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Pushing His Party Over a Precipice

Michigan governor suffers series of setbacks on environment

August 17, 2001 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Governor John Engler’s dominance of state government is far and away the singularly impressive Michigan political story of the last 11 years.

By any measure, Mr. Engler’s ability to maintain party discipline and get what he wants has been startling. He pushed through 31 separate tax cuts. His welform reform legislation took 234,000 people off the public dole. He’s controlled the judiciary through appointments and by getting his own judges elected to the state Supreme Court.

But all of a sudden, on the eve of what are expected to be very competitive 2002 races for governor, the Legislature, and Congress, Mr. Engler’s near-perfect political pitch is failing him. The issue that has hurt him most, moreover, is the one he has cared about the least: Safeguarding Michigan’s environment.

As the end of his third and final term nears, Mr. Engler is pressing harder than ever to transfer some of the state’s signature natural resources to private hands. On South Fox Island, a maritime jewel in Lake Michigan, he seeks to turn over hundreds of acres of public land and more than a mile of public shoreline to a developer, who also happens to be a major G.O.P. donor.

Gov. Engler wants to reopen the shorelines of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron to new oil and gas drilling.

And in mid-August his state Department of Environmental Quality, an agency he created in 1995, issued a permit to the Perrier Company to take up to 262 million gallons of fresh water a year from an underground reservoir in Mecosta County and sell it across the Midwest.

With each of these initiatives has come a wave of public resentment. But just as he has with other environmental controversies in years past, Mr. Engler ignored his critics. And why not? Voters supported his growth-at-any-cost agenda and Mr. Engler won overwhelming re-election victories in 1994 and 1998.

This year, though, is different. Much different. Even some of the Mr. Engler’s closest Republican allies are abandoning his resource development program, and he has had a series of crucial setbacks in Congress, Lansing, and at the grassroots. Late last month, even Lieutenant Governor Dick Posthumus, a likely G.O.P. candidate for governor, announced his opposition to Great Lakes drilling, saying it isn’t worth the risk.

Meanwhile, opponents in the state Democratic Party are energized. They recognize that the growing prominence of the environment, and the governor’s weak stewardship, could be a winning message in their quest next year for the governor's office and for a majority in the state House.

Clearly sensing that his standing is ebbing, Mr. Engler is talking more about the environment and his record than he ever has before. In a June column in the Detroit Free Press he said, “the quality of Michigan's waters has improved steadily since we began concerted efforts to protect them.” The same month, he told a crowd in Muskegon of his regard for Michigan's fresh water and how "we need to guard that water like gold.” In July, in another column for the Detroit News, he wrote that his administration's environmental record “is second to none.”

But the public relations offensive isn't working. One reason is that Mr. Engler does not have enough credibility on environmental issues to convince citizens that he’s done a good job. Another is that, as a lame duck governor, Mr. Engler doesn’t generate as much fear as he once did.

Indeed, four of the seven Republican members of the Michigan congressional delegation in June defied the governor's call for discipline. They voted with the Democrats to approve a bill sponsored by representatives David Bonior of Mt. Clemens and Bart Stupak of Menominee to give the federal Army Corps of Engineers oversight of oil and gas development in the Great Lakes.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate approved a measured sponsored by Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow of Lansing that gives Congress, not the state, the authority to approve Great Lakes drilling for at least two years

Republicans in the state House of Representatives also got into the act by killing a measure, previously approved by the state Senate, that would have lifted a 3-year-old moratorium on drilling for oil and natural gas along the Great Lakes shoreline.

Mr. Engler is having similar problems with the land swap his administration wants to complete on South Fox Island, one of the wildest and most beautiful in the Great Lakes. In mid-July, the U.S. Senate approved a measure sponsored by Sen. Stabenow and Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat of Detroit, that would give Congress the authority to oversee any land exchanges on South Fox. Republican congressmen from Michigan, among them Representative Peter Hoekstra of Holland, said they would support a similar measure when it comes up in the House of Representatives.

Privately, Republican state and federal lawmakers say they are worried that Mr. Engler’s attitude about promoting economic development over environmental protection could harm Republican candidates. The governor is apparently not heeding their concerns. He told a reporter for the New York Times that he is pressing ahead with drilling along the Great Lakes shoreline because it has no political consequences for himself.

“I may be the only one who doesn't have to run for election,” he said. Mr. Engler added: “If I was going to run for anything, I'm not sure what position I would take, frankly.”

That is a remarkably candid statement from an astute leader who prides himself on being a movement builder. After all, every major elected office in state government, with the exception of the attorney general, is controlled by Republicans close to the governor. But the stubbornness that both characterized Mr. Engler’s achievements as governor and marred his conservation record may prove to be the undoing of the conservative movement that succeeds him.

Keith Schneider, a regular contributor to the Detroit Free Press, gristmagazine.com, the New York Times, and other publications, is program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at 231-882-4723 ext. 11 or keith@mlui.org. A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press on August 3, 2001.

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