic), then one event occurs with clear consequences: the Republican base erosion in House districts will push several seats now on a knife’s edge into the Democratic column.

Another event will occur with unknown consequences: Mr. Trump may still win in the areas where he is now strong (northern Michigan, Macomb County, south central Michigan), but his victory margin likely will not be what it would have been before the collapse. Republicans have been hoping that Mr. Trump’s strength in these areas, which overlap with several competitive House districts, would give their candidates a lift, though all sides acknowledge it is unknown how Trump voters that are not part of the usual Republican base will vote the rest of the ballot, if they vote it at all.

The Democrats need to flip nine seats away from Republicans to win the majority.

That’s always been a tall task. And the presidential race has been remarkably volatile with Ms. Clinton moving out to big leads in the polls followed by her numbers falling back to near Mr. Trump’s level of a support only to then move out to a big lead again. With a month to go until Election Day, if the pattern holds, the race could tighten again.

But the one fear for Republicans has to be a total collapse from Mr. Trump with hundreds of their voters or more in each key district deciding for whatever reason they don’t want to vote, be it a sense of futility, disappointment with Mr. Trump, or some other reason.

This election is in uncharted waters with a month to go. The presidential candidate of one of the two major political parties is openly warring with top leaders in his party and vice-versa. He is falling abruptly in the polls. There is a sense every day that some new unbelievable revelation will rock his campaign.

The signs are there of a collapse, it’s just too early to know for sure whether it is happening and if it will last through Election Day. Most Republicans say there’s no panic, only a resolve to keep working to turn out their voters, no matter what they think of the presidential race, because that is the surest way to protect the House.

Back to top

What Happened To The Battles For State Supreme Court?

Posted: October, 4 2016 4:44 PM

For the second consecutive election, the races for the Michigan Supreme Court are an afterthought, the two challengers nominated by the Democrats generally seen as sacrificial lambs set to lose to the Republican-nominated incumbents in landslides.

It’s a remarkable contrast from the previous decade when the two political parties waged all-out battles in every election cycle for control of the court.

I’ll pause a minute from this blog to welcome readers who are not subscribers to Gongwer News Service to our newly redesigned website. If you think the blog looks much better than the previous iteration of the website (and it does), sign up for a free trial subscription so you can check out everything we have to offer.

The court consists of five justices nominated by the Michigan Republican Party and two nominated by the Michigan Democratic Party. While the parties nominate candidates, they are officially nonpartisan.

Two years ago, it seemed as though there was some handshake deal – and to be clear, no one ever confirmed that was the case – that Democrats would leave alone the two Republican incumbents running for the court and Republicans would not attack then-attorney and now-Justice Richard Bernstein in his bid for one of the slots. In the end, the two Republican incumbents won as did Mr. Bernstein.

Now Justice David Viviano, a GOP nominee, is running for a full term. And Justice Joan Larsen, appointed to the bench by Governor Rick Snyder, is running as a Republican nominee to fill out the remainder of the term to which she is appointed.

The Democrats nominated Wayne Circuit Judge Frank Szymanski to challenge Mr. Viviano and Wayne Circuit Judge Deborah Thomas to run against Ms. Larsen.

But the activity by Democrats in the race is undetectable. Even the Michigan Association for Justice, the association of trial lawyers which is a major cog in the Michigan Democratic Party, has decided to sit out the Viviano-Szymanski race. That would be the equivalent of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce doing the same for a Republican nominee to the court. The trial lawyers did endorse Ms. Thomas.

In the past, these were multimillion-dollar races with dark money coursing through them. There was an ad funded by conservative/Republican forces in 2000 that made one of the Democratic candidates look like a pedophile sympathizer. And there was the Democratic ad in 2008 that used a dramatization to show an actor playing then-Justice Clifford Taylor falling asleep.

There could be several reasons for the de-emphasis on the court.

One, it remains extremely difficult and costly to dislodge an incumbent, and that’s the task facing Democrats this year. Two, former Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer was the one who elevated the court’s importance in elections, and the de-emphasis on the court has coincided with his no longer serving in that post.

Three, and this may just be a coincidence, but the bad blood on the court that dominated the previous decade is gone. While several of the justices in the previous decade clearly loathed each other, that rancor appears gone with several of the key antagonists in that drama no longer on the court. While the majority and minority opinions used to lash out at the others of the other side, even going so far as to use footnotes to try to get the last word, opinions today seem more uniform than ever, with disagreements remaining civil.

Whatever the reason, the court races are returning to obscurity, where they will likely stay until 2020, when Justice Stephen Markman no longer can run again because of the constitutional age limit preventing people from running for judge once they reach 70. That’s when the court race may not be so sleepy.

Back to top

First Domino Falls In Determining Energy Legislation Path

Posted: September, 27 2016 2:53 PM

For nearly the entirety of the 2015-16 term, one of the constant front-burner issues facing the 98th Legislature has been energy policy.

The big questions for nearly two years: Should the state continue to require utilities to generate a percentage of their power from renewable sources, and if so, should the current 10 percent requirement go up? Should it be about renewable energy or “clean” energy (the latter of which includes natural gas)? Should there be more or less competition for electric customers? Should there be changes in how companies obtain approval for new power plants? What requirements should the alternative electric suppliers have to assure their customers they can supply them with power?

It is a debate that has engaged an array of interest groups, ranging from environmentalists to free-market libertarians to the state’s major utilities and more. Seemingly every multi-client lobbying firm has a client on the issue.

Once it became clear that the legislation had stalled (separate legislation on the floor of the House and the floor of the Senate has been unable to get the votes for passage), those following the issue said there were two key dominos to fall to determine what would happen with the issue in the post-election, lame-duck session.

One: Do Republicans retain control of the House, or do Democrats win the majority?

Two: If Republicans retain the House, who is the next speaker, Rep. Tom Leonard III (R-DeWitt) or Rep. Robert VerHeulen (R-Walker)?

The assumption was those questions would be answered in that order because typically a competitive leadership races settles out after the election once the exact membership of a legislative caucus is known.

But Monday, produced a surprise with Mr. VerHeulen conceding the race to Mr. Leonard.

The outcome of the leadership race is important to the energy issue because many of the same House Republicans who opposed the pending bill because they view it as hostile to customer choice are backing Mr. Leonard, including Rep. Gary Glenn (R-Midland), the vice chair of the Energy Policy Committee who along with Sen. Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) has been an especially strong advocate of greater customer choice.

Mr. Leonard told Gongwer News Service in June he had no position on the legislation and had made no promises about who would chair committees in the 2017-18 term. But there is ample talk around the Capitol about the possibility of Mr. Leonard naming Mr. Glenn the Energy Policy chair and how that would totally reshape the playing field. Mr. VerHeulen had said he was undecided on the legislation, but sources said those supporting him tended to be more utility-friendly.

The current Energy Policy chair, Rep. Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton), is a strong ally of the utilities. And the utilities, the main advocates for the bills in the House and Senate, ideally want less customer choice, not more, but would be content with new regulations and requirements on how those alternative electric suppliers purchase power for their customers.

Now, everyone with an interest in the energy issue knows that if the Republicans keep the House, Mr. Leonard is going to be the next speaker. And he’ll be naming the new Energy Policy chair. Even if he picks someone other than Mr. Glenn, the safe bet is on a chair who is far less in sync on energy policy with the utilities than Mr. Nesbitt is.

Energy always was looming as a likely issue to resolve in lame duck session because of the politics and its complexity. Now Consumers Energy and DTE Energy are facing some serious pressure if Republicans keep the House. If the utilities can’t win passage of a bill they can live with before the Legislature concludes its session in December, they could be looking at two more years before they get another chance.

Back to top

Driskell Links Walberg To Obama

Posted: September, 22 2016 4:24 PM

Republicans have had a field day for years linking Democratic candidates to President Barack Obama in parts of the country where he is unpopular, and apparently Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg’s Democratic challenger, state Rep. Gretchen Driskell, has decided to borrow the tactic.

In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried the 7th U.S. House District over Mr. Obama, 51 percent to 47.9 percent, according to Daily Kos. It’s not unreasonable to think in this mostly rural, socially conservative district in south central Michigan that Mr. Obama’s popularity has dropped in the four years since the election.

There’s little doubt part of the Republican playbook is to link Ms. Driskell, of Saline, to Mr. Obama (and the roster of other top Democrats like presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi).

It’s somewhat subtle, but Ms. Driskell’s latest television advertisement throws the argument back at Mr. Walberg, of Tipton. Ms. Driskell is hammering at Mr. Walberg’s support of free trade deals in her commercials so far, and the latest one includes a shot at his voting to give Mr. Obama fast-track negotiating authority on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“Just last year, he voted to give Obama enhanced power to negotiate TPP,” the narrator says in the commercial of Mr. Walberg.

If you closed your eyes and had no idea about the backgrounds of the candidates, you’d think it was a Republican ad attacking a Democrat. It sounds like the Driskell campaign found one of the narrators the Republicans typically hire who can pronounce “Obama” with just the right mixture of nausea and loathing.

Ms. Driskell has an uphill battle. The district leans Republican, and it’s a district where Republican Donald Trump is likely to outperform Ms. Clinton. She started the campaign as an unknown in the district outside of her home turn in Washtenaw County. Mr. Walberg is running for the seat for the seventh time, and while he’s not known as a campaigning dynamo (he lost an open seat race in 2004 and then lost as an incumbent in 2008), he’s a known commodity.

That said, Ms. Driskell has to win some soft Republicans and independents to win the seat. There are not enough Democrats to carry her to victory. This ad seems like a crafty move.

Will it work? We’ll know if the National Republican Congressional Committee gets involved in the race and starts airing ads attacking Ms. Driskell. If that happens, and the president happens to visit Monroe, Adrian, Jackson, Hillsdale, Coldwater, Saline or Eaton Rapids this fall, he probably should not turn on the television. It looks like he’ll be getting attacked by friends and foes alike.

Back to top

Snyder Ads For House Candidates Tout Snyder Too

Posted: September, 20 2016 3:35 PM

Governor Rick Snyder is taking a more aggressive role on behalf of House Republican candidates this year than he has in the previous two elections during his time as governor, using a nonprofit to air ads on behalf of six candidates so far.

Mr. Snyder, as he has done in the past, also is hitting the fundraising circuit for House GOP hopefuls as well.

It’s no wonder why Mr. Snyder wants to keep the House. Should the Democrats win the majority, it would greatly complicate his ability to move on his key remaining agenda items for his final two years in office. As Gongwer News Service first reported last week, that includes a major initiative to address unfunded municipal liabilities.

More problematic for the governor, a House Democratic majority could do what Republicans have refused – call Mr. Snyder, Lt. Governor Brian Calley and Snyder appointees to testify before committees on the Flint water crisis with subpoenas if necessary and have them testify under oath. House Minority Leader Tim Greimel (D-Auburn Hills), who would likely become the speaker if the Democrats win majority, has called for Mr. Snyder to resign over the water crisis.

Monday, Mr. Snyder’s political team unveiled ads, paid for by a 501(c)4 and thus not subject to disclosure, and what immediately stood out was the ads appear to have a dual purpose. Usually, issue ads praise the candidate, talk about how great they are and urge viewers to thank that person (because as an issue ad it cannot directly call for the viewer to vote for the candidate).

These ads do praise the candidate, but more time is spent praising the record of Mr. Snyder.

By my count, the first 13 seconds in each ad laud Mr. Snyder’s record (during which time Mr. Snyder and Mr. Calley are seen walking and talking as the narrator says, “Under Governor Rick Snyder’s leadership, over 450,000 jobs have been created, unemployment is the lowest in 15 years and education funding is at record levels”). The next 11 seconds tout the candidate and the final six seconds call for viewers to visit www.michigancomebackstory.org with a final disclaimer of who paid for the ad using Mr. Snyder’s voice.

Here’s one of the ads that touts Rep. Brandt Iden (R-Oshtemo). The other ads are essentially the same, just sub out Mr. Iden for another candidate.

The strategy is curious on a couple levels. One, at best, Mr. Snyder has split popularity numbers. Statewide, his job approval/popularity numbers are poor. A survey out today from Morning Consult of all 50 states showed he is the fourth least popular governor in the country with a disapproval rating of 61 percent.

Now, that is statewide, and the districts where the ads are running all tend slightly Republican. So surely Mr. Snyder’s standing in these districts is much better, though it’s hard to imagine any of them where he is overwhelmingly popular. If Mr. Snyder was boasting an approval rating of more than 60 percent, then an ad like this could be a useful way to transfer some of that popularity to these candidates. Instead, the ads seem to gamble time that could have been spent on the candidates on tying them to Mr. Snyder.

Most of these districts featured in the ads, however, are unlikely to actually be competitive.

Mr. Iden’s seat remains somewhat in doubt, but he’s the favorite there. The same is true of Republican Bronna Kahle of Clinton in the 57th District and Rep. Klint Kesto (R-Commerce Township) in the 39th District. Republicans Julie Alexander of Hanover in the 64th District and Beth Griffin of Mattawan in the 66th District are solid favorites. I’m not aware of anyone who thought Republican Pamela Hornberger of Chesterfield Township in the 32nd District was anything other than a lock, but one of the ads features her.

It’s an interesting move by Mr. Snyder. He is lending a hand to some candidates who probably don’t need it, probably building some goodwill by doing so with those will be in the House the next two years and in the process working on rebuilding his standing with voters.

Democrats could hardly be happier about the move since they see Mr. Snyder as a political anchor. If they think it is truly damaging, then one would expect to see them tying Mr. Kesto, Ms. Kahle and Mr. Iden to Mr. Snyder in a much less flattering way, and with some real money behind the message, not just a press release.

Back to top

Marino Fiasco Gives Dems’ House Hopes A Lift

Posted: September, 12 2016 2:55 PM

The Democratic path to finding the nine seats necessary to win House control has looked pretty difficult lately with problematic top of the ticket dynamics affecting several of the seats they hope to flip away from Republicans, but they uncorked a doozy of hit Monday on one of the more touted Republican recruits that has the potential to tilt that race toward the Democrats.

Democratic operatives posing as constituents got Steve Marino of Harrison Township, the Republican nominee in the 24th District in Macomb County, on audio saying some very damaging things at a coffee hour session Mr. Marino held.

On those recordings, Mr. Marino:

  • Claims he assisted in obtaining transportation for an allegedly drunken Rep. Al Pscholka (R-Stevensville) while Mr. Marino was in Lansing at a bar and helped front the money for the wedding tab of former Sen. Roger Kahn’s daughter;
  • Trashes House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant) for failing to keep the House Republican Caucus in line; and
  • Details how he is keeping his property taxes low by keeping his property in his father’s name.

Confronted with some of those recordings by the Detroit Free Press, which was given the recordings by the Michigan Democratic Party for a story published Monday, Mr. Marino recanted and said he had made up the claims about Mr. Pscholka and Mr. Kahn. Mr. Pscholka denied the story in a statement, and Mr. Kahn also denied the story to the Free Press.

So to recap, Mr. Marino insulted the current leader of the GOP caucus and the House Appropriations Committee chair (Mr. Pscholka, the second most powerful member of the caucus), dragged into the muck Rep. Tom Leonard III (R-DeWitt Township), possibly the next House Republican leader, while also managing to wreck his own credibility (he claims to have called Mr. Leonard during the purported Pscholka incident). He’s either a fabulist, or, if the stories were true (and he did not disclose those expenses on his lobbying disclosure reports), possibly violated ethics rules.

And this has to be extremely awkward for the House Republican Caucus. How do they go to bat for a guy who was caught, at best, bad-mouthing their leaders and at worst admitting to violating the lobbying disclosure law? The quest for majority usually overrides all, but the House GOP will have to swallow hard on this one.

The 24th District, which covers Harrison Township and parts of Clinton Township and Macomb Township, has been shaping up as a key race for some time. The Democratic candidate is Dana Camphous-Peterson of Harrison Township, a former Macomb County commissioner and top aide to County Executive Mark Hackel.

This appears a pretty serious wound, but how serious is as yet unclear. And let’s not forget that many candidates have survived what seem like devastating revelations/attacks to go on to win because their opponents are weak candidates, the district simply is too favorable toward their party or the top of the ticket dynamic overwhelms all else to their benefit.

And let’s especially not forget this is Macomb County. Candidates have overcome worse.

For the Democrats, who had been sitting on these recordings since December, both key Macomb seats (the other being the 30th District in Sterling Heights/Shelby Township) now look more gettable than they did two months ago. The Republican candidate in the 30th District, Diana Farrington, had a lackluster showing in the primary against a fringe opponent.

The building problem for Democrats to get those nine seats they need is that northern Michigan – where there are three key seats – increasingly looks like an uphill fight for them. Republican Donald Trump is way, way ahead of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the seats north of Clare. If, for argument’s sake, the Republicans keep all three of those seats, then the best path for Democrats to win the majority starts with winning the 23rd District Downriver, both Macomb seats, the 62nd District in Battle Creek, the 71st District in Eaton County, the 91st District in suburban Muskegon County and the 99th District in Isabella and Midland counties.

That’s seven seats.

Seats eight and nine would have to come from a basket of seats where Democrats would have to overcome a base vote that tilts GOP, an area where Mr. Trump is going to outperform Ms. Clinton, oust two-term incumbents, or some combination of those factors (the 20th District in northwest Wayne County, the 39th and 41st Districts in Oakland County, the 56th District in Monroe County, the 57th District in Lenawee County, the 61st District in southwest Kalamazoo County and the 101st, 106th and 108th Districts in northern Michigan).

Prior to today’s Marino story, the Democrats’ northern Michigan problem had nine seats looking out of reach, barring Mr. Trump single-handedly wrecking the Republicans in the Detroit suburbs or a whole lot of ticket-splitting outstate. That’s still the case.

But to have that chance, Democrats need both Macomb County seats. That wasn’t a great bet prior to today.

Not anymore.

Back to top

A Political Realignment Could Be Coming On Legislative Seats

Posted: September, 6 2016 1:58 PM

It is too soon to know if one of the major storylines of the 2016 presidential race – college-educated white voters moving to Democrat Hillary Clinton and blue collar white voters without college degrees coalescing en masse behind Republican Donald Trump – portends a major political realignment.

But if that happens, and no matter who wins the presidency it likely will be a major factor through 2024 when that president (presuming s/he serves two terms) prepares to leave office, the ripple effect into legislative races across the country, for Congress and state legislatures, will be enormous.

In the short-term, it spells big trouble for Michigan Democrats, but in the mid- to long-term the effects could even out.

This year, the voters supporting the Republican nominee are largely white, older and did not complete a bachelor’s degree.

The bulk of the traditionally competitive seats for the Legislature and U.S. House in Michigan tend to be largely white, older and chock-full of voters who did not complete a bachelor’s degree. In the past, this was not a problem for Democrats in those areas because those older voters had come of age during the New Deal and the birth of organized labor. There were still white Democrats in those areas who supported gun rights and opposed abortion, so a pro-gun, antiabortion Democrat with connections to the union movement tended to be an ideal profile for such a district.

Increasingly, such Democrats are hard to find.

This is an especially serious problem in northern Michigan, an area where Democrats not only used to compete, but dominate. As recently as the 2009-10 term, Democrats held all four seats in the Upper Peninsula and three of the northern Lower Peninsula seats with at least some turf north of M-55. Today, Republicans hold all of those Lower Peninsula seats and two of the four in the Upper Peninsula.

There are three seats in this territory this year where Democrats hope to win, and while the Democrats have strong candidates in two of them, the overall atmospherics look overwhelmingly Republican. Mr. Trump looks poised to crush Ms. Clinton and provide major wind at the back of the GOP candidates.

And in looking at many of the other historically swing districts, the demographics are similar (the 56th District in Monroe County, the 57th District in Lenawee County, the 65th District in rural Jackson County, the 84th District in the Thumb, 85th District in Shiawassee and western Saginaw counties, the 97th District that runs through Evart, Clare, Gladwin and Standish and the 110th District in the western Upper Peninsula.

That’s 13 districts in total that have a history of competitiveness that, if recent trends hold, are clearly becoming more hospitable to Republicans and potentially slipping away from Democrats.

There’s a logical way for Democrats to counter what could become a very serious impediment to them winning a majority in the Michigan House. They need to capitalize on the emerging diversity and/or the disproportionately large number of voters with college degrees in several districts historically held by Republicans.

Five districts in metropolitan Detroit immediately come to mind – the 20th District in Plymouth and Northville, the 24th District in and around Mount Clemens, the 30th District in Sterling Heights and Shelby Township, the 39th District in West Bloomfield and Commerce Townships and the 41st District in Troy and Clawson.

And then they need to develop a bench of potential candidates in a place like the 38th District in southwest Oakland County, long a GOP bastion, but a place Republican operatives familiar with the area have noted the booming non-white population (29 percent as of the 2010 census in Novi, the major population base in the district) and the potential for a change in the district’s politics.

Long-term, this demographic trend, if it continues, could even make the 40th District in Birmingham and Bloomfield Township competitive, a once-unthinkable possibility for a seat where 20 years ago Republicans would take 70-plus percent of the vote. The same goes for the 45th District in Rochester/Rochester Hills.

Another district where demographics suggest an emerging opportunity for Democrats is the 61st District in southwest Kalamazoo County. The major population base in the district, Portage, has a large number of residents with at least a bachelor’s degree (40.2 percent) and is increasingly diverse (the white alone population fell from 91 percent in 2000 to 85 percent in 2010). Democrats took a shot at the seat in 2014 and are taking a long look at it again this year, but barring a Clinton tsunami they need a stronger pool of candidates to break through.

The 71st District in Eaton County is another one. Regardless of whether Rep. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) wins re-election this year, the demographics are moving in the Democrats’ direction there. Theresa Abed was the first Democrat to win the seat since 1964 when she won it in 2012. Mr. Barrett defeated her in 2014, but her 2012 breakthrough for Democrats does not look like a fluke. The 99th District in Isabella and Midland counties is another seat to which Republicans have clung, but where the current trend spells trouble for the GOP. Democrats could well win it this year for the first time since the 1930s.

The problem for the Democrats is they are a bit farther away from scoring breakthroughs in all those suburban, increasingly diverse, more highly educated areas than Republicans are from developing an edge in the outstate, rural, mostly white blue collar areas. But if these patterns hold, the future playing field for control of the House – and eventually the state Senate and U.S. House – is going to look much different than it has for the past two decades.

Back to top

Why Won’t The Tough Nerd Get Tough With Trump?

Posted: August, 26 2016 4:02 PM

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has attacked Michigan’s top economic sector and its largest city twice in the past month, but Governor Rick Snyder refuses to respond aggressively.

Mr. Trump described Michigan’s manufacturing sector as a “disaster” in his recent speech in Windsor Township, southwest of Lansing, a statement that is false based on economic data and the anecdotal fact he made that remark within a mile or so of the newish General Motors Lansing Delta Township Assembly plant, which stands as a monument to cooperation between business, labor and government.

When Mr. Trump spoke in Detroit 12 days before the Windsor Township speech, he described the city as in economic tatters. Had he made those remarks three to five years ago, he would have been correct. But the righting of the city’s finances in bankruptcy, combined with a rush of investment in parts of the city, has put Detroit on a much stronger footing albeit still struggling with much higher unemployment than the state as a whole (12.5 percent for the city, 4.5 percent for the state).

Nonetheless, Mr. Snyder loves to label Michigan as the “Comeback State” and Detroit as the “Comeback City,” and one would think he might object to the presidential candidate of a major party, even his own, giving nationally televised and nationally covered speeches presenting the state and its largest city as some kind of dystopian world.

And yes, if you ask Mr. Snyder’s communications staff about Mr. Trump’s description of Michigan, they will counter with economic data and say Mr. Snyder disagrees. And yes, if you ask Mr. Snyder, as reporters did today, he will offer a milquetoast response that Mr. Trump’s comments are “not accurate.” But neither his communications staff, nor Mr. Snyder will criticize Mr. Trump.

And Mr. Snyder took no steps of his own accord to counter. He didn’t have his staff issue a statement dripping with high dudgeon within minutes of Mr. Trump’s Detroit and Windsor Township speeches to defend the state and, by extension, his economic record, against Mr. Trump.

Mr. Snyder’s pat answer is he will not comment on the presidential race, and in some ways that is smart. It is obvious that Mr. Trump is unacceptable to Mr. Snyder but Mr. Snyder can ill-afford to antagonize the Republican base, which in the post-Flint water crisis era remains his one strong well of support among the public, by saying what he really thinks of Mr. Trump.

But Mr. Trump has clearly decided Michigan is a top priority as both Detroit newspapers are reporting he will return for the third time in a month, this time to Detroit over Labor Day weekend.

And that means, apparently, more of Mr. Trump describing the condition of the state’s economy and its largest city in negative terms. Mr. Trump’s purpose is clear, to assign blame to the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and offer himself up as the change candidate with Ms. Clinton representing the status quo from the administration of President Barack Obama.

As with many of Mr. Trump’s statements, however, there’s no nuance, and Mr. Snyder is collateral damage.

But Mr. Snyder has settled on his strategy of turning the other cheek, and he is sticking to it.

Back to top

Requiem For The Capitol’s Flowering Trees

Posted: August, 23 2016 2:31 PM

For many years, one of the truly “Isn’t it great to be alive?” moments in Lansing was in April-ish when the crab trees that lined Capitol Avenue bloomed and permeated the air with this lovely perfume that would actually make someone walking into Capitol Square stop and smell the flowers.

But as part of improvements to the Capitol grounds, the trees were removed in July.

Axed. Shredded. Treated like Steve Buscemi’s character Carl in “Fargo” (look it up, though the video clip is not for the faint of heart).

It turns out there were some legitimate reasons for the slaughter.

Several of the crab trees on the northern edge of the square had died long ago, and arborists concluded the surviving trees had effectively reached the end of their useful life. Leaving the remaining trees in place would compromise the desire for a uniform look, Rob Blackshaw, director of Capitol Facilities said.

And removing all the trees gives the view of the square a cleaner a look too, Mr. Blackshaw said.

I hate to admit it, but he’s right. Taking out those trees does give the eastern edge of Capitol Square a nicer look. Less cluttered. And this is all about trying to bring the Capitol grounds closer to the original master plan for the Capitol from the late 1800s. It’s hard to argue with that goal.

The renovations also resulted in the installation of historic lamp posts at the center walkway of the square near the statue honoring former Governor Austin Blair. The lamp posts evoke those installed when the Capitol was first built and that were removed in the 1920s. Those look great.

But when spring arrives, and the only smell in the air on the Capitol grounds is the air itself, those crab trees will be sorely missed.

Back to top

Why Was Clinton Backing Last Straw For Some Republicans With Milliken?

Posted: August, 16 2016 4:57 PM

Republican former Governor William Milliken has endorsed many Democrats in recent years.

The pattern usually goes something like this.

Democratic candidate X issues a jubilant news release declaring “REPUBLICAN former Governor William Milliken has endorsed Democratic candidate X.” There is usually a quote from Mr. Milliken, famously (or infamously depending on your political persuasion) declaring his disappointment that his party nominated someone far out of the mainstream of Michigan and that Democratic candidate X is the best choice.

Usual Democratic suspects A, B, C and D then take to social media to chortle about how REPUBLICAN former Governor William Milliken endorsed the Democrat, so doesn’t that show how fringe a candidate the Republicans nominated.

Republican candidate Y issues a terse statement about how s/he respects Mr. Milliken, but disagrees with his choice.

Usual Republican suspects E, F, G and H then take to social media to blast Mr. Milliken as a phony Republican who only retains his affiliation with the party to make himself a more effective club against the GOP and for the love of G-d, why does the news media keep treating this like it’s a news story.

Shampoo-Rinse-Repeat.

This is basically what happened when Mr. Milliken endorsed John Kerry for president, Mark Totten for attorney general and state Rep. Gretchen Driskell for the U.S. House, to name a few examples.

So when Mr. Milliken endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump for president, it seemed like that might be the least offensive to Republicans of all the times Mr. Milliken has endorsed a Democrat.

Of course Mr. Milliken was going to endorse Ms. Clinton. Many prominent Republicans around the country are refusing to endorse Mr. Trump, the reasons too numerous to delve into in this space but in short because they think he has failed to show anything remotely resembling presidential behavior, and saying they will vote for Ms. Clinton. Did anyone really think Mr. Milliken would do anything other than endorse Ms. Clinton?

But for some reason, this was the endorsement that caused some Republicans to go from their usual anger at Mr. Milliken to pure fury.

The Grand Traverse County Republican Party adopted a resolution declaring it would no longer recognize Mr. Milliken as a Republican, a move with no actual meaning, but one carrying substantial emotional symbolic weight, which in a way is perfectly emblematic of this election cycle.

Some Republicans, including some of those of the tea party variety, cheered this move. Many, led by Lt. Governor Brian Calley, did not and called for a halt to the cutting off of relationships over political differences.

In the end, it seems the virulent opposition in the Republican Party to Ms. Clinton, mixed in with a splash of rage from the Trump true believers, is what ignited so much wrath toward Mr. Milliken.

And yet all the intensity about Mr. Milliken’s endorsement, from chortling Democrats to enraged Republicans, is inversely proportional to the significance of the endorsement.

Mr. Milliken has not been on a ballot since 1978. No one born after 1960 voted in an election with him on the ballot.

Just as the fabled Reagan Democrats are now mostly either Republicans or dead, the Milliken Republicans are now mostly either Democrats or dead.

It’s not that he’s irrelevant. I would never say that about the longest-tenured governor in this state’s history at 14 years who signed into law some of the most important statutes still on the books and remains a venerable, important, classy figure in Michigan history.

But a Milliken endorsement in 2016 is symbolic compared to what it was in 1986, 1996 or even 2006. Is it really worth all this sound and fury from both sides?

That was a rhetorical question.

Back to top

2016 Results Will Cast Long Shadow Over 2018 Elections In Michigan

Posted: August, 8 2016 3:57 PM

It is highly likely that whichever party’s candidate wins presidency this year, that party’s candidates are going to encounter major problems winning state offices up for election in 2018.

So Democrats, if you knew that having President-elect Hillary Clinton taking the oath of office on January 20, 2017, would mean a Republican like Attorney General Bill Schuette or Lt. Governor Brian Calley celebrating victory in the governor’s race on November 6, 2018, and continued Republican dominance in state government, would you make that trade?

Conversely, Democrats, would you be able to handle Donald Trump, whom I have seen some Democrats liken to Adolf Hitler, in the White House for the next four years if it meant a Democrat like U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee or Ingham County Prosecutor Gretchen Whitmer taking over for Governor Rick Snyder on January 1, 2019, a potential sweep of the Legislature and the chance to undo right-to-work, the emergency manager law, etc?

The same goes for Republicans. Would you be willing to accept four years of Hillary “Lock her up!” Clinton as president if it means continued Republican dominance of state government well into the next decade?

Or, Republicans, is having Mr. Trump making those appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court worth the real possibility of a Democratic tsunami sweeping the state that could reverse the Republican policy legacy of the Engler and Snyder eras?

Surely, partisans will say they want both national and state control for their party.

But the pattern in state government elections compared to the holder of the White House in the last quarter-century is clear: The president’s party loses midterm elections.

The winner of the last six gubernatorial elections in Michigan (and nine of the last 10) has been of a party opposite the president’s.

The pattern in elections for the Legislature is just as pronounced. Since the onset of term limits in the Michigan House in 1998, the president’s party has averaged a loss of six seats in midterm elections. And since the onset of term limits in the Michigan Senate in 2002, the president’s party has averaged a loss of two seats in midterms.

The governor’s race will have its own dynamics. Democrats will have the always powerful “time for change” argument on their side after eight years of Republican Governor Rick Snyder. The Republican nominee will have to execute the same difficult dance Ms. Clinton now faces, how to associate himself or herself with the incumbent’s positives and distance from the incumbent’s problems while avoiding getting swept away in the “time for change” vortex.

But it’s also apparent that whoever takes the oath of office in Washington, D.C., on January 20 is going to take office as the least popular new president in memory. If it is Ms. Clinton, Democratic candidates in 2018 are going to have to shoulder potential voter fatigue with 10 years of Democratic rule. If it is Mr. Trump, the usually lackluster Democratic base turnout in midterms could rival what happened in 2006 when they came out in force. The odds are strong that the atmospherics of 2018 will favor the party that loses this year’s presidential election.

For loyal Democrats and Republicans already in need of antacid over the presidential election, the prospect of a massive defeat in 2018 following victory in 2016 might require upping the dosage.

Back to top

Where GOP Drawn Maps Will Affect House Races … And Where They Won’t

Posted: August, 5 2016 3:55 PM

The contours of Michigan’s legislative district boundaries remain one of the most persistent subjects of argument in state politics, with Democrats continuing to fume at the maps Republicans drew in 2011 as completely unfair and Republicans asking Democrats if they would like some cheese to go with their whine.

After the 2014 elections, many Democrats pointed to the maps as the reason they lost seats instead of gaining them. That was not the case, as I wrote then.

That’s not to say the Republicans didn’t tip the scales on these maps to favor them. They did. Of course they did. But in most of the key 2014 races, the way those districts were drawn was a very small factor in the outcome, if it was one at all.

So as we look ahead to what is shaping up to be another fierce battle for House control this November, it seemed a good time to take a look at the key districts in play and assess how much the design of the 2011 map could factor into the ultimate outcome.

20th DISTRICT (PLYMOUTH/NORTHVILLE): Republicans did make a key change to this seat in 2011. They lopped off the strongly Democratic suburb of Wayne and expanded the small Canton Township portion. That has the surface appearance of partisan hackery, but the old district was bizarre looking, taking in a tiny slice of Canton and then dog-legging right to include Wayne. The new district is more compact and contiguous, and Wayne has much more in common with Westland in its new 16th District home (the two communities share a school district). This is not a gerrymander.

23rd DISTRICT (DOWNRIVER): This is a majority Democratic district. The Democrats have no one to blame but themselves if they lose it for the fourth cycle in a row.

24th DISTRICT (MACOMB COUNTY): Ding, ding, ding! We have a clear Republican gerrymander. For many years, Harrison Township and St. Clair Shores were together in a district. And that made sense with both communities on Lake St. Clair and having a shared interest. But Republicans moved Democratic-leaning St. Clair Shores to the 18th District and instead attached Republican-leaning Harrison Township to the more Republican part of Clinton Township and a small piece of Macomb Township. This district, now held by Rep. Anthony Forlini (R-Harrison Township), but where both parties have strong candidates (Democrat Dana Camphous Peterson vs. Republican Steve Marino), has yet to be tested without an incumbent running. But there’s no question under the old design, the Democrats would be in great shape.

30th DISTRICT (STERLING HEIGHTS/UTICA/SHELBY): This district used to be the bulk of Sterling Heights, but explosive population growth in northern Macomb County meant some changes had to happen. Democrats have not held this seat in a quarter-century (when Sal Rocca was a Democrat). The Shelby Township addition is not helpful to their cause, but it’s also not clear given the population shifts in the county what could be done much differently. If Democrat Mike Notte, son of the legendary late Sterling Heights Mayor Richard Notte, can’t win it, probably no Democrat can.

39th DISTRICT (WEST BLOOMFIELD/COMMERCE TOWNSHIPS): Yes, the Republicans stuck it to the Democrats here. Republicans shifted the most Democratic-leaning part of West Bloomfield to the 40th District and replaced it with more conservative Wixom. It’s still a winnable seat for the Democrats, but it gives Rep. Klint Kesto (R-Commerce Township) some breathing room.

56th DISTRICT (MONROE COUNTY): There’s not much room to mess with this seat. It used to reach up into a Democratic-leaning area of Washtenaw County, but population growth in Washtenaw County meant that was no longer possible. This is a 50-50 seat that’s fairly drawn.

57th DISTRICT (LENAWEE COUNTY): This district has looked the same for decades: the entire county minus one township. No gerrymander here.

61st DISTRICT (SOUTHWEST KALAMAZOO COUNTY): Unless staunchly Democratic Kalamazoo was split in half, there’s not much room for creativity in the Kalamazoo County districts. There’s one for the city of Kalamazoo, one for Portage and the western townships and one for the eastern townships plus part of Calhoun County. Some northern townships go with the 66th District in Van Buren County. It’d be hard to argue that splitting the city in half would make sense.

62nd DISTRICT (BATTLE CREEK): This is a majority Democratic district that Republicans actually made more Democratic in 2011 to tilt the neighboring 63rd District more Republican. But a Republican, Rep. John Bizon of Battle Creek, won it anyway in 2014. So the map doesn’t get the blame here if Democrats lose it again.

64th DISTRICT (JACKSON): This wasn’t an outrageous redrawing of the map, but the version that existed in the 1990s made more sense. It had Jackson, Blackman and Summit townships in one seat with the rest of the county in a donut-shape seat in the 65th. Both seats could be made more compact with less regard for partisan considerations. It’s tilted to the GOP now.

71st DISTRICT (EATON COUNTY): Republicans moved some of the more Republican turf out of this seat into the 65th District. Eaton County is trending Democratic in presidential election cycles. The Democrats have no complaints on this district’s design.

91st DISTRICT (SUBURBAN MUSKEGON): If the Democrats had the pen, they would find a way to swap out some turf in this district in exchange for heavily Democratic Muskegon Heights from the 92nd District. But Muskegon Heights has been in the 92nd District for a long time, going back to the 1990s, and this is a pure 50/50 seat, so this is about as fairly drawn as it gets.

99th DISTRICT (MOUNT PLEASANT AREA): Republicans swapped out Clare County in the 2001 reapportionment plan for part of more Republican Midland County and that continued with the 2011 plan. It was no accident. Clare County has several countywide elected Democrats and Democrats do reasonably well in the statewide education board races there. Midland is a GOP bastion. If it was just Isabella County in the district, Democrat Bryan Mielke would have unseated House Speaker Kevin Cotter in 2014, so the non-Isabella turf in this seat is critical.

101st DISTRICT (MASON, MANISTEE, BENZIE, LEELANAU COUNTIES): This has been a fairly stable district for decades with a common interest as all are Lake Michigan shoreline counties. No egregious map-drawing here.

106th DISTRICT (NORTHEAST LOWER PENINSULA): This district has changed considerably through the last three reapportionment plans. It was probably the worst for Democrats in the 1990s when it was Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan and Charlevoix counties. No matter how the map is sliced up here, it’s going to be Democrat-friendly Alpena County attached to more GOP-leaning territory. If the Democrats lose it, it will be because they had problems getting their preferred candidate through the primary for the second cycle in a row.

108th DISTRICT (UPPER PENINSULA): The contours of this seat in the Bay de Noc region of the Upper Peninsula have held steady for decades regardless of who was drawing the maps.

It should be noted, there are some open seats this year that Democrats might have fought for had they been drawn differently (there’s two Up North and one in the Thumb that come to mind)

But of the 16 most important races for control of the House, four of those (the 24th, 39th, 64th and 99th) clearly were drawn to favor Republicans. The other 12, not so much to not at all.

Will the Democrats have a beef with redistricting if they fall short of the House majority amid a big win for Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket? If they narrowly lose those four seats and were within four or less seats of the majority? Perhaps, depending on how close those races end up and what other factors might have led to a loss.

Back to top

‘Knollenbergman’ Effect Might Spring 1st District Surprise

Posted: August, 1 2016 4:15 PM

Two well-known Republicans who have won elected office smashing each other to pieces with negative attacks. An outsider making his first run for major elected office who unexpectedly wins the primary for a congressional seat when voters decide they have grown to dislike the other two so much that the third option is preferable.

It happened in 1992 when Joe Knollenberg came out of nowhere to defeat Oakland Circuit Judge Alice Gilbert and state Sen. David Honigman in the Republican primary for a congressional seat in Oakland County.

It might be happening again in the 1st U.S. House District this year where retired Marine General Jack Bergman, the political rookie compared to the other two Republicans in the race, former Sen. Jason Allen of Traverse City and Sen. Tom Casperson of Escanaba, was mostly an afterthought until two weeks ago.

It was two weeks ago when Mr. Bergman filed his second quarter campaign finance report showing he had committed $270,000 of his own funds to the campaign (though Mr. Bergman has not responded to repeated inquiries from Gongwer News Service about the source of those funds, which is not apparent on his financial disclosure form unless he converted funds from retirement plans). He's put another $79,000 of his money into the campaign since July 1. Those funds put him essentially on par with Mr. Allen and Mr. Casperson. He has run his ads, sent out his mail and continued to campaign basically unscathed until last week.

Meanwhile, Mr. Allen and Mr. Casperson blistered each other, picking apart each other’s voting records to pin the other as a liberal out of step with Republican voters. Outside groups have hammered at them as well.

It sounds familiar. In 1992, Ms. Gilbert and Mr. Honigman were seen as the top candidates in that GOP primary. They proceeded to eviscerate each other. Mr. Knollenberg ended up winning decisively with a general consensus that he won for two reasons – the attacks between Ms. Gilbert and Mr. Honigman soured voters on both of them, making Mr. Knollenberg an appealing alternative, and Mr. Knollenberg had Right to Life of Michigan’s endorsement.

In the 1st District this year, Right to Life has declared all three candidates acceptable. But now that Republicans watching the race say Mr. Allen and Mr. Casperson and their attendant supporters have driven up the other side’s negatives, both campaigns are starting to come after Mr. Bergman.

The question is whether it is too little, too late.

Back to top

Snyder Missed An Opportunity With New DEQ Director

Posted: July, 19 2016 3:56 PM

One of the best chances Governor Rick Snyder had to win back some trust and change the narrative on the Flint water crisis this year floated away last week when he made his selection for a new Department of Environmental Quality director.

The DEQ’s reputation has plummeted in the past year. It first adamantly denied any problem with lead in the water in Flint, then relented in the face of outside data proving otherwise and was cited as the single biggest culprit in the decisions that enabled lead to leach from service lines into the water. As a result, Mr. Snyder asked DEQ Director Dan Wyant to resign, and Mr. Wyant departed.

For more than six months, DEQ Interim Director Keith Creagh has helmed the department, but it was always clear that was not a permanent situation.

Mr. Snyder could have named someone with credibility in the environmental community, either someone with a track record of fighting for the environment, someone with a scientific background or someone who could speak to Flint with the standing to allow the Snyder administration someone to speak on its behalf who would not immediately be dismissed.

In selecting Heidi Grether, however, Mr. Snyder chose someone who has spent the bulk of her career in communications and lobbying for BP oil company, the same firm responsible for the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The announcement was rocky. Ms. Grether, deputy director for the Michigan Agency for Energy, was not made available for interviews to discuss her plans for the DEQ, and Mr. Snyder’s incensed critics were all too willing to fill the void. The administration was less than forthcoming about her history with BP in its official release, saying only that she “helped to lead Gulf Coast restoration efforts.”

Ms. Grether’s LinkedIn page told a different story, showing the bulk of her work was as a multistate lobbyist for the company and that her work on the Deepwater Horizon response was largely confined to communications and preventing any anti-BP legislation from Gulf Coast states.

Ideally, Mr. Snyder would have gone to Flint with his new DEQ director, unveiled the hire there, wowed the city and state with a consensus hire, someone from outside the administration with credibility in the environmental and scientific worlds and experience running a large operation. It could have been an environmental regulations chief from another state or a known and respected instate figure.

It would not be an easy task, to be sure, finding someone willing to put their career on hold for two and a half years and take on the most fraught post in state government.

Business groups might have had some heartburn, but given the all the legislation and regulatory changes Mr. Snyder has implemented to their benefit, surely he could have told them to give him a breather on this one and assured them that given the DEQ director reports to him, they need not worry.

Ms. Grether could turn out to be a great hire. Perhaps she proves herself an outstanding manager and surprises Mr. Snyder’s critics with an even-handed approach. Perhaps she can bring about the changes the task force identified as necessary at the DEQ. Perhaps she proves a terrific partner with the city of Flint and federal governments to finally get unfiltered tap water safe to drink again. Perhaps she shows that Mr. Snyder’s rationale, as stated by a spokesperson, for hiring her made great sense, that her experience in handling communications response to the BP disaster pays off.

But at a time when Mr. Snyder badly needed to put a new public face on the DEQ as it deals with Flint, Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac and continued permitting controversies, he opted for a choice with a resume diametrically opposed to that need without any kind of a rollout to counter the assured criticism.

Back to top

Clinton, Trump And The Battle For The Michigan House

Posted: July, 12 2016 1:20 PM

If Democrats are going to win control of the Michigan House, they obviously need a strong performance from their presumptive presidential nominee in Michigan, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

But in this turbulent, unpredictable year with dissatisfaction among a large swath of the electorate about the two presumptive major party presidential nominees, Ms. Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, what is a strong performance and what do Democrats need to win gain the nine seats necessary for majority?

Clearly, if Ms. Clinton were to pull a repeat of what now-President Barack Obama did to Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain in 2008 and win the state 57 percent to 41 percent, the Democrats would be in business and almost surely win the House.

But the chance of Ms. Clinton putting up that kind of a number appears unlikely.

Ms. Clinton faces headwinds that Mr. Obama did not. Mr. Obama was the change candidate after eight years of President George W. Bush. Ms. Clinton is trying to become the first Democrat to succeed a two-term Democratic president in modern history (James Monroe succeeding James Madison doesn’t offer much of a historical precedent). While Mr. Obama was mostly a blank canvas, Ms. Clinton has spent the past 25 years in the national political spotlight and voters older than 35 have fairly hardened opinions either way on her. Her favorable/unfavorable ratings in Michigan, as elsewhere, are not good.

Nonetheless, Ms. Clinton remains the favorite to win Michigan. The math for a Republican, any Republican, to carry Michigan at the presidential level remains daunting because Democratic turnout rises so much in the presidential cycle. The FiveThirtyEight projection has Ms. Clinton winning 49.3 percent in Michigan to 38.4 percent for Mr. Trump and 11 percent for Libertarian Gary Johnson.

What has to concern Democrats, as far as their hopes of winning the Michigan House, now held 63-45 by Republicans with two vacancies in reliably Democratic seats, is whether the headwinds Ms. Clinton faces will deny their candidates the coattails they need to seize currently Republican seats.

It pretty much comes down to this: Presuming Ms. Clinton wins, does she hit 50 percent of the vote in this state? Right now, that’s an open question.

Compare the following scenarios:

  • Ms. Clinton 50 percent, Mr. Trump 41 percent, Mr. Johnson and other minor party candidates 9 percent; and
  • Ms. Clinton 47 percent, Mr. Trump 38 percent, Mr. Johnson and other minor party candidates 15 percent.

In both examples, Ms. Clinton wins by 9 percentage points. But the effect down the ticket could be significantly different.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton took 51 percent to 39 Percent for Republican Bob Dole with Ross Perot and other candidates winning the rest. In a pre-term limits environment, Democrats picked up four seats and defended all their vulnerable seats. In a term limits environment with fewer incumbents running and a series of largely nameless, faceless candidates highly vulnerable to top of the ticket effects, that would be about the equivalent of an eight- to 10-seat gain.

In 2004, Democrat John Kerry won the state 51 percent to 47 percent over President George W. Bush and, even with a relatively narrow margin, the Democrats still gained five seats that year.

Contrast those numbers to 1992, when Mr. Clinton won the state 44 percent to 36 percent for George H.W. Bush with Mr. Perot claiming 19 percent, but Republicans gained six seats in the Michigan House. While exit polls showed Mr. Perot’s support drew evenly from those who otherwise would have voted for Mr. Clinton or Mr. Bush, there also was plenty of evidence that in the key House districts, his voters on balance voted Republican as they moved down the ballot to other offices.

As of today, it’s pretty straightforward to see how Democrats can win five seats. Not only is that their average gain of seats in the term limits era, but there are five seats right now where Democrats, based on their candidates and/or presidential year turnout trends, are the favorites.

There’s another 12 currently Republican seats beyond those five that range from dogfights to plausibly competitive where Democrats would have to win another four. In many of those seats, Democrats acknowledge they need some type of wave effect to carry their candidate to victory. In others, like those in northern Michigan and Macomb County, they need Ms. Clinton to at least be competitive.

Remember, just because Ms. Clinton wins the state with, say, 50 percent of the vote, does not mean she has the same percentage in key House districts. In fact, she will likely have a smaller percentage of the vote in most key House districts than her statewide percentage.

Clearly, if Ms. Clinton is at 46 percent or lower, the Democrats’ chances of winning the House have all but evaporated. Just as clearly, if she can top 50 percent, their chances are enhanced. What’s less clear and what has seasoned operatives flummoxed is what happens if Ms. Clinton wins between 47 percent and 49 percent of the vote. That’s less than ideal for Democrats, but as one Democrat put it to me last week, no one really knows what the down ballot effect will be in such a scenario.

Back to top

Echoes Of Last Veto Override In Current Rumblings Against Snyder

Posted: July, 5 2016 3:07 PM

Local government officials up in arms. A Republican lawmaker voicing a sense of betrayal toward a governor of the same party. A collective sense of surprise.

Yes, Governor Rick Snyder’s veto last week of a bill that would have ended the share populous city governments must contribute toward state trunkline road projects bears similarities to the last bill a governor vetoed only to see the Legislature override that veto. There are some important differences too, but let’s deal with the similarities first.

In the summer of 2002, then-Governor John Engler shocked – and that’s an understatement – the Legislature, local governments, those who worked in and around the Capitol and anyone in the state with a passing understanding of municipal finance when he vetoed the entire statutory revenue sharing appropriation for the upcoming fiscal year. Several ballot proposals with large price tags to enact if voters passed them were on the November ballot, so Mr. Engler decided to veto hundreds of millions in revenue sharing to send a message to voters about the danger.

The problem of course was that local governments were going to have serious financial problems if the money was not appropriated. And legislators had just passed a cigarette tax increase to help balance the budget and said Mr. Engler had betrayed them with the veto.

Local governments began pressing for a veto. The Legislature could always have approved a new budget bill and sent it to Mr. Engler’s desk, but so great was the upset at the veto that the prevailing sentiment became only an override would send the requisite message and ensure restoration of the funding.

Mr. Engler was a towering figure, and initially no Republican (the Legislature was under Republican control then as now) was willing to publicly call for an override. But then-Rep. Larry Julian, a Republican from Lennon, became the first to do so and the proverbial floodgates opened. Before long, it became clear that an override would have near unanimous support in both houses, let alone the minimum two-thirds majority.

The override passed easily, the funding was restored and Mr. Engler suffered just the third veto override to occur since the 1950s (and the first known to have been inflicted by a Legislature of the same party).

So now we have Mr. Snyder’s veto of SB 557* on Friday. The sponsor, Sen. Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy), is livid. Local governments are angry. And while Mr. Snyder’s Department of Transportation voiced opposition to the bill, the legislation passed unanimously in the House and Senate, so there is a collective sense of surprise.

But there are some differences between now and 2002. The biggest is the number of affected governments.

In 2002, most cities, villages and townships stood to lose. Today, it’s just 45 large cities. That would make it hard to muster the kind of numbers that showed up at an override rally on the Capitol lawn back then with their “Don’t Hide From An Override” buttons.

In 2002, Mr. Engler was a feared figure, and while he was months away from leaving office, the possibility of his exacting some type of political retribution on someone crossing him was on legislators’ minds. Today, the Legislature regularly crosses Mr. Snyder, and he clearly has no taste for playing political hardball and retaliating.

How today’s scenario will play out is too soon to say. There may not even be an override attempt. But at a time when there is a lot of debate about who is driving the agenda, the governor or the Republicans who control the Legislature, Mr. Snyder could now face the most emphatic sign of all about who’s in charge.

Back to top

The Chilly Schuette-Snyder Relationship Moves Into Deep Freeze

Posted: June, 24 2016 2:51 PM

Nine months ago, as Michigan Republicans gathered on Mackinac Island for their biennial conference, there was one scene that stood out to me.

In the huge dining room of the Grand Hotel, presidential candidate speeches were taking place. Governor Rick Snyder was seated at a table directly in front of the speaker’s podium, and Attorney General Bill Schuette was one table further to the right of the podium.

As the speeches took place, the ones where both were present, the contrast was remarkable. Mr. Schuette was locked in on the speaker, laughing, smiling, generally relishing every moment. Mr. Snyder looked, well, like there were many other places he would rather be. He paid attention, yes, but generally looked expressionless and unimpressed.

The scene underscored something that is well known: The two men are very different in their approaches to governing and politics.

And there has been a raft of issues on which the two have disagreed, such as presumptive parole legislation (Mr. Schuette against, Mr. Snyder for), Mr. Schuette’s joining of a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency against the federal Clean Power Plan (which Mr. Snyder did not support), Proposal 1 of 2015 (Mr. Snyder for, Mr. Schuette against), Mr. Schuette siding with Detroit pensioners in the city’s bankruptcy (complicating Mr. Snyder’s task), the Blue Cross legislation (Mr. Snyder for, Mr. Schuette sharply critical of some aspects of it) and so on.

There also was the curious attack ad against Mr. Schuette from the political action committee affiliated with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Snyder ally.

But what’s transpired in the past two months is extraordinary.

First, there was the incendiary letter Mr. Schuette and Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton sent to Mr. Snyder warning him that internal state inquiries into the Flint water crisis were impeding their criminal investigation, even going so far as to label the internal inquiries Mr. Snyder requested as an unintentional obstruction of justice. The Snyder camp was livid. While it had announced an internal inquiry into the Department of Health and Human Services, however, it did not reveal an inquiry into the Department of Environmental Quality, with the assistance of a State Police investigator, until Mr. Snyder casually mentioned it at a news conference months into the criminal investigation.

Now this week, there’s the latest sharp difference of opinion. Mr. Snyder joined with the other governors and Canadian premiers who are part of the Great Lakes Compact to approve a request from Waukesha, Wisconsin, to pull water directly from Lake Michigan. Mr. Snyder said Waukesha already pulled water from the Great Lakes basin through groundwater but then disposed of the water into the Mississippi River basin, so the agreement actually is a net gain for the Great Lakes because the city will now dispose water into the Great Lakes basin.

But Mr. Schuette was adamantly against the idea. He publicly criticized the proposal and the decision to approve it.

Underlying all this is the prospective competition for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2018 between Mr. Schuette and Lt. Governor Brian Calley, both of whom are expected to run.

Some disagreement between the governor and attorney general is normal and to be expected. The attorney general represents both the administration headed by the governor and the people of the state of Michigan, and sometimes those interests diverge, especially when the two are of different parties (think John Engler and Jennifer Granholm and then Jennifer Granholm and Mike Cox).

The Engler-Granholm and Granholm-Cox relationships were frosty. But at the moment, the Schuette-Snyder relationship is giving them some competition for iciness.

Back to top

Recalling Memorable Legislative Speeches

Posted: June, 16 2016 11:40 AM

Sen. Goeff Hansen’s emotionally charged speech last week explaining why he voted against legislation reconfiguring the Detroit Public Schools, an issue he had championed but found the final legislative product unsatisfactory, immediately goes onto the short list of memorable legislator floor speeches I have covered.

This list is limited to those speeches given from 1999 onward (I started covering the Capitol in late 1998) and is not meant to be anything approaching a definitive all-time list. I can only go by what I saw and heard. But even in the term limits era, there have been several memorable speeches, memorable for various reasons, but almost always because they were stripped of any spin. They were raw. They were emotional. They hushed the usual din of chatter on the House and Senate floor.

These are in no particular order. Which ones did I leave out? Let me know at zgorchow@gongwer.com.

RICK JOHNSON, 2002: Why not start with a speech involving charter school expansion since Mr. Hansen’s speech and the recent Detroit Public Schools legislation heavily involved charter schools?

It was an incredible scene on the House floor on what was supposed to be the final session day of the 2001-02 term. Back then, foes of charter school expansion ruled in the House. Even though Republicans had a small majority overall, enough Republicans resisted the idea of charter school expansion to give charter school foes a functional majority in the House. This is what gave rise to the Great Lakes Education Project and more or less the extinguishing of any Republicans elected to the Legislature with anti-charter views.

But then-Governor John Engler continued to push for charter school expansion. The votes were there in the Senate. And the Senate, chock-full of veteran members soon to be broomed by term limits, was fed up with what they saw as a wet-behind-the-ears House continuing to mess up the issue.

Finally, late at night, the House actually passed an expansion bill, but it would still need Senate passage to go to the governor’s desk. One problem. The Senate, sick of waiting on the House, especially after the House brought in a bunch of pizzas, adjourned moments before that vote occurred.

I can still see the crestfallen looks on House Republicans’ faces. Then-Speaker Rick Johnson was incensed and he went right for the jugular, bringing up the hugely controversial decision of the Senate to let a 38 percent pay raise stand at the beginning of the term (which substantially fattened the pensions of the retiring senators and permanently sullied the public image of the Legislature).

"This comes down to four words: term limits and pay raise," Mr. Johnson said. "Senate Majority Leader Dan DeGrow started this legislative term by refusing to take a stand on an outlandish pay raise – that he orchestrated – and he finished the term by walking away from Detroit school kids. It's funny that he couldn't wait around tonight to do the only constitutional thing required of a lawmaker: vote in session."

It was short but incredible. The leader of one chamber viciously attacking in public the leader of the other chamber when both were in the same party.

ED VAUGHN, 1999 or 2000: I don’t have the text of the speech, and I can’t remember exactly when he actually gave it, but the former Detroit Democrat’s speech during the debate on legislation creating a mostly automatic right to carry a concealed pistol was a dandy.

Mr. Vaughn could give a stemwinder of a speech. He loathed Mr. Engler and would never be seen as looking to give Republicans a hand on anything. But he agreed with the idea of making it easier to obtain a concealed pistol license.

He gave a speech talking about how making it is easier to carry lawfully would help “heroes” deal with “zeroes.” I’m not doing it justice. It got a huge ovation from Republicans. The Democrats, who adored Mr. Vaughn, appreciated his way with words. I can still picture then-House Minority Leader Michael Hanley cracking up at Mr. Vaughn’s “heroes and zeroes” speech.

LEON DROLET, 2004: In the spring of 2004, the House took up a proposal to put Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage into the Michigan Constitution. It didn’t have the votes for the necessary two-thirds majority, and that was never really in doubt. So this was about politics and the chance for majority Republicans to send a message to their conservative base and independents who had yet to embrace the idea of gay marriage.

Then-Rep. Leon Drolet, a Republican from Macomb County mostly known at the time as a fierce opponent of taxes and spending, stole the show with a speech calling out his fellow Republicans.

"We have found a minority that can be made into a scapegoat so that we don't have to seriously address the detrimental actions of the majority," he said. "Loving and committing to someone of the same sex is something that only a small minority chooses to do. So it is easy to blame them. We are back on the playground still playing 'Smear the Queer.'"

That was merely the climax of a pitched speech. Mr. Drolet also ripped into the committee that rushed the legislation to the House floor. He didn’t name the chair of the committee, then-Rep. Lauren Hager. Mr. Hager was about as mild-mannered a legislator as there’s ever been, but wow, did he look furious after he heard Mr. Drolet tear into how his committee had handled the legislation.

GRETCHEN WHITMER, 2013: It was a stunning moment on the floor of the Senate. Then-Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, so upset over the Senate planning to approve legislation limiting insurance coverage for abortions regardless of whether the women had been raped, shared publicly for the first time that a man raped her while she was in college.

Ms. Whitmer was about halfway through her prepared speech when she decided the Republicans were ignoring her so she scrapped her remarks and told her story.

“I thought this was all behind me. You know how tough I can be, but the thought and the memory of that still haunts me,” she said. “I do not enjoy talking about it. It’s something I have hidden for a long time, but I think you need to see the face of the women whom you are impacting by this vote today.”

STEVE EHARDT, 2003: It was not then-Rep. Steve Ehardt’s words so much as his emotion at seeing an issue he championed go against him.

The Legislature was working on a complex piece of legislation involving health insurance rates for small businesses. It basically came down to Mr. Ehardt versus everyone, and when it came time for the House to take final action, fellow Republicans could no longer stand by Mr. Ehardt and voted against him.

In his speech criticizing the final legislation, Mr. Ehardt was distraught, crying, seeing the legislation as a disastrous product. When he finished the speech, he began sobbing and collapsed into his seat on the floor. He received a standing ovation, which thanks to then-Rep. Charlie LaSata I learned was known as a “clap and screw” (as in you applaud someone but then vote against what they want).

Even several minutes after the vote, Mr. Ehardt continued to weep at his desk and was inconsolable as fellow members approached his desk to try to cheer him up.

BILL BYL, 2000: It’s a testament to how charged the debate was on concealed weapons permitting that two speeches from that debate make this list. Mr. Byl strongly opposed making Michigan a “shall issue” state where anyone not convicted of a serious crime or with no demonstrable proof of mental illness could get a permit to carry a concealed pistol.

He let his fellow Republicans have it with their employment – for the first time – of the tactic of inserting some funding into a policy bill to make it immune from a voter referendum (the Constitution says any bill containing appropriations is not subject to referendum). That tactic is now commonplace and it has essentially ended the referendum power in the Constitution.

"We are, because of the unpopularity of these bills with the general public, waiting to run them in lame duck and we're compounding it by putting in the appropriations provision to keep it off the ballot,” he said. “We are acting as if we are afraid of our own constituents."

As the debate wound down, his speech over, Mr. Byl walked the aisles on the Republican side of the House, repeatedly muttering the word, “shame” to anyone within earshot.

Back to top

Trying To Game Out How Trump Could Win Michigan

Posted: June, 14 2016 4:04 PM

Michigan is getting more attention from the national media as a swing state in the presidential election this year, probably more so than at any time since 2004.

On the one hand, this is puzzling. Michigan has gone Democratic in six straight presidential elections, and President Barack Obama’s wins here as an Illinois senator in 2008 and running for re-election in 2012 were not close.

There is talk of a blue wall at the national level for Democrats because of their advantages in the Electoral College. Well, there is something of a blue wall in Michigan in presidential races because, going back to 1996, the Democratic candidate comes out of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties with such an overwhelming lead the Republican has no hope of catching up in the rest of the state.

And yet, nothing is forever. In 1992, Bill Clinton’s win in Michigan, putting the state in the Democratic column for the first time since 1968, felt like a UFO sighting for those who had not been alive when Hubert H. Humphrey carried the state over Richard Nixon. And as we saw in the March presidential primary when Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton, politics can be unpredictable.

I’ll just state right up front I don’t see how the math adds up for Donald Trump to win Michigan, based on the current status of the race between him and Ms. Clinton, and that’s before Ms. Clinton gets the benefit of some consolidation among Democratic voters now that she has vanquished Mr. Sanders.

But, obviously, Mr. Trump and the Republicans will try to win Michigan. Mr. Trump is not trying to lose, at least I don’t think so, though sometimes I have wondered as he does everything he can to ensure 100 percent turnout among Latinos with a historic margin against him and to generally act like anything other than the a nominee for president of one of the two major political parties.

And Michigan keeps popping up in national discussions as a state of potential for Mr. Trump, alongside Pennsylvania and Ohio, the idea being that Mr. Trump’s anti-trade, anti-offshoring views will pay dividends in the Rust Belt. Just last week, CNN was drawing up a scenario to get Mr. Trump to 270 electoral votes, and it involved Mr. Trump winning Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. On Monday, Mr. Trump’s lead Michigan strategist, Scott Hagerstrom, was quoted by both Detroit newspapers at a conservative event as saying Michigan is winnable for Mr. Trump.

So how could Mr. Trump theoretically get there?

For starters, to get Mr. Trump a win in Michigan, he has to do no worse than the best performance by a Republican presidential candidate in Michigan during the Democratic streak, the 2004 race that President George W. Bush lost to John Kerry by 3.5 percentage points (165,437 votes).

That’s a daunting gap. Mr. Bush ran well in many areas, but got buried in Wayne County, which Mr. Kerry won by 342,297 votes. But let’s assume Mr. Trump can at least get that close and not get blown out like Mitt Romney (2012), John McCain (2008) or Bob Dole (1996).

How does he close that gap?

It would start with a lower turnout in Wayne County thanks to population loss and no longer having Mr. Obama, the first African-American nominee of a major party for president, on the ballot.

Could those factors trim 20 percent from the 305,258 votes Mr. Kerry received from Detroit in 2004? Mr. Obama pulled 281,743 some votes in 2012, a decline of 11 percent since Mr. Kerry’s result in 2004, so it seems possible. That would take away 61,000 votes.

Mr. Bush carried Macomb County by a small margin in 2004. Anecdotal reports have Mr. Trump doing well there and he scored huge in Macomb in the Republican primary. Just for arguments’ sake, what if Mr. Trump’s big, brash style appeals to Macomb voters and he wins the county 56 percent to 42 percent? Assuming the usual recent 400,000 votes out of the county in a presidential election, that would produce a 50,000-vote boost over Mr. Bush’s margin in 2004 there.

Now Mr. Trump has perhaps closed the gap by 111,000 votes.

Next, Mr. Trump would have to make good on his supporters’ hopes he can boost the vote with some white voters who otherwise would not vote. Could that be good for say, a half-percentage point boost statewide? That would be about 20,000 more votes, bringing the total gap closure to 131,000.

Finally, Mr. Trump would need disaffected supporters of Bernie Sanders to refuse to support Ms. Clinton. He’s trying to welcome them into his camp. That’s, uh, not going to work. But it’s possible the Green Party nominee, Jill Stein, could do much better than the 21,897 votes she received in 2012.

Could Ms. Stein get something on the order of the 84,165 votes that Ralph Nader got in Michigan in 2000 (with those votes coming from directly from people who would have voted Democratic but refused to back Ms. Clinton)?

That would get Mr. Trump to victory in Michigan.

In other words, it would take a series of major shifts, some improbable, to make it happen.

But it is highly unlikely Mr. Trump will be tweeting after the polls close that he appreciates the congrats for being right on winning Michigan.

Back to top

Remembering Other Candidates Who Bombed In Wake Of Gilbert Debacle

Posted: May, 31 2016 4:27 PM

No matter what you believe about the reasons for Melissa Gilbert deciding to stop campaigning for the 8th U.S. House District, that she really has debilitating neck and head problems as she says or that Republicans chased her out of the race with a series of devastating attacks, there’s no question her candidacy was a bust.

Even before Ms. Gilbert declared she was ceasing her campaign last week, her campaign had largely been a mess. It started out having to explain why she had fallen behind on her taxes, was staggered with the revelation she had once defended fugitive convicted child sexual assailant Roman Polanski and fell further with her refusal to attend a local chamber of commerce candidate forum because she didn’t want to take questions from the audience. About the only thing Ms. Gilbert did well was raise money.

The Gilbert situation got me thinking about other examples of a highly touted candidate who fell well short of expectations.

LARRY OWEN FOR GOVERNOR, 1998: Larry Owen had everything going for him in 1998, or so it seemed. Virtually the entire Democratic establishment endorsed him. The United Auto Workers and Michigan AFL-CIO took the unusual step of issuing an endorsement of him almost a year ahead of the primary. He had a respectable run in 1994 for governor that had positioned him as the party favorite in 1998. But when the votes were counted August 4 in the Democratic primary, attorney Geoffrey Fieger had narrowly bested him for the nomination.

JOE HEMBLING, 84TH HOUSE DISTRICT, 2000: It is not often that a candidate sweeps most notable endorsements in a Republican legislative primary and is widely hailed as the overwhelming favorite among Republicans closely watching the situation and then loses in a landslide. But that’s what happened in this Thumb district in 2000 when radio personality Tom Meyer beat Mr. Hembling by more than 20 percentage points in the GOP primary.

LAURIE STUPAK, 108TH HOUSE DISTRICT, 2002: Both parties thought Ms. Stupak, wife of then-U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak and the mayor of Menominee, had this race sewed up long before Election Day. There was simply no way a Stupak was going to lose this seat to an unknown Republican trucker named Tom Casperson, right? Wrong. Mr. Casperson won, and this is a loss that has haunted Democrats ever since. It set Mr. Casperson up to win the 38th Senate District in 2010, and now he could win the 1st U.S. House District this year.

WALT NORTH, 107TH HOUSE DISTRICT, 2004: When Republican popular longtime former Sen. Walt North filed to run for the House seat straddling the Straits of Mackinac, it seemed a classic win on filing day scenario. Yes, the Democrats had someone named Gary McDowell, a Chippewa County commissioner, running, but Mr. North had represented the area for years in the Senate. A few weeks before Election Day, though, word began to spread that Mr. North was not campaigning door to door. Meanwhile, Mr. McDowell was working the doors hard, and in the end he won the race in a rout.

MIKE BOUCHARD, GOVERNOR, 2010: A rising star in Michigan Republican politics for years, from the all-important county of Oakland, it still seems hard to believe Mr. Bouchard finished a distant fourth out of five candidates in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary. Even more amazing, not only did he lose Oakland to now-Governor Rick Snyder by 11 percentage points, but Mr. Snyder even won Mr. Bouchard’s hometown of Birmingham.

JOHN CHERRY, GOVERNOR, 2010: Then-Lt. Governor John Cherry Jr. was the overwhelming favorite to be the Democratic nominee for governor. He had paid his dues, with eight years as Governor Jennifer Granholm’s lieutenant governor, and some two decades in the Legislature, including a run as a respected force as Senate minority leader. Smart, affable and politically astute, there was simply no way Mr. Cherry would not carry the Democratic flag in November. But serious trouble hit in 2009. Mr. Cherry’s campaign spent virtually all the money it had raised, and with Democratic donors hurting amid the Great Recession, as well as a malaise in Democratic circles in general, he could not refill his campaign coffers. Shortly after New Year’s Day in 2010, Mr. Cherry stunned Michigan politics in declaring he would no longer be a candidate.

RYAN FISHMAN, 13TH SENATE DISTRICT, 2014: Democrats were ecstatic about landing Ryan Fishman as a candidate. A young, socially liberal and fiscally conservative Republican, Mr. Fishman switched parties to run as a Democrat and seemed a nice fit for this Oakland County seat. He raised a huge haul for his campaign and tapped an array of connections. But Mr. Fishman had an opponent for the Democratic nomination, Cyndi Peltonen. She had virtually no money, but while Mr. Fishman focused on general election voters, Ms. Peltonen focused on Democratic primary voters. Ooops. Ms. Peltonen won the primary and then lost the general election to now-Sen. Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy).

Back to top

Roads Redux On DPS As House GOP Squeezes Governor, Senate

Posted: May, 24 2016 2:10 PM

House Republicans are using the same tactic that worked so well for them on the road funding debate with the discussions on overhauling K-12 public education in Detroit.

On roads, Governor Rick Snyder wanted $1.2 billion in new revenues. The Republican-led Senate passed a plan with about $800 million in new revenue, and Mr. Snyder embraced it. But then majority Republicans passed a plan with $600 million in new revenue, and it was clear Mr. Snyder and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) were not happy.

Yes, the plan contained a promise of eventually pulling $600 million out of the General Fund in future years to bring the new commitment to $1.2 billion, but that looked shaky then and feels even more so in the wake of the Flint water crisis, Detroit Public Schools financial crisis and revenues for the 2016-17 fiscal year falling short of projections.

But the conservative House Republican majority caucus was adamant that it could approve no more than $600 million in new revenue. It hung tough and eventually Mr. Snyder and Mr. Meekhof concluded something was better than nothing and agreed to the basic contours of the House plan.

Now Mr. Snyder has requested, and the Senate has passed, a bailout for DPS with $715 million in funding over 10 years to retire the district’s crippling debt and assist the district that would replace DPS with transitional costs like critical infrastructure needs. The Senate also included a Snyder request for a new Detroit Education Commission that would have siting authority for all new public schools in the city, including charter schools.

The House has approved the funding to retire debt, but instead approved $33 million instead of the $200 million passed by the Senate for transitional costs. And it omitted the DEC with Republicans saying creating a DEC would be tantamount to declaring war on charter schools. They have questioned the need for the $200 million.

House Republicans are in a good spot strategically on this one, just like roads.

Absent a solution, DPS will start defaulting on its obligations in July. Just like roads, they can force the governor and Mr. Meekhof to choose between something or nothing. Perhaps they will have to concede $33 million is not enough, given the Department of Treasury’s analysis that DPS will run out of money in August under that plan. But it’s easy to see how House Republicans could declare victory if they can get a number smaller than $200 million and no DEC.

Mr. Snyder has always said his priority on DPS is to split up the district so that DPS exists only to retire the debt and a new district, debt-free, is created to run educational operations. He backs a DEC, but has made it clear it’s not mandatory.

So it seems likely that, provided enough money is there to keep the new Detroit Community School District financially sound, he would support a plan with no DEC.

The question is the Senate.

Sen. Goeff Hansen (R-Hart) won considerable plaudits from Democrats for his outreach and putting together a plan that passed with bipartisan support. Mr. Meekhof has strongly backed Mr. Hansen.

Neither has said a DEC is a must, but it’s also clear both think a solution that has the best chance of working is one with buy-in from local officials and Detroiters, not one foisted upon them by the Legislature. Mr. Meekhof could likely pull together the votes to pass a plan with support only from Republicans if he had to do so, but it would be an ugly scene in the Senate if it goes that way and leave in question whether the Detroit officials charged with implementing the changes actually believe they will work.

The closer July 1, the date when DPS will run out of money absent an overhaul, gets, the more pressure for a deal. Is taking action contrary to what their usual allies in the charter school industry want a line in the sand issue for Mr. Meekhof? Surely that is a question House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant) and his caucus have pondered extensively.

So will this end as the road debate did, with the House Republicans getting their way? Or is there a card Mr. Meekhof could yet play to shift the dynamic and put the House GOP in a tougher spot and avoid another high-stakes negotiation concluding as the roads one did. If Mr. Meekhof has a, er, trump card, it’s getting close to the time to play it.

Back to top

A Curious Move By Melissa Gilbert

Posted: May, 10 2016 5:59 PM

Melissa Gilbert, the likely Democratic nominee in the 8th U.S. House District, committed an unforced error Monday when she decided not to attend a candidate forum hosted by the Brighton Area Chamber of Commerce because she did not want to answer audience questions.

Ms. Gilbert, whose celebrity and popularity since moving to Livingston County have energized Democrats about their chances of giving U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) some competition, botched this one.

Why wouldn’t she want to take questions? This is an uphill race. The district leans Republican, and the only way Ms. Gilbert has a chance is if she can persuade independent voters and soft Republican leaning voters to back her. What better place to make the case than Brighton, which still harbors some of the same middle of the road Republican voters that elected socially liberal Republicans like Susan Grimes Munsell and Judie Scranton back in the day though certainly they are diminished in number.

Maybe some think the Brighton chamber, which will clearly tend conservative, doesn’t seem like a good venue for Ms. Gilbert. But so popular has Ms. Gilbert become for her charitable efforts since moving to the area that when she and husband Timothy Busfield agreed to serve as grand marshals at the Howell Fantasy of Lights Parade last year, the president of the Howell Chamber of Commerce gushed to the Livingston Daily Press and Argus that “it shows their heart is in the community.”

Coming after several months of agreeing to only a handful of interviews (her campaign has not granted one to Gongwer News Service despite multiple requests), this incident only fuels the perception Ms. Gilbert is uncomfortable subjecting herself to scrutiny.

I am surprised not to see Ms. Gilbert all over television and the newspapers on a regular basis talking about her campaign.

How many other candidates nationally have the ability to call up any of the network television affiliates which cover their district and have the ability to get air time with relative ease? Very, very few. But Ms. Gilbert’s celebrity, from her days playing Laura Ingalls Wilder on “Little House on the Prairie,” can open doors closed to others. Yet her campaign has not (yet) played that card.

The Gilbert campaign’s strategy was similarly restrained after the Bishop campaign fired off a dagger in April, bringing to light her comments years ago on “The View” defending director Roman Polanski, who fled the United States while awaiting sentencing on child sexual assault charges in 1978. The Gilbert campaign issued a written statement from Ms. Gilbert in which she said Mr. Polanski’s actions were inexcusable and “the format of that show got the best of me and I said something I didn't mean and don't believe. I am sorry.”

Ms. Gilbert did an interview with “Michigan’s Big Show” but otherwise seemed to rely on the distribution of the written statement in response to inquiries from news outlets, including this one. Perhaps the Gilbert campaign did not want to call more attention to the attack by putting her out there more to offer a vigorous defense. But the attack seemed to get considerable coverage anyway and one presumes Mr. Bishop and the Republicans intend to hammer her with it until November.

The reason Ms. Gilbert became so popular locally is because she seemed to be everywhere, raising money for local charities, giving pointers at children’s drama camps (she was at one in East Lansing last year that my daughter attended), taking a lead role in events like the Fantasy of Lights parade and spending time with residents one on one. So it’s hard to understand, as Ms. Gilbert embarks on her campaign, why she would shy away from a prime opportunity to introduce herself to business owners in Brighton.

Back to top

Here’s The Bellwether On How Much Trump Damages The Michigan GOP

Posted: May, 4 2016 12:09 PM

Donald Trump is now the presumptive Republican nominee for president, and it is safe to say any Republican candidate for the Michigan House in a competitive area is sweating what the candidacy of Mr. Trump, who just yesterday said something about Ted Cruz’s father having a link to the assassination of President Kennedy (wait, what?), means for their prospects in November.

The short answer: bad. Very, very bad.

No, it’s not impossible to overcome a tsunami in a competitive Michigan House race when the top of the ticket implodes. Continuing with a parallel I drew in February between Mr. Trump and the disastrous 1998 Democratic candidate for governor, Geoffrey Fieger, Democrat Doug Spade’s House victory in 1998 stands as an example. Mr. Fieger drew 36.7 percent of the vote in Lenawee County, but Mr. Spade, whose district basically mirrored the county lines, pulled 50.4 percent. So it can be done. But Democrats overall lost six seats in the House that year amid the Engler landslide and their House majority.

Mr. Trump is going to hurt his Republican ballot mates. The questions are how much and will his presence damage some House Republican candidates who otherwise would have won without too much difficulty.

There is one race that stands out as the obvious case study on the Trump factor. That’s the 61st House District in southwest Kalamazoo County.

Ever since this district became anchored by Portage starting in the 1982 elections, Republicans have never lost it. There was a close call in 2008 when President Barack Obama won the state in a landslide. And Democrats smelled an opportunity in 2014 with no incumbent running. They poured money into it, and the Republican candidate, now-Rep. Brandt Iden (R-Oshtemo Township), committed an unforced error, but ultimately Mr. Iden won, 48 percent to 42 percent over Democrat John Fisher with a Libertarian candidate taking a stronger than usual 10 percent.

Going into this cycle, Democrats had the positive of a presidential cycle to boost turnout, but not much else to help them in the seat. Mr. Iden won in 2014 after having the proverbial kitchen sink thrown at him, and for all the effort Democrats put into the race, Mr. Fisher pulled a lousy 42 percent of the vote.

But not only has Mr. Iden endorsed Mr. Trump, he was elected to serve as a delegate for Mr. Trump at the Republican National Convention. Democrats can now tie Mr. Iden to every wild and crazy thing Mr. Trump has said in the past 11 months and will say for the next six. They will do that with every Republican candidate, but while others can take steps to distance themselves, Mr. Iden cannot.

There’s another reason why Mr. Iden’s embrace of Mr. Trump could be problematic. While Mr. Trump won the Michigan Republican presidential primary, he actually finished third within the confines of the 61st District. Within the district, Ohio Governor John Kasich took 30.8 percent of the vote to 27.3 percent for Mr. Cruz and 25.2 percent for Mr. Trump. How that will play out is hard to say, but it could, emphasis on could, suggest a larger than usual number of Republican voters in this district dispirited about Mr. Trump’s nomination who decide to sit out the election or are disappointed with Mr. Iden for aligning himself with Mr. Trump.

Voters in the district have shown a willingness to split their tickets. Republican Larry DeShazor overcame Mr. Obama’s win in 2008, and in 2012, then-Rep. and now-Sen. Margaret O’Brien (R-Portage) ran almost 10 percentage points ahead of Mitt Romney in the district even as Mr. Obama narrowly carried the seat over Mr. Romney.

All things being equal, Mr. Iden should be on his way to an easy win for a second term. And if Mr. Trump turns out not to be widely toxic to the Republican ticket, then the surest sign would be an easy win for Mr. Iden.

All things in this district, this year, are not equal. If the Democratic dream of Mr. Trump taking the Republican ticket down in flames with him is to become reality, then logically smoke will be visible November 8 from the communities of Portage and Oshtemo, Prairie Ronde, Schoolcraft and Texas townships that make up the 61st District.

Back to top

Snyder Facing A Difficult Decision On Lyon

Posted: April, 26 2016 3:57 PM

If the various inquiries into the Flint water crisis eventually lead to the departure of Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon from his post, it cannot be overstated what a cataclysmic loss that would be to the administration of Governor Rick Snyder.

Prior to the Flint water crisis, and the criticism the department has taken for initially botching the analysis of children’s blood lead levels and not doing more to combat a deadly Legionnaire’s disease outbreak possibly related to the water problems, Mr. Lyon was a star department director in the administration.

The enormous restructuring of the government in early 2015, merging the departments of Human Services and Community Health into one Department of Health and Human Services occurred in significant measure because Mr. Snyder and the key stakeholders all had confidence Mr. Lyon could pull the merger off. Yes, there were policy reasons behind the idea, but the Lyon factor was significant.

Community Health, which Mr. Lyon had helmed since August 2014 and been a deputy director for several years, was generally known as one of the best-functioning agencies in the state government. The expansion of Medicaid to those at 133 percent of the federal poverty level went off remarkably smoothly.

In the more than a year since Mr. Lyon has been in charge of Human Services, those who work with the department say they have seen a real difference in operations there.

The task force Mr. Snyder appointed to investigate what led to the water crisis seemed almost pained in some ways about the Department of Health and Human Service’s performance. What happened contrasted sharply with its usual operations, the task force said.

And yet, the water crisis errors were massive.

Had the department properly analyzed blood lead levels, the issue of lead in the drinking water would have been discovered sooner.

Had the department sounded a loud public alarm about a Legionnaire’s outbreak in late 2014/early 2015, that would have come at the same time as public concerns about the use of the Flint River as the city’s water source were escalating amid boil water advisories as well as discolored and foul smelling water.

The Office of the Auditor General, at Mr. Snyder’s request, is looking into what went wrong in the department, and when Mr. Snyder has been asked why he has not replaced Mr. Lyon, his responses have offered tepid – at best – support for him.

There are three schools of thought circling the Capitol on the fate of Mr. Lyon.

The first one, held by many Democrats, is simply that he has to go. This is notable in the sense that Mr. Lyon is something of a nonpartisan figure, having worked his way up from the State Budget Office during the administration of Governor Jennifer Granholm. He has had some Democratic supporters historically.

The second one, held by many of those sympathetic to former Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant, who resigned at Mr. Snyder’s request, is to question how Mr. Lyon can remain in his post if Mr. Wyant had to go.

The third one, held by Mr. Lyon’s supporters, is that kicking him to the curb after he successfully executed Mr. Snyder’s merger of two huge departments would not only be a total betrayal, but also would severely undercut the still nascent merged department. No one is indispensable, they say, but Mr. Lyon is uniquely qualified to oversee such a complex operation.

For Mr. Snyder, it’s a decision sure to anger many and please few, no matter what he decides.

Back to top

The Battle For House Control: Dems Have A Path, But …

Posted: April, 21 2016 4:49 PM

It is the question on everyone’s minds in and around the Capitol: Can Democrats gain the necessary nine seats in the November election to take control of the Michigan House of Representatives?

Control would mean the chance to stop six years of unfettered Republican control of state government. It would put Democrats in charge of committees to initiate all manner of investigations into the administration of Governor Rick Snyder. It would make Democrats relevant again in Lansing, which other than a couple of notable exceptions, they have not been since Mr. Snyder succeeded former Governor Jennifer Granholm in 2011 and their once mighty 67-43 House majority blew away in the Republican landslide of 2010.

It seems virtually certain that Democrats will gain seats. Republicans have a 63-46 majority with one vacancy in a reliably Democratic seat, so think of it as a 63-47 majority with Democrats needing nine to get to 56.

Why is it certain? Several reasons.

Number one, it is a presidential election year, and in the term limits era, Democrats have never lost seats in a presidential election year, averaging a 4.5-seat gain per election. They gained five in 2004, nine in 2008 and four in 2012. The one exception was 2000, when no seats changed hands amid close races for president and U.S. Senate at the top of the ticket, all the competitive seats taking place in districts with incumbents seeking re-election amid a booming economy and a set of highly skilled, well-funded Republican incumbents having scared off top-tier Democratic challengers.

Number two, a slew of seats in competitive areas have no incumbent running this year because of term limits, and such situations afford a much better opportunity for flipping a seat than ousting an incumbent.

Number three, some of these seats plainly already should be in Democratic hands because of their partisan leaning, but were won by Republicans because of a major edge in candidate quality over the Democratic candidate at the time. This time, in several of those seats, Democrats appear to have recruited top-shelf candidates.

Number four, the Republican pick-up opportunities are slim. They could make a play in the 52nd District held by departing Rep. Gretchen Driskell (D-Saline), but in a presidential year, that seems like a big hurdle. Republicans have raised the possibility of going after Rep. Tom Cochran (D-Mason) in the 67th District, but he has racked up big wins in the past, or Rep. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) in the 76th District, but if they could not oust her in the Republican wave of 2014 after pouring money into an opponent, taking her out this year seems like a long shot. It appears after a major effort to oust Rep. Henry Yanez (D-Sterling Heights) in 2014, he faces a less onerous re-election battle this year.

So Democrats are positioned to gain seats.

But nine? Or even eight? Eight would get Democrats to a 55-55 shared power situation, and there’s no question that would be a massive victory for them, presuming a similar agreement on how to run the House as occurred in 1993-94.

It’s a big hill to climb.

Even assuming the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, blows out either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, can she top the 57.4 percent that then-Sen. Barack Obama won against John McCain in 2008 in this state? Democrats gained nine House seats that year, though they also had less low-hanging fruit to grab since they already were at 58.

Looking at the map, at this early stage, it is fair to say the Democrats are strong favorites to win the 23rd District now held by term limited Rep. Patrick Somerville (R-New Boston). It’s a Democratic seat and one of those the party let slip away thanks to Mr. Somerville’s retail political talent and a series of weak Democratic candidates as well as a botched move in 2012 to pull out of the race.

And Democrats appear the clear favorite in the 108th where Rep. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) is out because of term limits. Democrats scored a blockbuster candidate recruit in Dickinson County Sheriff Scott Celello.

Democrats think Jim Haadsma of Battle Creek, a Calhoun County commissioner, is likely to beat Rep. John Bizon (R-Battle Creek) in the 62nd District. This is a Democratic seat that Democrats lost in 2014 after a primary resulted in a weak candidate for the general election, but with the presidential year, provided that Mr. Haadsma proves himself a strong candidate, this is a seat the Democrats probably should win, though ousting an incumbent can never be taken for granted.

Even giving the Democrats those three seats, they still need another six.

The next best opportunity appears the 91st District, which Republicans have not won in a presidential year since 2004. It’s Hughes-Lamonte III as Rep. Holly Hughes (R-White River Township) tries to fend off former Rep. Collene Lamonte (D-Montague). Ms. Lamonte ousted Ms. Hughes in 2012, and Ms. Hughes returned the favor in 2014. Both were incredibly close races, and this will be a coin flip again.

Democrats also are hoping that former Rep. Theresa Abed (D-Grand Ledge) can avenge her 2014 loss to now-Rep. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) in the 71st District. Eaton County is trending Democratic in presidential years, and Democrats think Mr. Barrett has a voting record too conservative for the district, but he has an appealing profile and will be tough to beat.

There are the two open seats in Macomb County where both parties have highly touted recruits. Those look like coin flip races, and probably heavily dependent on what happens at the top of the ticket.

Tom Redmond (D-Lambertville) is waging a rematch against now-Rep. Jason Sheppard (R-Temperance) in the 56th, but rematches featuring a candidate who has yet to win a seat are tough for the nonincumbent.

Democrats are well-positioned in the 99th District where Bryan Mielke, a Union Township trustee who narrowly lost in 2014 to House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant), is back now that Mr. Cotter cannot run again because of term limits. That’s a time-tested formula for victory in the term limits era, but the 99th district has been in Republican hands since the 1930s and is like Lucy pulling away the football from Charlie Brown for the Democrats. They have tried many times to win it and come away empty-handed each time.

There’s the 101st and 106th Districts, both open seats with a history of close races, but given the poor Democratic track record of winning House seats north of U.S. 10 in recent years, those are going to be tough battles.

That’s eight coin-flip type seats, and to keep outright control of the House, Republicans have to win four of them. The Democrats need six.

If, for example, Mr. Barrett and Mr. Sheppard win re-election, and Republicans keep the 101st and 106th Districts, then Republicans will do no worse than 56 seats. It’s not difficult to envision those four seats going to the GOP.

There are four seats where Democrats, at least for now, appear to have come up short in candidate recruitment (the 39th District in western Oakland County, the 41st District in Troy/Clawson, the 57th District in Lenawee County and the 64th District in Jackson County). The Democrats have credible candidates who could take advantage of a wave or Republican misstep, but none of them is giving Republicans the sweats.

November 8 should be a good night for the House Democrats, but so much has to go right for them and wrong for Republicans for it to be good enough for 56.

Back to top

Snyder’s Post-Flint Message Changes

Posted: April, 12 2016 2:46 PM

In recent weeks, Governor Rick Snyder has spoken to a variety of groups, describing areas of current focus for him and taking questions. This is something Mr. Snyder frequently did during his first five years in office.

But since the Flint water crisis fully erupted in January with the declaration of a state of emergency, such events have been sporadic at most with Mr. Snyder fully focused on Flint. Now the governor is making the rounds again.

Mr. Snyder hits on the same themes.

The governor discusses the tragedy of Flint and blames “career bureaucrats” whom he says took an overly technical approach in the Department of Environmental Quality to enforcing the federal Lead and Copper Rule. He says he has taken responsibility for the catastrophe because those employees worked for him.

At a time when one survey shows a rising number of Michigan voters think he should resign, Mr. Snyder pushes back against that idea head on.

“You don’t walk away from it,” Mr. Snyder told a gathering of township leaders at a Michigan Townships Association event in Lansing today. “You do something about it. And you put a focus on problem solving.”

He has said something similar at other recent events.

Mr. Snyder also has tried to remind those attending that Michigan’s economy is humming along nicely with the lowest unemployment rate in 15 years, consistent growth in employment, growing housing values and improvement in personal income. While the governor says there is more to do, especially for those who have not felt the growing economy in their lives, he also throws in a reference to the “Lost Decade” from 2000-09 when the state’s economy went into recession, somewhat recovered and then totally collapsed during the Great Recession.

Mr. Snyder then moves through his major non-Flint agenda items – Detroit Public Schools, infrastructure funding and the overall education system.

The new message seems to have a trio of objectives: Make the case he has a moral obligation to stay on the job to fix Flint and that he has a plan in place to resolve the water crisis, remind those in the rest of the state that Michigan’s economy is trending upward and emphasize he has an agenda that goes beyond just Flint.

When the first poll came out in January asking whether Mr. Snyder should resign because of the water crisis, a small minority said he should (29 percent). That number has grown substantially to 41 percent in March. Even as the economy grows, the percentage of Michigan residents saying the state is on the wrong track suddenly spiked to more than 50 percent.

Those are two numbers Mr. Snyder needs to stop in their tracks and quickly. His retooled message and renewed efforts to stump for it seem targeted to do so.

Back to top

Relatives Flooding House Campaigns

Posted: April, 5 2016 4:05 PM

Family dynasties have long held sway in state politics, but the number of relatives seeking a seat in the Michigan House this year currently or formerly held by a relative is astonishing.

The deadline to file for the election is still two weeks from today and already 13 such relatives are running. This is not a new phenomenon, but in the term limits era it has become more common.

Almost 20 years into the term limits era, House seats have turned over no fewer than three times, in some cases more, and the usual farm team of potential candidates in a district – members of city councils, township boards, school boards and county boards of commissioners, etc. – has been strip-mined.

That means a relative of the current or former office-holder, with the attendant built-in name recognition, above average understanding of campaigns from working on their relative’s bids for office and head start with their relative’s lists of supporters has a big leg up.

The family going for a rare hat trick this year is the Clementes in the 14th House District in the Downriver suburbs of Detroit. Ed Clemente held the seat from 2005-10. His brother, Rep. Paul Clemente (D-Lincoln Park), has held the seat since 2011. Now with Paul Clemente unable to run because of term limits, his wife, Cara Clemente, has filed to run for the seat.

A win would put the Clementes right there with the Roccas (Sal, Sue and Tory) and the Stallworths (Alma, Keith and Thomas) as recent examples, all within the term limits era (though Alma Stallworth and Sal and Sue Rocca also served pre-term limits) as families with three separate members to hold the same seat.

Combined with the seven current members of the House related to a current or former legislator from their area likely to win re-election this year, that means there could be at least 20 members of the House in the 2017-18 term with such a profile, or 18 percent of the entire chamber.

Many of the relatives will be solid members of the House with others less influential, just as is the case with the other members lacking a blood tie to an immediate or recent predecessor. Just because someone won a seat mostly because of their name does not make them a bad choice. In fact, if they used the relationship to learn the finer points of politics and lawmaking, then they could be a better pick than the alternatives.

But having almost one-fifth of the House elected in large part because of their familial ties was clearly not one of the selling points of term limits, billed as ensuring a citizen-led Legislature with regular influxes of fresh blood.

The blood may be fresh, but increasingly the DNA is not.

Back to top

A Surprise Encounter With Virgil Smith

Posted: March, 28 2016 5:06 PM

I was chowing down on a slice of pizza at the original Buddy’s Pizza at Six Mile Road and Conant in Detroit on Saturday when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

I turned around and was shocked to see Sen. Virgil Smith (D-Detroit), who about two hours ago was led away by Wayne County sheriff’s deputies to the Wayne County Jail to spend the next 10 months as punishment for shooting up his ex-wife’s vehicle in an altercation that occurred last May.

“Welcome to the neighborhood,” he said cheerfully.

I was so surprised that all I could blurt out was a “Ohmygod, what’s going on?” in response.

We chatted briefly Saturday, and not about his case. The last time I tried to speak to Mr. Smith in person was when he returned to the Capitol after his arrest and I and other reporters trailed him from the Senate lobby down two flights of stairs all the way out the front entrance of the building. I asked him maybe 10 questions about the incident and he never responded.

Mr. Smith, clad in a navy Detroit Tigers sweatshirt, was curious what I was doing in town. I was with my in-laws for the annual Easter weekend dinner at Buddy’s following the blessing of baskets at the Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Church in Hamtramck.

My mother-in-law and father-in-law both grew up in Hamtramck, and the church is just a few blocks south of Buddy’s, which began serving its famous square pizza in 1946 at the 6 and Conant location and is a classic Detroit restaurant institution.

That was pretty much the end of the conversation though when he welcomed me to the neighborhood for a second time, I asked if we were in the 4th Senate District, which he represents (for now). We were not, he told me, and that made sense as the 4th District wends its way more through the west side of the city.

Mr. Smith was still there, sitting with friends, when we departed, with about 40 hours of freedom remaining.

Back to top

Dissecting Candice Miller’s Surprise Bid For Macomb County Office

Posted: March, 25 2016 2:58 PM

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller has an incredible knack for surprise campaign announcements.

On August 11, 1999, Ms. Miller, a Republican from Harrison Township and then the secretary of state who was widely anticipated to challenge then-U.S. Rep. David Bonior in 2000, sent out a news release declaring she had decided not to run. It was a huge blow to the Michigan Republican Party, which loathed Mr. Bonior and had intently recruited Ms. Miller to challenge him.

I can still picture the scene in the Gongwer office. John Lindstrom, then the lead reporter on the Michigan Senate, pulled the release off either the printer or fax machine, and walked into then-Gongwer Vice President Larry Lee’s office.

“Well, this is a kick in the ass,” John said to Larry, holding the release in front of Larry’s face.

Larry’s response? “Oh my.”

A similar scene played out Wednesday when a release rolled into our inboxes from Ms. Miller declaring she would run for Macomb County Public Works commissioner. That’s essentially the drain commissioner but with a snazzier title.

The immediate question was obvious. Does this increase or decrease the likelihood Ms. Miller will run for governor in 2018? Ms. Miller and her spokesperson would only say that she is focused on the public works commissioner race.

But in talking with people well-versed on campaign strategy -- and to be clear, they do not have any inside information as to Ms. Miller’s thinking -- they say there is no question this week’s events mean she will not run for governor in 2018.

The analysis is simple. If Ms. Miller planned to run for governor, upon exiting Congress in early January 2017, she would be unencumbered to immediately begin campaigning. She could travel the state and visit every Republican Party function and more from Niles to Erie to Sault Ste. Marie to Ironwood in preparation for an expected epic battle for the nomination with Attorney General Bill Schuette, Lt. Governor Brian Calley and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, none of whom has said they are running, but all either expected to do so or seriously entertaining the idea.

Instead, if she wins the public works commissioner job, she would have to stick to Macomb County and, you know, do the job to which she was just elected. Ms. Miller assuming that office and then launching a statewide gubernatorial bid, as she would have to do relatively early in 2017 would look bad, not to mention make the task of running for governor much more difficult by having less time to spend campaigning.

If Ms. Miller indeed has decided not to run for governor in 2018, that is huge. Her entrance into the race would have made it more difficult for Mr. Calley, and to be clear he already will have the same inherent difficulty any lieutenant governor has trying to succeed their governor, let alone the issues the Flint water crisis will present, and would have created an epic match-up with Mr. Schuette for the GOP nomination.

It also would have complicated Democratic hopes of winning the race. Ms. Miller’s strength in southeast Michigan, tremendous popularity and residual name recognition from her years as secretary of state from 1995-2002 would be formidable if she won the Republican nomination.

The sense I get from Democrats is they would relish taking on Mr. Schuette. Yes, he has significant strengths, the Democrats would acknowledge. But I think Democrats feel confident about one of their top potential candidates, like U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) or former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing), matching up with Mr. Schuette for votes in vital Oakland County. Ms. Miller, however, would be very formidable in Oakland and make the Democratic path to victory much harder.

Keep in mind, of course, that trying to project the political atmosphere in 2018 is tricky, and all we can do at this point is look at how candidates match-up on paper in the context of today’s political environment. If Hillary Clinton is elected president this year, for example, it stands to reason that 2018 will be an extremely challenging year for Democrats nationally after 10 years in the White House.

And in the end, we simply don’t know what Ms. Miller intends to do.

I do know this much: If Ms. Miller wins the public works commissioner job and sometime in the late winter/early spring of 2017, an email rolls into our inboxes declaring she is running for governor, it won’t be the first time she has made our eyes widen and prompted “wows” with a campaign announcement.

Back to top

Smith Situation Puts Senate In A Bind

Posted: March, 22 2016 10:41 AM

Clearly leaders in both parties in the Senate were hoping for a neat and tidy conclusion to a terrible embarrassment for the institution, the allegations that Sen. Virgil Smith shot up his ex-wife’s vehicle following an argument that escalated out of control between the two.

It is now clear the Senate will not get that neat and tidy conclusion.

The hope was that the legal process would play out and Mr. Smith would resign. A police report obtained by The Detroit News at the time of the incident, almost one year ago, indicated that Mr. Smith himself admitted to police that he shot up his ex-wife’s vehicle. What was more in doubt was the nature of the altercation between the two.

Mr. Smith’s ex-wife said Mr. Smith attacked her and beat her up. Mr. Smith’s attorney said his ex-wife tried to attack the woman Mr. Smith was with that night, and he fought her off and threw her out of the house.

Mr. Smith has now accepted a plea deal in which he agreed to resign and plead guilty to one of the felony charges, the damage done to his ex-wife’s vehicle when he shot it up. He would serve 10 months in jail, but the other charges -- felonious assault, domestic violence assault and battery and felony firearm – would be dropped.

So there’s no doubt any more. Mr. Smith has admitted to a felony, that he opened fire in his neighborhood on his wife’s vehicle.

But Wayne Circuit Judge Lawrence Talon greatly complicated the situation insofar as it involves Mr. Smith resigning. Mr. Talon refused to include a requirement that Mr. Smith resign as part of the plea agreement, and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office has said it will withdraw the plea agreement if the court refuses to accept it.

There will be a March 28 hearing on this matter, but Mr. Smith has yet to resign – and why should he when he can continue to collect his taxpayer-funded paycheck?

So what happens if the prosecutor’s office withdraws the plea deal and the case proceeds to trial? This saga already has dragged the Senate through the muck for 10 months. A trial almost surely would extend the mess through most of this year.

In the meantime, the 4th Senate District essentially has no representation when it comes to the development of legislation. Mr. Smith still shows up to vote on the Senate floor, but has been stripped of his staff and committee assignments (though Senate-controlled staff remains to handle constituent matters). Estranged from his fellow Democrats, Mr. Smith provides support on procedural votes for the Republican majority. Other senators who represent Detroit have said they are picking up the slack.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) and Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) still say they anticipate Mr. Smith resigning.

But what if he does not? Will the Senate tolerate having someone who admitted to spraying his ex-wife’s vehicle with gunfire in the middle of his neighborhood continue to serve?

At this point, it is no longer a matter of letting the legal process determine the facts of what happened. That chapter has closed. The question of Mr. Smith’s guilt or innocence in the eyes of the court remains unresolved, but the Senate now has all the information it could need to force the issue with expulsion proceedings – if it wants. So now the question is simply at what point the Senate decides it no longer can tolerate Mr. Smith’s admitted actions.

Back to top

The Sanders Upset And The Great Polling Disaster Of 2016

Posted: March, 9 2016 11:57 AM

I kept waiting for Hillary Clinton to pull ahead of Bernie Sanders last night.

Mr. Sanders had a lead, but the votes from cities like Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Battle Creek and more had yet to be counted and with their large African-American voting populations – a demographic Ms. Clinton has carried with 80-85 percent of the vote in other states – it was just a matter of time. Or so I thought.

Finally, most of the results from Battle Creek were available on the great Election Magic website. Mr. Sanders was leading. Hmmmm. Then, the shocker. Mr. Sanders routed Ms. Clinton in Grand Rapids by 7,000 votes, taking more than 60 percent. At that point, it finally became real to me that Mr. Sanders could actually win this thing. And he did.

In this space last week, I wrote that it was “hard to envision” how Mr. Sanders could overcome Ms. Clinton’s overwhelming advantage with African-American voters. I have written that the election was Ms. Clinton’s to lose. To friends who asked what I thought would happen Tuesday, I was unequivocal. Ms. Clinton would win.

And that was not based on polling (and I’ll get to that in a minute), it was based on Mr. Sanders’ horrendous performance to date with African-American voters in almost every other state and Ms. Clinton’s dominance there. Mr. Sanders has won states with almost totally white populations. Ms. Clinton has won those that are more diverse. Michigan definitely falls in the more diverse column.

Explaining what happened last night is pretty simple. Mr. Sanders greatly improved his performance with African-American voters and maintained his dominance with Caucasian liberals.

Exit polls showed Ms. Clinton winning among African-Americans in Michigan 65 percent to 23 percent. That sounds really good, and it is, but in other states, like Georgia, she won 85 percent to 14 percent.

Mr. Sanders’ margin over Ms. Clinton was 18,350 votes.

The difference between winning 65 percent of the African-American vote Tuesday and 85 percent is 54,944 votes.

Game over.

It will take time to understand why that was. That explains the difference between winning and losing, but Mr. Sanders’ total dominance of outstate areas also played a huge role in the overall outcome, and one has to wonder if the Clinton campaign should have worked more parts of the state.

But this result served as (another) reminder of how wonderfully unpredictable politics and elections can be. Michigan used to have upsets in presidential primaries somewhat regularly (1972, 1980, 1988 and 2000), but it had been a long time since John McCain shocked George W. Bush in 2000 and this was a wake-up call.

Speaking of wake-up calls, what happened Tuesday should serve as one to the news-polling industrial complex that there are serious problems with public polling in this state insofar as it involves horse race match-ups. Following major problems in 2014 (the total misfire where the polls had Paul Mitchell running away with the Republican nomination over, ahem, now-U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar and some weird numbers in the governor’s race), Gongwer News Service has been more restrained in our coverage of polls.

They are still a piece of information to be covered, but not breathlessly, should not be overemphasized and must be put into context with other factors happening in the race.

Some surveys had Ms. Clinton up by more than 30 points, most by more than 20. At best, Mr. Sanders was within 11 points, according to one poll. The “best” poll appears to have been the Michigan State University Institute for Public Policy and Social Research’s numbers showing Ms. Clinton leading 52 percent to 47 percent among likely Democratic voters.

Instead, Mr. Sanders won with a margin of 1.54 percentage points.

Polling is inexact, of course. There is a margin of error, after all, but that’s usually plus or minus 4 percentage points, not, um, 20.

There is still a lot of good, useful polling done in this state and by smart people. Polls provide important insight into what the voters think about a given issue or elected official. But there is clearly a problem with horse race polling in trying to determine the state of the electorate on who is leading in a race, especially in primaries, where the composition of the electorate is much harder to determine.

I bombed statistics in college, so what do I know. And pollsters admirably must always face the music. Their successes and failures are out there for all to see and judge.

But it should be time for reflection in the news world about how we cover polls on the horse race.

Back to top

The Primary Is Finally At Hand, Here’s What To Watch Tonight

Posted: March, 8 2016 4:31 PM

It may not be the remarkable battle of four years ago between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum for Michigan’s Republican presidential nominating delegates, but there is still plenty of intrigue and excitement to watch going into tonight’s presidential primary in this state.

While Michigan will not represent a key turning point in the march toward the 1,237 delegates needed on the Republican side, it marks an important moment in the evolution of the race.

Did the previously Teflon Donald Trump suffer damage in the past week, as suggested in his disappointing performance in Saturday’s primaries and caucuses? Or was that a blip? Can Ohio Governor John Kasich deliver on his vow to score better on his “home turf” in the north after a furious retail campaign effort in Michigan? How well organized is U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who has made little personal effort in the state?

And for the Democrats, today is the first legitimate presidential primary their party has held in Michigan since 1992, lest we forget the 2008 mess in which the state party jumped the national party’s calendar and there was not a real campaign here.

Here’s what I’ll be watching, in no particular order:

1. TURNOUT IN THE STATE’S CITIES: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s support among African-Americans is overwhelming. She is beating U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in the states that have larger numbers of minority voters and losing those that are mostly Caucasian. Ms. Clinton has spent time in Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids. She’ll need strong turnout in those cities, and others, to deliver on expectations of a big win.

2. THE DEQUINDRE LINE: In terms of cultural political differences, the one separating Macomb and Oakland counties along Dequindre Road is second only to Eight Mile Road. There are signs that Mr. Trump is going to play well in Macomb County, whose voters love a political brawler with a big personality. If Mr. Kasich is going to come closer to Mr. Trump than expected, he needs to score well in Oakland County, whose voters tend more toward the Republican establishment mold and prefer a more genteel brand of politics.

In 2012, for example, Mr. Romney beat Mr. Santorum by 8.7 percentage points in Macomb. He won by 21.3 percentage points in Oakland.

3. UNIVERSITY TOWNS: Mr. Sanders’ strength among college students is well-known. Will those voters show up today? Students at Central Michigan University, Michigan State University and Western Michigan University are on spring break. Did they vote absentee? Are they home with their parents and possibly better able to vote because of Michigan law that requires they register to vote at the same address listed on their driver’s license? The answers to those questions are critical to the Sanders campaign.

4. OTTAWA, KENT AND ALLEGAN COUNTIES: This triangle in western Michigan is the core of the state’s evangelical Republican vote. Here’s where Mr. Cruz has to score well. Mr. Santorum ran very strongly here four years ago. It was no accident that Mr. Cruz’s first visit in months to Michigan late Monday night was to suburban Grand Rapids. What kind of inroads can Mr. Trump make here? Mr. Cruz has had problems with evangelical voters, his presumed base, bleeding away somewhat to Mr. Trump.

5. 15 PERCENT: On the Republican side, candidates must win 15 percent of the statewide vote to qualify for delegates. Based on the polling, Mr. Trump, Mr. Kasich and Mr. Cruz seem in good shape to cross this threshold. Mr. Rubio appears in serious jeopardy of missing it.

6. BORDER COUNTIES: All things being equal, Monroe, Lenawee and Hillsdale counties would be a battle between Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz. The voters there are socially conservative and blue collar, and Hillsdale has a strong evangelical component. But those are counties that pick up Ohio network television affiliates and where the Toledo Blade has a strong following. Part of Mr. Kasich’s hope for a strong showing rests on scoring well in these areas.

7. BLUE COLLAR DEMOCRATIC SUBURBS IN DETROIT: Mr. Sanders has made a big push against Ms. Clinton on her support for free trade agreements, and she countered by attacking a vote he cast against emergency loans to save Chrysler and General Motors. What happens in cities like Hazel Park, Madison Heights, Dearborn Heights, Dearborn, Allen Park, Melvindale, Lincoln Park, Trenton, Westland, Garden City, Warren, Eastpointe and Saint Clair Shores – strongly Democratic middle class suburbs of Detroit – will reveal who won the argument.

Back to top

Michigan Primary Lacking Juice Compared To Florida, Ohio

Posted: March, 3 2016 4:25 PM

Most of the presidential candidates are descending on Michigan, but there is not a whole lot of drama headed into Tuesday’s presidential primaries.

Oh sure, perhaps tonight’s Republican debate could produce a surprise and tilt the race in a different direction, but right now the contest is Donald Trump’s to lose. On the Democratic side, it’s hard to envision how U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) overcomes former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s overwhelming advantage with African-American voters

The Democratic contest is not officially over, but Ms. Clinton has a substantial delegate lead on Mr. Sanders, and it will be hard for him to catch up though he has the money to stay in the race to the end. And as long as he keeps piling up delegates and winning some states, he probably will.

It is a big difference from four years ago when Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum fought a death match for the ages on the Republican side. There were not many delegates at stake, but Michigan became the optics fulcrum in the Republican nominating contest, and everyone knew it.

Mr. Santorum realized if he could topple Mr. Romney in Mr. Romney’s native Michigan, it would grievously wound the frontrunner. Mr. Romney realized losing could cost him the nomination, so the state was treated to a two-week all-out blitz by both campaigns and their supporters, culminating in a narrow win for Mr. Romney that began the process of putting Mr. Santorum away.

This year, on the Republican side, the turning point in the contest is now the winner-take-all primaries in Florida and Ohio on March 15.

Michigan awards its delegates proportionally, so unless something dramatic changes – and so far there is no sign of that – Mr. Trump will emerge with a win, continuing his momentum and padding his delegate lead.

If, for example, Mr. Trump takes 35 percent to 20 percent each for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and 15 percent for Ohio Governor John Kasich, then Mr. Trump would take about 23 delegates to 13 each for Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio and 10 for Mr. Kasich.

With Mr. Trump, according to The Associated Press’ delegate count, leading now with 319 delegates to 226 for Mr. Cruz, 110 for Mr. Rubio and 25 for Mr. Kasich, that won’t fundamentally alter the current trajectory of the race.

But should Mr. Kasich win his native Ohio and Mr. Rubio win his native Florida, that would mean 66 additional delegates for Mr. Kasich and 99 for Mr. Rubio. That would still leave them well behind Mr. Trump, but it could mean that Mr. Trump cannot reach the 1,237 pledged delegates needed to win on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention.

If Mr. Trump wins those states, he would potentially knock both from the race and be well on his way to the magic 1,237 threshold with only Mr. Cruz remaining to stop him.

National media reports already indicate millions of ad buys taking place in Florida, where polls show Mr. Rubio far behind Mr. Trump, with plans to bombard Mr. Trump with negative ads. Mr. Kasich is in better shape in Ohio, but the race is essentially a toss-up there, and Mr. Kasich will have to count on his strong organization to put him over the top.

Most Republicans watching the Michigan race say the only thing that really matters is getting to 15 percent, the minimum needed to qualify for delegates. So if Mr. Kasich were to fall short of 15 percent, then a 35 percent finish would get Mr. Trump about 27 delegates with Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio each taking about 16. No one would especially benefit, but Mr. Kasich would lose out significantly.

Mr. Cruz seems content to get his 15 percent to 20 percent and try to win other states. He released a campaign schedule through Saturday that puts him in five states, none of which are named Michigan.

So the candidates are here, stumping and campaigning, at least for a day or two between now and Tuesday. But the race is not really here. To find it, take I-75 south.

Back to top

Gongwer Unveils Upgraded App For 2016 Elections

Posted: February, 24 2016 9:33 AM

Gongwer News Service is once again making available a smartphone and tablet app that provides easy-to-use information and analysis of this year’s elections, with new features, improved functionality and a lower price from the first edition that debuted in the 2014 election cycle.

The app, which is available for iOS and Android devices, offers exclusive Gongwer analysis of all seats up for election in the Michigan House, the state’s 14 U.S. House seats, the presidential race and all other statewide contests.

The app gives users on-the-go access to detailed candidate biographical information, with options to review primary races and then general election campaigns once those races take shape.

Users can also see which U.S. House and Michigan House races are expected to be the most competitive and the seats where one party has a slight or strong edge via the Analysis feature.

On each candidate’s page, users will see links to the candidate’s social media accounts, district maps, campaign websites and ways to contact the candidate, as well as biographical information. If that candidate has run for state or federal office from 2002 onward, the app also displays his or her performance in those elections.

Users also can use the “Key Races” function to focus only on the primaries and general election match-ups that are legitimately competitive.

NEW FOR 2016: a push notifications feature. Gongwer will periodically alert users when new information has been uploaded to the app as well as provide some news.

Another significant upgrade from 2014 is a new search function that allows users to find a specific candidate by name, hometown or counties represented in a given district. And Gongwer now offers its analysis of the overall race for control of the Michigan House in addition to the race-by-race analysis it previously provided.

New timestamps also will assist users in knowing when new information has been uploaded for a particular race.

As the campaign season progresses, and as dynamics change, Gongwer will update the app. Look for more candidates to be added to the app as they file leading up to the April 19 filing deadline. And Gongwer will update its analysis of the races regularly.

The app will update with organizational endorsements of candidates as those occur.

Look for live election results on the app March 8 for the presidential primary and special Michigan House elections as well as the August 2 primary and November 8 general election.

Users of the iPhone and iPad can download the iOS version from the App Store: http://appstore.com/2016MichiganElections

Users of Android devices can download the app from Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.gongwer.mi2016

The app is available for just $6.99 – 30 percent less than the 2014 app cost.

Quality. Speed. Portability. The vital information you need on the 2016 elections in Michigan.

Download the Gongwer 2016 Michigan Elections app today.

Back to top

In Trump, Michigan GOP May Face What Buried Democrats With Fieger

Posted: February, 23 2016 12:33 PM

Donald Trump has not sewn up the Republican presidential nomination, far from it from a delegate perspective, but he has built huge momentum and if the polling is to be believed in upcoming states with primaries and caucuses, he looks awfully difficult to stop.

That would give the Republicans a presidential candidate who is a celebrity with a history of obnoxious comments and is a complete turnoff to vast swaths of the electorate who cannot possibly imagine him holding high executive office yet stunned party elites by winning the nomination through stoking anger and unleashing the furies.

It sounds a lot like what happened in 1998 when flamboyant attorney Geoffrey Fieger slugged his way to the Democratic nomination for governor, leaving his Democratic opponents helpless before uncorking a series of offensive and outrageous statements about Republican Governor John Engler’s family tree as well as his children, which I won’t rehash in detail. Suffice it to say that if you are a candidate for governor and are insulting your opponent’s children, you’re doing it wrong.

Mr. Fieger’s candidacy was a disaster for the Michigan Democratic Party. Mr. Engler took more than 60 percent of the vote and Democrats lost control of the House to Republicans, losing six seats overall, as well as the Michigan Supreme Court. This occurred despite a good year for Democrats nationally.

So if, at some point this spring and Mr. Trump obtains the necessary pledged delegates to prevail on a first ballot at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, or if he has to wait until the convention itself to clinch the nomination, where does that leave Michigan Republicans, who if they lose control of the House will see a six-year halcyon period of total Republican dominance of state government come crashing to an end?

They almost certainly will put on a brave face, much as most Democrats did the morning after Mr. Fieger won the gubernatorial primary.

Looking back at the coverage from that day, the spin from top Democrats is hilarious in retrospect.

The emphasis was on how Mr. Fieger had motivated nontraditional voters and had harnessed the anger in the electorate and would do the same in the general election against Mr. Engler.

Again, this sounds very familiar.

Mr. Fieger spoke of having launched a movement that would sweep the state.

Where have we heard that before, but for the entire country?

Democrats insisted their voters were so motivated to defeat their arch-nemesis, Mr. Engler, that they would come out in droves. There is a parallel there to what Republicans are saying about how their voters who loathe Mr. Trump would respond because of their antipathy to the favorite for the Democratic nomination, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

But in 1998, Mr. Engler carried Bay, Genesee, Ingham, Muskegon and Washtenaw counties, which were (and still are) solidly Democratic. Mr. Engler made a point of thanking the voters of Genesee County when he met with reporters the day after the election.

There was one Democrat in Gongwer’s coverage at the time who early on publicly warned of the potential for disaster for the party inherent in Mr. Fieger winning the nomination, with the probability of losing the House. We’ll close with the late, great Democratic operative Ken Brock, whose thoughts surely are shared among some Republican strategists grappling with the increasing likelihood of a Trump nomination.

Mr. Fieger's nomination may be the catharsis the party needs to reorient itself, Mr. Brock said then, "but it's a hell of a price to pay if he's such a drag on the ticket."

Back to top

Areas To Consider For A FOIA Revamp

Posted: February, 16 2016 1:51 PM

The pressure to end the exemptions for the Legislature and governor’s office in Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act is building in a big way in the midst of the Flint water crisis, and with a key legislator saying he is drafting a bill to do so the idea could actually see some serious consideration.

But there are many other areas in the 1970s-era FOIA that warrant consideration for an update.

There are two major areas in the law beyond the question of whether the Legislature and governor’s office should be exempt ripe for review – whether and how much governments should be able to charge compensation for having their employees respond to FOIA requests and the use of a one-size-fits-all timeline for governments to respond to those requests.

Government bodies must provide a response to a request within five business days and can ask for an extension of up to 10 additional business days.

The problem here is the law treats a simple request for a small document the same as one for thousands of pages of material. So a government can potentially take three weeks to release something that it could have handled in a day or it can be asked to produce records in three weeks when it understandably needs more time to pull together the records, vet them for exemptions and compile them.

There was an effort in the previous legislative term to address the cost issue and it succeeded in limiting what governments could charge for copying, ending the practice of some of charging 40 cents or more per page. But the labor is where the real costs get generated, and it’s why virtually every reporter can share a story about a government seeking tens of thousands – even hundreds of thousands – of dollars as compensation to process a FOIA request.

There is a section of FOIA that says, “A search for a public record may be conducted or copies of public records may be furnished without charge or at a reduced charge if the public body determines that a waiver or reduction of the fee is in the public interest because searching for or furnishing copies of the public record can be considered as primarily benefiting the general public.”

Public bodies do receive a number of FOIA requests from individuals with a proprietary interest, those seeking information on their competition.

That’s different from requests from the news media, where the overwhelming number of requests stems from pursuit of stories to inform the public about the workings of government.

In recent years, I have always put this section of the law into my FOIA requests. It almost always gets ignored.

To the credit, I suppose, of the Department of Environmental Quality, it was actually up front and just outright rejected the suggestion in a recent request I made.

“Although a majority of the DEQ FOIA requests pertain to records that may be considered as primarily benefitting the general public, the DEQ does not waive, reduce or exempt the fee solely on the basis of benefit to the public,” the response said. “The DEQ must utilize our monies and resources, entrusted to us by the taxpayers, in the most efficient manner possible to carry out our mission. The DEQ Special Projects FOIA Coordinator has denied your request for a waiver of fees.”

News organizations have the resources to pay FOIA charges, mostly, though depending on the size of the organization there are informal thresholds when the organization will push back.

But what about members of the public? Governments must waive the first $20 of a FOIA fee for those on public assistance or demonstrating they cannot pay because of indigency.

For starters, that $20 – unchanged since the law was first enacted in 1976 – would be $83 today adjusted for inflation. Plenty of people in Flint interested in obtaining records about the water crisis could benefit from modernizing that number.

But for requests that run into the hundreds of dollars or more, the waiver, even if adjusted for inflation, will mean nothing for those who qualify for it. And what about those who don’t qualify for the waiver and don’t have a few grand lying around to obtain the information?

The question ultimately boils down to whether a price should be put on public information. Otherwise, public information is only public for those with the resources to pay for it. Yes, governments have to expend resources to respond to FOIA requests, in the time of staff as well as paper and occasionally materials.

Is access to information about their government part of what residents fund with their taxes like police, fire protection, schools, prisons or is it a fee-for-service like paying for an inspection, using the courts or paying gasoline taxes for using the roads?

Back to top

No, A Senate Bill Does Not Ban Sodomy (Michigan Long Has Done So)

Posted: February, 9 2016 11:11 AM

It started Monday with some Internet memes mocking Michigan, something about the state newly banning anal and oral sex.

Then, this morning, a friend from Florida emailed me with a link to a website I had never heard of claiming a bill that passed the Michigan Senate, SB 219*, would ban sodomy in the state, asking me if this was really happening. Then I began seeing Facebook friends posting the story, either to express outrage that the Senate would pass such a law or incredulous at the gullibility of some people.

I can’t tell exactly where this originated, but let’s get this out of the way quickly.

SB 219* does NOT make new law criminalizing sodomy in Michigan.

That’s because Michigan law has criminalized sodomy for more than a century.

Under the law, it is a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison for anyone who commits an "abominable and detestable crime against nature either with mankind or with any animal." That wording has been interpreted to include anal and oral sex by either gay or heterosexual couples. It also criminalizes bestiality.

That law was rendered null and void by a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring such laws unconstitutional, but the Legislature has never removed it from the books.

So why the confusion, and what does SB 219* do anyway?

The bill is part of a package of bills designed to protect animals from cruelty, in this case by prohibiting someone from owning an animal for at least five years as part of a sentence when convicted of certain crimes against animals.

The bill restates the anti-sodomy/anti-bestiality subsection in the law because under the bill that would become a crime leading to the prohibition on owning an animal for five years.

Some websites have claimed the bill adds “mankind” to the statute. That is false. If the language was new, it would be added in bold, capitalized letters. The word “mankind” has been in the law going back to the 19th century.

What is interesting about the bill though is it does grammatically clean up the anti-sodomy/anti-bestiality subsection, going from “Any person who shall commit” to “A person who commits” and so on. That is pretty typical housekeeping in almost any bill.

But the bill leaves the word “mankind” in the law even though the U.S. Supreme Court has said that part of the law is unconstitutional. Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), the bill sponsor, has told several of these websites taking out that word would have scuttled the bill, and he did not want that to happen.

USA Today reported almost two years ago that of the 14 states that had anti-sodomy laws on the books when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, only two have struck them from their laws since then.

There was an effort in 2003 after the court ruled to remove the law from the books in Michigan, but it went nowhere. Then-Rep. Leon Drolet, a Republican who is now openly gay but at the time was not, circulated a bill to strike the law and met considerable resistance when he went looking for co-sponsors.

I recall one House Republican member at the time, who was hardly a raging conservative, telling me on a not for attribution basis that supporting the bill would be tantamount to political suicide. The fear was how opponents would caricature it politically, and indeed Mr. Drolet’s opponents ruthlessly used the bill against him for years to come.

So in the final analysis, two things have not changed: Michigan’s anti-sodomy law and the idea of repealing it remaining politically taboo.

Back to top

Following Iowa, A Look Back At The GOP’s Mackinac Conference

Posted: February, 2 2016 4:29 PM

Iowa has voted. And amid the celebrations among supporters of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and the lamentations of those backing Donald Trump, and, well almost everyone else on the Republican side, it seemed worthwhile to go back four months to the Michigan Republican Party’s Mackinac Conference and see how things have changed.

The most obvious standout is this: What a complete fluke it was for Carly Fiorina to land on the Island during the best two-week stretch of her campaign and captivate GOP activists there only to quickly lose all momentum and begin the slide to what will likely be an exit in the not too distant future.

I can remember some activists saying that no matter what, Ms. Fiorina had secured her place as at least the party’s vice presidential nominee with the way she had knocked Mr. Trump off-stride and developed a presence about her. She had the dining room in the Grand Hotel hanging on her every word and got the most enthusiastic response of the five candidates in attendance.

There was the massive, spontaneous throng that greeted her arrival at the ferry docks. She and U.S. Rep. Candice Miller (R-Harrison Township) hit it off and Ms. Miller endorsed her a few days later.

Iowa, with its religious, socially conservative Republican electorate, was never seen as friendly turf for Ms. Fiorina, but she ended up at the back of the pack with 2 percent after having risen as high as third in the Real Clear Politics polling average just after the Mackinac Conference at 10.3 percent.

In New Hampshire, after the Mackinac Conference, the Real Clear Politics polling average put Ms. Fiorina narrowly into second place in New Hampshire at 14.3 percent. A long slide soon followed and now she sits in seventh place at 3.8 percent. Nationally, she went from third place at 11.8 percent to an afterthought at 1.8 percent.

How did the other participants in the conference fare?

Ohio Governor John Kasich put a ton of time and effort into the Island. He skipped Iowa and has put his resources into New Hampshire, where he has gotten some traction and has been battling for second. Nationally, however, he has never been able to move beyond the low single digits.

Mr. Cruz’s performance fit his campaign to date. Nothing flashy, just mobilizing his supporters, delivering his conservative, anti-establishment stump speech and moving on. At the time, he had yet to break through and was struggling with his potential supporters going to Mr. Trump. By November, he was on an upward trajectory, wooing away supporters of Ben Carson and eventually some of Mr. Trump’s.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) won the Island’s straw poll for the second straight conference, but has never really gotten traction.

Then there is former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. He arrived on the Island still with some hope as the top choice among establishment Republicans. And clearly many of those on the establishment side in Michigan were really hoping he could electrify the activists. He gave a good, but not great speech and eventually was overshadowed by Ms. Fiorina.

His polling has cratered nationally since the conference and now he has to hope for a revival in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

The other two top finishers in Iowa, Mr. Trump and Mr. Rubio, did not attend the conference.

Did Michigan’s Republican activists get the chance to see their party’s next nominee in September on Mackinac Island? It is still a long ways to go to Cleveland and the Republican National Convention, but at this early read Mr. Cruz looks like the only one of the five with a plausible shot.

Back to top

Water Coolers At State’s Flint Building Another Credibility Blow

Posted: January, 29 2016 5:57 PM

The bleeding continues for Governor Rick Snyder’s administration when it comes to the Flint water crisis.

No, Mr. Snyder did not personally order up water coolers with purified water in them for the Flint State Office Building a year ago even as his Department of Environmental Quality and Flint water officials were downplaying the significance of a carcinogenic chlorine byproduct in the water that required public notification.

At least, Mr. Snyder told WWJ-AM today he had no knowledge that water coolers had been placed on each floor of the building as an alternative in direct response to the presence of TTHM in the water beyond federal thresholds. And it strains credulity to think the governor of the state would get down the weeds low enough to be ordering up some Absopure, or whatnot, for an office building.

The Department of Technology, Management and Budget, which manages state property, handled the request, and there’s no reason to think it went anywhere beyond the DTMB’s Facility Services and Administration section, which is many levels removed from anything where the governor has direct involvement.

But this is a terrible look for the state, with its employees working in Flint getting purified water for months before the state conceded there were serious problems with the water and began mobilizing to provide bottled water and filters to residents.

Let’s just say Flint residents have little use for hearing much more from Mr. Snyder about him not knowing about something happening in the middle to lower reaches of state government a la the Legionnaire’s disease outbreak situation. The reaction from the #FlintWaterCrisis hashtag on Twitter on Thursday was uniform in declaring Mr. Snyder had ordered up the water for the office building.

There’s no evidence of that, but what this revelation definitely does raise anew is the question of whether the left hand knows what the right hand is doing in state government.

Someone at DTMB made the decision after getting the notification from Flint of the presence of TTHM in the water that it was only the right thing to do to provide state employees with a purified option to the drinking fountain at the Flint State Office Building.

And based on the documents and emails by Progress Michigan, which disclosed the existence of purified water at the building, there was a conversation between someone at DTMB and the DEQ about the situation in January 2015.

Did anyone at any point consider the possibility that if the water was enough of a concern to bring in water coolers for the state office building that maybe it was time to reassess what to do about the rest of the city? Did anyone in that building, even as Flint’s water crisis exploded in the summer of 2015, think about the ramifications of state employees getting purified water as the rest of the city moved into a full panic about the tap water? Did it occur to the DEQ that if it couldn’t even persuade its fellow state workers at DTMB that the water posed no immediate threat that maybe that wasn’t a tenable position for the rest of the city?

So it’s another round of bad headlines for the governor. And these ones cut deep because it portrays the state as taking care of its own on the downlow while publicly reassuring Flint residents and businesses the water was safe.

Back to top

Sorry Cindy, Todd, There’s A Genuine Crisis To Cover Now

Posted: January, 26 2016 4:47 PM

Thanks to ABC’s “20/20,” former Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat re-entered our lives Friday.

I have not yet watched the show’s one-hour look at how their extramarital affair and cockamamie attempt to manipulate the public into dismissing any eventual allegations about them carrying on with each other ended their political careers. Oh, I DVR’d it and will watch eventually. Two Capitol press corps colleagues were interviewed for the show, and if nothing else, I’d like to see what they had to say.

But I could not bring myself to watch it Friday, literally and figuratively. Literally because I was still putting to bed the Gongwer report for the day in the wake of an incredible influx of major news on one of the most momentous stories to hit Michigan in years, the Flint water crisis.

Figuratively, I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Courser and Ms. Gamrat had not self-immolated this year whether maybe more news coverage would have happened sooner on Flint.

It was not just the period from when The Detroit News broke the story about Mr. Courser and Ms. Gamrat on August 7 to Mr. Courser’s eventual resignation and Ms. Gamrat’s expulsion on September 10 that consumed a massive amount of our reporting resources at Gongwer.

It was from the time that rumors began to mount of an affair in the spring that most of the Capitol press corps began working this story, trying verify it. Oh, the time and energy spent trying to figure out what happened at the Radisson Hotel Lansing, scene of an altercation between Mr. Courser, Ms. Gamrat and Ms. Gamrat’s husband whose specter rivaled the fabled but never proven wild party at the Manoogian Mansion in Detroit.

We had meetings trying to figure out strategies on how to confirm the story, various sources were contacted and it went on and on until finally the News got the goods and broke the story, and good for them, because it was a heck of a story, one any reporter would love to break.

But thinking back on all the time and energy to report a story that while fascinating, salacious and significant in the sense that it led to just the fourth-ever expulsion of a legislator, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Mr. Courser and Ms. Gamrat had not destroyed themselves.

Maybe we would have sensed the seriousness of what was happening in Flint more quickly. It was in July when reports of lead in the water first started to surface and then those reports intensified in late August and early September.

Ron Fonger, the excellent Flint Journal reporter, has been on this story from the beginning and exhaustively reporting it going back to the early complaints about taste and smell, long before the lead angle. But beyond the hometown Journal, the key reporting came from Curt Guyette, the former Detroit Metro Times reporter who became the investigative reporter for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, and Lindsey Smith of Michigan Radio.

It really was not until September when the Flint water crisis began to register on my radar screen once people like Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) began making public requests of the state to act. Things moved quickly once Doctor Mona Hanna-Attisha declared lead levels had risen in the blood of Flint children and by then we were, finally, fully on the story.

Had we and others taken note of the reporting in July and built upon it sooner, maybe the state would have realized sooner than September 28 that it had grievously erred in its assessment of the water’s safety. Coulda, shoulda, woulda.

This hurts on a personal level. I interned at The Flint Journal in 1997, and it was an enormously rewarding experience. I have fond memories of the city and its environs.

So to see Todd and Cindy claiming a few more seconds of fame was a stark reminder of what really matters.

Back to top

Republican Backlash To Anti-Snyder Fury Appears Building

Posted: January, 19 2016 12:39 PM

Ever since the Flint water crisis exploded in September and escalated in December, Republicans have had little choice but to stand on the sidelines and watch Governor Rick Snyder get pilloried.

It is hard to defend the indefensible, and the task force he appointed to look into what went wrong pointed squarely at the Snyder administration, specifically at the Department of Environmental Quality.

Mr. Snyder ultimately has only himself to blame for the dysfunction in the Department of Environmental Quality under the director he appointed and the mindboggling communications strategy for two of his departments to attack, belittle and scoff at worries about lead in the water. He will also have to explain why he waited three months to take actions like calling up the National Guard and sending teams of people door-to-door to distribute bottled water and filters.

Now, however, as the story goes national, with Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders tearing into Mr. Snyder and Democratic activists starting the hashtag of #ArrestGovernorSnyder on Twitter, some Republicans are signaling enough is enough, that the attacks have gone too far, and are rallying to Mr. Snyder’s defense.

In recent days, some Republicans have begun recirculating on social media a column written in October from The Detroit News in which former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, now the emergency manager for the Detroit Public Schools, denies any fault in the switch to the Flint River and pins the blame on local officials who supported switching Flint from the Detroit water system to a new authority.

That is a hotly disputed point. Flint’s city council cast an advisory vote backing the move to the Karegnondi Water Authority, drawing water from Lake Huron via a pipeline still under construction, but never voted on using the Flint River as an interim source. Still, many Flint officials hailed the switch to the Flint River, including Mayor Dayne Walling, as the city reclaiming its own destiny.

Nonetheless, one post of Mr. Earley’s column garnered a slew of likes from well-known Republicans, including some GOP legislators who vented about the invective directed at Mr. Snyder.

Rep. Triston Cole (R-Mancelona), in sharing the post, said: “I wanted to share this article with everyone. The Legislature is watching closely as the facts surface regarding the Flint water issue. I ask everyone to use caution with what you believe. Many are using this issue as a fear mongering tool inciting emotional reactions for political gain.”

Also within this dynamic, Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker (R-Lawton) posted, without further comment as they say, a 2014 news story featuring Flint officials almost gleeful with excitement at the prospect of switching to the Flint River as a temporary source. Lt. Governor Brian Calley posted it as well, though he said he did so as a way to explain why the switch to the river occurred, not to deflect responsibility after some criticized him on comments about the post.

One of the great debates in this crisis is to what extent the existence of an emergency manager resulted in the decisions that culminated in lead going into the drinking water.

Democrats have said it was instrumental, that the decision to use the Flint River as an interim source was a pure cost-savings move made by the emergency manager instead of paying the Detroit system what it wanted for another year. As already noted, Republicans have said it is more complex than that, that many Flint officials also preferred to use the river rather than pay millions the city did not have to stay on the Detroit system.

Then there’s Mr. Snyder’s bipartisan task force, which in its preliminary findings said the central blame in the debacle goes to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for failing to ensure corrosion control treatment of the more corrosive river water. Had the water been treated properly, the lead service lines would not have corroded and leached lead into the water, regardless of the decision to use the river.

There’s also the Legionnaire’s outbreak, not (yet) conclusively linked to the use of the river, although some experts have said it is highly possible. Reporting from The Flint Journal shows the city of Flint refused to turn over information to the Genesee County Health Department, which was investigating the outbreak.

Did the stonewalling come from an edict passed down by the state-appointed emergency manager or was this a product of city employees acting on their own and essentially telling the county to mind its own beeswax? That is unclear. The city’s mayor, Dayne Walling, resumed power in April 2015 and has said he was made aware of the Legionnaire’s worry a month earlier. He could have disclosed the problem to the public, but did not.

The state had some culpability in this too. For some reason, the data showing an outbreak did not make its way up from the departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services to the Executive Office.

Mr. Snyder is under siege. From the public. From Democrats. From Democratic presidential candidates (!). From the #ArrestGovernorSnyder crowd. From newspaper editorials. But there is a group of Republicans, and maybe others, out there who think the governor is getting more than his fair share of the blame, and they are getting more vocal.

Whether that support can shore up the governor against the flood of fury rolling in against him remains to be seen.

Back to top

WKAR’s Possible TV Demise Stirring Worries

Posted: January, 5 2016 1:20 PM

The potential for Michigan State University to put up for auction the spectrum space used by the Lansing area’s Michigan Public Television station, WKAR-TV, should attract the attention of those with an interest in government and politics as well as those who enjoy quality programming.

Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon has been given the authority by the university’s board of trustees to decide whether MSU should continue to participate in the process of potentially putting WKAR-TV’s spectrum space up for auction via the Federal Communications Commission. Ms. Simon must decide whether to keep WKAR in the process by January 12 although the university could still pull out prior to the auction taking place even if it decides to remain eligible.

Ms. Simon told WKAR-FM (the radio station, which would not be affected by the auction) on “Current State” last month that the school could fetch as much as $207 million at auction for giving up WKAR’s spectrum space. That would mean no more WKAR-TV on Channel 23 over the air in the Lansing region, nor would there be a spot for WKAR in cable and satellite packages.

Ms. Simon has said the university, which houses WKAR-TV in its College of Communication, Arts and Sciences building, would intend to continue the programming WKAR-TV now produces but instead distribute it online, positioning for what is a growing movement away from traditional cable and satellite television services in favor of streaming services like Sling, Hulu and Netflix.

The big program in question with this situation is “Off the Record,” the more than 40-year-old mainstay for state government and politics junkies, hosted by Tim Skubick. Full disclosure: I am an occasional panelist on the program.

From Ms. Simon’s comments, it sounds like the university has every intention of continuing programming like “Off the Record.” And for years, WKAR has posted “Off the Record” online Friday afternoon, hours or even days before it airs on Michigan Public Television stations, so in that sense, switching to an Internet model would be an extension of what already is happening.

Ms. Simon also told “Current State” that if the university does sell WKAR-TV’s spectrum space, then there would be a commitment on the part of television service providers to carry PBS programming in some other way. Perhaps that could include “Off the Record.”

Still, the possibility of WKAR-TV vanishing from television would pose difficulties, considering its prime viewership is in the Capitol region and the regular issues with getting WTVS-TV, the Detroit Public Television station, to stick with a regular timeslot for the program instead of moving it around during the weekend as it has done periodically through the years or pre-empting it in favor of other programming.

And the move would leave those who cannot afford a cable/satellite/other video service or Internet completely in the dark for programming from WKAR.

MSU hosted a public comment forum on the fate of WKAR on Monday and plans a second one for 7 p.m. January 11 in Room 147 of the Communication, Arts and Sciences building.

Back to top

Fair Michigan Could Force Groups’ Hands If It Gets Signatures

Posted: December, 30 2015 9:57 AM

One of the bigger splits to roil liberal politics in Michigan in some time continues to fester with Fair Michigan set to soon begin collecting signatures for a ballot proposal to enshrine protections against discrimination on the basis of gender, gender identity and sexual orientation into the Michigan Constitution.

Leading groups that advocate on behalf of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, as well as elected leaders who are gay, have resisted the idea of a ballot proposal, spearheaded by Dana Nessel, the attorney who won the DeBoer v. Snyder case that legalized same-sex marriage in Michigan.

Publicly, the two sides have disagreed sharply. Privately, several sources say, this is war.

An attempt to bring the two sides face to face recently at the Jim Toy Community Center did not change the fundamental dynamic that the factions are dug in. Groups like Equality Michigan and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan have urged Fair Michigan not to go forward with the proposal, not without more discussion on whether a ballot proposal is the right strategy.

Ms. Nessel and the Fair Michigan camp have said they will go forward regardless. Ms. Nessel sees a parallel in the lack of support some of the same groups voiced for the DeBoer case.

The Fair Michigan view is the LGBT community needs protection now. Two men or two women can legally marry now, but could be fired, kicked out of their rental housing or denied the ability to patronize a business as a result. The polling is positive, and the chances of convincing the conservative Republican majorities in the House and Senate to act are less than zero.

The view from Equality Michigan, the ACLU and others is that a campaign could put LGBT persons, especially transgender people, at risk of violence once the opposition goes heavily negative. Current polls could collapse quickly once attacks like the ones used to defeat a similar measure in Houston start (opponents claimed men labeling themselves transgender would stalk women’s restrooms), they say. And there is a reluctance to put LGBT rights up for a public vote.

But if Fair Michigan succeeds in collecting the needed minimum 315,654 signatures of registered voters to put the proposal on the November ballot, it is hard to imagine how Equality Michigan, the ACLU and the entire LGBT community, along with allied groups, could do anything other than fully embrace the proposal and join the campaign for its passage.

A divided LGBT community without all groups and key donors aboard would almost surely lead to a massive, devastating defeat of the proposal.

As much as many in the LGBT community clearly want no part of this proposal, in several months, they will probably have to confront a choice between sticking to their principles or gritting their teeth and going all-in for the proposal to avoid crippling it before the campaign truly starts.

Back to top

The Surprise In Wyant’s Resignation Is Timing

Posted: December, 29 2015 4:10 PM

From the moment the Flint water crisis first truly erupted as a statewide issue in late September, there was an undercurrent throughout the Capitol community that there was no way Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant would survive the ensuing fallout.

No, Mr. Wyant was not personally the one who failed to ensure proper corrosion controls were in place when Flint, under the direction of a state-appointed emergency manager, switched to the Flint River as its drinking water source, based on all the information now publicly available. The more corrosive river water, improperly treated, resulted in lead from old service lines leaching into the water, causing elevated blood lead levels in children in some locations.

But as director, Mr. Wyant is captain of the ship and, as an appointee of Governor Rick Snyder, the one in position to be held accountable. At a time when confidence in the DEQ has taken a major hit, and trust in the department in Flint is exceptionally low, the quickest answer is a change in directors.

Yet Mr. Wyant did seem to be hanging on. He survived the initial storm, and three months into the crisis, it seemed if Mr. Snyder was going to make a change, it would have occurred.

In an October 19 interview with the Detroit News Editorial Board, when Mr. Snyder was asked why Mr. Wyant still had a job, Mr. Snyder said Mr. Wyant had taken action on his staff, reassigning a key employee. Mr. Snyder also said the first people being addressed were those who had the knowledge and expertise on the issues.

“But Dan Wyant’s done a great job in responding to all of that. So I appreciate all of Dan’s hard work,” Mr. Snyder said then.

So what changed? Mr. Snyder’s task force sent some interim findings to the governor today. What those findings were, we do not yet know (though we should know yet today).

Whatever the task force found, it apparently came too close to Mr. Wyant for him to survive.

Back to top

Projected Loss Of U.S. House Seat Underlines Redistricting Drama

Posted: December, 22 2015 3:41 PM

New population estimates for Michigan from the census suggest the state will again lose a U.S. House seat in the next reapportionment, and it only highlights just how intense the battle for control of the government going into the 2021-22 term will be.

So far, the town halls and discussions that the League of Women Voters have sponsored about redistricting reform – moving redistricting out of the Legislature to another venue, like an independent commission – have led to no discernible momentum toward an actual ballot proposal. If a group wanted to pursue a constitutional amendment for the November 2016 ballot, it would have until early July to submit signatures, so there is still time, but some type of concerted, organized effort will have to develop in the next couple months.

Unless and until that happens, the Legislature and governor will redraw the maps in the 2021-22 term following the 2020 census.

Democrats are in a massive sinkhole in the Legislature. To recap:

  • Republicans control the Senate 27-11, the most lopsided domination a party has had in the Senate in 62 years (and it might as well be 28-10 since estranged Democratic Sen. Virgil Smith functionally is voting with the Republican caucus);
  • Republicans will have controlled the Senate for 35 consecutive years when the Senate next stands for election in 2018;
  • Republicans control the House 61-46 (it will be 63-47 after March 8 special elections) and have held the House for 16 of the previous 22 years; and
  • Republicans hold nine of Michigan’s 14 U.S. House seats to five for the Democrats.

If there is no ballot proposal to alter who controls the power of the pen in redistricting, it will put that much more pressure on Democrats to win the governorship in 2018.

It also puts more pressure on Democrats to win as many open state House seats in 2016 as possible. Those who win their first term in 2016 will likely be safely in office through 2021-22, serving in their third and final term. The 2016 election offers the chance for both parties to bank some competitive seats and make their task in 2020 easier.

A Democrat in the Executive Office would assure that a plan cannot emerge from the Legislature. Even if Democrats are able to regain control of the House for the 2021-22 term, the Republicans, barring some type of historic, unprecedented shift in the 2018 elections, will still run the Senate.

A divided government would kick the redistricting question to the Supreme Court, and while the court likely will still have a majority of Republican justices in 2021-22, how they would handle the first court-led redistricting in 30 years is an open question. The court has nowhere near the partisan edge that it did in the previous decade (its decision to appoint two judges from Democratic backgrounds and two from Republican backgrounds to the reconstituted Court of Claims being a case in point).

Nonetheless, the loss of a seat in the U.S. House is a DefCon 1-type situation. And the possibility of watching Republicans again pit Democratic incumbents against each other in primaries, as happened in 2001 and 2011, only further underscores how important redistricting will be in 2021.

Back to top

The Revised FOIA Law Has Yielded No Substantive Change

Posted: December, 15 2015 3:08 PM

Six months into life under revisions to Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, the conclusion is that the changes have made no discernible difference in how public bodies charge the public for public information.

Those public bodies – local governments, school districts, universities, community colleges, state departments and agencies and authorities – that had long viewed the FOIA as a way to shield themselves against releasing public information or charging so much money that only those with means could access the information, continue to do so.

First, a shout-out to those governments that take the view the public has a right to information about the government they fund at little to no charge and with a quick turnaround time.

But they were not the target of PA 563 of 2014. The law, which took effect July 1, limits public bodies to charging no more than 10 cents per page. Many public bodies charged huge per page fees – 25, 35, 40 cents per page or more – when compared with the 8 cents per page at the local copying shop.

And another change allows a person filing a FOIA to file suit against the public body for how much it wants to charge for processing the FOIA request.

But the major source of charges in the FOIA law remains labor. Public bodies often will put requests through legal counsel, which means they can charge an enormous per hour cost to scrutinize the paperwork for any material that is exempt under the FOIA.

Notice I said “can charge,” not must charge. That’s right, under the FOIA, public bodies are under no obligation to charge one penny for releasing public information. The law even contains this clause: “A search for a public record may be conducted or copies of public records may be furnished without charge or at a reduced charge if the public body determines that a waiver or reduction of the fee is in the public interest because searching for or furnishing copies of the public record can be considered as primarily benefiting the general public.”

Needless to say, many public bodies see that non-binding portion of the law as, in fact, non-binding.

Not only does the FOIA law allow public bodies to charge the cost of whatever the hour wage is of the employee working on the request, it permits charging for the value of the employee’s health benefits when worked out to an hourly basis.

Again, the law does not require governments to charge for labor and include the cost of fringe benefits in the calculation, it only allows it.

I have had two recent FOIA requests come back with cost estimates of $200,000 and $40,000, respectively.

That’s absurd.

The idea that finding requested public records, vetting them for exempt material and copying them should be considered part of a public officer’s duties and thus part of the salary and benefits they already receive is a foreign concept in many public bodies.

Sunshine Week, the week when journalists stress the importance of freedom of information and open meetings laws (popularly known as sunshine laws), is usually not until March in Michigan.

But it won’t take another three months to realize that the revisions to the FOIA law have not fundamentally altered what the public has to pay for public information.

Back to top

What The Dems Hope Comes Of The Ex-Staffer Lawsuit Against House

Posted: December, 8 2015 2:37 PM

If it seemed Monday like Michigan Democrats were ecstatic that the fired former staffers of ex-Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat filed a whistleblower protection lawsuit against the House, naming Speaker Kevin Cotter and multiple current and former staffers for retaliating against them for reporting wrongdoing, well, that’s because they are, in fact, ecstatic.

This is not about who wins or loses the lawsuit, the House or Keith Allard and Ben Graham, on the question of whether Mr. Cotter and his staff assented to Mr. Courser and Ms. Gamrat initiating Mr. Allard’s and Mr. Graham’s firings because they blew the whistle on a rat’s nest of wrongdoing or because, as the House and the former legislators contend, they were bad employees.

It was Mr. Allard and Mr. Graham who reported the use of official taxpayer-funded resources used for political purposes in the joint office operation Mr. Courser and Ms. Gamrat employed, as well as the legislators’ extramarital affair and their attempt to mislead the public about the affair with a phony email.

This is about what happens if Mr. Allard and Mr. Graham can persuade a judge at the U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids not to dismiss their case, which the House will surely file a motion seeking, and let them proceed to trial with all the discovery rights to evidence that entails.

This is about the possibility that Mr. Allard and Mr. Graham will get their hands on emails, text messages, memos and all other types of documents written by Mr. Cotter, other GOP lawmakers and top House Republican staffers and file them with the court, making public documents the public now has no legal right to access.

This is about the possibility for Mr. Allard’s and Mr. Graham’s attorney to put Mr. Cotter and his current and former staffers under oath about what happened.

It would be a grand fishing expedition, and Democrats would dearly love for it to unearth information that would politically damage the House Republicans and aid the Democratic bid to claim control of the House in 2016 elections.

A settlement, of course, would shatter those Democratic dreams. And it was something of a surprise to see Monday’s filing of a lawsuit come to fruition. There was some skepticism in Democratic circles that a lawsuit would ever be filed because a settlement would come long before things could go that far.

Documents and sworn testimony may, in the end, prove nothing or everything with regard to the lawsuit and Mr. Allard’s and Mr. Graham’s ability to win their case.

But if there are documents out there that could harm House Republicans, the one sure winner in the case is the Democrats.

Back to top

Three Months Until Michigan Primary, And, Yeah, No One Knows What Will Happen

Posted: December, 1 2015 1:25 PM

Ah, Thanksgiving. The turkey. The stuffing. The gravy. And a chance to talk politics with relatives.

One big question around the dinner table last week was the state of the presidential election, namely the Republican side. The consensus among a group of relatives whose political leanings stretch from strongly Democratic to reliably Republican was that no one has any idea who will win the GOP nomination for president.

Welcome to the club.

Michigan seems to be tracking the national climate on the Republican nomination and with some candidates, maybe several, likely to be out of the race by the time our March 8 primary arrives, it’s even more difficult to know what will happen here than in the states with the first nominating contests.

There are five candidates with at least some level of organization in the state: former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Ohio Governor John Kasich, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. But again, there are plenty of scenarios that could lead to any of these candidates leaving the race before Michigan arrives.

Donald Trump continues to enjoy strong support in the polls nationally, but will that translate when it comes time for Republican voters to show up at the polls or caucus sites to cast ballots? There is still some sense that Mr. Trump’s support includes people who will not show up to vote. Nate Silver has an interesting analysis – of course he does – on why some of Mr. Trump’s polling lead is suspect.

There is nary a hint of any Trump organization in Michigan.

Ben Carson remains hugely popular among Republican voters and is very much in the mix. His mellow style has gained him support. But there’s not much in the way of any major Michigan backing.

So far, Mr. Bush has assembled the most notable Michigan endorsements, followed by Mr. Kasich, Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio. Overall, however, most major elected Republicans in the state have yet to pick a candidate.

Indeed, the confusion about the race extends far beyond the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Back to top

Booth Newspapers Rises Again In State Government Communications

Posted: November, 24 2015 11:20 AM

Governor Rick Snyder’s naming of longtime journalist Meegan Holland as his new communications director cemented something that has been developing for some time now – many key state communications officials have significant experience in the old Booth Newspapers chain.

Now known as MLive, Booth was the former umbrella organization covering the Ann Arbor News, Jackson Citizen-Patriot, Kalamazoo Gazette, Muskegon Chronicle, Grand Rapids Press, Flint Journal, Saginaw News and Bay City Times.

Ms. Holland held a variety of leadership roles as a Booth editor over the years. She’ll be working closely with Dave Murray, the newly named press secretary for Mr. Snyder, who spent his career mostly with the Flint Journal and Grand Rapids Press as an education beat reporter.

In the departments, Chris Gautz handles the spokesperson role at the Department of Corrections. He had a stint at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot (and later worked at Gongwer News Service). Bob Wheaton, a former reporter at the Flint Journal and editor at the Citizen-Patriot, is a spokesperson at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Jeff Cranson, a former longtime deputy metro editor at the Grand Rapids Press, heads up communications now for the Department of Transportation. Ed Golder, a former editorial page editor at the Press, handles communications for the Department of Natural Resources.

Katie Bach, a former Flint Journal community news editor, is the media affairs manager at the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. And Gisgie Davila Gendreau, a former reporter in the Booth Lansing Bureau, is the communications director for the Department of State.

Of the eight, five went straight from Booth to the state while the other two worked other jobs before landing in state government. Some of this is a sign of the terrible turbulence that continues to roil the newspaper industry.

The situation with Booth from 2009-11 was dire. The Ann Arbor News discontinued its print publication. Several other newspapers in the chain reduced print publication days. Once columnist Peter Luke left the Booth Lansing Bureau, which in the 1980s and 1990s and still into the 2000s was a journalistic force in this city, the chain had no state Capitol presence for a period.

Thankfully, Booth, upon rebranding as MLive, revived the Lansing Bureau and hired good people to restore a proud tradition. Still, it has not been all sunshine and rainbows since then. MLive laid off Ms. Holland and another talented journalist in the Lansing Bureau in cost-cutting moves about a year ago.

When that happened, Ms. Holland said she had no regrets and it was time for new adventures. She’ll be in good company with her fellow former Boothies as she gets started.

Back to top

A Michigan Native Busted Former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley

Posted: November, 20 2015 2:31 PM

There’s a compelling read available today in Politico featuring the first-person account of Zack Stanton and how he turned over evidence to ABC News of former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley’s lewd and sexually charged instant message exchanges with congressional pages.

Mr. Stanton, an Anchor Bay native who went to Michigan State University, worked on the 2002 gubernatorial campaign of Democrat David Bonior, the 2010 gubernatorial campaign of John Freeman and then was a speechwriter and policy advisor in the U.S. House, working with U.S. Rep. Sander Levin (D-Royal Oak).

But before those duties, he worked in the now extinct congressional page program, which placed young people in clerical roles, bringing documents to and from the House floor.

Without trampling on the piece too much, the basics are as follows. One of Mr. Stanton’s fellow former pages provided him with transcripts of instant message exchanges between that page and Mr. Foley after Mr. Foley’s office denied burgeoning allegations of wrongdoing.

That page did not want Mr. Stanton to share the information with the media, but Mr. Stanton decided to do so anyway and then was horrified when ABC News, after he insisted it redact any mentions of the page’s name, missed one and the name went public.

Confronted with the transcripts, Mr. Foley immediately resigned, but Democrats, who were on their way to taking control of Congress, had the final piece of ammunition necessary and won the House and Senate.

Mr. Stanton signaled he decided to out himself as the source in the wake of former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s guilty plea to charges he covered up financial transactions that were hush money to prevent someone from revealing damaging information about him. National news reports have said the damaging information was allegations he committed child sexual abuse while a high school wrestling coach.

Mr. Hastert’s speakership imploded in large part because several U.S. House Republicans told him of allegations that Mr. Foley was coming onto pages and he apparently had done nothing. At the time, this was seen as incompetence. But Mr. Stanton – and others – now say they wonder if Mr. Hastert feared someone would expose his past if he went after Mr. Foley.

Mr. Stanton’s Facebook page was full Friday of friends, and many Michigan Democrats, commending him for doing the right thing and bringing the Foley scandal to light.

Back to top

Blanchard Opines On Governors Trying To Stop Syrian Refugees

Posted: November, 19 2015 3:39 PM

It is hard to believe, but January 1 will mark the 25th anniversary of when former Governor James Blanchard’s tenure as governor ended.

If you were born in the mid- to late-1970s (as I was), Mr. Blanchard was the first governor to register on the radar screen. I have no memory of William Milliken as governor (I was 7 when his term ended).

Mr. Blanchard has had an interesting post-gubernatorial career. He was of course U.S. ambassador to Canada, and then there was his ill-fated 2002 comeback attempt to win the governorship in which he finished third out of three candidates in the Democratic primary. He has had a long run at the national mega-law firm, DLA Piper, in government affairs. He was a key voice of support in the new bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

And he has remained an involved figure in Michigan politics. He got personally involved in the 2013 battle for Michigan Democratic Party chair and was on hand at the state party convention in Detroit to back Lon Johnson over Mark Brewer.

Mr. Blanchard was back in the spotlight Wednesday when his friend and political ally, former President Bill Clinton, received an award from Mr. Blanchard’s new institute at Michigan State University, the former governor’s alma mater.

Afterward, Mr. Blanchard was asked about so many governors rushing this week to try to stop Syrian refugees from entering their states in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Lebanon. Governor Rick Snyder has been less strident, but helped start the push when he said his administration would halt its efforts to bring Syrian refugees to Michigan unless and until the federal government reviewed its vetting procedures.

“I think they probably jumped too quick,” Mr. Blanchard said. “I think there needs to be a more thoughtful policy to protect our people. It’s always important not to overreact to things – sometimes your first information is the wrong information.”

But Mr. Blanchard hastened to add he was hesitant to second-guess those decisions.

“I’m not a governor. I’m no longer the governor of this state or any state, and it’s their call,” he said. “I’ll have to look at the information they have in which they base their decision. So I’m not about to critique anybody, but as a general rule, you don’t want to overreact too quickly to anything that goes on, you need to really be thoughtful about it.”

The key now, Mr. Blanchard said, is to work with U.S. allies to address both terrorism and the refugee crisis.

“This problem, this challenge is going to go on for a lot longer,” he said.

So in honor of the former governor’s return to the limelight this week, we’ll close with this ad from his 1986 re-election campaign in which he took an astonishing 68.1 percent of the vote. The graphics alone make this worth your time.

Back to top

Tax Breaks To Lure Data Center Set Up Intriguing Switch For State

Posted: November, 17 2015 5:05 PM

One of Governor Rick Snyder’s signature initiatives since taking office was the elimination of tax credits to attract new businesses to Michigan in favor of a lower, flatter, simpler tax.

Remember, the mantra “simple, fair and efficient” Mr. Snyder used to sell the new Corporate Income Tax in 2011? At the time, there was a question as to what phrase he used more, that one or “relentless positive action.” Four years later, there’s no contest, “RPA” has prevailed over “SF&E.”

But now the prospect of the company Switch spending eleventybillion dollars to locate a new data center in Gaines Township, a Grand Rapids exurb, has raised the possibility that Michigan might dip its toe back into the tax breaks business. I kid about the investment figure only because the firm has claimed a $5 billion investment if it locates there, but this Detroit Free Press story suggests that is more the product of the value of the technology equipment located there than in jobs or a greater presence in the region.

Switch, however, has said that if it is going to locate in Michigan, it will need exemptions from the sales, use and property taxes.

Bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to provide those exemptions (HB 5074*, HB 5075* and HB 5076* as well as SB 616*, SB 617* and SB 618*). The excitement among west Michigan legislators is palpable. And the House Tax Policy Committee plans to take up the legislation in early December, so there is some energy behind the move.

But what will Mr. Snyder do?

There’s no getting around it. Michigan attracting a business to the state by agreeing it does not have to pay sales, use and property taxes would be completely at odds with the governor’s business attraction philosophy.

Mr. Snyder has so far deferred questions about the project to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and the MEDC sidestepped Monday any comment about the legislation, saying only it appreciates the public excitement surrounding the project but it does not discuss pending legislation regarding potential business attraction deals.

The benefits of agreeing to the tax break are obvious – more jobs in Kent County, and coveted high-tech ones to boot. Mr. Snyder could add it to his “Michigan is the comeback state” narrative.

But there are negatives. As a data center, it’s not clear yet how much sales tax and use tax Switch would collect. But if it purchases the huge parcel and “pyramid” building once used by Steelcase, as discussed, that would be a big chunk of lost potential property tax revenues for Gaines Township, Kent County and any other taxing jurisdictions.

And then there is the precedent-setting potential. How will Mr. Snyder and the MEDC respond the next time a business interested in locating to Michigan expresses an interest in tax credits and abatements? So far, using the new cash incentive program has worked reasonably well. There have been no stories of businesses fleeing the state after another state wooed them with a more lucrative tax break.

To this point, Mr. Snyder and the MEDC have been able to say Michigan treats everyone the same – no new tax breaks, just pay-as-you-go cash incentives. One wonders, though, if Mr. Snyder signs the Switch tax breaks into law, how that will play going forward.

Back to top

Bloomberg PAC Ad Against Schuette Feels Like First 2018 Shot

Posted: November, 9 2015 11:56 AM

All year, the 2018 gubernatorial election has felt much closer than it actually is, thanks to the intense Democratic interest in recruiting strong candidates to win back the office, four big names in the mix on the Republican side and the general trend in politics to obsess about the next election.

The latest volley into this maelstrom of speculation is the ad from Independence USA PAC, the political action committee controlled by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, attacking Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette for joining the lawsuit with other state attorneys general against the new federal clean power rule.

Mr. Schuette is widely expected to run for governor in 2018. So is Republican Lt. Governor Brian Calley.

Mr. Bloomberg is a close ally of Republican Governor Rick Snyder, and Independence USA PAC aired millions of dollars’ worth of ads supporting him in Mr. Snyder’s 2014 re-election campaign. Mr. Snyder and Mr. Schuette are not close, and if Mr. Calley runs, it’s impossible to imagine Mr. Snyder doing anything other enthusiastically supporting Mr. Calley.

Now Mr. Bloomberg’s PAC is going to spend presumably a decent chunk of money accusing Mr. Schuette of siding with polluters and taking more than $150,000 from them for his campaigns. The ad closes with a charge that Mr. Schuette is “putting polluters and his campaign contributors ahead of protecting Michigan families.”

Officially, of course, this is all about the federal rule to curb carbon pollution.

But it doesn’t take much imagination to see this as a first shot against Mr. Schuette, who would start out in a very strong position to win the Republican nomination if (when) he runs for governor. A group like Independence USA PAC doesn’t drop potentially a couple million worth of negative ads on someone without evaluating long-term political considerations.

How the ads play out though, will be interesting.

All things being equal, Mr. Schuette probably would prefer not to have a group tearing into him on televisions across the state as in the pocket of polluters.

And yet, given the fierce opposition among Republican voters to just about anything from President Barack Obama’s administration – and certainly the rule to curb the use of fossil fuels has few supporters in the GOP base – Mr. Schuette has the ability to spin this to his advantage.

Mr. Bloomberg is a Republican, but about as left-leaning a Republican as still exists and is not exactly a fan favorite among Republican voters. So already Mr. Schuette is firing back about an out of state billionaire who wanted to tax pop while mayor of New York siding with the Obama administration’s effort to force states to impose burdensome rules on local businesses.

That’s a pretty decent play to Republican voters. And assuming Independence USA PAC isn’t planning to stay on the air more than a month or so, any hit to Mr. Schuette’s favorability should be temporary.

Still, while the ad itself mostly will be here today and gone tomorrow, one aspect of it that has to have grabbed the attention of everyone with a rooting interest in the 2018 election is what it might mean for Independence USA PAC’s role in a Republican primary. If this is in fact a first volley and not an isolated move, the possibility of it dropping millions into that race will seriously reshape the finances involved, both for the candidates running and their backers planning to assist from the outside.

Back to top

Unpacking The Roads Proposal Headed To Snyder’s Desk

Posted: November, 4 2015 1:21 PM

It is alternately being called a triumph, a cave, financial time bomb, a sign that the legislators can make the difficult decisions on the big issues and evidence that the state government is broken.

More than four years after Governor Rick Snyder first called on the Legislature to raise annual revenues for roads by $1.2 billion, it finally sent him a package that will raise $600 million in new revenues and – depending on if future governors and legislatures agree – eventually dedicate $600 million out of the state’s General Fund toward roads.

Four months ago, the chances of any substantive action on roads this year seemed remote. The Senate had passed a substantial tax increase in July and the House passed a plan largely dismissed because it had little new revenue and appeared vehemently against a significant tax increase. Minority Democrats, eyeing the 2016 House elections, were content to lob grenades at Republicans, and Governor Rick Snyder was resolute about the need for substantial, real new revenue.

So what changed?

The first big change occurred July 23 when a group of unions popped a surprise with a ballot proposal to raise the Corporate Income Tax from 6 to 11 percent and dedicate the $900 million in new revenue to roads. Republicans, vehemently opposed to that idea, now had to consider the added consequences of inaction giving more impetus to the proposal. The proposal will continue, and how the Legislature’s action will affect its prospects in November 2016 is as yet unclear.

Then there was the shift among House Republicans in August to come off its resistance to much in the way of new revenue. Most of the House Republican Caucus decided to support a 600/600 plan much like the one that eventually passed, but at the time they could not marshal the votes, and Governor Rick Snyder warned that $600 million from the General Fund would cause problems without action to relieve other budgetary pressures.

That launched a new phase, one of bipartisan negotiations involving the top Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate as well as Mr. Snyder. This went on for many weeks only to collapse on the question of how much income tax relief to provide as an offset and how to provide that relief.

Once that happened, that seemed to impress upon Republicans a few realities:

  • The only way road funding was going to pass the Legislature was if they alone provided nearly all the votes;
  • The road funding debate was going to drag on and on until something, anything was done; and
  • They had reached the point of wanting to get this issue, which has sucked all the air out of the Capitol on other issues, off the table.

Into this environment came an interesting skirmish between Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) and House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant). Mr. Meekhof called for Mr. Cotter to put the bipartisan plan up for a vote in the House, and Mr. Cotter – realizing it would likely get soundly defeated – said no. Instead, Mr. Cotter revived the 600/600 framework and did what he was unable to do in August – find the necessary votes to pass it.

The exact dynamics of what persuaded enough of the House Republicans who balked in August to come aboard are not totally clear, but it isn’t hard to imagine some rallied around Mr. Cotter in the face of Mr. Meekhof publicly calling for a vote on a different plan and House Minority Leader Tim Greimel (D-Auburn Hills) teeing off on legislative Republicans. There also was a sense that by using a vehicle registration fee model, Republicans voting yes might avoid some of the wrath that would have instead come from raising the gasoline tax. I don’t really understand that analysis, but that’s what many said the feeling was.

With the House Republicans passing $600 million in new revenue, Mr. Snyder’s resistance to using $600 million from the General Fund began to dissipate. And Mr. Meekhof, who had held back from publicly embracing a 600/600 plan to avoid jamming legislation down the governor’s throat, began to move toward embracing it (the Senate passed in July an 800/700 plan after all).

Mr. Snyder’s requests were met, to phase in the General Fund contribution over three years starting with the 2018-19 fiscal year, meaning the $1.2 billion in new funding will not be fully in place until the 2020-21 fiscal year (the second budget that will be proposed under the next governor). An income tax rollback also was delayed until 2023 and made less likely to occur under a complicated formula.

In the end, this plan was nowhere near what Mr. Snyder wanted when looking back on his past proposals. He wanted $1.2 billion in predictable, ongoing new revenue, be it from the gasoline tax, higher vehicle registration fees, or some combination of the two. He got half of that. Yes, the General Fund money is statutorily committed, but the road folks need only ask any of the other interests whose programs rely on the General Fund what happens to funding when the economy dips and takes revenues with it, even when it means changing a statute.

What’s that old saying about “half a loaf” being better than none?

Back to top

The Latest Jam On Road Funding

Posted: October, 27 2015 4:50 PM

This morning, prior to the Senate convening for its 10 a.m. session, where it was expected to vote on a road funding plan, the mood among those who have worked for years to raise funding for roads was downright optimistic.

And this from a group that has come so close so many times over the years to its goal only to see the Legislature play the part of Lucy and yank the football away just before Charlie Brown can kick it. But there seemed real reason for optimism.

But Lucy struck again today.

The problem in a nutshell is that the new revenue in the plan House Republicans passed last week comes heavily from raising vehicle registration fees, and the Senate would prefer instead for most of the new revenue to come from an increase in the gasoline tax.

The pro-registration fee side sees it as a more stable source of revenue because as vehicles get more fuel efficient – or rely on energy sources other than gasoline – gasoline tax revenue based on cents per gallon purchased will continue to decline. It also can be labeled a fee instead of a tax. Theoretically.

Those favoring the gasoline tax hike approach say it goes much easier on motorists’ cash flow. Instead of paying all of the vehicle registration fee hike at once, when renewing registrations annually, motorists would just pay a little bit more with each fill-up and considering that the price of gasoline zig-zags more than a squirrel crossing the road, motorists would barely notice, if at all. Additionally, raising the gasoline tax ensures that out-of-state motorists pay more.

By noon it was readily apparent the votes were not there in the Senate. And with House Republicans basically telling Senate Republicans they were uninterested in big changes to the plan, which left the Senate adjourning just before 4 p.m. today with a decision not to vote and no signal as to what will happen next.

This much is clear though. This is the closest the Legislature and governor have been in the four years since Governor Rick Snyder made more funding for roads a top priority to actually agreeing on something.

Even if that thud emanating from the Capitol just before 4 o’clock was the sound of Charlie Brown’s back hitting the ground.

Back to top

The Road Funding Debate And Michigan State’s Miraculous Win

Posted: October, 19 2015 2:35 PM

Here’s a new name to add to the list of those who would tell Governor Rick Snyder and the Legislature to finally find a solution to substantially increase funding for roads: Saturday’s hero of Michigan State’s stunning win over the University of Michigan in football, Jalen Watts-Jackson.

Mr. Watts-Jackson, in case you just returned from a cave with no access to the outside world, is the Spartan who corralled a fumble on a botched Michigan punt attempt, raced 38 yards to the end zone as time expired, winning the game and suffering a fractured and dislocated hip in the process.

Mr. Watts-Jackson’s father was recounting the aftermath to the Detroit Free Press, which included this detail: “Watts-Jackson screamed in pain as the ambulance hit a bump on the way to the hospital … but his pain level went down dramatically when he arrived and doctors reset the hip.”

So there you have it. Mr. Watts-Jackson, already in unspeakable pain, forced to endure further agony thanks to Michigan’s lousy roads.

If it’s any consolation to him, his heroics probably have many people in East Lansing wanting to rename streets after him today.

Back to top

The Presumptive Parole Fight: Schuette Vs. Everyone

Posted: October, 15 2015 3:12 PM

There’s something you don’t see every day.

Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, launches a go-for-the-jugular campaign to kill House-passed legislation – which has the support of Republican Governor Rick Snyder, the House Republican leadership and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, also a Republican – ensuring the parole of those prisoners once they meet their minimum release date if the Department of Corrections determines they are unlikely to commit another crime upon release.

Following a week of daggers from Mr. Schuette, labeling the legislation “early release,” “catch and release” and “autopilot parole,” House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant) felt compelled to rebut the criticism in a statement defending the legislation, as did Mr. Snyder. Mr. Meekhof took it a step further, calling Mr. Schuette’s comments “over the top” and personally confronting the attorney general about the tone of his remarks.

And while “everyone” for the purposes of the headline on this blog means the top Republican leadership in state government, Mr. Schuette does in fact have the support of many county sheriffs and prosecutors. There was a news conference in metro Detroit on Monday with law enforcement leaders, and Mr. Schuette is making a point of noting the bipartisan roster of the opposition.

So to be clear, Mr. Schuette is not on an island on absolute basis.

But for him to be so viscerally attacking something supported by the Republican governor and Republican legislative leadership is extraordinary.

Already Mr. Schuette’s efforts seem to have had an effect in the Senate, where Mr. Meekhof said he heard considerable concern from his fellow Republican senators about the bill.

When Mr. Schuette ran for re-election in 2014, he called himself “Michigan’s voice for victims.” The events of the past week underline that theme.

The supporters of HB 4138* are almost slack-jawed in their amazement at Mr. Schuette’s attacks. Michigan still incarcerates more than 40,000 people and spends $2 billion on corrections. The presumptive parole bill is smart corrections policy, they say. Everyone released will have served at least his or her minimum sentence and have been judged likely to succeed on the outside. The state can save money without putting the public at risk, they say.

Here’s the (political) problem.

That took 58 words to explain.

“Voice for victims” and “tough on crime” are three words each.

The Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending released a poll showing the public squarely on the side of presumptive parole and turning against long-term incarceration as an answer to crime.

Assuming that polling data is accurate, the question going forward is whether those numbers are soft and vulnerable to the type of negative messaging launched by Mr. Schuette and law enforcement.

How the Senate handles the legislation should provide the answer.

Back to top

Flint Crisis Comes On Eve Of Mayoral Election

Posted: October, 13 2015 4:24 PM

Flint’s water crisis became a major story roughly one month from the city holding elections for mayor and city council, and the question is whether voters will determine that Mayor Dayne Walling bears some blame even though the major decisions regarding the issue came during a period of a state-appointed emergency manager when Mr. Walling had no authority.

Mr. Walling’s challenger, political newcomer Karen Weaver, has long been seen as an underdog, but she is pressing the water issue with the November 3 election looming ever closer.

Pockets of the city have shown lead levels in the drinking water above the federal threshold for remediation, and children have shown rising levels of lead in their blood. Water pumped from the Flint River contained a lack of sufficient corrosion control, allowing lead from old service lines and welds to leach into the water.

There is something of an opening for Ms. Weaver, if difficult, based on the primary results. Mr. Walling took 44 percent of the vote to 30 percent for Ms. Weaver. The other candidates captured the remaining 26 percent. So the obvious strategy for Ms. Weaver, a clinical psychologist who has held leadership roles at children’s health centers, is to unite the anti-incumbent vote and hope that gets her to the proverbial 50 +1 for victory.

Mr. Walling doesn’t need to pull as many votes from the supporters of the two candidates eliminated in the primary, but the crisis surely has cut back his time to campaign.

He has most of the key endorsements in the race, both in business and organized labor. He is well-known, having first won the mayor’s post in 2009 and losing a bid a couple years before that to an incumbent. Mr. Walling also is known as a Flint native who made good, so to speak, becoming a Rhodes Scholar and fulfilling his longtime goal of settling in the city and playing a major role in trying to turn it around.

And while Mr. Walling was not the one who issued the order to use the Flint River as the temporary source of water for the city, which decided to leave the Detroit system in favor of joining an authority to build its own system with other communities, he was the one who pushed the button – and there are photos of it – to shut off the water from Detroit and begin the switch to the river.

At the time of the switch, Mr. Walling is quoted in The Flint Journal about how it marks Flint reclaiming control of its water system and says the water will prove a reliable source for drinking.

If Ms. Weaver has any money, there’s more than enough material there for a devastating mail piece.

Two months ago, this race was a snoozer. Now it is the race to watch in the state in three weeks.

Back to top

Flint Water Catastrophe Roils Snyder Administration

Posted: October, 9 2015 12:06 PM

In politics, just about any event or issue can be spun to favor one side or the other.

But there is no spinning what has happened in the last 17 months in Flint when it comes to its drinking water and the ill-fated decision to save the financially strapped city money by leaving the Detroit water system and instead pulling water out of the Flint River.

Not when it comes to excessive use of a cancer-causing chemical to disinfect the water. Not when it comes to rashes.

And certainly not when it comes to lead.

Lead in the drinking water at levels beyond federal thresholds requiring remediation, and in three schools no less. Lead in the drinking water of one Flint school at six times – six times! – the federal threshold for action. Data showing that some Flint children have elevated levels of lead in their blood.

Only one word applies: disaster.

It’s a disaster for Flint’s people, especially its children, who are most susceptible to the consequences of ingesting lead. It’s a disaster for the city, trying to rebound – again – from a major financial crisis and economic troubles and persuade people to live and work there.

And it’s a disaster for Governor Rick Snyder, whose Department of Environmental Quality and to a lesser extent Department of Health and Human Services downplayed, dismissed and in one case initially mocked mounting evidence of a lead problem in Flint’s water. It also was an emergency manager appointed by Mr. Snyder to run the city who made the decision to switch from Detroit water to the Flint River with insufficient controls to prevent corrosion in the pipes, allowing lead to leach into the water from service lines.

Thursday, in Flint for the first time since the crisis erupted, Mr. Snyder refused to acknowledge mistakes. The closest he came to saying so was when he said he expected an “after action report” on the handling of the situation would show “opportunities” where different things could have occurred. The governor also sought to emphasize that he and his administration acted promptly to secure the funding to put the city back on Detroit water ($6 million from the state, $4 million from the Mott Foundation and $2 million from the city).

But that all seems to have landed with a thud. The Flint Journal, in a scathing editorial, called it a “another slap in the face” to ask the city to pay one penny given that it was Mr. Snyder’s emergency manager who made the call to switch water sources.

The state is now getting much more aggressive. It will pay for testing the water in all Flint schools, something Mr. Snyder and the DEQ have said federal rules do not require. DHHS staffers will work on determining how much lead children may have ingested.

The denials and dismissals of data from sources outside the state have been replaced with thanks, praise and respect.

But the fallout from this crisis will reverberate for some time to come – for Flint, its children, perhaps all children in the state if the state begins testing the water in all schools for lead, and also for the governor, who can expect a lengthy review in the months ahead about who knew what, when they knew it and what they did about it.

Back to top

An Off-The-Radar Election Worth Following

Posted: October, 6 2015 5:11 PM

Macomb County tends to get all the attention when it comes to vicious campaigns, but an underrated corner of the state when it comes to go-for-the-jugular elections is among northwest Wayne County Republicans.

While most of Wayne County is Democratic turf, the populous, generally well-to-do communities of Livonia, Plymouth, Plymouth Township, Northville and the part of Northville Township in Wayne County still lean Republican. Let’s include Canton Township in the equation too, even though it is more southwest than northwest Wayne County and is trending Democratic, because it still has a strong Republican following. The intraparty brawls among Republicans in primaries in this region are a sight to see.

Ordinarily, a township supervisor primary would not warrant much attention in state political circles.

But the race for the Republican nomination in August 2016 for Plymouth Township supervisor should pique the interest of politicos. In the township, winning the GOP nomination will make the victor the strong favorite to win the general election.

The contest pits the incumbent, Shannon Price, a former Wayne County commissioner and longtime Republican operative appointed to fill a vacancy in the supervisor post, against Rep. Kurt Heise, a three-term Republican member of the House.

There are a few different layers to this race. One, the township board chose Mr. Price for the post over several other candidates, one of which was Mr. Heise. And Mr. Heise was none too pleased. The Plymouth Observer reported that Mr. Heise said the board “put politics ahead of people” and appointed Mr. Price ahead of “other candidates with superior public and private sector backgrounds.”

And when Mr. Heise announced his bid last week, he immediately came out swinging at Mr. Price.

There’s another interesting subtext to this race. Prior to becoming supervisor, Mr. Price had been on the staff of Attorney General Bill Schuette as a constituent relations director.

In the past year, one of the more notable Republican vs. Republican fights at the Capitol has pit Mr. Heise, the chair of the House Criminal Justice Committee, against Mr. Schuette on the subject of reforming sentencing. Mr. Heise is a key backer of bills to release prisoners at their first eligible date for release, provided that Department of Corrections staff determines the inmate has a high probability of success once released.

Mr. Schuette is a vehement opponent of those bills, and Mr. Heise fired back recently that Mr. Schuette’s approach may look good on a bumper sticker, but fails to address the issue.

When Mr. Price sought the appointment to the post, he had the help of some heavy-hitters in Republican politics with former Attorney General Mike Cox and Rep. Laura Cox, who live in Livonia, stumping for him. One wonders if the primary will see a repeat.

Then there’s the matter of Mr. Heise’s House seat, the 20th District. Don’t be surprised if that turns into a proxy battle between the Heise and Price forces unless there’s someone out there who can bridge the gap and run above the fray. That House seat, while it leans Republican, was won by a Democrat in 2006 and 2008.

So perhaps the Democrats will be keeping this seat on their board as one of their longshots in the event the Republican internecine battle damages their eventual nominee. Or at the very least, they can pass the popcorn and enjoy the show.

Back to top

For Exiled Ex-Legislators, Offenses Preclude Usual Tributes Upon Death

Posted: September, 30 2015 1:34 PM

When a former member of the Legislature dies, the House, Senate, or both depending on where the legislator served, will approve a glowing memorial resolution and send it to the surviving members of the lawmaker’s family. The flag above the Capitol is lowered to half-staff.

It is a solemn occasion. The members of the House and Senate will stand in a standing vote to cast their votes for the resolution instead of a voice or recorded vote.

But in the past year and a half, two former legislators – one expelled by the House, the other who resigned just before the Senate was to vote on expelling him – did not receive the usual tributes upon their deaths.

Former Rep. Monte Geralds, whom the House expelled in 1978 after being convicted of a felony, died in April 2014 at the age of 79.

Usually, when a former legislator dies, it becomes widely known publicly because of the lowering of the flag above the Capitol and the subsequent memorial resolution. We only recently became aware of his death after former Rep. Marie Donigan, who represented roughly the same area as Mr. Geralds did during her tenure from 2005-10, sent a message to let us know amid all the news about the expulsion of former Rep. Cindy Gamrat and resignation prior to certain expulsion of former Rep. Todd Courser.

A few days after Ms. Donigan contacted us about Mr. Geralds, former Sen. Henry Stallings died. Mr. Stallings resigned in 1998 minutes before the Senate was to vote on expulsion following his conviction on a felony charge and generally troubled tenure.

Governor Rick Snyder ordered the flags lowered in the Capitol Complex in memory of Mr. Stallings, which triggered a few raised eyebrows in the Gongwer offices given the circumstances under which Mr. Stallings resigned from the Senate. But the executive order Mr. Snyder issued in 2013 on flag honors makes clear that flags will be lowered in the Capitol Complex for one day upon the death of a former member of the Legislature. There is no provision enabling the bypass of lowering the flags.

I contacted Amber McCann, the spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) to see if the Senate would undertake the usual memorial rituals for a deceased former member, and the answer was no. Ms. McCann said the circumstances of Mr. Stallings’ departure from the Senate had led to that decision.

So then I began to wonder about the House and Mr. Geralds. Was the House aware that he had died in 2014? Unlike Mr. Stallings’ death, there was no notable news coverage of Mr. Geralds’ passing, and while Mr. Stallings had served more recently and stayed in the public eye a bit with several subsequent failed bids for office, Mr. Geralds was almost 40 years removed from his time in Michigan politics.

House Clerk Gary Randall said, yes, the House was aware that Mr. Geralds had died and decided not to adopt the usual memorial resolution and perform the usual tributes because he had been expelled.

Mr. Randall said he was not aware of the House having bypassed the usual memorial for a former member in the past although he thought possibly it might have happened once for a member who resigned just before an expulsion vote. He said he approaches such situations similar to an honorable discharge or dishonorable discharge from the military. And that goes for those members who resign with expulsion imminent, he said.

The only time I can remember angst about a memorial resolution was for former Rep. Richard Friske, who served one term in 1971-72 and died in 2002. Mr. Friske, when he ran for office, had proclaimed he was a World War II veteran. What Mr. Friske failed to mention was that he was a veteran of the German armed forces and served with the Luftwaffe, the Nazi air force.

When Mr. Randall read the memorial tribute in the House, murmurs spread across the floor when he got to the part about Mr. Friske serving in the German air force in World War II. I can remember a couple members, unfortunately who they were is lost to memory, looking at each other stunned, saying, “Doesn’t that make him a Nazi?” Several members did not stand to support the resolution.

The difference there, Mr. Randall said, is Mr. Friske by all accounts served his office well, left the House fully of his own accord (he ran for the U.S. House in 1972 and lost) and never was under any kind of expulsion threat.

Mr. Randall said he is considering suggesting a more formalized process to handle such situations, given that decades from now, those running the House might benefit given the loss of institutional memory.

Back to top

Secchia Returns To The Stage On Mackinac, And Leaves ’Em Rolling

Posted: September, 21 2015 2:09 PM

Attorney General Bill Schuette was slated to introduce former Florida Governor Jeb Bush to the dinner crowd at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference prior to Mr. Bush’s speech, but as a onetime quarterback, he declared to attendees he was calling an audible.

Instead, Mr. Schuette summoned longtime Republican uber-activist and donor Peter Secchia to the stage to do the introduction instead.

Mr. Secchia had the crowd roaring. What follows are excerpts from Mr. Secchia’s introduction.

“What a piece of work your attorney general is. The guy sits down with me. He says, ‘look I need you, I want you, to do this.’ I said, ‘I don’t know if I want to get back into this rat race. I’ve been through it for 45 years.’

“And I want to tell all you new people, this is a very wonderful opportunity for all of you because I started, my first political event was a petition to sign to get a congressman on the ballot. Then he invited me down because he didn’t have a whole lot of friends to the 1968 (conference) three years later. You remember now, this is 50 years ago, ’65 when I started. And Dick Whitmer … he came up to me and said, ‘let’s go to a party. We’re going to have drinks and go to the Jockey Club.’”

A brief interruption to note that the Jockey Club is a restaurant and bar just east of the Grand Hotel on the first tee of a golf course. And also to make clear that Dick Whitmer was a former Milliken administration official who went on to lead Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (and is the father of former Sen. Gretchen Whitmer).

“I had never heard of the Jockey Club. I was lucky to have a tie. And the worst part about it was he turned to me and said ‘what are you standing here with him for?’ My congressman. He said, ‘he’s not going anywhere.’ Ten years later, I called him from Air Force One and said, ‘President Ford’s shaving, but I’m here with him.’ True story.

“That’s where you can go. Because I had no idea where I was going when I first got in politics.

Mr. Secchia then lamented trying to read from his notes while holding a hand-held microphone, wondering why he did not get the same wireless microphone Mr. Schuette used.

“I love our attorney general, but I’ve got to tell you, his logistics suck. He gave me the chance, sat down and wrote my notes. And then they take my microphone away. He’s wired. So I can stand here … He’s strutting around with his lapel pin on and they give me this schmucky microphone. …

“I’m up here because Barbara Bush called me. And she was very upset because Jeb admitted to smoking grass last week. So she asked me, you’ve got to help him out. …

“I believe that one of the best things you have in politics is respect, loyalty, honestly, integrity and courage. I thought that was so important that I’m self-funding a movie on Jerry Ford. And I’ve put a lot of time, a year into it, we’re in the second rough cut. Trying to tell kids about the qualities of the kind of president we ought to have – courage, integrity, loyalty, honesty, courage. It’s almost the Boy Scout credo all over again. …

“I’m here tonight because I’m loyal. I know there are some people that say Jeb’s got a problem, and we don’t have a candidate who doesn’t have a problem. But you know what, I don’t want to worry about our internal problems. I want to beat a Clinton. What do I want – a bigger liar than the last one? So we have no option folks. We’ve got to pick the best we’ve got. …

“Everybody knows that Bill Schuette likes to play cards, Euchre, this tough stuff. My wife plays Bridge and she taught me. I asked Jeb Bush what do you want to do he says I’ll play anything as long as there’s no Trump.

“We’ve got a lot of wonderful candidates, but we’ve got one special family (the Bushes). And I’ve known these people. They care, they love, they respect you, they will treat you right. The history of Jeb Bush as a governor was unbelievable. Unbelievable. And it’s a shame that he had to sit around and wait because he was probably ready to be president a long time ago. But he’s a young man still if you look at the rest of the world. …

“Here we go. The loyalty and the class and respect that I get with Jeb Bush. I knew him when he was a commerce minister in Florida. I first worked with him when I was working down there opening up factories for my company. I worked with him. I watched him. He’s good. He’s one of the best. He has that love of family, the quality of principle that we have to all value his past success. So ladies and gentlemen, that’s Jeb. Where are you Jeb?”

Mr. Bush then delivered his remarks, Mr. Secchia having more than warmed up the audience for him.

Back to top

Fiorina, Riding High, Claims Mackinac Win

Posted: September, 20 2015 10:59 AM

MACKINAC ISLAND – At the close of the Michigan Republican Party’s biennial Mackinac Leadership Conference, the inevitable question is who had the best weekend politically.

The answer to that question, on this gorgeous Sunday morning on the Island, appears clear: Carly Fiorina.

Ms. Fiorina was not here long, arriving on the Island in the mid-afternoon Saturday, but for the few hours she spent, she had the rapt attention of the 2,000-some state GOP activists attending the conference.

When Ms. Fiorina was first announced as a speaker months ago, it seemed she would be a second-tier candidate, if that. Struggling in the polls and with no Michigan organization, it was hard to imagine she would be the focal point for the weekend.

But then Ms. Fiorina had two well-received debate performances with the second coming just days before the conference. All of a sudden, Ms. Fiorina arrived in Michigan amid a sudden national surge for her candidacy.

Upon disembarking from the ferry on the Island, there were about 1,000 people lining the streets near the ferry docks to welcome her and get a glimpse. Veteran Republican operatives were amazed. Keep in mind, she has no discernible Michigan organization, so that crowd was organic.

Then she attended a reception honoring U.S. Rep. Candice Miller (R-Harrison Township), and while Ms. Miller is a popular draw in her own right, it’s hard to imagine the fire marshal would have had to close the doors, as happened, had Ms. Fiorina not been there and drawn what observers said was a wildly enthusiastic throng.

And as for who won the “Ear Test” in the dining hall for the five speeches – the loudest applause and most excited atmosphere – that again was Ms. Fiorina. As I left the dining hall, many Republicans said she had plainly won them over and thought she was automatic for the party’s ticket, as either the presidential or vice presidential nominee.

A close second was Ohio Governor John Kasich, who hands-down was the most visible of the five Republican presidential candidates on the Island this weekend, arriving Friday, having some fun with Lt. Governor Brian Calley’s band and appearing in photos with anyone who asked at Governor Rick Snyder’s party. He was by far the funniest, had some fun with his status as an Ohio State University alumni and his folksy style played well with the attendees.

His remarks at a reception hosted by the Senate Republicans were especially Michigan-focused and made the case that he as a fellow Midwesterner could become the first Republican to carry Michigan since 1988. Then he received the endorsement of Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush had the advantage of having Friday night all to himself though his occasionally rushed speech never seemed to allow the audience to get into it. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul got strong reactions from their supporters, and Mr. Paul won the straw poll, but neither seemed to captivate the crowd.

The person who had the worst weekend on the Island? Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

He canceled his Saturday breakfast speech at the last minute, citing inclement weather that forced the cancelation of his charter flight. Of course safety comes first, but what seemed to leave some Republicans raw was Mr. Walker already had tried to cancel once, scrapping his plans to speak Friday night.

Michigan Republicans hustled to keep him on the speaking roster and reached an agreement with his campaign for him to speak Saturday morning. So when the word came down 40 minutes or so before the start of the breakfast that Mr. Walker had canceled, let’s just say there were a few Republicans on the Island who were skeptical as to whether the weather had been the cause.

So as we head for the ferry docks and buy the requisite fudge for family and co-workers, the biggest question now is whether this conference was a sign of big things to come for Ms. Fiorina or, as Whitney Houston once said, “one moment in time”?

Back to top

Courser, Gamrat Opponents Will See Rare Attention

Posted: September, 19 2015 11:57 AM

State House campaigns in districts that lean sharply toward one political party are usually sleepy as far as media coverage.

The only calls for interviews the candidates usually get come from their local newspaper, Capitol newsletters like Gongwer News Service and in some cases from a local television station (shout out to WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids).

The races to replace resigned Rep. Todd Courser and expelled Rep. Cindy Gamrat will be a whole different animal. Mr. Courser served notice of this fact Friday when he announced he was running on CNN.

On Mackinac Island, where Michigan Republicans are holding their biennial conference this weekend, some were stunned and some were not by Mr. Courser’s decision to run.

But everyone was flabbergasted at the announcement coming on CNN.

And in a way, the CNN factor was appropriate because the races for the 80th and 82nd House Districts will draw the most outside media interest in a Michigan legislative race since 2004. In that year, John Ramsey, the father of a child beauty queen who was murdered years earlier, decided to make his summer home in Charlevoix his permanent residence and ran for the 105th House District.

It has been a long time, so for those who don’t remember, there was a national sensation about the murder of JonBenet Ramsey in Colorado. Local police suspected her parents, but never charged them and eventually they were totally exonerated. The case remains unsolved.

But in 2004, there was still a cloud of suspicion around the Ramseys and the case was still fresh in the national consciousness. So when John Ramsey ran for the Republican nomination in the 105th, there was a national frenzy. Mr. Ramsey and his wife were interviewed on CNN’s “Larry King Live” about his run. Seemingly every national publication descended on northern Michigan to cover the race.

The other Republicans, and there were several, suddenly found themselves inundated with media requests relative to what a House candidate would usually expect.

“We,” one of the other candidates said then, “didn’t expect the CNN cameras.”

In the end, Mr. Ramsey’s newness to Michigan proved too much to overcome and he lost to Kevin Elsenheimer.

The candidates today have such a short campaign calendar with just seven weeks until the primary. Every second will need to go toward door-to-door, fund-raising and messaging. It will get more complicated when the phones start ringing off the hook from weird-looking area codes that are not 269 or 810 with media requests from coast to coast.

Back to top

Recalibrating Expectations In 1st Congressional With Benishek Exit

Posted: September, 15 2015 3:11 PM

U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek has managed to pull two political surprises this year, first when he announced he would seek a fourth term in 2016 and today when he declared he had changed his mind and would instead not seek re-election.

When Mr. Benishek (R-Crystal Falls) declared he would run again earlier this year for the 1st U.S. House District, it was a surprise in part because he had promised to serve no more than three terms, but more so because various Republicans and others who have interacted with him during the last five-plus years have said he has not enjoyed many aspects of serving in Congress. Mr. Benishek always denied that speculation, but there was so much smoke surrounding the claim, it was hard not to believe there must be at least some fire there.

Nonetheless, he said he felt he had more to accomplish and was in the race. Meanwhile, two Democrats are running for the 1st, one of the most competitive districts in the nation – retired military general Jerry Cannon, whom Mr. Benishek comfortably defeated in 2014, and former Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson.

Now, Mr. Benishek is out, and that has some pluses and minuses for both sides.

It is early yet to know what the Republican field will be, but already the focus is on three current or former state legislators – former Sen. Jason Allen of Traverse City, whom Mr. Benishek narrowly beat in a thrilling 2010 primary; Sen. Tom Casperson of Escanaba, who carried the GOP flag in 2008 in an unsuccessful bid for the seat against then-U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak; and Rep. Peter Pettalia of Presque Isle.

None has announced any intentions, but Mr. Pettalia had said long ago he was considering a run. There always has been an expectation that Mr. Allen and Mr. Casperson planned to run whenever Mr. Benishek decided to retire. There are other legislators who reside in the 1st, but for now the focus is on these three.

An early assessment if a three-way primary develops would have Mr. Allen with a fundraising advantage with the wealth in the district concentrated in his home turf. Mr. Casperson is the most proven retail candidate of the bunch with the longest history of winning competitive races. Mr. Pettalia, who like Mr. Casperson has won a competitive seat, could carve out turf to the right of Mr. Allen and Mr. Casperson.

For example, while Mr. Casperson opposed right-to-work and supported Medicaid expansion, Mr. Pettalia supported right-to-work and opposed Medicaid expansion. Mr. Allen piled up a fairly conservative record during his time in the Legislature from 1999-2010, but Mr. Benishek succeeded in poking enough holes in it in 2010.

Usually, when an incumbent in a competitive seat decides not to run, it is a break for the party challenging the incumbent, and that is sort of true here. The Democratic nominee will no longer have to make the case to oust the incumbent, always a tough sell. And for the Democrats, better to have Mr. Benishek retire now in a presidential year than wait until 2018 when lower midterm turnout would make their task more difficult.

However, Mr. Benishek was not exactly a political juggernaut. Unlike Mr. Stupak, who won re-election over the years with ease, Mr. Benishek never seemed to become an especially powerful presence in the Upper Peninsula and northern Michigan. He won his races, but never in blowouts. He was not a strong fundraiser.

In 2016, the Republican candidate will not have the advantage of incumbency, but likely will have more passion, superior fundraising, better grassroots political skills, or all three.

In any case, the Republican primary looks like another dandy in the making, much like 2010 when Mr. Benishek bested Mr. Allen by 15 votes in what became known as a “Danslide.”

As for the Democratic nominee, only time will tell whether he scored a break in Mr. Benishek’s retirement or been better off had he decided to move forward with a grudging bid for a fourth term.

Back to top

All Eyes On Dems With Expulsion Vote Looming For Courser, Gamrat

Posted: September, 10 2015 11:40 AM

Sometime today, Rep. Todd Courser and Rep. Cindy Gamrat will likely face a vote on the floor of the House to expel them from office.

The House convenes at noon. It will have a special presentation and then both parties will likely head to private caucus meetings.

The vote this morning of a special House committee reviewing their qualifications to remain in office signaled that the two tea party Republicans can expect little support among their GOP colleagues to remain in office. All four Republicans supported expulsion, and all four sharply criticized the pair for their actions.

As a quick refresher, both have admitted to concocting a falsehood-ridden email as a way of undermining any future allegations revealing they had been having an extramarital affair. Both have admitted to misuse of state resources and general misconduct.

On the first expulsion vote, 73 votes will be needed to satisfy the two-thirds majority requirement. On the second vote, presuming the House attained the necessary votes for expulsion for the first member, the threshold drops to 72 because the membership of the House will have fallen from 109 to 108.

The House has 63 Republicans and 46 Democrats with one vacancy. So presuming Mr. Courser (R-Silverwood) and Ms. Gamrat (R-Plainwell) do not vote for expulsion while all remaining 61 Republicans do, then 12 Democratic votes would be needed on the first expulsion vote. For the second expulsion vote, 11 Democrats would be needed to bridge the gap from 61 to 72.

And right now, there is a real question about what the House Democrats will do. The two Democratic members of the committee – Rep. John Chirkun of Roseville and Rep. Frank Liberati of Allen Park – both abstained on the expulsion resolutions. Both said they wanted the committee to subpoena the two fired former Courser and Gamrat aides who revealed the scandal to the public.

And both have criticized the committee for not delving into the question of why House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant) and his staff did not act more aggressively during the months of meetings in which the former aides brought complaints about Mr. Courser and Ms. Gamrat, including claims they were having an affair.

But now, the Democrats – presuming most if not all House Republicans support expulsion – face the moment of truth. If they decide to withhold their votes for expulsion or oppose it outright, they will have been the ones to spare Mr. Courser and Ms. Gamrat.

It just adds to the drama that has been building for the last 35 days.

Back to top

Perhaps Gamrat Will Avoid Expulsion

Posted: September, 8 2015 2:02 PM

If what happened today at the House select committee reviewing whether Rep. Todd Courser and Rep. Cindy Gamrat should retain their jobs is any indication, Mr. Courser is in big trouble and Ms. Gamrat may remain a member of the House.

It is too early to know exactly how this will play out in the coming days, but the decision by Brock Swartzle, the general counsel for the House Republican Caucus (and chief of staff to House Speaker Kevin Cotter), to recommend expulsion for Mr. Courser (R-Silverwood) and censure for Ms. Gamrat (R-Plainwell) certainly suggests how the final outcome will look.

The tone and attitude toward Ms. Gamrat has undergone a 180-degree shift since majority House Republicans released the summary report of the House Business Office investigation into the two legislators’ alleged misuse of state resources and attempt to cover up their affair by enlisting a joint staffer to help.

The House Business Office report labeled Ms. Gamrat (and Mr. Courser) as not credible. Ms. Gamrat in an August news conference declared she welcomed the House Business Office investigation and that it would vindicate her. She also launched a counterattack against the former staffers whom she and Mr. Courser fired (and who secretly recorded Mr. Courser discussing his plot to anonymously send a false email eviscerating himself and Ms. Gamrat to divert attention from their extramarital affair).

Ms. Gamrat said then that she had no knowledge of the email.

But Tuesday, before the committee, she testified under oath that everything in the report was true and admitted she knew of plans to send an “over-the-top” phony email. Her attorney, Mike Nichols, sidestepped questions about what specifically Ms. Gamrat acknowledged doing, saying repeatedly in response to questions that she agreed with all House Business Office findings. Ms. Gamrat tearfully apologized.

Will this admission be enough to persuade at least 37 members in the currently 109-member House not to expel her? It takes a two-thirds majority, or 73 votes, to expel.

Only time will tell, but even before Tuesday’s hearing there already has been plenty of talk among Capitol-watchers that the House lacked a strong case for expulsion on both members. However, now with Ms. Gamrat essentially flipping on Mr. Courser, the case against him gains additional heft.

Mr. Swartzle’s portrayal of Mr. Courser as the mastermind and Ms. Gamrat as mostly an accomplice also clearly was designed to frame the case for expulsion for Mr. Courser and censure for Ms. Gamrat.

And while the two Democratic committee members unsuccessfully sought to draw out more details from Ms. Gamrat about what exactly she did wrong, the House Republican members lobbed no hardball questions in her direction.

Add it all up, and the odds of Ms. Gamrat remaining a member of the House appear to have improved.

Back to top

Michigan State 30, Western Michigan 9 (In Legislative Alumni)

Posted: September, 4 2015 12:22 PM

It is always an exciting moment for the state of Michigan when two of its universities play each other in Division I football, and so it is tonight when Michigan State University plays Western Michigan University.

The match-up between the Broncos and the Spartans formally opens the college football season in the state – wait, there was a game played in Utah last night? – and there is plenty of buzz surrounding the game.

Not only does it mark the first time that MSU will play at Western’s stadium in Kalamazoo, but the Spartans start out the season ranked No. 5 in the country and have lofty expectations. Western appears a well-coached program on the rise.

But we’ll leave the actual game coverage to the sportswriters. Here, we look at where loyalties in the game might lie in the Legislature. By our count, based on the information the members of the Legislature provided, so we’ll allow for a bit of variance, 30 of the 147 current members of the Legislature have a degree of some type from MSU. Nine have a degree of some type from Western.

And there are some intriguing examples, none more so than Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo) and Sen. Margaret O’Brien (R-Portage).

Both represent Kalamazoo and the Western campus. They must bleed Brown and Gold, right? They probably dressed up as Buster Bronco, yes, back in their college days?

Well…

In fact, both obtained their bachelor’s degrees from … Michigan State. That’s going to be a bit awkward tonight. Maybe they should call Rep. Andy Schor (D-Lansing) and Rep. Adam Zemke (D-Ann Arbor) for advice. Mr. Schor, whose district is next door to MSU, is a University of Michigan alumni. And Mr. Zemke has two MSU degrees.

Mr. Hoadley and Ms. O’Brien aren’t alone among legislators from southwest Michigan who have MSU degrees. Rep. John Bizon (D-Battle Creek), Rep. Ken Yonker (R-Gaines Township), Rep. Dave Pagel (R-Berrien Springs), Rep. Mike Callton (R-Nashville), Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker (R-Lawton) and Sen. John Proos (R-St. Joseph) do too.

Another legislator in an interesting spot is Rep. Amanda Price (R-Park Township). She received her bachelor’s degree from MSU, but obtained her master’s degree from Western.

So as the game commences tonight, remember that roughly one-quarter of the Legislature will have a rooting interest and be interested in bragging rights when they return to Lansing next week for the start of the fall session.

Back to top

Appointment Of Plymouth Rep To Courser/Gamrat Panel Completes Circle

Posted: September, 1 2015 10:55 AM

House Speaker Kevin Cotter named Rep. Kurt Heise to the select committee considering whether scandal-embroiled Rep. Todd Courser and Rep. Cindy Gamrat remain qualified to serve in the House, in part, because of his background as an attorney.

Besides his background as an attorney, Mr. Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant) also chose Mr. Heise (R-Plymouth) because Mr. Heise is smart, focused, has done a great job with his committee assignments and is familiar with evidentiary proceedings, Cotter spokesperson Gideon D’Assandro said.

But the selection of Mr. Heise also completes a circle, and to be clear, this is purely my observation, not anything cited by Mr. Cotter or Mr. Heise as a rationale for Mr. Cotter’s appointment of Mr. Heise.

There was an incident involving Mr. Courser (R-Silverwood) and Mr. Heise early in the year that showed Mr. Courser was going to pose problems for his House Republican colleagues.

Mr. Heise is chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, and Mr. Courser is a member of that panel.

On February 17, the committee unanimously approved HB 4006*, which would require a wireless phone company to provide location information from a person's wireless device to a police officer upon request in certain emergency situations. The idea is to allow a police officer to request the location of the device if there was an imminent risk of death or serious physical harm to the user of the device.

Mr. Courser’s role in action on the bill was notable. On the surface, the bill seemed like it could prompt criticism from him about Big Brother.

But before he voted for the bill, Mr. Courser proposed four amendments. The committee rejected three of them, but approved, with Mr. Heise’s support, the one that would require the officer's supervisor to participate in the request for information.

After the meeting concluded, the inescapable feeling was perhaps Mr. Courser was quickly learning how to work within the Legislature.

Mr. Heise seemed to feel that way. I bumped into him and another person in an Anderson House Office Building elevator later in the morning, and Mr. Heise seemed ebullient, telling the other individual the legislative process had worked, that the committee had supported one of Mr. Courser’s amendments and then Mr. Courser in turn had voted for the bill.

And they all lived happily ever after.

Well, no.

A week later, with the bill possibly in the hopper to come up for consideration on the House floor, Mr. Courser uncorked one of his scathing missives, posted to Facebook and elsewhere, lambasting the legislation as an “Orwellian” privacy intrusion.

“Only a few times do you get a bill that will let you see cleanly if the person is up for defending our rights under the Constitution, a bill before the House of Representatives this week, HB 4006*, is one of those lines in the sand,” Mr. Courser wrote. “This bill is an unfettered trampling of our constitutional rights to due process guaranteed by the 4th Amendment. This bill is the next step towards unfettered government surveillance; it allows government to use its power to locate citizens through their cell phone providers without a warrant and all of these actions are kept secret from the person being monitored and the public.” (emphasis his)

To repeat, Mr. Courser voted for the bill, something he failed to mention.

The bill remains pending on the House floor, and to be sure, given how completely ostracized Mr. Courser is from the House Republican Caucus, there is no way his opposition alone is holding up the bill.

But when reviewing the predicament of Mr. Courser and Rep. Cindy Gamrat (R-Plainwell), whom the House could expel for various offenses, one of their problems is that they have alienated so many of their colleagues. Mr. Courser’s handling of HB 4006* could not have helped in that regard.

Back to top

The Forgotten Scandal: ‘Daniel West,’ The Imposter Legislator

Posted: August, 25 2015 2:49 PM

The scandal involving Rep. Todd Courser and Rep. Cindy Gamrat has prompted some entertaining look-backs at infamous Michigan political scandals.

The listicles from the Detroit Free Press and MLive are fun and helpful. Helpful because they serve to remind that while the Courser-Gamrat mess is bad, it really is nothing compared to the full-blown corruption seen with the Purple Gang and the House Fiscal Agency that enveloped vast swaths of the Legislature.

But while both pieces offer a great trip down memory lane and are well-researched, there is one doozy that lives on in Capitol lore that warrants inclusion: the scandal involving “Daniel West,” the imposter legislator.

The official House photo of the man claiming to be Daniel West

In 1962, voters in Wayne County’s 6th House District elected a Democrat calling himself Daniel West as one of three representatives for the district in Detroit (House elections worked differently then, a digression we will sidestep here). He had a sterling resume, claiming an undergraduate degree from Swarthmore College and law degree from Yale University. He was married with two children and a retired attorney.

Mr. West, according to his official biography in the 1963-64 Michigan Manual, had held various local offices and was at the time of his election a retail hardware dealer.

In 1964, he easily won re-election.

Then his scheme unraveled. According to The Associated Press (sadly, one of the few portions of the Gongwer News Service archives that is missing is from late 1964 and early 1965), a detective investigating a complaint against Mr. West discovered his fingerprints matched those of a felon who served time in three prisons under different names for burglary, larceny and forgery.

“Daniel West,” in fact, was a New York attorney who died in 1961. Whoever it was that won those two elections to the Michigan House stole Mr. West’s identity.

Once “Mr. West” was revealed to be a fraud, the House, in the only known time to have taken such action, refused to seat him when the Legislature convened for the start of the 1965-66 term, and the seat was declared vacant.

The man claiming to be Mr. West was indicted on 117 counts of income tax fraud in connection with a tax accounting service in which he allegedly had made false returns to unjustified refunds for his clients.

A warrant for the arrest of “Mr. West” was issued in July 1965, but he fled and did not show up in U.S. District Court. There were a couple of “Unsolved Mysteries”-esque sightings of the man who claimed to be Mr. West, both in Canada, once in 1965 and again in 1975. The latter reported sighting occurred in Windsor, Ontario, where a man who worked on Mr. West’s 1964 campaign insisted he had spotted him at a restaurant, according to the AP. The man reported that when “Mr. West” saw him staring at him, he got up and left without ordering any food.

Otherwise, “Mr. West” successfully evaded authorities. His exact age is unknown, but he presumably would be about 100 years old if still alive today.

The Capitol will surely see various scandals in the future. But it is impossible to imagine a repeat of what happened with “Daniel West.”

Back to top

The Corpse Winks On Roads

Posted: August, 18 2015 1:44 PM

One month ago, the effort to secure legislative approval for more funding for roads was going nowhere.

The antitax House Republican majority appeared immovable on going for more revenue than the relatively small amount gained from bringing the tax on diesel up to the same level as gasoline. Governor Rick Snyder and the Senate Republican majority disdained many aspects of the House Republican plan. House Republicans were struggling to coalesce behind a new plan.

At that point, there appeared little chance of any action. I wrote as much.

They say a month is a lifetime in politics, and the past month is Exhibit A.

Two major, unforeseen events occurred that suddenly galvanized Republicans in the Legislature to make the most serious push on road funding the Legislature has made since last year’s lame-duck session. As former House Speaker Bill Ryan once said of another road funding effort thought dead: the corpse has winked.

The first, coming July 23, was an announcement by three unions to pursue a ballot proposal raising the Corporate Income Tax from 6 percent to 11 percent and put the $900 million in new revenue toward roads.

That jarred the business community and Republicans. One of the best arguments the Citizens for Fair Taxes group has is to pass its proposal because the Legislature has failed to solve the problem.

If the Legislature and Mr. Snyder can finally win agreement on a legislative-only solution (last December’s ill-fated agreement on the disastrous Proposal 1 doesn’t count), that would provide an important counterpoint to the ballot proposal.

Then there is the scandal that broke 11 days ago involving the extramarital affair between Rep. Todd Courser (R-Silverwood) and Rep. Cindy Gamrat (R-Plainwell) and the bizarre attempt to cover it up with an anonymous email falsely accusing Mr. Courser of paying for sex with a male prostitute as a way of tainting any revelations about the affair.

The scandal has dealt a roundhouse to the image and reputation of the Legislature, which was not exactly sterling prior to the two legislators self-immolating.

Winning approval of a roads plan in the middle of that crisis would help show that, yes, the Legislature can accomplish big, serious tasks. It also would help to shift the nonstop coverage away from titillating details about the affair toward policy and legislative problem-solving. And after Monday’s news conference featuring a former staffer of Mr. Courser’s and Ms. Gamrat’s making grimy allegations about their affair, today’s talk of gasoline taxes, vehicle registration fees and other weighty matters serves almost as a much needed cleansing shower.

Defeat has been snatched from the jaws of victory too many times on this issue over the years for anyone pushing for more road funding to break out the bubbly, far from it.

But for Mr. Snyder, who has pursued more funding for roads in vain for almost four years, wouldn’t it be something if ultimate victory came in significant part because one of his main critics, organized labor, and the two most anti-tax members of the Legislature, finally compelled the Legislature to pass a tax increase?

Back to top

Jimmy Fallon Enters The Fray On The Courser/Gamrat Scandal

Posted: August, 12 2015 10:36 AM

The scandal involving the extramarital affair between Rep. Todd Courser and Rep. Cindy Gamrat, specifically their plan to anonymously circulate an email claiming Mr. Courser paid for sex with a male prostitute to taint any legitimate accusations about their affair, has garnered so much national attention that none other than Jimmy Fallon of “The Tonight Show” deemed it monologue-worthy.

On the show’s broadcast last night, Mr. Fallon can barely contain himself, which admittedly is not unusual for him, sharing the “crazy story” with the audience (the segment in the clip below begins at about the 2:30 mark).

“Well, I wasn’t having an affair, I was actually hiring a male prostitute,” Mr. Fallon says, pretending to be Mr. Courser explaining the situation to his wife, but speaking with an Elmer Fudd-esque voice.

The audience seemed to love the story and was laughing heartily throughout.

One can only imagine how Mr. Courser and Ms. Gamrat reacted if they were watching.

Back to top

Melissa Gilbert Vs. Mike Bishop Looks Like A Brawl

Posted: August, 11 2015 4:40 PM

Democrats sprung quite the surprise Monday with the announcement from the actress Melissa Gilbert that she is running for the 8th U.S. House District against U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Rochester).

And from the moment that announcement broke, it became clear that this race is going to be a slugfest.

Republicans immediately unloaded on Ms. Gilbert as a “tax cheat,” citing a lien the IRS filed against her (she says she has put together a payment plan). Today, the National Republican Congressional Committee sent around a statement referring to the “tax delinquent, dog-pampering” Melissa Gilbert.

Ms. Gilbert “parades her dog around in colorful tutus, rhinestone encrusted shoes, designer Louis Vuitton collars, pearl necklaces and brags that it has its own stylist,” the statement says.

Other than the fact that going after Ms. Gilbert for pampering her dog signals that the NRCC is suffering from off-election year boredom, the immediate and withering attacks on Ms. Gilbert also portend that this race is going to be vicious.

It’s clear that Republicans are horrified at the idea of Ms. Gilbert, who has never sought political office and only lived in Michigan for a couple years, having moved to Livingston County with her husband, East Lansing native Timothy Busfield, winning a seat in Congress. And it also seems they see a threat. Ms. Gilbert, while untested as a candidate, starts out with the advantage of celebrity, access to major donors and potential appeal to independents who remember her as Laura Ingalls Wilder on the popular “Little House on the Prairie” television program.

But for this race to get truly nasty, recall that Democrats absolutely can’t stand Mr. Bishop. He was the nemesis of Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm while he was Senate majority leader from 2007-10, and there will be passion among Democratic activists to oust him after just one term in the U.S. House.

So really, the only question now is who in the race will play the role of Laura, and who will play the role of Nellie from this disturbing “Little House” scene, which hits the relevant point at the 2 minute, 11 second mark. Isn’t it amazing what happens when you search on YouTube for “Little House on the Prairie brawl”?

Back to top

Courser, Gamrat Conflagration Threatens To Consume House

Posted: August, 10 2015 4:54 PM

Not since David Jaye was causing migraine headaches for various House speakers and Senate majority leaders has a legislator been as nonstop a problem for a legislative leader as Rep. Todd Courser and Rep. Cindy Gamrat are for House Speaker Kevin Cotter.

Even prior to Friday’s revelation that Mr. Courser had ordered a member of his official staff to distribute an anonymous email to supporters and others falsely claiming he paid for a male prostitute and was addicted to drugs, alcohol and porn in an attempt to discredit any legitimate allegations he and Ms. Gamrat had an extramarital affair, the pair had caused all kinds of problems for Mr. Cotter.

There was the weird decision to share staff even though Mr. Courser (R-Silverwood) and Ms. Gamrat (R-Plainwell) represent areas on opposite sides of the state. There were Mr. Courser’s complaints about leadership predetermined seating assignments on the House floor. As we know now, their staff was complaining to leadership about their bosses for months. Mr. Cotter barred Ms. Gamrat from caucus meetings for allegedly leaking confidential information, and Mr. Courser repeatedly criticized him in sharp terms.

All along, those watching the situation suggested Mr. Cotter’s strategy was to dilute them. They were not put on the same committees, and Mr. Courser was kept off higher-profile committees where he could have caused problems. With 63 members in the House Republican majority, the thinking of longtime legislative-watchers was if Mr. Cotter just isolated them, he would limit their ability to cause mischief.

Well then.

Needless to say, Mr. Courser and Ms. Gamrat have gone from backbench freshmen causing heartburn for their caucus to unleashing a full-on crisis.

Mr. Cotter gamely insisted today that he still is working on a solution for road funding, but the Courser/Gamrat situation is not just a distraction, it is going to completely consume the House’s time and attention until resolved, whether resolution means they resign, are expelled, survive an expulsion proceeding or nothing happens at all.

In the six weeks that transpired between the time Mr. Jaye was arrested on a domestic assault charge and the Senate’s expulsion of him, work at the Capitol came to something of a standstill.

It is too soon to say whether the House will open an expulsion proceeding on the two legislators. But if one does take place, it will be a spectacle, presumably involving committee hearings making the case for removal.

Mr. Cotter has just 16 months and change left as speaker. There was little doubt when he won the job that Mr. Courser and Ms. Gamrat were going to cause him problems, but that was presumed to be more in terms of policy and strategy and how they might stoke tea party anger at him for not being sufficiently conservative.

That Mr. Cotter would be confronted with a scandal with these particulars? Like much with this fiasco, it would have been difficult to imagine.

Back to top

DeRoche, The Speakership And Alcoholism

Posted: August, 4 2015 1:06 PM

Former House Speaker Craig DeRoche said last week on Michigan Public Television’s “Off the Record” that he would leave it to others to judge whether it was irresponsible for him to run for speaker for the 2005-06 term knowing as he did that he was an alcoholic.

Judgment can be harsh, but necessary. Given the economic struggles the state was undergoing at that time, and how that made an already complex job that much more difficult, the harsh judgment has to be: It was irresponsible.

Mr. DeRoche, a Republican who served in the House from 2003-08 and was the speaker in 2005-06 and minority leader in 2007-08, was on “Off the Record” to talk about his new book, in which he details his fall as a result of addiction to alcohol and rebirth fighting for criminal justice reforms after getting sober.

The book is a painfully raw look at Mr. DeRoche’s battle with alcoholism and how that affected him and his family. Thankfully, it appears Mr. DeRoche has in fact put his life in order.

"My heart tells me that everything happens for a reason, that I can't go back and change," he said on “Off the Record” when explaining why he would leave it to others to determine whether running for speaker, knowing he was an alcoholic, was irresponsible. "God put me on this path and without those experiences, I wouldn't have had the transformation that I had."

The job of speaker is extraordinarily important, developing and managing not only the legislative agenda, but heading up a multimillion dollar organization that employs hundreds as well as leading his caucus’s political operation and dealing with 109 different personalities. It is a wake-to-sleep job most days of the year. To take on all those duties knowing he had a 20-year addiction to alcohol was a bad idea. On “Off the Record,” Mr. DeRoche himself said his addiction and the speakership proved incompatible.

It is easy to understand why Mr. DeRoche ran. He had enjoyed great educational, family, business, financial and political success throughout his life despite the addiction. Why not take the next step, especially when there was a clear path for him to win?

But understanding how Mr. DeRoche rationalized a run for speaker in 2003 is not the same as looking back, 12 years later, knowing everything we know now and concluding he, and perhaps state government, would have been better served had he realized he needed to get help and left the speakership to someone else.

Mr. DeRoche’s non-answer to the question is similar to an evident hole in his book on how his addiction did or did not affect his work as speaker and then as minority leader.

Mr. DeRoche says in the book that he “hadn’t drunk much alcohol” between 2004-06 because he valued the confidence his colleagues had placed in him. “I also was not drinking most of the days while I was speaker of the House,” he said on “Off the Record.”

And yet, in the book, Mr. DeRoche says he went to rehab in 2005 – his first year as speaker. But he never mentions it in the context that he was speaker when this happened. There’s no discussion of taking time off, whether he informed his staff of the situation or if he paused consider whether he should remain speaker. At the time, there was zero public disclosure that Mr. DeRoche had a health issue.

So in the middle of what otherwise seems a heartfelt look at his life in the book, there is a contradiction. Mr. DeRoche says he didn’t drink much alcohol while he was speaker yet he went to rehab in his first year as speaker.

I asked Mr. DeRoche about it, and he explained this week that he did not want the book to turn into a daily recounting of whether he drank each day while he was speaker and when during the day, and from a standpoint of keeping the book readable, that makes some sense. But he also said it might be a good idea to clarify what happened. And it is.

“When I went into rehab the first time in 2005, I had chosen to drink very heavily for the two weeks we took off around Easter,” he said. “I chose to go in to rehab toward the end of the holiday break and actually missed a couple of days of session.”

Mr. DeRoche said he missed session on April 12-13, 2005, and indeed the House Journal shows he was not present those days. He returned to session Thursday, April 14, the same day as the Legislative Quadrant met on various matters with Governor Jennifer Granholm, and he was at that meeting.

Mr. DeRoche said he lied to his staff, Ms. Granholm and Ms. Granholm’s staff and claimed a college friend of his had died and he had to attend services. “I just didn’t feel like I could be honest at the time,” he said.

Of whether he paused to consider if he should remain speaker, Mr. DeRoche said he had simply chosen to go forward in his life like he always did and could figure out a solution after learning what to do from rehab. It was “selfish behavior, for sure,” he said, but he also asked how many members of the Legislature have some type of problem in their life and continue serving anyway.

Mr. DeRoche was far from the first elected official to have a problem with alcohol, and he will not be the last.

Hopefully, Mr. DeRoche’s story will serve as cautionary tale about the need to seek help first and put political ambition aside.

Back to top

Pondering The Endgame Of Ballot Proposal Raising Corporate Income Tax

Posted: July, 28 2015 2:40 PM

A trio of unions made big news last week with a proposed voter-initiated act to raise the Corporate Income Tax from 6 to 11 percent and put the resulting $900 million in new revenue to roads.

If those unions and other supporters successfully collect at least 252,523 signatures from registered voters, then their proposal will go before the Legislature, which would have 40 days to enact it, approve a competing proposal or do nothing and let it go on the November 2016 ballot.

Once Citizens for Fair Taxes collects those signatures, and given the organizational and financial strength the group has, it likely will, the next actions will be fascinating to watch.

While there is no doubt that Democrats, unions and liberals remain incensed at how the 2011 tax changes reduced the amount of direct state taxation on business activity to almost nothing (the CIT raises about $900 million, but refunds paid out under the old Michigan Business Tax almost wipe out that revenue), this proposal is not happening in a vacuum.

No. 1, conservatives are in the process of collecting signatures to bring a voter-initiated act before the Legislature to repeal the prevailing wage law where all state construction projects pay union scale wages for that area. And No. 2, the discussions on road funding in the Legislature remain almost wholly contained within the Republican majority leadership with Democrats on the outside looking in.

When House Democrats proposed increasing the CIT to 9 percent as part of a road funding plan, House Republicans laughed them off.

Right now, Democrats have no leverage on the issue and are powerless to stop the prevailing wage repeal once it lands in front of the Legislature. The Senate already has passed a repeal, so the votes there seem assured, and House Republicans have made it a caucus priority, making passage there seem likely.

But if Citizens for Fair Taxes gets the signatures it needs, what happens then? Now the Democrats would have some leverage.

Would business groups, fearing the possibility that the voters would flock to a tax increase on businesses, be willing to deal to get the proposal dumped?

Could that mean an agreement to shelve the prevailing wage repeal in exchange for shelving the business tax hike?

Could that mean that business, similar to what has happened on the minimum wage in the past, would grudgingly accept a smaller increase to the CIT as part of a roads solution to see the ballot proposal shelved?

Recall that twice liberal activists have sought to increase the minimum wage via voter initiated act and both times Republican majorities in the Legislature decided to raise the minimum wage by a lesser amount on their own to ward off the more generous proposals.

And might the specter of a 5 percentage point business tax increase be what finally forces the Legislature to agree upon a solution to the road funding question?

Business groups, as would be expected, unleashed a torrent of criticism on the proposal.

The question they will have to decide sometime in the late fall or early winter is whether the risk of voters passing the proposal is too great and instead strike a deal of some sort or take their chances and go all-in to defeat it at the polls.

Back to top

Democratic Activist/Strategist Ken Brock Has Died

Posted: July, 24 2015 12:23 PM

The outpouring of grief since word spread Thursday that longtime top Democratic strategist Ken Brock had died at the age of 55 has been immense.

In almost 17 years of following Michigan government and politics, I can only recall one other death that left so many so sad and that was when former Rep. Frank Fitzgerald, a Grand Ledge Republican, died, also at a young age. Then, as now, the tributes and grief were heartfelt and from those of both major political parties.

Given that, I thought it appropriate to make public the obituary Gongwer News Service published Thursday for subscribers, written by John Lindstrom. That follows in a bit.

First, I also wanted to include a link to an old story former Gongwerian Chris Gautz shared today that he wrote for the Jackson Citizen-Patriot that demonstrates just how honorable Mr. Brock was.

Additionally, one thing that really stood out to me as I looked over the tributes on Mr. Brock’s Facebook page was just how many Democratic activists and strategists he mentored going back to his first years with former U.S. Rep. Howard Wolpe’s campaigns. In sports, one term often mentioned is a “coaching tree” when referring to all the assistants of a high-profile coach who have gone on to become successes on their own.

There clearly was a Ken Brock Tree.

Rest in peace, Ken. Michigan politics will miss you.

---------

Ken Brock, one of the state’s best-known Democratic activists and campaign strategists who worked with a number of gubernatorial and congressional candidates over his career, died Wednesday night.

A cause of death was not revealed by his family or former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, who announced Mr. Brock’s death through social media.

Mr. Brock was 55 but could have argued that he was 13. He was born February 29, 1960, and was, of course, a leap year baby.

He was an Ann Arbor native and studied politics at the Gerald Ford Institute for Public Service at Albion College, where he and Mr. Schauer met.

Mr. Brock was an energetic and passionate Democratic activist, but also able to objectively look at his campaigns and isolate where mistakes may have been made. He could slip in the knife to opponents when necessary, but never seemed to enjoy it. He respected his opponents, and maintained friendships with conservatives and Republicans. He could easily assess and rank the multiplicity of issues that could affect a campaign and explain what effect each could have.

He was the campaign manager for former U.S. Rep. Howard Wolpe’s gubernatorial campaign in 1994. He worked with former U.S. Rep. John Dingell, and when Mr. Schauer won election to the Senate in 2003 became Mr. Schauer’s chief of staff. He then handled Mr. Schauer’s successful U.S. House campaign in 2008, then was Mr. Schauer’s chief of staff in Congress (possibly the only time in his life he regularly wore a tie) and worked on the unsuccessful re-election campaign in 2010.

He was a top strategist on the pro-collective bargaining Proposal 2 of 2012 and then helped on Mr. Schauer’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign.

Always gregarious, Mr. Brock was a big man, who often struggled with his weight, but that seemed to have no effect on his energy or enjoyment of life.

Mr. Brock also mentored many an up-and-coming Democratic strategist, and that community in particular grieved his death.

A memorial will be held, but a date and time have not been set.

Back to top

One Year Later, Dems Complaint Against Land Stuck In FEC Gridlock

Posted: July, 21 2015 12:29 PM

It was about this time one year ago that a serious question emerged during the U.S. Senate campaign in Michigan about whether the Republican candidate, Terri Land, had accepted a massive illegal contribution to her campaign from her husband, Dan Hibma.

The issue: Ms. Land had contributed $2.9 million in personal funds to her campaign, but based on her financial disclosure statements, virtually all of that income had to have come from Mr. Hibma’s deposits into a checking account jointly controlled by the couple. Federal campaign finance law limits family members to the same $2,600 per election contribution limit as other donors, but this matter fell into something of a gray area.

Ms. Land’s use of the joint checking account to contribute to her campaign would be legal, most campaign finance experts said, as long as Mr. Hibma had a history of making deposits into that account for a wide range of expenses. If Mr. Hibma only began deposits to the account as a way to fund Ms. Land’s campaign, then that could be a problem.

The Michigan Democratic Party filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, and Ms. Land’s campaign insisted it had followed the law. Ultimately, Ms. Land lost to now-U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township) in a landslide, and the matter has mostly been forgotten and disappeared into FEC purgatory

Welcome to the dysfunctional world of the FEC.

The complaint against Ms. Land is hardly the only one in limbo.

Last week, one of the FEC commissioners drafted a memo calling for the commission to set a priority timetable on the many unresolved cases sitting before the panel. There are 78 matters, as the FEC calls them, pending before the commission, 23 of which have been awaiting action for more than a year (and of those 23 five for more than three years and three for more than two years and 15 for more than a year).

“If we are to bring the docket into a respectable condition before the end of the year, and if the decisional rate per meeting remains the same, there will be a need to hold between two or three times more meetings before the end of this year than the number held for the first six months of this year,” Commissioner Steven Walther, a Democrat, wrote in the memo.

The FEC keeps its work on specific cases secret until making a decision, and Mr. Walther’s memo redacts any identifying information about the 78 cases, so there’s no way to tell where Ms. Land’s case stands in the FEC process at this point.

There, incidentally, is a second Michigan Democratic Party complaint pending against Ms. Land, and while less serious, still interesting. This involves the rental payments her campaign had made to her brother-in-law for a pair of huge Ford CXT trucks.

Democrats claimed that perhaps the Land campaign undervalued the trucks and because her brother-in-law already had given her the maximum cash contribution, the supposedly discounted rent the campaign was paying for the trucks amounted to an illegal excess contribution. At the time, the complaint felt like a nitpicking stunt.

Now, almost 11 months later, with the Land campaign having filed several subsequent quarterly statements with no record of further payments to Ms. Land’s brother-in-law – despite insisting during the campaign it was making payments that would be reflected in upcoming statements – it seems very relevant.

The FEC, made up of three Democrats and three Republicans, essentially refuses to police campaign finance where it is rare to see the commissioners of the same party as the accused punish that candidate. With the body split 3-3, unless a bipartisan consensus emerges, nothing happens.

Mr. Walther urged the FEC to prioritize the oldest cases first as a way of ensuring political considerations play no role in clearing the commission’s docket. The commission did not adopt his suggestion, but it appears it will try to meet more than expected for the remainder of the year. The three Republican commissioners said they would support more meetings, but also urged not to put speed ahead of finding the right result.

In the meantime, Ms. Land, the Michigan Democratic Party and dozens of others of complainants and respondents across the country will continue to wait.

Back to top

Pondering The Voter-Initiated Act Process

Posted: July, 16 2015 11:38 AM

With conservatives turning more and more to the voter-initiated act process as a way of enacting new laws that Governor Rick Snyder opposes, increasingly I wonder what the framers of the 1963 Michigan Constitution were thinking.

In the past, the use of the initiated act process was relatively rare. Now, it’s frequent – laws barring insurance plans from covering abortions without a separate rider and assuring wolf hunting were enacted this way, and a prevailing wage repeal could happen as well. I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Snyder’s continued veto threats of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act could prompt another petition drive on that topic.

The process allows a group to put a law before the Legislature if it can gather a minimum of signatures from registered voters equal to 8 percent of the total vote for governor in the last gubernatorial election.

With enough signatures, the Legislature can enact the law with affirmative votes in both houses. Inaction, or defeat of the measure, means it goes on the next November ballot of an even-numbered year for voters to decide. It is the ability of the Legislature to enact the law that I find puzzling.

Democracy in action, right? A mechanism to allow the people to work directly with their elected representatives to pass a law over the governor’s opposition, right?

Here is what I don’t get, and to be clear, this has nothing to do with the philosophical nature of the recently enacted initiated acts.

The framers of the Constitution essentially made 8 percent of vote for governor equal in power to the governor.

Put another way, the Constitution makes 252,523 voters (8 percent of last year’s total vote for governor) just as powerful as the 1,479,058 voters Mr. Snyder needed to beat Mark Schauer last year (Mr. Snyder received 1,607,399 votes and Mr. Schauer 1,479,057).

Maybe the abacuses available during the last Constitutional Convention in 1961-62 got stuck or something.

Back to top

Roads: See You In Lame Duck 2016?

Posted: July, 15 2015 11:41 AM

It is hard to envision anything of substance on road funding becoming law anytime soon.

That is hardly news. In the wake of voters rejecting Proposal 15-1 by an overwhelming margin in May, the odds of anything going to Governor Rick Snyder’s desk in short order were virtually nil.

The reasons are simple:

  • The overwhelming anti-tax nature of the House Republican caucus makes any kind of a substantial tax increase extremely difficult;
  • House Democrats, and quietly some Republicans, are sensing 2016 could be a big Democratic year for gains in that chamber and thus the Democrats have zero incentive to do majority Republicans any favors; and
  • Mr. Snyder is unwilling to play hardball with the House Republican majority to get the tax increase he has advocated for almost four years through the chamber.

The Senate has passed a 15-cent per gallon gasoline tax hike and called for shifting more money out of the General Fund to pay for roads and thrown in a sweetener to the anti-tax crowd with a bill that would cut the income tax if the Detroit Tigers win the World Series, Michigan State Quarterback Connor Cook wins the Heisman Trophy and the new “Star Wars” movie grosses $1 billion.

No, actually the income tax would fall for other reasons, but the formula is so ridiculously complex it makes the fictitious scenario above – and believe me, the idea of the Tigers in the World Series right now is fictitious – seem comprehensible by comparison.

So right now, about nine weeks after voters rejected Proposal 1, things stand about where everyone following the issue expected.

The Senate passed a substantial tax increase. The House passed a plan without a substantial tax increase (relying instead on money from the General Fund, cutting business incentives and ending the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor). Mr. Snyder is laying low, generally urging action but declining to say publicly what he thinks about the various plans. Those following the issue say Mr. Snyder can live with the Senate plan.

The House sort of returned to session this week to talk privately about the Senate plan and unsurprisingly took no action.

It is even more apparent, as it was immediately after the Senate passed its plan, that (1) the House is nowhere near the 56 votes needed to pass that legislation, (2) there is no obvious path to finding those 56 votes and (3) a compromise between the House and Senate GOP is not near.

The acrimony seen Tuesday between House Democrats and Republicans after Democrats unveiled their plan made clear that Republicans are going it alone and Democrats are just fine with that.

The calendar trudges on relentlessly, and not in a positive way for action on this issue. There is no real deadline to force a final deal anytime soon, and once the calendar turns to 2016, the election year will take hold, and the chances for a tax increase passing the House will decline even further than they are now. That would suggest the next best chance for anything to happen on roads is after the November 2016 election in the lame-duck session.

Sure, there could be a deal yet this year. Maybe Senate Republicans decide even though they took that vote to pass a tax increase, something is better than nothing and cave in favor of a plan more in tune with the House. Maybe Mr. Snyder grows so desperate to claim something, anything on this issue, he does the same. Maybe House Republicans decide they have to raise the gasoline tax in a substantial way to solve the problem. Maybe there is a middle ground upon which the three sides can agree. Maybe House Democrats decide to let the House GOP off the hook and put up votes for a gasoline tax increase.

And maybe the Tigers win the World Series.

Back to top

Redistricting Proposal Battle Would (Will) Be Epic

Posted: June, 30 2015 1:41 PM

It took about five seconds after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that commissions independent of state legislatures can draw the boundaries for U.S. House districts for seemingly every Democrat on my Twitter and Facebook feeds to say Michigan needs a ballot proposal to establish such a commission in this state.

And while nothing is definite, it seems highly likely that Democrats, their allies or some other entity will seek to gather the necessary signatures in Michigan for a constitutional amendment putting an independent entity in charge of drawing the lines for not only the U.S. House, but also the Michigan House, Michigan Senate and the Court of Appeals.

For decades, the Michigan Supreme Court produced the maps because no one political party had full control of the Legislature and the governor’s office in the term when redistricting takes place following the census (1961-62, 1971-72, 1981-82, 1991-92, for example). In the 1980s and 1990s, especially, this produced maps that led to fiercely competitive battles for the Michigan House and (gasp) the Michigan Senate.

That all changed in in the 2001-02 term. Republicans controlled the governor’s office and the Legislature, making it the first time in 70 years one party could control the map-making process. The impact on the U.S. House seats was enormous. The state’s delegation went from 10-6 Democratic to 9-6 Republican (though it eventually became 8-7 Democratic for a bit). The impact on the Legislature was more muted initially, with Democrats gaining seats in the Senate in 2002 and 2006, and in the House in 2004, 2006 and 2008 – even controlling the chamber from 2007-10. In 2010, however, the Republican tsunami produced big GOP majorities in both houses.

The 2011 map, also drawn solely by the GOP, has been more solid, though unlike the previous decade that featured a mostly unpopular Republican president for Democrats to use as a foil, there’s now been a mostly unpopular Democratic president, instead helping the GOP cause. Republicans have controlled both houses under the 2011 map.

Democrats can do the math on the next reapportionment in 2021. Even if Democrats elect a governor in 2018 and/or control the House in the 2021-22 term to prevent Republicans from having total control, the odds of the party somehow winning total control of the process are very small because the Michigan Constitution forbids the party from controlling the Senate the 27-11 Republican majority in the Senate is too steep to overcome in 2018.

So that means either Republicans would still have total control or a divided government would lead to an impasse, kicking the issue to the Michigan Supreme Court, which … has a 5-2 majority of justices nominated by the GOP now and will likely still have a GOP majority during the 2021-22 term.

That gives an “independent” entity – and just how any proposal defines independent would be its most important element – much appeal to Democrats and ignites worry among Republicans. The Arizona system, which was before the U.S. Supreme Court, uses a commission with two Democrats, two Republicans and has a chair that is supposed to be a political monk, totally independent of political ties. There are several criteria that the commission has to follow when drawing the maps.

Would the Democratic funders who care enough about this proposal to put millions into it be willing to put up all that money for a process that will likely only improve the party’s chances of legislative control to 50/50?

What kind of maps might an independent commission produce? The most intriguing aspect would be how it would handle the current boundaries, which are a mess that split communities of interest, for the U.S. House in metro Detroit. How would an independent commission maintain two majority-minority districts, as the U.S. Voting Rights Act requires, and clean up those boundaries at the same time?

No district in the state was drawn more weirdly than the 11th District, now held by U.S. Rep. David Trott (R-Birmingham) to maximize Republican voters and prune away Democrats. How would a commission handle that district?

As for the Legislature, the House districts in the Jackson, Port Huron and Battle Creek areas as well as the Senate districts in Genesee County – all carved up to improve Republican chances –could change considerably.

Who would lead the charge on a ballot proposal? That is a delicate matter. The Yes side will have to run a campaign for a proposal that has a political purpose using an apolitical message.

If it is unions and other Democratic interests that push the proposal, and it surely will be, it would make it easier for Republicans and their allies to paint it as a union/”special interest” power play.

The same holds true for the opposition, however. If business interests pour money into the campaign to defeat the proposal, and they surely will, the Yes side will counter that “corporate special interests” are trying to keep their hold on the Capitol.

Nothing is more openly political and ruthless as the redistricting process. Usually it happens every 10 years, and voters utter a collective yawn.

But in 2016, it looks like voters will have to confront redistricting in a big way.

Back to top

A Sidenote To Another Ripple Effect Of Johnson Departing MDP

Posted: June, 25 2015 12:22 PM

Now that Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson has made it official that he’s resigning to run for Congress, and now that Rep. Brandon Dillon (D-Grand Rapids) has made it official that he hopes to succeed Mr. Johnson, there’s an interesting ripple effect to note.

One of the unknowns going into 2018, when the Michigan Senate is next up for election, was which Democrat – Mr. Dillon or Rep. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) – would be the party’s nominee for the 29th Senate District. That’s the very competitive seat that covers Grand Rapids and several suburbs and other Kent County communities.

In 2018, Sen. Dave Hildenbrand (R-Lowell) cannot seek re-election because of term limits, and this seat will be a top priority for both parties.

Prior to the surprising decision of Mr. Johnson to resign and Mr. Dillon to eye the post, the seat might have presented Democrats with an awkward situation. Both Mr. Dillon and Ms. Brinks would have been first-rate candidates. Mr. Dillon would have been out of the House for two years, and Ms. Brinks can’t run for her House seat again in 2018 (presuming she wins re-election in 2016), so both would likely have been tempted to run.

And both have experience running and winning difficult campaigns, Mr. Dillon in 2010 in a much more competitive seat than the one he now has in a bad Democratic year, and Ms. Brinks in 2014, when she had to stave off a ferocious Republican challenge in another bad Democratic year.

Now that potential conundrum for the Democrats is surely gone. Mr. Dillon will be busy, presuming all goes as expected, with his new job at the Hart-Kennedy House (MDP headquarters), and Ms. Brinks has the right of first refusal for the Democratic nomination in the 29th.

As to the Republicans, there are now two House members who live in the 29th Senate District – Rep. Chris Afendoulis (R-Grand Rapids Township) and Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons (R-Alto). And there’s always the possibility of someone else from the area’s robust Republican network not currently serving in the Legislature deciding to run.

Back to top

Shia LaBeouf Joins Snyder To Urge Road Funding… Wait, What?

Posted: June, 4 2015 12:57 PM

The sort of bizarre, perhaps serious, perhaps parody video of actor Shia LaBeouf giving an extremely loud motivational speech has become an Internet hit for its easy mashup ability with other videos, and the folks at the Truscott Rossman public relations firm have gotten in on the fun.

About a month ago, according to Vox, the video surfaced, but it has gone viral in the last 24 hours, and Vox has a lengthy foray into its meaning and just what Mr. LaBeouf might have had in mind with it. Mr. LaBeouf is probably best-known for his role in the “Transformers” movies (none of which were better than the 1980s television cartoon or accompanying movie, by the way) with a few unfortunate roles along the way including a turn on the old “Project Greenlight” reality program where he starred in the ill-fated “The Battle of Shaker Heights.”

Half the reason for this post is that I wanted to work in a “Battle of Shaker Heights” reference.

With that out of the way, Truscott Rossman wasted little time in mashing up the LaBeouf motivational video with a really dry speech from Governor Rick Snyder urging those watching to contact their legislator about the need for more road funding. The result is pretty funny.

Mr. LaBeouf has a long way to go however in the world of motivational speaker parodies. Over to you, Matt Foley and your van down by the river.

Back to top

A Kildee Update To The 2018 Gubernatorial Talk

Posted: June, 2 2015 12:04 PM

Last week, I wrote about which Democrats stood as the next strongest alternatives to run for governor in 2018 with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan ruling out a bid.

Those names were Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner and former Senate Majority Leader Gretchen Whitmer.

One name I considered and decided against including was U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint). And it wasn’t long after posting my blog that Kildee supporters contacted me saying he belonged on that list.

I had hesitated because Mr. Kildee could hold his 5th U.S. District seat for life if he wants. It’s solidly Democratic, and between his track record as the Genesee County treasurer, strong organization, the solid support of organized labor and his first-rate ballot name (his uncle Dale held the seat for decades before he did), anyone trying to challenge him for the Democratic nomination would be in for a world of hurt.

Why give that up for the uncertain prospect of a gubernatorial bid?

The reason would be if Mr. Kildee aspires to more than a lengthy congressional career. And it seems he does. Recall that he did run for governor, albeit just for 11 days, in 2010. In the wake of then-Lt. Governor John Cherry’s surprising withdrawal from the race, anyone and everyone in the party was considering running. Mr. Kildee, then the county treasurer, jumped in, but once it became clear organized labor was with Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, he pulled out.

On Mackinac Island, Mr. Kildee told the Detroit Free Press’ Kathy Gray that he will consider it.

“The question I have to answer is: Where is the best place for me to make progress on the things that I think are important? I owe it to myself to really think about it," he told the Free Press. "It's not that time yet, but I certainly haven't taken it off the table."

Mr. Kildee also has gone out of his way to maintain some involvement in state government, coming to town last year for a news conference and taking on Governor Rick Snyder from time to time.

Should he run, Mr. Kildee would have a great chance to win the support of organized labor, always helpful in a Democratic primary. The Kildee name also is well known in Democratic politics because of his uncle’s nearly four decades in Congress. He could match his achievements as the county treasurer with his strong liberal positions in Congress.

The concerns would be his ability to raise enough money and whether he could excite the Democratic base that mostly is concentrated in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties, where he is unknown. That latter point was a major problem for former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, who despite years of work in Michigan Democratic politics and plenty of effort in the 2014 campaign could not excite the base in Detroit and got throttled by Mr. Snyder in Macomb and Oakland counties.

Still, if Mr. Kildee runs, there’s no question he would be a major contender to win his party’s nomination, perhaps the favorite, depending on who else enters the race.

This is all a political eternity from now, of course. But the combination of the open seat with Mr. Snyder term limited, Mr. Duggan’s comments and the lack of a U.S. Senate race in the state in 2016 has pushed up the timetable for the usual chattering among the chattering class about the next gubernatorial contest.

Back to top

If Not Duggan For Governor, Then Who For The Democrats?

Posted: May, 28 2015 1:42 PM

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan already had scoffed at the speculation he was eyeing a run for governor in 2018, but his flat declaration Wednesday that he will not be a candidate – and stop asking him about it, by the way – might finally put to rest any chance he will seek the Democratic nomination.

Might. Let’s not forget, Mr. Duggan presumably will seek re-election as Detroit mayor in 2017, and flirting with a gubernatorial bid more than two years from that election would be politically ill-advised, to say the least. If after the mayor’s race concludes in 2017 – and Mr. Duggan’s organization, name recognition among voters and first-rate fundraising ability allows him to wait much longer than other potential Democratic gubernatorial candidates – and Mr. Duggan still says he is not running, then it is safe to say he is 100 percent out.

But for now, let’s assume Mr. Duggan is out. Then what?

It deprives Democrats of their best candidate. No one can match Mr. Duggan’s combination of political strengths as outlined above and resume.

And winning the governor’s race is an absolute imperative for Michigan Democrats in 2018.

Democrats are in a position of permanent minority in the Michigan Senate with Republicans holding a 27-11 advantage. Just narrowing that gap to 24-14 would be a triumph for Democrats in 2018.

In the House, Democrats should narrow the 63-47 Republican majority in 2016 thanks to presidential year turnout and a slew of open seats though the odds are against them winning the eight seats needed for shared power to halt Republicans’ ability to pass legislation unimpeded. What will happen in 2018 is hard to say. A Republican in the White House, while surely a Democratic nightmare, would paradoxically enhance Democrats’ chances of mobilizing their voters for a better than usual midterm turnout, but history clearly suggests Republicans will have the advantage in 2018 with the House.

So that means if Democrats want any say at all in what happens at the Capitol anytime soon, they have to win the governorship. It also would mean in 2021, for the first time in 30 years, that Republicans do not have total control of redistricting.

After Mr. Duggan, the following names will get a long look: Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner, former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer and … that’s probably it as far as candidates with a credible path to victory. Other than Ms. Whitmer, anyone not from Macomb, Oakland or Wayne counties need not apply. The outstate factor proved a major roadblock for the last two Democratic nominees, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer of Battle Creek.

Mr. Hackel clearly seems interested and toyed with the idea in 2014. There would be a couple complications, however. One, Mr. Hackel would have to give up the county executive post, which also is up for election in 2018. And his independent brand of politics that has seen him clash with some key Democratic interests could prove problematic in a Democratic primary. Still, he is hugely popular in a critical county and could have general election appeal to independents, who went heavily for Governor Rick Snyder in 2014.

Mr. Meisner could be in an interesting spot. Clearly a rising star in the party, holding a countywide office in the most politically important county in the state, having come up through the Levin machine, a former legislator and having strong fundraising ability, Mr. Meisner could be a player. But he will first have to make a decision about what to do in 2016. The county executive post will be up for election, and retirement speculation is running high on Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson.

If elected county executive, Mr. Meisner would face a difficult decision about a 2018 gubernatorial bid. It would require him to spend most of his first two years as executive campaigning for governor. And if Republicans move the date of the next county executive election up to 2018 from 2020, he would have to give up the job to run for governor.

Ms. Whitmer remains a player in the party though an unknown is how much being out of office will dim her star power. Had she run in 2014, the party would have cleared the field for her. In 2018, that won’t be the case unless Mr. Duggan, Mr. Hackel and Mr. Meisner all take themselves out of the running. If all three are out, there will probably be heavy pressure from party leaders to persuade Ms. Whitmer to run because after Ms. Whitmer, the options become a series of lesser-known current and former legislators or trying to find a business executive type who could self-fund a race.

But this all starts with Mr. Duggan. His comments Wednesday will stir the pot in Democratic circles. Come early 2017, when the other potential Democratic candidates will have to get serious about running, they will be watching for any change in tone on the subject from him.

Back to top

The 23 Things That Went Wrong For Proposal 1

Posted: May, 7 2015 10:39 AM

Governor Rick Snyder and legislators are so focused on their vows to find an answer to road underfunding in the wake of the epic thrashing Proposal 15-1 took Tuesday and unwilling to dwell on just how badly the proposal performed that they sound like Frank Drebin in “The Naked Gun” after the missile hits the fireworks plant and he hilariously advises onlookers “please disperse, nothing to see here.”

There will be plenty of time to focus on what’s next. More drama. More closed-door meetings in which the participants offer bromides about making progress, and afterwards to describe how the meetings went.

But this week should not pass without a proper reflection on just what a disaster Proposal 1 was. When was the last time 80 percent of the people agreed on anything in Michigan politics?

So much effort went into putting the proposal together. Difficult negotiations. Heated disputes. An all-night session. Hard work. Compromise. A momentary crisis on the Senate floor when it fell short of the needed votes. Years of discussions finally culminated into a plan that had Mr. Snyder and leaders from both parties feeling like they had finally cracked the code to increasing road funding for the first time since 1997.

Sure, they had to convince the voters, but if they could find agreement among themselves, surely it could be done.

And yet, by 8:15 p.m. Tuesday, just 15 minutes after the polls closed, with a quarter of the vote counted in Oakland County and the No vote at 78 percent, it was quickly and convincingly over. When the final votes were counted, the Yes vote topped out at 19.9 percent, the worst performance for a constitutional amendment in 67 years and fourth-worst ever. Humiliating seems not a strong enough word to describe the magnitude of the defeat.

So with that in mind, in no particular order, here are the 23 things that went wrong for Proposal 1. Why 23? Because I couldn’t think of a 24th.

1. A POLITICALLY WEAK PLAN: Voters had a choice between raising their taxes or not raising their taxes. What did everyone really think would happen? Pile on layers and complexity and Mr. Snyder and top legislators were ignoring a cardinal rule about ballot proposals: uncertain voters vote no. You could almost see the characters in the old “Saturday Night Live” “Bad Idea Jeans” sketch coming up with the plan.

2. A REPUBLICAN REVOLT: While many Republican legislators voted for this plan, Republican voters hated it. Seemingly every grassroots GOP organization urged a no vote.

3. STAFFING SHAKE-UP FOR YES CAMPAIGN: On December 19, the day after the Legislature put the plan on the ballot with no groundwork laid for a campaign, getting a campaign structure in place quickly was paramount. It took a bit, but by early January, one was taking shape with Howard Edelson, Truscott Rossman, Glengariff Group and Joe Slade White ready to helm the effort. But disagreements between the firms and Mr. Snyder’s chief liaison on the proposal, Terri Reid, prompted a parting of ways. New firms, Martin Waymire and WWP were brought aboard, and while they are fine firms, the Yes campaign had essentially lost one-third of the campaign and was starting from scratch.

4. POISONED WELL: Expectations were so high for the Legislature to pass something that there was a big backlash to the proposal, seeing it as the Legislature shirking its duties in a republic.

5. TINFOIL HAT CROWD: There’s no way to reason with people who decide to vote no because they think the state swindled them when it started the lottery more than 40 years ago to help fund schools (and in 1972 the lottery was intended to raise revenue for all state government not just schools, but somehow quickly that was what people believed) or those who think the state should pay for roads by shutting down Eastern Michigan University. These were actual positions I heard actual people espouse. But their votes count.

6. SCHUETTE FACTOR: Attorney General Bill Schuette deciding to oppose the proposal stung.

7. OVERPLAYING THE SAFETY MESSAGE: Mr. Snyder had tried for years to make the case that Michigan needed to fix its roads to save lives. It never convinced the public to rally to his side, yet that was the overwhelming message from the Yes side in the early stage of the campaign, and the public reaction, if anything, was highly negative.

8. SNYDER PRESIDENTIAL FLIRTATION: Mr. Snyder’s flirtation with running for president could not possibly have helped the proposal’s cause among Democratic voters, who were loath to give the governor on a win on anything.

9. FAILURE TO COUNTER THE ANGER: The proposal became a vessel for voters to vent their anger about whatever particular problem they have with the government. This was always a long shot to pass it, so why not try to counter the anger with some humor from a non-political figure. Could Brad Keselowski, the famous NASCAR driver and Rochester Hills native, have been persuaded to endorse the proposal and cut an ad featuring him dodging potholes, saying Michigan’s roads were even too much for him to navigate? Failing that, even a regular Joe or Jane in a car dodging potholes might have at least offered a message with which voters could identify.

Or what about a social media campaign using the guy behind the hysterical Not So Pure Michigan parody ads and have him do one that mocks the state’s roads, complete with “Cider House Rules” background music? The f-bombs, a staple of his parodies of things like Lions fans and various regions of the state, sadly, would have to go, and they would have to be 99 percent less offensive, but again, get folks to take a second look. Make them laugh. Remind them of what bothers them most about Michigan’s roads.

Linking to one of the Not So Pure Michigan videos here would probably get me fired, so let’s move on…

10. SNYDER BLOWS HIS ACHILLES: Clearly when Mr. Snyder agreed to a ballot proposal on December 18, part of the plan did not involve him rupturing his Achilles tendon in January, effectively immobilizing him for weeks and then getting hospitalized with a blood clot for several days. Murphy’s Law came into play. This wasn’t like Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas blowing his Achilles in the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament against Maryland and the Spartans still winning the game. The Yes side lost its most visible advocate for a key early stretch when the No side was just getting rolling.

11. LACKLUSTER DEMOCRATIC SUPPORT: It took a while for most top Democrats to embrace the plan in a full-throated way. By the time most did, it was too late.

12. PAUL MITCHELL: For the proposal to have a chance, there needed to be no real opposition. Republican Paul Mitchell put together a relatively low-budget operation that did enough to stoke a backlash to the proposal.

13. THE MICHIGAN CHAMBER STAYS OUT: Having the Michigan Chamber of Commerce on board would have meant more money and given a greater opportunity to make some inroads among Republicans. Instead, the chamber stayed neutral.

14. ILL-ADVISED DETROIT MOVE BY SNYDER ON EVE OF ELECTION: Days before the vote on Proposal 1, Mr. Snyder unveiled his controversial and mostly panned proposal to restructure public education in Detroit. For someone who has an incredible track record of staying on message, this was a startling error. Why unveil a politically unpopular proposal – that won’t even take effect for the upcoming school year – so close to Election Day?

15. NO REPEAT OF SPRING POTHOLE HYSTERIA: As cold as the winter of 2014-15 was, it did not match the historic cold of 2013-14, and the pothole hysteria supporters hoped would galvanize voters never materialized.

16. TERRIBLE HEADLINES FOR MDOT: From the controversial leased railcars sitting in a warehouse to audits finding some problems in Department of Transportation operations, the bad press the department has seen this year only helped make the case for those open to it that the state needed to get its house in order first before asking for new revenue.

17. ILL-TIMED CAPITAL PROJECTS IN THE CAPITAL CITY: The Senate’s decision to move to the Capitol View building and lease space provided plenty of ammunition to opponents who argued the state was squandering money that could instead go to the roads. A plan unveiled in late December for a new Capitol visitors center also took heat until officials shelved it.

18. THE ENTICEMENTS BACKFIRE: Remember how putting funding in the proposal for schools, local governments and tax relief for the working poor was supposed to help generate interest in the proposal for those less interested in roads? It didn’t. Even worse, a big chunk of voters seemed to recoil at the plan extending beyond roads even if there was a legitimate case for structuring the proposal in that way.

19. OVERSIGHTS IN THE PROPOSAL: Mistakes in the wording of the some of the bills meant there were at least three trailer bills that were going to be needed to clean up the plan if it passed. That’s not unusual for a major piece of legislation, but most major pieces of legislation also do not go before voters. And it only added to the criticism that Mr. Snyder and the Legislature threw the plan together at the last minute in the middle of the night without thoroughly vetting it.

20. THE EXISTING TRANSPORTATION FUNDING STRUCTURE IS A MESS: Mr. Snyder and supporters had a strong point in saying the proposal would lead to a simpler system with all taxes paid at the pump going to fund roads. But when even the head of the County Road Association of Michigan acknowledges that her own family members didn’t realize sales tax paid at the pump does not go to roads, it underscores just how difficult the task was for supporters to explain the benefits.

21. THE ‘NO PLAN B’ MESSAGE: As much some legislators are now promising swift action on a roads plan, the odds of pulling something big and substantive together in the near future are low. So when supporters urged passage because there was no “Plan B,” it wasn’t that they were wrong, but it only seemed to enhance voter anger at the proposal and the Legislature for failing to resolve the issue on their own without asking voters to finish the job.

22. THE PAY DOWN THE DEBT COMPONENT: The plan had a perfectly reasonable provision to focus much of the first two years of new revenue on paying down old debt to pay for years-ago road construction. The problem was it completely undercut the “your lives are in danger” message from the Yes side. If the problem is so dire, then why not put all the money into road work right away?

23. HOPE IS NOT A STRATEGY: The spokesperson for Safe Roads Yes, Roger Martin, had a great line Wednesday during one of the Proposal 1 autopsies, lamenting how the Legislature and the governor decided to go for a ballot proposal without researching in advance whether the public would support their approach. It was “like shooting an arrow without aiming,” he said.

So there you have it. A defeat for the ages. Maybe “The Blue Note” from “The Naked Gun 2 1/2” can make room on its disaster wall for an image paying homage to Proposal 1 (yes, that’s two “Naked Gun” references for those of you scoring at home).

Back to top

The Proposal 1 Defeat: Winners And Losers

Posted: May, 5 2015 9:20 PM

As most expected, voters overwhelmingly defeated Proposal 15-1 and decided against a complex plan to raise the sales tax as part of a way to raise more money for roads.

Here’s an early look at who won and lost in this rare statewide special election.

WINNERS

PAUL MITCHELL: Mr. Mitchell steadfastly denied that his decision to lead an opposition group to the proposal had anything to do with his own political ambitions, but most expect him to run for office again and his having put almost a half-million of his own money into the No campaign will only help burnish his credentials in the Republican Party.

HIGHER EDUCATION: It didn’t get a lot of discussion, but one part of the constitutional amendment would have prohibited the use of School Aid Fund money to fund higher education, something that has occurred the last several fiscal years. Passage of Proposal 1 coupled with a recession would have put the state’s 15 public universities in a difficult spot.

LOCAL GOVERNMENTS WHO PASSED BALLOT PROPOSALS: Since the state picked up the cost of holding an election, local governments did not have to shell out the money as they usually would to hold local millage, bond and other proposal votes.

THE NO NEW TAXES CROWD: Remember how tortuous it was in Mr. Snyder’s first term trying to increase taxes to pay for more money for roads? Imagine how difficult it will be now with a more conservative Legislature emboldened by an overwhelming public vote against a tax increase.

LOSERS

RICK SNYDER: Governor Rick Snyder suffered the biggest defeat of his administration, having until now largely had his way in winning approval of his major priorities. Mr. Snyder’s mantra of “relentless positive action” has proven successful on much of his legislative agenda, but his decision to bend to House Republicans in 2014 and agree to a plan that did not legislatively raise taxes severely backfired. The governor also will take heat for traveling around the country in the days leading up to the vote.

ENDORSEMENTS: The Yes campaign had endorsements from almost every major group, liberal and conservative, business and union, Democratic and Republican. The hope was that these organizations would succeed in persuading their members to vote yes and carry the proposal to victory. That clearly did not happen.

GROUPS PUSHING ANY ISSUE OTHER THAN ROADS AT THE CAPITOL: There will surely be an attempt to find new funding for roads – how substantive and how serious remains to be seen. If it becomes a serious endeavor, it will likely suck up all the oxygen at the Capitol again and make it difficult for other issues to move until it is resolved, much like what happened in 2014.

THE FIX ROADS WITH A BALLOT PROPOSAL CROWD: Surely some will suggest a simpler ballot proposal, such as raising the sales tax by 1 percent with all money going to roads. That probably will cause road construction interests, who put about $6 million into Proposal 1, to throw up in their collective mouths. Good luck trying to convince anyone to fund a ballot proposal after what happened tonight.

Additionally, the Legislature took an absolute beating for the past several months for “punting” the issue to voters that helped poison the well on the proposal before the campaign even started. Sending the issue back to voters would provoke another backlash and probably doom a second proposal too.


The only scenario where a proposal actually would generate the revenue would be a Proposal A of 1994-style proposal that forces voters to choose between two different tax increases, but it is hard to imagine this Legislature agreeing to a complex plan that guarantees a tax increase.

Back to top

Snyder Presidential Flirtation Prior To Prop 1 Vote Risky

Posted: April, 27 2015 2:31 PM

From the moment the Legislature and Governor Rick Snyder decided to put the question of more funding for roads on the ballot for voters to decide, there was no question that, fairly or unfairly, Mr. Snyder would get the lion’s share of the blame if voters defeated it.

But as Mr. Snyder continues to fan the flames of the idea that he is considering running for president, and as Mr. Snyder continues a national swing – prior to the May 5 vote – that only furthers the speculation, the governor risks heavy criticism if voters reject the proposal.

The message against Mr. Snyder from his political foes, and maybe others, will be that he put his own ambitions ahead of the roads proposal.

Mr. Snyder will protest that vigorously, emphasizing all the many events he has held and the long series of interviews with virtually every news media outlet in the state to urge voters to pass the proposal. Last week, he personally filled potholes in Caledonia and Detroit in a show for the television cameras.

And yet, in a campaign, especially a compressed one like this one, every day is precious, especially so close to the election. But Mr. Snyder spent the last several days on the road, first in Nevada at the Republican Jewish Coalition, then the White House Correspondents Association dinner in Washington, D.C., and now today is in California for the Milken Institute’s conference. He did two television interviews this morning, and at least one featured several questions about a White House bid.

So with 12 days until Election Day, Mr. Snyder spent four of them outside the state as part of his stated mission to sell Michigan’s story, but which also can serve the dual purpose of building interest in a possible presidential bid. If Proposal 1 loses in a close decision, it will be hard for Mr. Snyder to defend the wisdom of that time management. Of course, if it loses by a huge margin, then nothing Mr. Snyder did or did not do would have changed the end result.

Mr. Snyder has made it clear that refusing to take his name out of the presidential mix helps draw more attention to the state and gives him more cachet to sell the state’s story around the country. And that makes sense.

And I don’t think Mr. Snyder is going to run for president. I think the idea intrigues him, and I think he would like to translate what he has done in Michigan to Washington, D.C., given his complete disdain for the dysfunction in the nation’s capital. I think he looks at the other Republican candidates and thinks, “Why not me? I have a good story to tell too, maybe a better one.”

But as I have said in the past, I cannot imagine Mr. Snyder essentially deciding to spend the next nine months living in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. And as Republican strategist Greg McNeilly explained recently, he cannot replicate his 2010 strategy of letting the conservatives divide up the vote in the Republican primary.

Michigan’s 2010 primary was a one-shot deal that enabled him to beat four conservatives with 37 percent of the vote. Even if Mr. Snyder managed to win, say, New Hampshire using that same formula, the fight for the nomination is a series of contests that eventually would reduce it to Mr. Snyder against a more conservative candidate. Game over.

I think Mr. Snyder recognizes these realties. But the governor has a golden opportunity to get a bunch of national coverage for the state (and himself) using the presidential calendar as bait. And it does seem Mr. Snyder is at least loosely contemplating the idea (and really, what governor of a major state has never daydreamed about the presidency?).

So the governor has his toe in the presidential waters. It would be a surprise, however, if he wades in any further.

If Mr. Snyder forms a federal super political action committee, and if he starts scheduling meet ‘n’ greets in places like Keene, New Hampshire, then this Snyder presidential speculation moves into a more serious phase.

If Proposal 15-1 fails, however, and Mr. Snyder, decides against a presidential campaign, the question will be whether the pounding he takes on May 6 will have been worth the opportunity to put the state and himself in the national spotlight.

Back to top

The Big Legislative Pay Increase, 14 Years Later

Posted: April, 16 2015 11:22 AM

Sometime soon, the State Officers Compensation Commission, a panel of gubernatorial appointees, will recommend pay levels for legislators and statewide elected officials starting in 2017.

One of the SOCC members, when the panel met Wednesday, complained that legislative leaders had provided no recommendation as to what, if anything, should change with their pay.

But for legislators to avoid anything to do with their pay level is no surprise. Ever since the SOCC, at legislative leaders’ behest, recommended a 38.7 percent pay increase for legislators for the 2001-02 term, and the Legislature allowed that increase to take effect, the subject of legislative pay increases has been taboo.

That pay increase has become comparable in the public mind to the old “what happened to the lottery money” saw as far as tainting opinion of the Legislature. Besides the remarkable increase in pay, from $56,981 to $79,650, it also had the effect of juicing the pension benefits for those legislators still in the old pension system.

The supporters of the raise did make a legitimate policy point, that in the era of term limits, it was becoming difficult to persuade those in their 30s, 40s and 50s, in their prime earning years, to take six to 14 years away from their careers, to serve in the Legislature at the pay level at that time. They feared a Legislature, mainly the House, dominated by 20-somethings and those in their 60s nearing retirement.

But the uproar predictably was massive. Under the system at the time, the Legislature only could reject a SOCC pay recommendation with two-thirds majority votes in the House and the Senate. The Senate, dominated by veteran members serving their last term under term limits who would never seek elected office again, made clear it would not vote on the issue. The House, with a membership still very much planning a future in politics and sensing a free pass with the Senate not planning to act, overwhelmingly voted to reject the raise.

The Senate, true to its word, did not vote, and the raises took effect.

But the fallout was significant. The Legislature, under withering attack from the public, put a proposal on the ballot to amend the Constitution, requiring legislators instead to vote affirmatively to approve any SOCC pay recommendations. Voters passed the change. Not only has the Legislature not approved a pay increase since then, it actually approved a 10 percent pay cut in 2009 in the midst of the Great Recession, dropping salaries to $71,685.

And, adjusted for inflation, the $56,981 legislators were paid in 2000 would now be $77,670 today. Yet, looking back at a 2002 Citizens Research Council of Michigan report, the old SOCC system did not keep legislator pay up with inflation either, though it did mean some type of increase almost every year or two.

Certainly, at $71,685 a year, serving as a legislator remains a more than financially viable endeavor, though most would say that’s not the reason why they run. But it’s hard to imagine that pay level increasing any time in the foreseeable future, if ever, under the current system and with memories of the 38.7 percent pay increase still firmly in the ether.

The public probably would be happy, however, to supply the Legislature with the world’s smallest violin.

Back to top

Snyder Answers To Presidential Queries Taking On New Tone

Posted: March, 30 2015 1:31 PM

Governor Rick Snyder gave two interviews last week while in Washington, D.C., that signal, maybe, he is actually giving a run for the presidency some serious thought.

I say this with some hesitancy because No. 1, I still think Mr. Snyder, with his innate lack of passion for retail campaigning, cannot possibly want to spend most of the rest of the this year camped out in Iowa and New Hampshire, the states that will hold the first nominating caucus and nominating primary for the Republican presidential nomination. No. 2, Mr. Snyder’s chances of winning that nomination are remote, and even with Mr. Snyder’s mantra of positive thinking, I think he is aware of that reality.

And No. 3, Mr. Snyder has made it clear in the past he likes to have his name raised for national office as a way to generate some publicity for the state, so he doesn’t mind stoking the speculation.

All that said, Mr. Snyder’s comments last week to The Associated Press and then The Washington Post – to the Post’s top political writer, Dan Balz, no less – marked a distinct change in what Mr. Snyder is saying about a run for the presidency.

To the AP, when asked about running, Mr. Snyder said, “There’s time to evaluate opportunities.”

And then, in a lengthy Post feature, Mr. Snyder even analyzed the prospective 2016 presidential field. He said he was not convinced that those running grasp the distinction between ideology and solving a problem. He said there are “good people” running and mentioned former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

The Post asked Mr. Snyder if either met the standard of putting problem-solving ahead of ideology.

“I don’t think they potentially go far enough in terms of getting out of the political discussion and getting to the problem-solving discussion. I don’t want to be critical of them, because I appreciate them being proactive,” he said.

These comments are distinctly different from past statements Mr. Snyder made about running for the White House, usually something along the lines of how he is “focused on Michigan.”

So maybe it is time to rethink long-held assumptions about Mr. Snyder’s political ambitions.

There are some real reasons to consider why he could make a viable run:

  • Money. Mr. Snyder has tremendous personal wealth, in case anyone forgot. He spent $6 million in his bid to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2010. He isn’t going to self-finance a presidential campaign that will cost well into nine figures, maybe 10, but he has more than enough resources to get a campaign rolling. And Michigan has some of the most important and deep-pocketed Republican donors in the country. They could form a super political action committee to aid him. That kind of a one-two punch would help Mr. Snyder overcome Mr. Bush’s head start in fundraising.
  • Geniality. The Republican nominating contest, at this early stage, seems to be evolving into a Bush-Not Bush dynamic. Mr. Walker, at the moment, has laid claim to much of the portion of the Republican Party opposed to Mr. Bush. Mr. Walker has many strengths, but if there is one real concern about him as a general election candidate, it is that he comes off as a bit severe. In general, voters prefer to see some warmth in a presidential candidate.
  • Suburban appeal. Mr. Snyder has done something in Michigan that federal Republican candidates have repeatedly failed to do here. Dominate, and I do mean dominate, in Macomb and Oakland counties. He has managed to build a brand of fiscal restraint, yet backing targeted investments, and de-emphasizing social issues that appeals with those voters. A Republican presidential candidate who can pull off the same feat in other major metropolitan areas will win the White House.

Yet all the reasons why a Snyder run does not compute are still there. His record on social issues, immigration, support for the Common Core State Standards and Medicaid expansion put him opposite the Republican electorate. He is championing a big tax increase for roads. Most of these stances would help him in the general election, but will surely be an anvil around him in seeking the Republican nomination.

And if Mr. Bush officially gets into the race, as expected, Mr. Snyder would be competing for the same set of voters in the Republican Party. Yes, there is some Bush fatigue, but there also is considerable reverence in much of the GOP for the Bush family. Mr. Snyder is unknown nationally and cannot possibly replicate the incredible national structure the Bush family has established.

I still cannot imagine Mr. Snyder barnstorming from Nashua to Concord to Manchester and from Ames to Cedar Rapids to Dubuque. But if it seemed like there was a 0 percent chance of Mr. Snyder running for president a week ago, the percentage is now higher. Not by much, but the bottom line is it’s not 0 anymore.

Back to top

Returning Some Sanity To The Legislature On The Budget Process

Posted: March, 25 2015 3:02 PM

At the close of the day Thursday, House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees will have each completed action on 17 bills allocating funding for all state departments and major budget areas in the 2015-16 fiscal year with 33 of those 34 bills winning approval in a dizzying three-day span this week.

This is not how the Legislature has always handled the budget, and it’s time to call it for what it is: unnecessary madness.

Let’s start off by acknowledging that the issue at hand is about as inside baseball as it gets at the Capitol. It affects a fraction of legislators, their legislative staffs, the news reporters who cover the budgets, those representing groups with an interest in the budgets and, most of all, the staffs of the House and Senate Fiscal agencies, the experts who make the budget process function.

And let’s also say the process since 2011 is far better than what happened from 2007-10 when the Legislature and then-Governor Jennifer Granholm were so at odds on a budget that the process drifted into the fall with two partial government shutdowns. In September 2007, the Legislature was in session almost every day of the month, including Saturdays and Sundays. No one wants to go through that again.

The Legislature and the governor now wrap up the budget by early June, but the old, long-time system once used could still accomplish the same objective and not leave the heads spinning of everyone who follows and works in the budget process. It might even improve the process by letting legislators and staff focus on fewer budgets at once.

Once upon a time, long ago, in the late 1990s, back when smart phones did not exist, legislative session could only be followed remotely through a closed-circuit audio feed and Michigan State University’s basketball team enjoyed reliable success (oh wait, one of those things still holds true today), the Legislature had a different system for handling budget bills.

The House and Senate would divide and conquer. After the governor’s budget presentation in February, the House would take half the budget bills and the Senate would take the other half.

For example, it might break down like this:

  • House subcommittees start with Community Health, Higher Education, General Government, Natural Resources, Environmental Quality, State Police, Insurance and Financial Services and Agriculture and Rural Development; and
  • Senate subcommittees start with K-12 school aid, Human Services, Community Colleges, Corrections, Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, Transportation, the Department of Education, Judiciary and Military and Veterans Affairs.

Then once the full House and full Senate complete work on their half of the budget bills, they begin work on the ones sent over by the other chamber. That second phase could be completed by the end of April, just in time for the mid-May revenue estimating conference that sets the final numbers for determining budget spending levels.

This system worked fine for many years. In fact, over history the Legislature and the governor often wrapped up the budget in June using it.

The paranoia about returning to the bad old days of shutdowns and budget brinksmanship seems to be driving the new system of having every subcommittee act on every budget at once in March. But avoiding another 2007 or 2009 is less about the new schedule and more about the political dynamics in place, how complicated the budget for the upcoming fiscal year is and the personalities of the legislative leaders at the time.

So maybe, come 2016, the Legislature can come up with a better system than cramming in vital budget decisions on 34 budget bills into three days.

I assume, however, that MSU basketball will continue to operate in March like it long has.

Back to top

Energy Debate Might Not Live Up To Expectations

Posted: March, 23 2015 1:11 PM

The one topic that has galvanized everyone’s attention at the Capitol so far this year is energy, and for good reason, given its essential nature, the critical importance the state plays in regulating it and that virtually everyone with even a remote interest in the issue seems to have hired someone to represent them.

2015 loomed as a big year on energy policy in Michigan, mainly because utilities have now met the state’s requirement that they generate 10 percent of their power from renewable sources by this year. And Governor Rick Snyder had pointed to 2015 as the year he would make a major proposal on energy policy.

To win approval of the 10 percent requirement in the 2008 law, then-Governor Jennifer Granholm and the Legislature also moved to restrict the amount of competition allowed in the energy market, going from competing companies battling with DTE Energy and Consumers Energy in their territories for all available customers to instead a cap on 10 percent of the market being available to competition.

That helped bring aboard utility support for the 2008 law.

Now environmental activists are hoping to see the renewable mandate increased. Advocates for more competition are trying to undo the cap. The utilities want to see competition and the renewable mandate ended.

Given these countervailing forces, theoretically much could change in the state’s energy policy. And that is why everyone involved in the issue has gone to battle stations.

But already, a path with minimal change is visible.

At this point, it appears virtually certain the 10 percent mandate on using energy from renewable sources will not change. Mr. Snyder proposes no change, and based on extensive interviews Gongwer News Service has done with the members of the House and Senate energy committees, the Republicans who are the majority on those committees are in agreement.

And with Mr. Snyder and Sen. Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek), the Senate Energy and Technology Committee chair, both signaling they would like to see the 10 percent cap on competition remain in place, it appears unlikely that Rep. Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton), the House Energy Policy Committee chair, can win support for ending competition as he wants.

There appears little legislative support for increasing the amount of competition.

That means there might be less radical change, such as something requiring the competing companies to show they have planned for capacity needs for their customers. The competing companies will surely argue they already are doing so.

There will be a debate on what efficiency requirements the state should have. And one of the big unknowns is whether the state will change its procedures for determining the necessity of a utility building or acquiring a new power plant. Current law sets up a voluntary and seldom-used approval process. DTE Energy wants to see a better structure, but so far Mr. Snyder and key legislators have steered clear of the issue.

Add it all up, and at this early stage, there is a distinct possibility that Michigan’s energy law might not look that much different once this debate concludes than it does now.

Back to top

The Early Line On Succeeding Candice Miller

Posted: March, 6 2015 1:06 PM

As temperatures neared 0 last night for hopefully the final time this winter, one source of heat for the state came from the phone lines in the 586 and 810 area codes that burst into flames shortly after 3:16 p.m. Thursday when U.S. Rep. Candice Miller stunned the political world in declaring she would not seek re-election.

Virtually any current or recent former elected official in most of Macomb County as well as the Thumb suddenly began dreaming about running for Congress and weighing the possibilities.

This blog is going to focus on the Republicans. While the seat is theoretically winnable for a Democrat, and I emphasize theoretical because Ms. Miller’s vote percentage ranged from 63 to 72 percent in seven victories, my presumption is that Democrats will rally around one candidate and avoid a primary. What fun is that?

The Republicans, however, will have a primary.

And we should note how Ms. Miller’s retirement represents the end of an era for the Republican Party. Fourteen years ago, when Republicans redrew the maps, priority number one was to draw a district especially suited for Ms. Miller, then the secretary of state. She had no primary, and while other Republican elected officials have been the subject of intraparty ire, Ms. Miller mostly has been one of the few unifying forces in the party.

2016 will be very different from what the 10th U.S. House District saw in 2002 when Ms. Miller won easily. In 2010, as the most vicious election I have covered played out in the Michigan Senate district for northern Macomb County, I dubbed it in a headline as the “Macomb Chainsaw Massacre” in a nod to the famous horror movie.

There is a real possibility that the upcoming Republican primary could be the sequel.

At this early stage, we can only judge the potential strength of possible candidates on paper. And right now, three stand out on the Republican side, and I’m putting them in alphabetical order: Sen. Jack Brandenburg of Harrison Township, Rep. Andrea LaFontaine of Columbus and Sen. Phil Pavlov of St. Clair.

All three are known as hard-workers on the campaign trail. All three have run and won multiple tough campaigns. All three have won tough races against strong Democratic candidates. Mr. Brandenburg and Mr. Pavlov also have won tough Republican primaries.

And this race is going to cost a pile of money to win. That’s where Mr. Brandenburg and Mr. Pavlov have an edge on Ms. LaFontaine.

Mr. Brandenburg and Mr. Pavlov are both strong fundraisers. Mr. Brandenburg also has some wealth he could use to seed the campaign as he has done with previous bids for office. And the wealth in the community is in Mr. Brandenburg’s part of the district. Ms. LaFontaine has never raised a ton of money in her runs for office, nor for her relatively new political action committee.

All three are conservatives. However, they have split on some high-profile issues. Ms. LaFontaine supported putting the proposed sales tax increase on the ballot to raise money for roads while Mr. Brandenburg and Mr. Pavlov voted no. Ms. LaFontaine voted for the Medicaid expansion and reform legislation while Mr. Brandenburg and Mr. Pavlov voted no. Ms. LaFontaine supported the Grand Bargain to help pull Detroit out of bankruptcy. Again, Mr. Brandenburg and Mr. Pavlov voted no.

Geography looms as a significant factor. According to one analysis, 44 percent of the Republican primary vote in the 10th U.S. House District comes out of the turf Mr. Pavlov represents in the Senate. About 38 percent comes from Mr. Brandenburg’s territory. Just 11 percent comes from Ms. LaFontaine’s area.

Helping Mr. Pavlov, what if a bunch of Macomb candidates join the race, like former Rep. Pete Lund, current Rep. Peter Lucido, Rep. Ken Goike, Sen. Tory Rocca and others? That would split up the Macomb vote.

At the same time, if Ms. LaFontaine is the lone woman in the field, that could help her cause.

There are all kinds of X-factors here. Mr. Lucido is brand new to elected politics, but if he jumped into the race, he showed last year he was willing to dip heavily into his own wallet to fund his campaigns to the tune of $186,000. That would make him a player.

Mr. Lund is popular in his district and has a pile of connections in the Macomb County Republican Party, but could have trouble raising money, being out of office.

If the field gets crowded with conservatives, does someone like Mr. Rocca jump into the race and look to take advantage?

Does the Club for Growth get involved, and if it picks a candidate to back, does that help clear the primary field?

And then there is hardest to project variable, Rep. Todd Courser. Unless national tea party groups got involved, money would be a serious problem for him. But Lapeer County, which he represents, counts for 16 percent of the Republican primary vote in the 10th. He could run to the right of everyone else in the field and campaign as the outsider.

Should Mr. Courser run and become a threat to win, that brings into play the most important X-factor, or perhaps the M-factor: Ms. Miller. Retiring Republican members of the U.S. House have proven instrumental in the election of their successors. Former U.S. Rep. Dave Camp was vital in the victory of now-U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Midland). And former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers went all-in to ensure now-U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) succeeded him.

In her statement, Ms. Miller said she was content to let the field play out.

But if Mr. Courser, whose labeling of Ms. Miller as one of several “undocumented Democrats” interloping in the Michigan Republican Party was the point when establishment Republicans went from annoyance to fury with him, becomes a threat to win, it is hard to imagine Ms. Miller would stand idly by.

Ms. Miller’s history of her endorsees winning high office is, to be kind, not good. But past support for unsuccessful candidates like Rudy Giuliani and Rick Perry for president and Pete Hoekstra for governor is irrelevant here. Ms. Miller’s popularity in the 10th is as strong as it gets in today’s politics. Her decision to endorse a candidate would be momentous.

Back to top

Senate Office Controversy Latest In Long Line Of Building Fights

Posted: February, 24 2015 4:46 PM

One of the certainties in government and politics is that when a branch of the government pays for the construction of a new building, renovation of an existing building or leasing of new space, it will be exploited, sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly, for political gain.

And that is the current situation with the Senate’s plan to move its member offices out of the state-owned Farnum Building, which has seen better days and where its members have kept offices since the 1970s, for the relatively new, privately owned Capitol View building a block away.

The move was the idea of former Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, a Monroe Republican, who left the Senate at the start of this year because of term limits. The cost of renovating the Farnum far exceeded the cost of leasing new space at the Capitol View, he contended.

The bipartisan pile-on is now well underway. Conservatives are highlighting the move and associated cost of leasing the new space as a sign of how unnecessary it is to pass Proposal 15-1 and raise the sales tax for roads. Democrats see a political opportunity, given the Republican control of state government, and are questioning the wisdom of spending the money on the new office space when the state just had to make some spending cuts to close a $330 million current year deficit.

This all brings to mind a similar brouhaha that erupted when the House moved its member offices into what is now the Anderson House Office Building, essentially a newly constructed building with a Capitol view window for all 110 members.

Prior to the HOB’s opening in 1999, House member offices were scattered between the old Roosevelt Building (now a parking garage), where most Democratic members were located, and the Romney Building, where most Republican members were located. Senior members in those pre-term limits days had offices in the Capitol.

The Roosevelt Building’s condition was so bad that when it was finally reduced a pile of rubble, most of the members and staff who worked there would have said it represented an improvement in its utility. Clearing the Republicans out of the Romney opened up more space for the governor’s administrative staff, which now fills the building.

And no one really pitched a fit over the move itself or the newness of the HOB. But what started a political firestorm was the revelation the state would appropriate $10 million to furnish the building.

Some questioned the cost. Others questioned whether the furnishing of the building was properly put up for bid. Republicans, who had just taken control of the House earlier that year, went to great lengths to note the decision to build the new building came during Democratic control of the House.

Then, as now, the criticism was bipartisan. Similar outrage was voiced when, in the late 1990s, the state decided to build the Hall of Justice to house the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

It all serves as a reminder that there are two price tags anytime the government gets into the building business: the price for the actual building and, sometimes more onerous, the political price.

Back to top

State Releases Draft Wording For Roads Ballot Proposal

Posted: February, 20 2015 6:03 PM

The Bureau of Elections released today its draft wording for Proposal 15-1, the proposal on the May 5 ballot to raise the sales tax for roads.

The first portion of the wording emphasizes the sales tax’s maximum rate would go from 6 to 7 percent, that the sales tax on fuel would be eliminated and that a portion of the use tax would go to the School Aid Fund.

The second portion of the wording, set off in bullets, repeats the sales tax changes, but then also goes into further detail about how the School Aid Fund could be used for public community colleges and career/technical education, but not higher education. It also says passage would trigger laws that include an “increase in the motor fuel tax on gasoline/diesel fuel and vehicle registration fees, and dedicate revenue for roads and other transportation programs.”

The language also mentions the proposal would require competitive bidding and warranties for road projects and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The Board of State Canvassers will meet Thursday to finalize the language.

The draft language reads as follows:

A PROPOSAL TO AMEND THE STATE CONSTITUTION TO INCREASE THE MAXIMUM SALES TAX RATE FROM 6% TO 7%, ELIMINATE SALES AND USE TAXES ON GASOLINE AND DIESEL FUEL, DEDICATE A PORTION OF USE TAX REVENUE TO THE SCHOOL AID FUND, REVISE PERMISSIBLE USES OF THE SCHOOL AID FUND AND TRIGGER OTHER LAWS THAT INCLUDE DEDICATING REVENUE FOR ROADS AND OTHER TRANSPORTATION PURPOSES.

The proposed constitutional amendment would:

  • Set maximum sales tax rate at 7% (now 6%).
  • Exempt gasoline / diesel fuel from sales and use taxes.
  • Dedicate portion of use tax to School Aid Fund (SAF).
  • Allow use of SAF for public community colleges and career / technical education and prohibit use for higher education.
  • Trigger laws that include but not limited to:
  • Increase sales / use tax rates to 7%;
  • Increase motor fuel tax on gasoline / diesel fuel and vehicle registration fees, and dedicate revenue for roads and other transportation purposes;
  • Require competitive bidding and warranties for road projects; and
  • Increase earned income tax credit.

Should this proposal be adopted?

Back to top

The Dynamics Change In Grand Rapids On Abortion

Posted: February, 5 2015 3:05 PM

One of the most certain aspects Michigan politics has officially dissolved: Candidates no longer need to staunchly oppose abortion to win election to partisan office in Grand Rapids.

It wasn’t a single moment that reversed the city’s abortion politics, but the moment when the transformation became complete came today when Rep. Brandon Dillon (D-Grand Rapids) wrote a column for Mlive in which he declared he now supports the right to a legal abortion after years of opposing abortion, even securing Right to Life of Michigan’s endorsement in 2010 when he first ran for the House.

This is an enormous change in the past 20 years. Two decades ago, both of the city’s members of the state House were solidly anti-abortion. Then-Rep. Tom Mathieu, a Democrat, might have been more stridently opposed to abortion than any other member of the Legislature. And little changed after term limits pushed Mr. Mathieu out of after 1998.

A succession of Democrats and Republicans representing the city held the same view – Steve Pestka, Bill Byl, Michael Sak, Jerry Kooiman, Robert Dean, Roy Schmidt and Brandon Dillon.

But something changed starting in 2012. First, Mr. Pestka, a Democrat running for the area’s U.S. House seat that year, declared he now supported the right to a legal abortion. And then Winnie Brinks, who supports abortion rights, toppled Mr. Schmidt, though to be clear, abortion had nothing to do with the outcome of that race with Mr. Schmidt’s career shattered by scandal.

Still, Ms. Brinks survived a ferocious challenge in 2014 against a Republican who had the Right to Life of Michigan endorsement.

Now Mr. Dillon says his thinking has changed on the issue, meaning both of the city’s representatives in the House support abortion rights.

This would have been unthinkable not that many years ago.

It is a product of a couple factors. One, the Democratic Party’s anti-abortion wing has withered and the city of Grand Rapids has become more Democratic. In the 1990s, Mr. Mathieu was one of several anti-abortion Democrats, whose ranks included top party leaders like then-Attorney General Frank Kelley, then-House Speaker Curtis Hertel Sr. and then-House Majority Floor Leader Pat Gagliardi (editor's note: this story corrected to indicate the former speaker was Hertel Sr., not Jr.)

Similar dynamics have shown up in the House seats in Warren and Downriver. Anti-abortion Democrats used to win those seats regularly. Not so anymore.

Two, when it comes to winning competitive general elections, as Ms. Brinks’ seat is, a candidate’s position on abortion no longer matters as much as it once did. Consider the 91st House District in suburban Muskegon as a good parallel.

At one time, it was understood in this seat, the most competitive in the state, that a candidate had to oppose abortion and have the Right to Life endorsement to win. As a result, Democrats ran anti-abortion candidates. Then in 2006, Mary Valentine, a supporter of abortion rights, won. She won re-election in 2008. Then Collene Lamonte, another Democrat who supports abortion rights, won the seat in 2012. Rep. Holly Hughes, a Republican who opposes abortion, won the seat in 2010 and 2014.

That Mr. Dillon’s 75th District seat in Grand Rapids would eventually be held by an abortion rights supporting Democrat was probably inevitable. The surprise was that it was Mr. Dillon who made the change.

Back to top

Pondering Mitchell’s Roads Gambit

Posted: February, 3 2015 12:14 PM

Wealthy Republican business executive Paul Mitchell’s decision to lead and help fund an effort to defeat the May 5 ballot proposal to increase the sales tax as part of raising $1.2 billion for roads and smaller amounts for schools, local government services and tax relief for the working poor has all the hallmarks of a prelude.

But to what, exactly? Well, let’s indulge ourselves in some speculation. First, here is what we know.

Initially, Mr. Mitchell planned to run for the state Senate in 2014, but declined to do so, citing family considerations. A year later, when his area’s U.S. House seat unexpectedly had an opening due to U.S. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Midland) retiring, the family considerations had been resolved, and he jumped into that race.

Mr. Mitchell put $5 million of his own wealth into that unsuccessful bid. He came out of nowhere to become a serious contender for the Republican nomination thanks to spending a fortune on television advertisements, but ultimately lost decisively to then-Sen. and now U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Midland), who had key endorsements, more experience on the stump and years of relationships in the area’s Republican Party.

Clearly, though, Mr. Mitchell is not giving up on politics. He got involved in a conservative coalition after losing the primary, becoming the chair of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, and now he’s made a splashy move to position himself as the leading voice of the opposition to the sales tax hike and the road funding plan.

Mr. Mitchell said Monday he plans to travel the state and meet with groups to discuss the need to vote no on the roads ballot proposal.

When I asked Mr. Mitchell Monday about the ballot committee perhaps positioning him to run for office down the road, Mr. Mitchell denied it, so let’s get his denial out of the way.

But this all seems like a play by Mr. Mitchell to position himself for a run for statewide office in 2018, perhaps either governor or U.S. Senate.

If voters reject the roads proposal, Mr. Mitchell can claim to conservatives to be the hero who put money into the effort when it was questionable who would step up on that front. He will have had the chance to test-drive a statewide campaign.

A gubernatorial bid would be especially intriguing because it almost certainly would pit Mr. Mitchell against Attorney General Bill Schuette and perhaps other GOP luminaries for the Republican nomination. Mr. Schuette, along with Mr. Camp, was absolutely essential in turning around the U.S. House race for Mr. Moolenaar and sinking Mr. Mitchell. Mr. Schuette has not said anything about running for governor, but everyone connected to politics in Michigan assumes he will.

Mr. Mitchell’s attacks on Mr. Moolenaar made him a bunch of enemies in the Michigan Republican Party’s political class, and that’s where maybe a U.S. Senate bid could come into play. Finding a viable Republican willing to challenge U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) is going to be a major chore, and Mr. Mitchell could probably win back a bunch of goodwill if he volunteered for the task and spared the party what would surely be a vicious primary involving him, Mr. Schuette and maybe others.

Or maybe Mr. Mitchell really does plan to recede from the political spotlight once the May 5 ballot proposal concludes and has no interest in running for office again.

However, from everything we have seen from Mr. Mitchell in the past two years, which seems highly unlikely.

Back to top

Yes Campaign For Roads Is A Mess

Posted: January, 30 2015 1:19 PM

The effort to convince voters to pass a sales tax increase as part of a plan to raise $1.2 billion for roads as well as smaller amounts for public schools, local government services and low-income tax relief is not doomed, but it is hard to imagine how it could be off to a worse start.

To quickly recap, the last 48 hours has seen the Yes campaign team quit in a dispute with Governor Rick Snyder’s chief liaison on the issue about which firms should perform which work and a political missile study asserting that the changes to vehicle registrations as part of the plan would scuttle the ability for motorists to deduct their registration fees from their federal income taxes.

There also was a poll with ominous numbers for the Yes side, but I’m going to put that in third place in importance, mainly because I question just how many of those surveyed who say they are very certain to vote in an unprecedented May special statewide election actually will do so. The poll surveyed likely presidential election year voters, and of the 600 surveyed, 77 percent said they were very certain to vote May 5.

That would put turnout at 50 percent, and that would far exceed turnout in nine of the last 10 regular November midterm elections, something that seems very unlikely. The closest precedent to the upcoming May 5 vote is the March 15, 1994, special statewide election to decide Proposal A and that saw 39 percent turnout. Let’s see how the polls look in March, once efforts to contact and educate voters have had time to percolate.

Mr. Snyder can try to minimize all he wants the significance of a complete change in campaign staff – and I can understand why he did just that Thursday when he called it a start-up, not a shake-up. But in a four and a half month campaign, the Yes side just started over one-third of the way into it.

The disjointed response from the Yes side to the study from the Anderson Economic Group charging the roads plan would cost those who itemize their deductions on their federal income taxes the ability to deduct their vehicle registration fee serves as the clearest example of the Yes side’s woes.

The Anderson Economic Group unveiled the findings in a way to maximize impact, releasing them exclusively in the morning on WJR-AM. Web stories quickly followed from news outlets, including this one.

But there was anything from a unified response from supporters of the plan:

  • The sponsor of the vehicle registration bill, Rep. Mike McCready (R-Bloomfield Hills), concurred with the Anderson study and said he was well aware of the repercussions regarding the tax deduction;
  • The Michigan Department of Treasury said the bill would not eliminate the tax deduction;
  • Mr. Snyder said staff is researching the issue.

The timing of the story could not have been worse. It hit just as the campaign staff was pulling out, so it left no one in the campaign itself to coordinate communications and quickly respond. Instead, it was six to eight hours after the original WJR broadcast before Treasury made public its dissent about the Anderson report.

None of this is to say Proposal 1 has no shot at success. But it always has been a long-shot, even with a perfectly executed campaign.

And so far, this is anything but a perfectly executed campaign.

Back to top