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by Ben Solis, Staff Writer

For This Reporter, The COVID Vaccine Is A Shot Of Hope

Posted: April 1, 2021 7:00 PM

After a year of near monastic living, this reporter is one step closer to reembarking into the outside world, and it is all thanks to the modern medical wonder of the coronavirus vaccine.

On Tuesday, I received my first dose of the Michigan-made Pfizer shot. By month's end, I will be fully vaccinated. As an early April baby, receiving the green light on a vaccine appointment was the best birthday present to date in my soon to be 33 years.

I was at once elated, nervous, proud and thankful; traveling by car to a Manistee Rite Aid from my home in Muskegon at top speed, my toothy grin a mile wide, filled with the joy of knowing that – at long last – I would have a real and clinically tested pharmacological backstop against the virus and its associated disease.

In the early days of the pandemic, I was not so sure that this day would come, and certainly not within the span of a year.

My experience with the virus has been harrowing from the start. Within weeks of Governor Gretchen Whitmer announcing the first few cases discovered in Michigan, my mother was diagnosed with a severe case of COVID-19. Hospitalization and oxygen therapy followed. She fought valiantly and survived, but she hasn't been the same since. Her heart and lungs are a mess. One day she's as spry as she was when she was raising us. Most days she doesn't have the energy to leave her bed.

My mother contracted her second case of COVID-19 days before Christmas Eve 2020. This time, my father and brother fell ill, as well.

When I was younger than 10 years old, I suffered my first stroke. I was diagnosed with asthma about the same time. Fast forward to my 20s, when I was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. A few years later, I suffered a second stroke. I am slated to be a lifelong blood thinner patient. Every heart palpitation is a red flag. Every bout of vertigo a warning sign to try and take it easy for a few minutes.

In more ways than one, I was a prime candidate for a severe COVID-19 infection, beset on all sides by clearly defined comorbidities and underlying health issues.

For many, leaving their homes to do basic tasks or to find some source of entertainment during the pandemic was a choice characterized by carefully calculated risk. I never had that choice due to my health issues, and I can assure you, aside from one very social distanced camping trip with my wife, I haven't left my home do a damn thing beside work.

No eating out at our favorite restaurants. Groceries were delivered weekly at the door. Mask wearing was a must while working in the yard. I had few visits with friends or neighbors and adherence to federal guidelines was done with monolithic zeal.

For someone like me, the vaccine offers nothing else but hope. Hope that if I do contract COVID-19, it won't end with me attached to a ventilator. Hope that I won't have a virus-associated third stroke or first heart attack – either of which could undoubtedly be my last.

People around this state talk about pining for a sense of normalcy and for various reasons. No one has wanted that more than myself, and I'd argue that no one needs that more as human interaction for me carried the potential for death.

Choosing to vaccinate yourself is at its core a sacred act. I'm not here to tell anyone what to do with their own bodies. But you should at least consider it. Think about yourself or your loved ones. If that's not convincing enough, I hope you think of fellow Michiganders who have endured some of the worst physiological and psychological fallout from the pandemic – people like family and people like me.

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Looking Back On Michigan's Place In DC Comics Movie Lore

Posted: March 18, 2021 2:38 PM

In the annals of DC Comics lore, US. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in Lansing and portions of Detroit hold a special place in the company's extended movie universe.

In 2016, Ms. Stabenow and the backdrops of Lansing and Detroit appeared in the film Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, with the museum acting as the villainous Lex Luthor's estate, Detroit filling in as parts of the fictional sprawling Gotham City and Metropolis, and Ms. Stabenow acting as the governor of Delaware, the state in which Metropolis resides.

Recalling these moments when Michigan's leaders and its landmarks shined in a blockbuster comic movie property is particularly timely today for those among us in the Lansing press corps obsessed with comic books and comic book movies.

At long last, the highly anticipated director's cut of Zack Snyder's "Justice League" was released Thursday on streaming app HBO Max. The four-hour spectacle is the official version of the controversial and critically derided superhero team-up adaptation originally released in 2017.

The circumstances surrounding the rerelease and its predecessor, directed by Marvel Studios' "The Avengers" scribe Joss Whedon, need not be relitigated, but for many of us who deeply enjoyed Mr. Snyder's take on Superman in "Man of Steel" and the greater universe in "Batman v. Superman," March 18 will stand as a new sort of spiritual and cultural holiday akin to Christmas and Thanksgiving combined.

That said, it's important to honor the fact that Michigan played a huge part in establishing the look and feel of Mr. Snyder's Gotham City and Metropolis.

From a filmmaking standpoint, a portion of the production was based in the now defunct Michigan Motion Picture Studios in Pontiac, which also was a home base for production on the Transformers films, among others.

In the actual world of the film, Detroit is a major highlight, as outlined in a lengthy breakdown of filming locations published on movie-locations.com.

Of note are scenes in the grand opening battle between Kal-El and Krypton's General Zod, which occurred in "Man of Steel" but played out in the first act of Batman v. Superman. Ben Affleck's Bruce Wayne/Batman witnesses the destruction of Metropolis from his home city, which carries over across the bay to Gotham City, fictionally based in New Jersey.

As Mr. Wayne barrels through Gotham, avoiding falling debris from destroyed buildings, he does so in the streets of downtown Detroit. As the website notes, that shot starts with his Jeep emerging from the Cobo (now Huntington) Center, turns on West Larned Street, then left on John Conyers Jr. Boulevard to narrowly dodge a fireball in front of the Detroit Fire Department headquarters.

After a series of winding shots running past the Comerica Bank Building and other downtown landmarks, Mr. Wayne emerges in Corktown to a heap of rubble running up and down Sixth Street, where his now-dilapidated Wayne Financial building lays in waste.

Later in the film, the old Wayne County Building on Randolph Street acts as a fictional U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C., in which Holly Hunter's Sen. June Finch holds hearings to investigate Superman's unilateral actions.

The Ransom Gillis House in Detroit's Brush Park serves as a house for one of the movie's side characters in Gotham, while intrepid reporter Lois Lane's apartment in Metropolis is located in the Wright-Kay Building on Woodward Avenue.

The Masonic Temple serves not only as the location of an info-gathering expedition for Mr. Wayne, but also as the location of a hotel used as a base of operations by Gal Gadot's Diana Prince/Wonder Woman.

In a scene in which Mr. Wayne and Ms. Prince interact for the first time at a gala affair, that was shot using the interior of the main branch of the Detroit Public Library.

One of the less engaging action set pieces involving a chase with Affleck's tank-like Batmobile takes place outside the Russell Industrial Center on Clay Street. A more engaging action piece is the much-hyped fight between Batman and Superman, which unfolds outside and within the historic Michigan Central Station.

The list of Detroit locations goes on and on, but other Michigan cities and townships get nods in the movie, as well. That includes Wayne's lakeside home that was built on the old Camp Metamora property in Metamora Township and the Wayne family crypt located in Orion Charter Township's Orion Oaks County Park.

Turning to Lansing, Mr. Luthor's grand estate is none other than the Broad Art Museum, on the campus of Michigan State University.

It is there that Governor Debbie Stabenow (assuming D-Delaware), watches on as a blathering Mr. Luthor attempts to give a speech at a fundraiser and is later introduced to Ms. Stabenow as the governor.

There is some debate in our community, however, over whether Ms. Stabenow actually plays the governor Delaware or New Jersey, but it is this comic nerd's humble opinion that she serves on the Metropolis side of the bay as Mr. Luthor's home is located there and not Gotham City.

An epic battle for another day, it seems.

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Military Act Changes Mulled For Volunteer Forces Absent Emergency Declaration

Posted: March 11, 2021 1:30 PM

The chair of a House committee on Wednesday appeared open to the possibility of changes to the Michigan Military Act that would allow the state's Volunteer Defense Force to be considered agents of the state when there is not an active disaster declared by executive or legislative branches.

The idea was floated during Wednesday's meeting of the House Military, Veterans and Homeland Security Committee, which heard presentations on the history and status of the Michigan Civil Air Patrol and the Volunteer Defense Force.

The volunteer force allows those who have aged out of service in organized federal military or state guard units an opportunity to still serve and reengage in a meaningful way.

That includes a little under 200 active civil defense force service members with up to 33 percent having prior service in a branch of the federal military. The cadre force exists during peace time and is equipped and ready to go if some sort of attack or disaster should occur.

However, force leader Lt. Col. Michael Ewing said there were some changes to the law that could be made to take the force into the 21st Century. One example came from the force's activities as search and rescue units during disasters in smaller communities.

"We learned something very interesting. Once we started doing that, these small communities, these rural communities started calling us for help because north of Bay City and some other parts of Michigan, they don't have search and rescue personnel on the ground," Mr. Ewing said. "They don't have people that can act in disaster relief capacities. So, we … started getting phone calls and we've done searches in Davison, Bridgeport and Crawford County, Traverse City, some other northern counties and we've had them in the south too. But I guess the point that I'm trying to drive home, in a way, is that if something that doesn't rise to the level of a state declaration of an emergency doesn't mean that it's not an emergency in a small town."

That said, the force is undergoing talk with the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to explore a second type of deployment option when there isn't a declared emergency, which Mr. Ewing called "an express lane" that smaller communities can use to ask for assistance.

Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain), chair of the committee, appeared interested and asked what the force would need from the Legislature to make it happen, specifically as it pertains to amending existing or creating new state statute.

Mr. Ewing said it depends on how you interpret the Michigan Military Act.

"I could read it that we don't need that, but it's a little ambiguous," he said. "So, I think it would help if maybe the standard was clarified a little bit so there's no ambiguity."

Mr. LaFave responded by saying that if the force contacts his office, he could muster support within the committee to make that happen.

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U.S. Senator Dons Tigers Cap During Infrastructure Hearing

Posted: February 25, 2021 1:58 PM

U.S. senators appeared to take the "Say Nice Things About Detroit" slogan seriously during a committee hearing held Wednesday as several – including the committee's chair – extolled their love for Tigers baseball, franchise great Al Kaline and the magic of Motown Records.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works met to discuss President Joe Biden's "Building Back Better" plan, to which Governor Gretchen Whitmer gave testimony via Zoom. The governor mostly focused on road and infrastructure planning and funding (See Gongwer Michigan Report, February 24, 2021).

Ms. Whitmer, who alongside other governors and various mayors around the nation gave testimony on infrastructure and climate change, was arguably the star of the show, appearing first on the bill and to great fanfare from not only Michigan's U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) but also the committee's chair, Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware.

However, it was Tigers baseball that got the most love following Ms. Stabenow's introduction of Ms. Whitmer, with Mr. Carper announcing unsolicited his deep fandom of Detroit's ballclub.

"I'm a huge Detroit Tigers fan and I have a baseball signed by Al Kaline," Mr. Carper said. "Mr. Tiger, who grew up and played sandlot baseball in where? Baltimore City. He won the American League batting championship at the age of 21, and he passed away last year. Great human being. And I have several of these… But anyway. I brought my Detroit Tigers hat … and I take my hat off for our panel today."

The ghost of Al Kaline is a tough act to follow, and Ms. Whitmer's first few words in her testimony were: "Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And go Tigers."

In her concluding remarks, the governor also brought up Detroit's place in music history while evoking Michigan as the birthplace of Motown Records. That led Mr. Carper to again go off the cuff to spread a little love for the house that Berry Gordy built, saying he was a big fan of music and wondered which of the classic Motown anthems would best fit as a soundtrack to their work on infrastructure.

"I don't know if it was the Temps (referring to The Temptations) or the Four Tops, but get your motor running, head out on the highway? Get ready, because here we come? One of those two would probably work," he said.

While Mr. Carper appeared to be a savant in terms of Kaline and Tigers trivia, his music trivia prowess failed him of sorts, as the reference was to "Born To Be Wild," written for and performed by Steppenwolf, which was far from a group in Motown's stable.

No worries, Mr. Carper. Detroit gives you a pass on this one on account of the swell cap.

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Slotkin, Meijer: First Amendment Key Factor In Domestic Terrorism Fight

Posted: February 18, 2021 2:10 PM

Freedom of speech and political association conflicts may be the biggest hurdle the federal government and in some cases state law enforcement might face as it seeks to clamp down on domestic terror, political violence and homegrown extremism, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) and U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids) said this week.

The pair appeared in a forum hosted by the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy. The discussion ranged between reminiscences of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, cooling tensions, bridging the divide between the major parties, and more (See Gongwer Michigan Report, February 16, 2021).

A portion of the discussion also focused on domestic terror and threats from emboldened white supremacist and anti-government groups, much like members of the Wolverine Watchmen, some of whom were arrested and charged last year with conspiracy to kidnap and potentially kill Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

When asked what the United States government can and should do, Ms. Slotkin and Mr. Meijer – both of whom have experience with the U.S. Armed Forces and counterintelligence in their years before seeking public office – pointed to the era of heavy-handed antiterrorism tactics seen following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which included various infringements on civil liberties that the nation is still grappling with today.

"It's important to learn some of the lessons from the 20 years of the 9/11 era and not repeat, frankly, some of the mistakes," Ms. Slotkin said. "Some of those mistakes involved overreacting, right? We had been attacked. We had had this symbolic event with loss of life. And so, frankly, in those early days after 9/11, we made some bad decisions. We opened up (the Guantanamo Bay prison complex), we allowed detention, rendition, torture. We launched the war in Iraq on false pretenses. I mean, we reacted because we were emotional because we'd been attacked, and Lord knows I got into national security because of that emotion. But we can't do the same thing with domestic terrorism, particularly because it's so sensitive because freedom of speech issues are wound up in it."

Mr. Meijer shared similar concerns, pointing not just to September 11, 2001, and the years that followed but abuses by the FBI under its infamous former director J. Edgar Hoover.

"I don't want us to in this immediate moment overreact and potentially cause more damage. And we've seen … it can be a very slippery slope on domestic terrorism. At what point does First Amendment, right to protest, right to engage in speech, where does that transgress and at what point does the FBI start to go in?" Mr. Meijer said. "Because even if we look before the 9/11 era, going back to the civil rights movement, there were long standing abuses of peaceful groups and in the FBI, especially under (Mr. Hoover), infiltrating and recording and blackmailing individuals who were engaged in peaceful protest and expressing their political beliefs that didn't cross into violence didn't reach that level. So, we need to strike that right balance or else I don't think we'll be ultimately putting the country into the direction it needs to go."

Ms. Slotkin added that countering extremism starts with education, not law enforcement action or raids.

"I'm really into mandatory Holocaust education across the country so people understand the symbols that we saw out on the lawn of the Capitol as I walked through that morning, and making sure that we are appropriately resourced for the threat," she said. "For Peter and I, if you were really an up and coming national security type in the 9/11 era, you focused on external terrorist groups. The resources, the support, the interest in domestic terrorism wasn't really the hot place to go in national security and so we've under resourced it. And that's at a time when the FBI will say that they have more open domestic terrorism cases than they do foreign."

Mr. Meijer agreed, adding that the landscape of fighting domestic threats is largely more advantageous than fighting external threats because national law enforcement has investigatory powers and action authority that it doesn't have overseas.

"I think we need to, and these are some of the conversations we've been having, be open to what might need to change. But my bigger question is, is this a question of staffing? Is it a question of resources? Is it a question of focus and attention or is it a question of permissions and having the statutory grounding to go after and ensure that those who are seeking to solve political violence don't find opportunities? That's something that's going to be coming out, I should hope, of the 9/11-style commission or the independent investigation that will have that more fuller accounting."

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National Poet Laureate Steals Show At Biden Inauguration

Posted: January 21, 2021 1:45 PM

One of the major takeaways from the national media coverage of President Joe Biden's inaugural address was how well it was received.

Mr. Biden's speech on Wednesday even moved some who reside opposite of the president on the political spectrum.

Fox News' Chris Wallace may have shocked some of his channel's more conservative audience when he said Mr. Biden's was among the best inaugural addresses he had heard, noting that he had witnessed several with attentive ears since John F. Kennedy's iconic address in 1961.

But it was Amanda Gorman, the nation's first youth poet laureate, who stole the show.

That is a feat in and of itself with the likes of Lady Gaga around, who also thoroughly nailed her part singing a forceful and dignified rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," (your move, Fergie).

From noon yesterday onward, I have seen more coverage about Ms. Gorman's five-minute poem than Mr. Biden – the top billed actor in this presidential affair – and his 22-minute oratory.

That's because Ms. Gorman was able to say more about the need for national healing in "The Hill We Climb," written exclusively for the event, than the president himself, evoking the riot perpetrated by pro-Trump insurrectionists and the trials and tribulations of the past four years.

Whereas Mr. Biden spoke to cooling the temperature of America's political rhetoric, Ms. Gorman's soft voice and hypnotic rhythm – evidenced by her own closed eyes while performing – helped to further disarm the crowd peppered with current and former political rivals.

Poetry readings at presidential inaugurations are seemingly rare. Only four presidents have had poets share their stage, including Mr. Kennedy, former presidents Bill Clinton (both addresses), Barack Obama (both addresses) and Mr. Biden this year.

That makes Ms. Gorman, 22, of Los Angeles, California, and her performance more special.

By all accounts, from NBC to the BBC, Ms. Gorman certainly rose to the occasion and could very well eclipse all presidential poetry performances before her. Again, a tough feat when being compared to literary giants like Robert Frost (Mr. Kennedy's poet) and Maya Angelou (who read "On The Pulse of Morning," for Mr. Clinton's first inauguration).

It was surprising to hear that Ms. Gorman, eloquent and lyrically nimble, struggled with a past speech impediment much like the sitting president up until her years at Harvard University.

Her personal poetic lineage is also something to behold. As noted by several, Ms. Gorman was given the title of the first National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017, a year after the honor was created by Urban Word NYC.

The organization provides youth programs and opportunities for inner city kids, teens and young adults to learn creative writing, poetry, spoken word, college preparation, literature and hip-hop verse.

As a former poet myself, I have seen first-hand the power of this organization having participated in the Brave New Voices International Poetry Festival with my high school slam poetry team in 2006.

And I can tell you, the selection process is rigorous and the talent pool vast. Those who make it to the Brave New Voices finals are the best of the best, and those chosen by Urban Word NYC to be the national face of youth poetry find themselves in a higher echelon.

It is notable, too, that each of the four National Youth Poet Laureates since 2017 have all been women of color with an eye toward political activism.

Including a young Black woman of such prowess and prestige as Ms. Gorman in a ceremony that also swore in Vice President Kamala Harris, the heralded first Black and South Asian woman to hold the office, was a good first at bat for Mr. Biden's fledgling presidency.

The performance reintroduced us to the magic of poetry in dire times and its ability to appeal, as President Abraham Lincoln said in his first inaugural address, to the better angels of our nature.

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Education Key To Convincing Health Care Workers To Take COVID Vax

Posted: January 7, 2021 4:07 PM

Education and the passage of time may be the keys to convincing some health care workers that two available coronavirus vaccines are safe.

That's what a health care official and an executive with an association representing the health care industry told me in the course of interviews on Wednesday for a story looking at early hiccups in the state's vaccination program (See Gongwer Michigan Report, January 6, 2021).

For the most part, local public health, the state and industry stakeholders have said that the rollout is going as well as expected despite a slow start due to several reasons.

But one unique challenge is convincing health care workers – the proverbial front line against the virus – that the vaccine is safe.

By all accounts, many in the industry, whether they be doctors, nurses or other vital staff, have embraced the vaccine. Still, some of their brethren have their doubts.

Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail said that is simply the reality facing the industry as there are many across the country, both in and outside the health care sector, who are wary of the vaccines' efficacy and safety.

"To think that health care workers are a microcosm of people that reflect a completely different mix of the population is a bit of falsehood," she said. "When you are talking about health care systems, you know, it is not all doctors who you think would know better, or that sort of thing. It is everybody from the doctors, the nurses, the respiratory techs, the housekeeping, the facilities, it is all of them. And so, I mean, yeah, there are people declining vaccine."

That appears to be changing with education and time with the vaccine, it seems. A national study cited by Ms. Vail showed that an initial 50 percent of the public said they would take the vaccine. The most recent studies show that number creeping up to 60 to 70 percent.

Aside from time with the vaccine, education on the vaccine's efficacy and its safety also appears to be helping, although Ms. Vail and others said that will be an ongoing effort.

"The fact of the matter is we have a low percent of people to get flu vaccine. We've been mired in this COVID thing for a year now and you think everybody would be like, 'just give me my vaccine so we can get this over with,'" Ms. Vail said. "But keep in mind, we have quite a contingent of people that are basically like 'this is really no big deal. It is nothing more than the flu.' And if you are a person that thinks that, then you are as likely to get a COVID vaccine as you are to get a flu vaccine. And we know what happens with flu vaccines."

While that is certainly their choice, Ms. Vail said that hospital staff and even those in local public health departments should take the necessary steps – in this case taking the vaccine – to stay healthy and available to care for the sick and fight community spread.

Ruthanne Sudderth, senior vice president for public affairs and communications with the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, said that hospitals have seen a strong willingness to receive the vaccine in ranges of 60 to 80 percent, in line with studies cited by Ms. Vail.

Where there is hesitance, Ms. Sudderth said, it mostly surrounds the quick pace of vaccine research and approval.

"We want people to understand that while the process was sped up, they did not skip safety steps and the vaccine is safe and effective," she said. "And, you know, that's the one thing that we really want everyone to understand and that we're going to continue to educate people on. That includes education about how the vaccine works, the mRNA vaccine, the different steps that were taken to assure safety and efficacy, the trials that it went through, all of those things are things we'll continue to educate people on to make sure that they're comfortable taking this vaccine."

Ms. Vail said reluctance is also being seen in communities of color, which have had a troubled history regarding vaccines and medical experimentation.

Ms. Sudderth said the same, noting that historical issues could make those communities wary of the vaccine, but she has not seen that yet in hospitals.

Aside from education to show that the vaccine is indeed safe, both of them said respecting those historical and cultural factors will be important, too.

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Will Whitmer Be 'So Excited' About 'Saved By The Bell' Reference?

Posted: December 3, 2020 12:45 PM

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has been called everything from a life saver to a dictator.

She's appeared as the subject of articles in magazines and high-profile publications, cable news interviews and she even garnered a "Saturday Night Live" homage by way of writer/cast member Cecily Strong.

Now, the "Saved By The Bell" reboot (spinoff? sequel?) has bestowed upon Ms. Whitmer a new title: "America's Hottest Governor," followed of course by the show's universally maligned Zack Morris, who has somehow gotten elected governor of California.

Some context: The reboot to the 1990s teen dramedy released this year showcases grown up versions of the cast dealing with the realities of economic, class and racial disparities in education after the governor of California mismanages the funding and closes lower-performing schools.

The governor's quick fix? Sending those students to California's top performing schools, returning the old cast and their children to Bayside High.

The seemingly witless aforementioned governor of California is none other than the fictional Zack Morris, played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar, the original show's main character and TV's epitomic caricature of yuppie West Coast surfer culture.

Here's the part where you may be wondering what the heck this all has to do with Ms. Whitmer.

In one episode, "Governor Morris" is complaining to his wife Kelly Kapowski-Morris (Tiffani Thiessen) about how AC Slater (Mario Lopez) jerked him around in the press, with a jab aimed at Zack's aging and bloated physique. Kelly's response is that he has nothing to worry about because he was voted second hottest governor behind Michigan's Whitmer.

I am not the first to notice this, that credit goes to a tweet from MLive's Dana Afana, but the whole bit is hilarious for a few reasons.

First, Mr. Gosselaar was not originally slated to appear and the mention of Zack's mismanagement as governor was simply to be implied. The fanbase freaked out, leading the showrunners to hire Mr. Gosselaar to reprise the role.

It's also funny, despite being an admittedly lowbrow reference (the governor was offended when Maxim many years ago included her on its "World's Hottest Politicians" list, and this reference has some uncomfortable echoes). But a reference to Ms. Whitmer on a show seared into the cultural zeitgeist seems fitting because it highlights how much Ms. Whitmer's star has risen since the pandemic began. Add her involvement with the campaign of President-elect Joe Biden and the plot to kidnap her or worse, and Michigan's governor seems to have become a part of national pop culture whether you agree with her policies or not.

I struggle to recall a time when Michigan's leaders were viewed as celebrities to this degree in the national media apparatus or the lexicon of greater pop culture. Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick comes to mind, but not to this degree

As for "Governor Morris," he'll just have to settle with second place, but that's something he's never really been able to do – further evidenced by the popular Funny of Die series "Zack Morris Is Trash," which in many ways kept the show relevant and prime for a reboot (spinoff? sequel? I still don't know what this is exactly).

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McCormack, Welch Discuss Priorities And Legacy For New Supreme Court

Posted: November 12, 2020 1:49 PM

Stronger data, enhanced problem-solving courts and improved access to justice are among the top priorities for the recently reelected Chief Justice Bridget McCormack and the newly elected Elizabeth Welch moving into the 2020-21 Michigan Supreme Court term.

The Democratic Party-nominated Ms. McCormack and Ms. Welch were the victors last week following the November 3 presidential election, which saw both candidates rout their Republican-nominated counterparts and three third-party nominees for two open seats on the high court.

While much has been said about the implications of their election – more women on the bench and the first Democratic Party majority for the Supreme Court in many years – the pair in interviews with Gongwer News Service prior to the election said that enacting fair justice was among their foremost priority.

Notwithstanding, both Ms. McCormack and Ms. Welch said they do have specific lower court goals in mind for the coming term and beyond.

The returning justice said building on the court's technological advances through the coronavirus pandemic was a must. The necessary disruption brought on by COVID-19, as Ms. McCormack has said time and again, represents an opportunity to further march a judiciary stubborn to change into the information age while also increasing transparency to the court's end users – the people of the state of Michigan.

"I will be eager to continue working on that sort of confluence of all of us having to do things completely differently at a time when we are all so focused on access to justice," Ms. McCormack said. "The court has this Justice For All Task Force that's almost 18 months into its work. I'm getting ready to meet with stakeholders and make recommendations for how we can close the civil justice gap in Michigan and, you know, it's, it's a tremendous opportunity to do that given all the change we're in the middle of. So, continuing to work on access to justice and transforming the courts as a result of this pandemic, especially in terms of how to use technology, are going to occupy a lot of my time."

Moreover, Ms. McCormack said addressing the juvenile justice gap, elder abuse and increasing resources to state problem-solving courts – systems designed to rehabilitate and help drug, mental health and military veteran offenders avoid jail time – were also in her sights.

For juvenile offenders, Ms. McCormack said the biggest issue is making sure youths and their families have access to excellent counsel.

"Not just competent counsel but excellent counsel, and then how to connect them and their families to the resources that are sometimes available but not obvious to judges and court staff and lawyers who work those dockets," she said. "There's all kinds of data to support that if you get families and kids the resources and support they need at the first interaction with the court system, it can change their trajectory tremendously. So, we should be figuring out how we can do that."

The proliferation of effective problem-solving courts have been a shining light for the state's judiciary and Ms. McCormack said continuing them was key. Support for these alternative court systems remains strong, Ms. McCormack said, having been embraced by criminal justice reform advocates and the GOP-led Legislature alike.

A big hurdle (a word that Ms. McCormack said she doesn't like to use), however, is that problem-solving courts are often expensive, not just in terms of dollars and cents but judge, attorney and court staff time. Their efficacy also poses its own kind of special problem, as the list of interested participants has grown larger than the systems can accommodate.

It will be no easy task, but Ms. McCormack said she has at least one creative idea on how to maintain problem-solving courts in perpetuity – hire retired judges to take up additional problem-solving dockets.

"There are a number of retired judges in the state who had problem-solving court dockets and found it to be the most rewarding part of what they did. One idea is figuring out how we could use those folks to run additional problem-solving court dockets," she said. "It wouldn't be free, but it might be a lot less expensive than your traditional, full-time judge and staff time."

Legacy was also top of mind for Ms. Welch, who said she wants to be remembered for fairness, her work ethic and commitment to obtaining the best possible result within the guidelines of existing law.

That said, the health of the lower court system is what intrigues Ms. Welch most of all, and her passion project as a justice would likely be to upgrade technology to increase data sharing.

"I think that's something we really need to push and I think the Supreme Court can lead on that effort," Ms. Welch said. "We have 83 counties with a non-centralized court system where each court operates independently off old computers and different software, and we need to sort of get that figured out. It's time we sort of elevate the technology to the level that other industries are using."

What she loves about increased data sharing among the courts, Ms. Welch said, is that is a tangible and achievable goal that would require courts to work more collaboratively.

"I don't think people realize how hard it is to get sentencing data from your local court, and everybody's used to data now they're used to being able to go online and just click a link to get the most transparent information that's out there for different entities and I just think the court should operate in the same way," she said.

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Michigan Ranked As Third Best State To Visit In The Fall

Posted: October 15, 2020 3:13 PM

With its vast array of forests and foliage, serene lakes and a surplus of adventurous outdoor activities, it is hardly a surprise to any self-respecting Michigander that our state would rank among the best places in the nation to visit during the fall season.

That's according to LawnStarter.com, which ranked 47 states in several categories to determine the best for a cozy and awe-inspiring autumn visit. The website left out the west coast states of Washington, Oregon and California due to the ongoing wildfires.

Overall, Michigan was No. 3 on their list, just behind New York in the top slot and Alaska taking second place. But of course, we know in our lake-blue heart of hearts that Michigan reigns supreme.

In individual categories, Michigan's fall entertainment received a solid No. 3 rank but barely fell into the Top 10 in terms of parks and forests at No. 9. Yard sizes in Michigan ranked at No. 12 while its natural hazards ranked at No. 11.

For those keeping score with our brethren and sistren in the Midwest, Ohio's overall rank was sixth place, Wisconsin was ranked seventh, Illinois ranked eighth and Minnesota took No. 16 overall. For any Hoosier expats reading at home, Indiana didn't fare as well coming in at 18th.

And while we routed Ohio in overall rank, Ohio beat us by a hair in terms of most pumpkin patches per state – we were at No. 3 while Ohio hailed at No. 2. I attribute that to our southern neighbor's affection for the color orange, but that could just be the Cleveland Browns fan in me talking (remember, I'm not originally from here).

One major affront, though, to Michigan was its trail ranking at 19th place. That means it also didn't appear on lists for most or fewest hiking trails. Fair enough, but I'd argue that you haven't really lived until you've hiked the trails that run through the Upper Peninsula's mighty Tahquamenon Falls State Park – among my favorite destinations in Michigan.

Michigan also failed to appear on the most and fewest scenic drives list, which again, I doubt the fine people at LawnStarter took the time to drive northbound on I-75 this fall, culminating in the crossing of the gloriously scenic Mackinac Bridge – a journey that should have been enough to take the whole pot.

Another notable curveball was Michigan's appearance, or lack thereof, on rank lists for highest and lowest hurricane risk. Puzzling to not have taken the top spot on the lowest risk ledger, as I've never heard of a hurricane landing on Michigan.

But The National Weather Service paints a clearer picture on this one. Although hurricanes by definition have never landed or formed on the Great Lakes, the remnants of hurricanes touching down in the south and northeast have indeed made their way to the Great Lakes region, so there's that.

Have I taken far greater offense to this list than pride? Probably, but only because my adopted home deserves, in my humble opinion, the highest of ranks when considering all it has to offer in the autumn season.

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A Reporter's Perspective On Seeking A COVID-19 Test – Twice

Posted: June 25, 2020 12:11 PM

Living under the cloud of the new coronavirus has been harrowing for most, deadly for some and disruptive to many more, but one thing is for certain – we have come a long way since those early days in March when the virus reared its ugly head in Michigan.

Most notable is the fact that diagnostic testing for the virus that causes COVID-19 has dramatically expanded in scale and scope. It's a sweep I've witnessed first-hand reporting on the Department of Health and Human Services as my primary beat for the last four months.

But my connection to diagnostic COVID-19 testing is more personal than professional. I have twice been concerned about being exposed to the virus, once by my mother, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 in March, and another when I visited an emergency room this month for non-COVID-19 health issues.

In the those early days of the pandemic, testing for the general public was hard to come by: supplies were limited, hospitals were selective and if you hadn't traveled or exhibited the worst possible symptoms, you simply weren't receiving a test.

That was the case in March, when weeks before Governor Gretchen Whitmer's statewide lockdown, I had been traveling back and forth from my home in Muskegon to Lansing and my parent's home in Canton Township. I was sure that I had been exposed by constantly visiting my folks. My wife and I both exhibited symptoms. But outside of an antigen test, we'll never know if we actually had it.

Fast forward to early June when a heart scare sent me reluctantly to the hospital. Despite seemingly robust hospital COVID-19 protocols – masks, gloves, plastic shields at the reception desk – my wife and I had a week later been stricken ill with similar respiratory symptoms.

This time, mass testing was much more accessible, and I was able to get a diagnostic test within a day of requesting one.

I tested negative, thankfully.

As I prepare to return to downtown Lansing after months of working from home and self-isolating from society for the good of it and my family, I continue to reflect on – politics aside – how much testing improved from March to June.

Much more needs to be done to ensure our overall safety, but for now, if I feel ill, I'll have a knowing comfort that was markedly absent when fear of the virus was at its peak in March.

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Anti-Trump Groups Trying To Court Wayward Conservatives

Posted: May 28, 2020 4:17 PM

If you're a current or former Republican who has left the party or is considering voting for Joe Biden in the fall, several conservative anti-President Donald Trump groups want you to know that you're not alone.

That was the message shared this week during a virtual teleconference hosted by The Lincoln Project, one notable and novel group hoping to convert and court wayward conservatives away from Mr. Trump in November.

The group met with supporters Tuesday over Zoom to discuss strategy and the road ahead, with a slight focus on Mr. Trump's impending battle to keep Michigan red. And while the group showed it was organizationally ready for the fight ahead, much of the meeting acted as a vent for frustrations and concerns, especially for the conversation's panelists (See Gongwer Michigan Report, May 26, 2020)

In many ways, the Tuesday call felt more like group therapy for the disaffected, and maybe that's part of the strategy. Project co-founder George Conway – a stalwart Trump contrarian and husband to the president's advisor, Kellyanne Conway – said the only way to defeat the president at the ballot box was to constantly remind his fellow conservatives of Mr. Trump's various missteps.

Jeff Timmer, the former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party and lifelong GOP strategist, has been castigating Mr. Trump for the better part of the last four years. Mr. Timmer clearly abhors Mr. Trump, but he is equally disappointed with his party for accepting what he called "buffoonery" on behalf of the Trump administration.

In many ways, Republicans like Mr. Timmer offer a visible challenge to Mr. Trump's prospects in places like Michigan, but how effective they will be on a national scale remains a mystery. By all accounts Mr. Trump is massively popular among voters who identify as Republicans and the Conways and Timmers of the world are isolated.

Beating Mr. Trump, as Mr. Conway and Mr. Timmer noted, will rely on constant reminders to the lapsed that they aren't alone in their misgivings about the president. It may also rely on more high-profile Republicans standing up to the president, an occurrence that has been few and far between over the last four years of the Trump presidency.

Mr. Timmer addressed that during the call. While most want to avoid "the daily shitshow," he said, they may feel trapped into cajoling the president to protect their election prospects. Mr. Timmer contended that it was an unfortunate situation for those who behind closed doors say they despise Mr. Trump but go on to defend and support him when politically convenient.

While Mr. Trump may act erratically and not know better, Mr. Timmer contends that the GOP does and was once better than what he said they've become in the age of Trump – another key part of the Lincoln Project's core message.

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Bernstein On Difficulties Of The Pandemic For People With Disabilities

Posted: May 15, 2020 3:15 PM

Several years ago, while visiting New York City, Justice Richard Bernstein was involved in a catastrophic accident. A bicyclist had hit him in Central Park and he was hospitalized in Mount Sinai for more than 10 weeks.

The physical pain, he said, was excruciating, but the constant interaction with doctors and nurses uplifted his spirit. Human connection, he'll tell you, is what helps Mr. Bernstein thrive and survive in a world without sight.

With that in mind, the Supreme Court justice told me this week that the accident in New York, one that saw him hospitalized for more than two months, was in some ways more tolerable than the strange new world invoked by the presence of the new coronavirus.

"Even though I was in horrible physical pain, there was life," Mr. Bernstein told me. "There were visitors and people. There was such wonderful commotion. People brought instruments and played music. That was easier than this because there were so many people in my room. This inability to have that connectivity with people is, for someone like myself, it's hard to describe the difficulties that come along with it."

Over the period of an hour, Mr. Bernstein and I discussed his transition to an all-virtual work environment and what that means for his experience as a blind professional navigating an unknown world.

But the bulk of the conversation hinged on his personal experience as a blind man dealing with the strain of isolation, a circumstance that runs counter the way he's lived his entire life thus far.

For him, the energy of a bustling subway station or a crowded restaurant fuels his spirit. A meaningful connection with someone, even if just for a few minutes, he said, is literally how he understands the entire universe.

Being deprived of interaction with people – which he said was one of the main things that keeps him happy and spiritually healthy – has been a uniquely painful experience. There's also the fact that many of the ways we've all been interacting with the outside word, everything from food delivery apps, telemedicine and Zoom calls to colleagues, family and friends, are by and large inaccessible to some people with physical disabilities.

Mr. Bernstein asked me to specifically highlight those difficulties in an upcoming feature story. He hoped that our conversation could influence Lansing lawmakers and business owners to better understand how hard this has been particularly on people with disabilities.

I was happy to oblige, because it's a story that can easily get lost in the constant flow of news surrounding the pandemic, and most of all, because people with disabilities deserve a voice in how the state responds to COVID-19.

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MI Courts Made Wide Leaps In Innovation During COVID-19 Pandemic

Posted: April 23, 2020 2:36 PM

Despite the inherent hardships the new coronavirus outbreak has imposed on residents and state government, the courts have risen to the challenge by making leaps in innovation that it otherwise may have rejected in a pre-COVID-19 world.

That's what Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack told me in an interview earlier today. We discussed how her court and the lower courts have been handling the crisis and what she means when she says that the COVID-19 crisis was the disruption the courts needed to embrace much-needed change.

"Lawyers and judges for lots of cultural reasons, some traditional reasons, for some fundamental values reasons are slow to change and innovate," Ms. McCormack said. "We're not necessarily known as being an agile industry, and as a result we've been able to resist a lot of innovation that's come for other industries."

The innovation in question is the judiciary's transition toward holding its proceedings online through videoconference tools like Zoom. In the case of the Supreme Court, Ms. McCormack and her colleagues have been holding oral arguments on the platform and livestreaming them on YouTube for all to see.

The Supreme Court plans to hold oral arguments via Zoom and broadcast to YouTube for the third time on May 6.

Ms. McCormack said the courts have had the technology to take its business into a virtual setting for some time, but those traditions and cultural barriers prevented them from making a court-wide jump into using them fulltime.

My upcoming piece in Thursday's Michigan Report goes into greater detail about the experience thus far and some of the challenges that have arisen in the process. Ms. McCormack also explains why the judiciary will continue the path of holding virtual court in some capacity once the pandemic crisis is over.

But overall, the switch to virtual proceedings has been a smooth transition, and the judiciary's ability to immediately change how it operates says a lot about how equipped the courts were to make that change in the first place.

In a tweet, the Supreme Court on Thursday highlighted the fact that through April 1 and April 17, Michigan's trial courts held more than 6,800 hearings remotely for a total of nearly 30,000 hours of proceedings.

Considering Ms. McCormack has long since been an advocate for criminal justice reform, it makes sense that she would be as open to if not a driving force behind the virtual solutions that have kept the courts open to the public through a harrowing and difficult set of circumstances.

It is commendable that access to this vital institution remains for the most part unimpeded by a public health crisis that has upended almost every facet of our daily lives.

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Detroit's Density, Lab Capacity A Likely Reason For High COVID-19 Cases

Posted: March 26, 2020 9:33 PM

Detroit continues to have a disproportionately high number of new and cumulative coronavirus cases, and Detroit's chief medical expert isn't entirely sure why.

Detroiters make up about 7 percent of the state's population. But they make up 31 percent of the confirmed COVID-19 cases.

A definitive answer remains elusive in part because the Detroit Health Department doesn't yet know whether the numbers are being driven by mass community spread or the glut of available testing labs in hospitals or private lab settings, said the department's chief epidemiologist, Dr. Carla Bezold.

"We've only begun to see cases over the last two weeks," Ms. Bezold said. "The increased availability of testing has allowed us to more broadly identify cases, and we will continue to work in the weeks ahead to better understand what the numbers mean."

However, an official with the Michigan Health and Hospital Association suggests that Detroit's dense population – about one-third of Wayne County – makes the city a natural hotspot for the spread of the COVID-19. An association spokesperson suggests that the robust hospital capacity in southeast Michigan and its various new COVID-19 testing labs are a reason the region is seeing a higher number of reported cases.

The city's COVID-19 case count is tallied separately from the rest of Wayne County because of its large and autonomous health department. As of 10 a.m. Monday, Detroit had 411 total cases, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (see separate story).

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said during an afternoon press conference that the number was closer to 414. Since the DHHS started chronicling COVID-19 deaths last week on its designated outbreak information website, the city has suffered six of the 15 COVID-19 deaths reported across the state.

In all, Wayne County has seen 688 COVID-19 cases and eight reported deaths. Additionally, other southeast Michigan counties have posted high confirmed COVID-19 case numbers, such as Oakland County and Macomb County at 329 and 175, respectively.

Testing is ramping up as hospital and private labs come online, and the state can now test 1,000 samples a day, said DHHS Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun during a Monday press conference.

That begs the question: is Detroit seeing more COVID-19 cases because there are more tests being completed in the city as opposed to other parts of the state? Or is the community spread of COVID-19 occurring there at a higher rate?

At present, hospitals also do not have any state-based epidemiological evidence pointing to why southeast Michigan is seeing higher numbers of COVID-19 cases, said Ruthanne Sudderth, senior vice president of public affairs and communications with the MHA.

However, as seen in other countries and localities across the globe, population density appears to contribute to faster community spread, Ms. Sudderth added.

"This is why staying home is so critical," she said, referencing Governor Gretchen Whitmer's Monday executive order to compel residents to stay home until April 13 (see separate story).

Additionally, Ms. Sudderth pointed to the region's large hospital capacity and its various COVID-19 labs. More testing capabilities mean more confirmed cases, she added.

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DHHS Rethinking Teen Anti-Marijuana Ad Campaign After Backlash

Posted: January 23, 2020 4:59 PM

An advertising campaign aimed at addressing health risks for youth who choose to use marijuana has been put on hold following backlash over what some marijuana industry folk called a misrepresentation of responsible marijuana users.

Now, the Department of Health and Human Services is retooling the campaign to not "stigmatize adults who are using marijuana," department spokesperson Lynn Sutfin told Gongwer News Service on Thursday.

DHHS started producing several short videos in December to "address a health risk that is well-documented among youth marijuana (users)," a department spokesperson said. About $300,000 in funding was allocated to the campaign from a Substance Abuse and Treatment Block Grant and approximately $100,000 was spent on focus groups, ad production and agency fees.

But the campaign, which depicted marijuana users as obese men trying to deter younger version of themselves from smoking grass, was met with backlash from the public and marijuana industry leaders.

Rick Thompson, the owner of the Michigan Cannabis Business Development Group, told the City Pulse that the ads used "inappropriate and well-disproven tropes about cannabis."

Subsequently, DHHS removed at least five ads from YouTube and social media, but not before they disabled the comments, the City Pulse reports.

The TV ad buy has been paused for the time being until the department can figure out "how to craft the most effective, research-based messaging possible for this campaign in support of our goal," a department spokesperson said.

Department officials have not made any decisions yet on where to take the campaign following the flop, but they are determining how money for a new campaign will be spent.

Meanwhile, the reaction to the ads seem to point to an increased awareness among Michigan residents about the real and perceived dangers of cannabis use.

Mr. Thompson told the City Pulse that he was encouraged by the backlash and called it an example of "the public rising up over an issue and the government responding."

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Cell Phone Allowance In Courts A Blessing For Reporters, The Public

Posted: January 16, 2020 4:56 PM

As I sat in U.S. District Court today for a hearing on the U.S. government's case against Rep. Larry Inman (R-Williamsburg), I realized how much I've relied on my cell phone while committing what an esteemed colleague of mine refers to as "acts of journalism."

Simple tasks like recording proceedings to snapping pictures or accessing the Internet are essential in many ways to accurately reporting events and meetings. In U.S. District Court, I was barred from using my cell phone entirely, and in some courts around the state, similar restrictions apply in varying degrees of strictness.

That's why the Supreme Court's mandate to allow the use of cell phones and other electronic devices in all Michigan courthouses is a blessing – not just for court reporters like me, but for the public as well.

New rules adopted by the high court last week state that cell phones and electronic devices will be allowed in all Michigan courthouses and courtrooms starting May 1, amending MCR 8.115 to set a new statewide policy standard. Policies on cell phones and devices previously varied widely from court to court.

Aside from allowing cell phones and devices, the new rules state members of the public can now use their devices to take photographs of court documents. Courts have had a reputation for charging exorbitant copying fees for records of $1, $1.50 and even $2 per page.

Cell phones and devices may be used to retrieve and store information, access the Internet and send and receive text messages only if the phone – and its user – remains silent. The rules also allow the public to reproduce court documents only if the device leaves no marks and does not interfere with the operation of the clerk's office.

Proceedings cannot be recorded without the permission of a judge, and the same goes for people in the courtroom, who cannot be photographed or recorded without their prior consent. I as a reporter would still need get special clearance from a judge to record court proceedings.

But the bit about taking photos is significant.

I once paid $92 for a court file because the complex nature of the case made notetaking with pen and paper a ridiculous waste of my time. It was a charge that I could have easily avoided if the court had just let me take photos of the documents I needed.

The newspaper I worked for was gracious enough to reimburse the cost, but it was a luxury that many working people who find themselves as plaintiffs or defendants before the court don't have.

Chief Justice Bridget McCormack said as much in a statement last week when the rule change was announced. Ms. McCormack recognized the significant financial barrier restrictions on cell phone photography, especially for those who choose to represent themselves in court.

Access to the courts is a fundamental right in a free and democratic society.

Even if some courts lose money or find themselves faced with a new nuisance of people using their phones during proceedings.

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As A Self-Professed News Geek, Political Reporting Is A Dream-Come-True

Posted: January 9, 2020 5:19 PM

My earliest childhood memories involve my brother and I huddled around a TV set with my doting parents taking in some sort of wonky documentary or the latest national and international news.

Political news has always been a fixture of my life, as it was incumbent upon my parents to raise children that were not only aware of the world around them, but aware of how the policies set forth by government and political leaders shaped our lives.

I owe a lot of my career as a journalist to my parents, the comic books I read where journalists were the heroes and to those early introductions to political processes.

If you didn't get a chance to read the article produced earlier this week, my name is Ben Solis and I'm a new staff writer at Gongwer News Service. I'll be covering the judiciary and the Supreme Court, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Insurance and Financial Services.

You'll also see me tackling stories about the Redistricting Commission and the 2020 presidential election.

For the last two years, my wife Emily and I lived in Muskegon, where I covered local government, elections, public safety, courts and breaking news with MLive.com. Before that, I interned at the Muskegon Chronicle, The Ann Arbor News and MLive's Detroit office.

In college, I worked in various roles – including editor in chief – at Central Michigan Life, the renowned student newspaper of Central Michigan University.

Music is my second love, and I prefer listening to it on physical mediums like records and cassette tapes. I could talk for hours about classic groups and newer fare, and likely will do so if I'm not on deadline.

I carry the curse of being born near Cleveland and I am irrationally loyal to northeast Ohio sports teams – a cruel existence to which I know many Lions, Pistons and Tigers fans can relate.

Don't worry, I hate Ohio State as much as you do, and the Spartans have always been my favorite college sports team. As soon as I'm settled, I plan to worship at the altar of Tom Izzo at the hallowed Breslin Student Events Center.

You can contact me at bsolis@gongwer.com and can follow me on Twitter @bensolis1. I love a good news tip and an even better cup of coffee, so please don't hesitate to reach out.

I come to Lansing grateful and humbled to work for Gongwer and for the opportunity to cover the state's core branches of government.

My new gig fulfills the longtime dream of a self-professed news geek who spends much of his time boring his wife and friends debating about public policy and elections.

I'm hoping that means I'll fit in here well.

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