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The New Quality of Life Politics

Natural assets, community, key to competitiveness

July 2, 2001 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Lieutenant Governor Dick Posthumus, a Republican conservative who is running to succeed his former college roommate as governor, sounded like a moderate when he appeared before the Michigan United Conservation Clubs in June to call for a “Marshall Plan” for protecting the state’s rivers and lakes.

Republican House Speaker Rick Johnson, another arch conservative reaching out to the moderate tradition of his party, is promoting a package of new laws to conserve farmland, invest in cities, and rein in sprawl.

Even Governor John Engler, whose environmental record is episodic at best, is busy touting his own work to block diversions of fresh water from the Great Lakes.

Exactly what is going on? The same state leadership that for a decade championed drilling for oil along the Great Lakes coast, undermined the state’s wetland protection law, accelerated cutting of state forests, and sought to turn northern Michigan into one of the national centers for burning dirty scrap tires for energy, is now going out of its way to appear green.

The answer, of course, is public sentiment. With remarkable and surprising speed, a new quality of life politic has formed in Michigan that stresses protecting natural assets and enhancing communities as the foundation of economic competitiveness. Public opinion polls consistently find that residents view environmental protection and economic development as compatible goals. Moreover, they reject ideas that pit one against the other. Some 60 percent of state residents, for instance, disapprove of Gov. Engler’s call to drill for natural gas and oil along the Great Lakes coast because of the risk of harming recreational resources that generate more valuable economic activities.

Private polls conducted by the two major political parties, in anticipation of the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, find even stronger support for economic policies that enhance quality of life and safeguard natural treasures. Voters, in other words, don’t just want a job. They also want to feel comfortable in communities that are clean, beautiful, and easier to navigate.

At the local level, the drive to protect natural resources and improve the quality of life has caused untraditional allies to flock together in unlikely local coalitions that are changing the face of Michigan communities.

In the Detroit region, for example, three counties, 48 local governments, hundreds of business leaders, and thousands of homeowners are cooperating to clean up the Rouge River and its 438-square-mile watershed. More than $500 million already has been spent on dozens of projects ranging from building giant downstream concrete sewage and stormwater storage basins to enacting new ordinances upstream to protect river banks and wetlands.

Similarly in Grand Rapids, two counties and 32 local governments who are members of the Grand Valley Metro Council are making cooperative decisions to combat sprawl, improve water quality, and invest in downtown. Among the metro council’s many achievements was helping to establish an urban growth boundary in 1999. Grand Rapids and its suburban townships agreed to a line on a map to confine new development to areas already served by water and sewer services and to discourage runaway development in areas that do not.

Grand Rapids pursued the development boundary because enough leaders and citizens recognized that a growth at any cost economic program yields a long and avoidable list of expensive problems. Michigan is losing more farmland to new malls and subdivisions than any state east of the Mississippi River except Pennsylvania. Fecal contamination regularly closes beaches because so much water is surging off all the new blacktop and concrete it is overwhelming sewage treatment plants all over the state. Sprawling patterns of development mean everything is so spread out that families now own and operate fleets of vehicles that spend more and more time stuck in increasing congestion.

Summed up local leaders in Grand Rapids, Detroit, and in many other places understand that safeguarding natural assets, improving public transit, investing in downtown neighborhoods, and taming sprawl are the new raw materials of Michigan’s economic competitiveness in the 21st century.

The fact that tens of thousands of voters now recognize the very same thing is the reason that every Democratic candidate for governor is running on a platform that stresses these goals. It’s also why state Republican leaders are scrambling to reinvent themselves and the image of their party.

The question is will they have enough time before the election to develop credibility with the majority of voters? Conservative Republicans built their governing coalition over the last quarter century by promoting the politics of rugged individualism based on opposing abortion and gun control, promoting welfare reform and lower taxes, and limiting government’s authority to oversee business, the land, and natural resources.

The emerging priorities of the 21st century — traffic, sprawl, conservation, improving public education, neighborhood redevelopment — can only be solved by communities that reach a consensus about how to work together. The right wing’s self-involved, bureaucrat-bashing politic no longer fits. It is an idea from a past century. Fortunately Mr. Posthumus and other senior conservative state leaders have adjusted their views and now see the economic and cultural value of preserving the state’s resources in their natural state. Their political challenge in 2002 is convincing a majority of Michigan voters that they really mean it.

A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press on July 2, 2001.

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