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Her Glow A Bit Dimmer, Granholm Revamps Game Plan

Smart Growth governor thinking bigger, playing tougher

March 6, 2005 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Flanked at her February 8 State of the State address by two Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema (left) and House Speaker Craig DeRoche, Democratic Governor Granholm proposed ambitious investments to rebuild Michigan’s economy.

Say what you will about Jennifer M. Granholm, but clearly the Michigan’s Democratic governor knows how to inspire friends and worry opponents. That is just what she did last month when she theatrically delivered a State of the State address that called for an ambitious program of public borrowing and investment to put 100,000 people to work. She even included a Republican-sounding promise that the idea would not raise taxes.

In tone, style, and reach-for-the-stars urgency, the address felt a lot like her Nov. 1 appearance at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, where she stepped into the bright lights with Al Sharpton, Stevie Wonder, and Senator John Kerry for one of the last big campaign rallies of the 2004 presidential race. She looked radiant and comfortable standing before the thousands of cheering Detroiters — a sampling of her liberal southeast Michigan base, one of the strongest Democratic strongholds in the country. They were the same voters who had swept the governor to victory in 2002 and delivered the state for Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

On that night few elected leaders in America were on a roll quite like that of Michigan’s glamorous governor. Ms. Granholm’s speech turned the state’s stunning job losses — more than 300,000 gone since 2000 — into a problem for George Bush.

“To all Republicans, independents, and undecided voters, if you are sick of deficits as far as the eye can see, you need to vote for a change in direction,” she said that night, to cheers. “If you are tired of partisanship over patriotism, you need to vote for a change in direction. We’re on the cusp, on the brink, of enormous change in this country.”

A Surprise Shellacking
November 2 changed things, but hardly in the way that the governor hoped. She put Michigan in Mr. Kerry’s column, but it was clear Democrats lost ground. Mr. Kerry won seven less Michigan counties than Al Gore did in 2000, and ten less than Ms. Granholm did in 2002.

And while Governor Granholm helped her fellow Democrats gain five seats in the state House, Republicans still won a 58-52 state House majority. Now a young Oakland County ideologue, Craig DeRoche, the new House Speaker, routinely attacks the governor and supports accelerating the sprawl that she says sucks the life out of Detroit and its inner suburbs.

Other state election results were even more disappointing to her. A ballot initiative banning gay marriage, which Governor Granholm opposed, passed easily, even in Wayne County, her base. Another initiative that she opposed, allowing voters to restrict the number of casinos, also passed by huge margins, even though she and Republican Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson urged voters to defeat it. Both said that it would hurt the state lottery and the public school budget the lottery supports. But the African American community rejected Ms. Granholm's position by a 200,000-vote margin.

And Proposal E, allowing Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to appoint the city’s public school leaders, lost two-to-one. When the governor did not take a public position on it, Mayor Kilpatrick chided Ms. Granholm, telling a WJR radio interviewer in October that he was “upset” that “the governor was hiding on this issue.”

Added up, Michigan’s first-term governor took a shellacking from her base on state and local issues just one day after she seemed at the peak of her powers. Since then, things have hardly improved. Domestic auto sales continued to fall and jobs continued to leave the state. Unemployment now stands at a nation-topping 7 percent. And Detroit, according to a blisteringNew York Times article, is sinking beneath a tsunami of red ink and middleclass flight. Ms. Granholm’s approval rating fell to the mid-50s statewide, and to the mid-40s in Detroit.

So, when she delivered the State of the State Ms. Granholm was more buffeted by her own political mistakes than at any time in her six-year political career. The hanging rope that she had readied for George Bush was now being retied by state Republicans for her own neck.

Mistakes and New Toughness
Just how vulnerable is Ms. Granholm at the start of her third year as governor, the unofficial start of the re-election campaign? Mildred Gaddis, the respected political analyst and host of WCHB’s Inside Detroit program, said in an interview that Ms. Granholm’s positions on the school board vote and gambling did not please her African-American constituents.

“She took the wrong position on Proposal E,” said Ms. Gaddis. “That concerned the people of Detroit greatly. I was also shocked about her position on the gaming proposal.”

Ms. Gaddis added: “But I don’t believe the governor is in trouble in Detroit. People will go to the polls. When they see the alternative they will forgive her. The numbers will be there.”

But Steve Mitchell, president of Mitchell Research and Communications and the conservative pollster for The Detroit News, disagrees. He said the day after the election that “this governor has taken a very serious blow. If there were no candidates looking at Jennifer Granholm a month ago, they ought to look at her now because the whole landscape has changed."

Yet Governor Granholm has two years to repair the Nov. 2 damage, a long time in American politics.

Her State of the State address was a start. It focused on investments to produce jobs, an issue that voters in Detroit will certainly grasp. And her demand that Republican lawmakers “move with me” to act quickly on her jobs program came with unusually fierce emphasis. She is intent on not allowing Republicans to define her as weak, even if that means occasionally baring her fangs.

“I can deal with the acrimony,” Governor Granholm said in an interview. “I can dish it out if I need to. It’s just not my natural preference. My natural preference is to work in a bipartisan fashion and to see how much you can achieve despite the challenges. Don’t mistake niceness for weakness. There’s only so far you can go before you say enough is enough. When you get to the extremes there is, sometimes, just the need where you have to stand up. If you are going to be progressive, then you have to make progress. And that sometimes depends on breaking a few legs.”

Making and Keeping Promises
The governor represents something new and fresh in progressive politics. In an era of deficits, polemics, and a steady rightward electoral shift, Ms. Granholm embraces a classic Democratic view of government as a social good. But she also knows she must help Michigan businesses and citizens to find prosperity in a global economy that ships manufacturing jobs overseas, and do so while facing the name-calling — “liberal,” “tax and spend,” and now “lacking in moral values” — that conservatives use effectively against Democrats.

Governor Granholm has negotiated that treacherous terrain with uncanny skill. In 2002 she beat former three-term Republican Governor John Engler’s handpicked successor by nearly 128,000 votes, thanks largely to a 209,000-vote margin in Wayne County. She also did especially well in the Republican-dominated counties along Lake Michigan and in parts of northern Michigan.

As governor, she’s fulfilled various campaign promises. She defended Michigan’s land and water, increased economic activity around them, helped establish a new riverfront state park in Detroit, and brokered purchases of 6,000 acres of rare coastal dunes and forest in Benzie County and huge expanses of Upper Peninsula forests.

The governor has made the Department of Environmental Quality a newly vigilant organization. DEQ successfully prosecuted a brazen Traverse City developer determined to illegally fill wetlands, deftly negotiated with an energy company to keep drilling out of the revered Jordan Valley, and is working with the federal government to limit damage from drilling on public land near the Au Sable River. Her administration made the Pine and Upper Manistee the state’s newest natural rivers in 2003 — the first since 1988. And late last year her aides negotiated with the mining industry, U.P. residents, and the Republican-led Legislature to craft what is arguably the nation’s best environmentally based mining statute.

Acting on her promise to curb sprawl, Governor Granholm launched the bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, which issued 160 recommendations to slow sprawl, rebuild cities, improve transportation, protect farmland, and strengthen the state’s quality of life and economy. In response, the Legislature and the governor have enacted 27 bills and a host of executive orders.

Using the council’s recommendations, the governor is proving that a Democrat can invest taxpayer money efficiently. Her transportation policy, for instance, fixes Michigan’s cracked highways before building new ones; she halted 17 new highway construction projects, many in suburban Detroit, and put the $250 million saved into highway repair. Mindful of the environmental damage and sprawl it would cause, the administration also stepped into a 17-year-old battle and blocked a $55 million highway and bridge over the Boardman River south of Traverse City.

The governor boosted the state’s farm economy when she launched the successful “Select A Taste of Michigan” program, which some growers credit with pushing up their produce prices. And she spoke at a rally last summer in support of farmland conservation programs in five townships northeast of Traverse City. Acme Township voters approved the plan.

Governor Granholm also adopted a unique jobs strategy: Grow high-paying, high-tech jobs that young people covet by improving public education, helping more people earn college degrees, and making Michigan’s communities cleaner, greener, and more culturally alive. In January she proposed a revenue-neutral tax shift that, she says, would improve the state’s business climate.  Her State of the State address called for a $2 billion bond fund to promote research, product development, and jobs in renewable energy, manufacturing technology, and homeland security. 

Missteps Threaten Progress
But Ms. Granholm’s startling political missteps often confuse allies and aid opponents. Soon after taking office, for instance, she told an interviewer from the Detroit Regional Chamber that if a political leader is effective, citizens “for the most part could care less whether somebody is a Democrat or a Republican.” Wrong. Voters care, especially if they are Republicans.

Then came her glaring mistake while trying to forge a coalition to back her Water Legacy Act. A few months before she unveiled the act, she unexpectedly sided against a feisty citizens group that was trying to stop the kind of thing her proposal would control — wholesale water withdrawals. The governor supported the world’s largest food company, Nestle, in a David-and-Goliath legal struggle with the citizens, after they won a grueling 19-day trial that stopped the company from pumping millions of gallons of spring water. The governor helped persuade an appellate court to reverse that decision, enraging many environmentalists and possibly reducing support for her Water Legacy Act, which now languishes in the Legislature.

“It was a terrible decision made on her part without consideration,” said Lana Pollack, president of the Michigan Environmental Council and an important ally of the governor’s.

That fiasco, as well as sitting out the Detroit school board vote while allying herself with Oakland County’s Mr. Patterson on gambling, make her allies wonder openly just why and how the governor makes political decisions. Many blame her political staff and worry that continued mistakes will blunt the considerable momentum she’s achieved on Smart Growth, the hallmark of her administration. Indeed, in her first two years the state budget deficit and Ms. Granholm's ability to bridge Lansing’s widening political divide had convinced Republicans to join her in making decisions that encourage Michigan to use its home-grown intelligence, capital, universities, and natural resources to improve quality of life, train knowledge workers, and build a vibrant entrepreneurial economy. Her approach worked because it embraced the fiscal and political realities of the moment, drew energy from their urgency, and weaved them into a new conceptual framework for building the state’s prosperity. 

Tough Enough?
But are her goals too intellectual, too opaque for people to fully grasp? Until her “jobs first” State of the State, she ran that risk. Betsy DeVos, the Grand Rapids billionaire who until last month was the state Republican Party chairwoman, consistently scoffed at Governor Granholm’s vision, calling it incremental — all style over substance, she said — and unlikely to produce lasting results. Even some of the governor’s close allies weren’t sure that the individual pieces added up to a coherent whole.

“What is the thing that she is really identified with?” asks Bill Rustem, a Lansing political consultant who supports Governor Granholm. “For Governor Milliken it was the environment. For Engler it was changing how schools were financed. We don’t yet know what that one ‘thing’ is with Governor Granholm.”

For more than two years, Governor Granholm cultivated a calm political persona that avoided the unnecessary drama and preposterous name calling that today masquerades as political discourse. Ms. Granholm’s seemingly natural style was designed to promote confidence, collegiality, and assurance. She was determined that voters would never wonder whether a woman is capable of governing the nation’s eighth-largest state and never run up their phone bills complaining to friends about choices she made. Until Election Day 2004, it worked so well.

Now, in Michigan and in Washington, D.C., party leaders are closely studying the governor and her administration. Republicans privately deride her as trading on her “looks and sex appeal” to hide a lack of real fiber and a flimsy record, especially on job growth. They say her pleasantness is a poor substitute for the toughness and the willingness to make hard calls that are hallmarks of successful Republican candidates. Nevertheless, Republicans have yet to identify a candidate capable of beating her in 2006. Three logical nominees — Attorney General Mike Cox, Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, and Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema — have publicly said they would not run.

Democrats, on the other hand, remain wowed by Governor Granholm. They see her as a promising model for governing as a progressive leader in a conservative era. The New York Times calls her “one of the smartest and most engaging politicians in awhile” and anointed her one of seven “Democrats to keep an eye on.” The other six include John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean, and newly elected Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

But politics is a battle of both ideology and methodology. Good policy, stagecraft, and technique are all essential to winning a second term as Michigan’s governor. Nov. 2 displayed telling cracks in the foundation of Governor Granholm’s approach that Republicans are busy trying to widen. Governor Granholm’s mission until Election Day 2006 is to press her case, even as she makes the necessary repairs.

Keith Schneider is a founder and the deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. He is a two-time winner of the George Polk Award, one of the distinguished prizes in American journalism. This article is based on pieces that appeared in the February 2005 edition of Traverse Magazine and the February 16, 2005 edition of Detroit’s Metro Times.

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