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Under Attack on Smart Growth, Granholm Keeps the Faith

Facing antagonistic legislature, governor asks religious groups for help

May 8, 2003 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Cheryl Liske/MOSES
  Responding to questions from Ezekiel Project officials during an assembly in Saginaw, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm said she is keeping her campaign promise to achieve Smart Growth.

SAGINAW — In response to new and concerted attacks on her Smart Growth legislative agenda by conservative lawmakers, Michigan Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm told a crowd of grassroots supporters that she will not retreat from her campaign promises. Speaking on Sunday to a large gathering sponsored by the Ezekiel Project, a group of faith-based activists in Saginaw who supported her gubernatorial campaign, Gov. Granholm asked for help to stop legislative attempts to reverse her “Fix It First” road-repair strategy and other Smart Growth policies.

Praising the 1,500 faithful assembled at Saginaw’s Victorious Believers Ministries as “people who put feet to their prayers,” the governor responded to questions from two Ezekiel officials about her first months in office. The governor proclaimed that she has fulfilled promises that she made to their organization, MOSES, and other urban faith-based organizations during her campaign. Those promises included directing the Michigan Department of Transportation to fix 90 percent of state roads before building more new ones, forming the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, and appointing a MOSES member to it. The 26-member council has been meeting since March to develop legislative recommendations to curb sprawl in Michigan.

Ms. Granholm focused her brief remarks on the land use council, saying the panel offers the state’s communities an opportunity to work together instead of competing with each other. She said she hopes the council’s formal report, due on August 15, will suggest incentives to “smash silos of separation” that exist around the state and “provide fertile ground to create cool cities” while preserving open space and farmlands. She asserted that the ongoing exodus of young Michiganders underlines the urgency of the council’s mission. Michigan ranks fourth among the 50 states in the rate at which 25-to-34-year-old adults are migrating to more thriving metropolitan regions in other states.

“The number of young people leaving Michigan is unacceptable,” she said. “How can we as a state get beyond turf wars when it makes sense to share? We are all in this together. We are one Michigan. What affects one, affects us all. You have a partner in me that is pledged to a different landscape on the ground and between the ears.”

Just Saying No
However, the governor faces a Republican-led Legislature that is in full gallop in the opposite direction. It is attempting to reverse Ms. Granholm’s road repair policy, refusing to approve a regional transportation authority for metropolitan Detroit, bowing to property rights proponents who want permission to “groom” Great Lakes bottomlands currently exposed by historically low water levels, and delaying attempts to manage high-volume groundwater withdrawals. The Legislature seems determined to dim the luster of Ms. Granholm’s election by attacking her on these issues, which she focused on during her campaign.

The governor’s campaign also stressed cooperation as important source of solutions for the state’s fiscal, economic, environmental, and social challenges. During the Sunday rally she tacitly acknowledged that her legislative opponents do not share her goal of governing in an inclusive manner. She asked her audience to join her in marshalling support for a politics of inclusion, not a politics of division.

“Will you help me?” the governor asked the crowd, urging Ezekiel’s membership to contact their state representatives and urge them to hold the line on what she has come to call “Preserve It First” — repairing old roads before building new ones — and other Smart Growth issues.

In response to the governor’s appeal, Ezekiel’s president, Father John Sarge, responded, “We are prepared to stand with you and we will let our legislators know we want Smart Growth and ‘Fix It First’.”

Ezekiel’s Vice-President of Expansion, Rev. Hurley Coleman, Jr., was even more explicit. “It is awesome that our governor is here, that she didn’t change her mind or her stance. Today she committed to be a partner with us. That demands that we appreciate and support her.”

Faith-based Clout
Facing the most conservative Michigan legislature in modern history, the Granholm administration, political analysts say, will need all of the help it can get from progressive organizations such as Ezekiel if it is to move its programs. The group has the clout not only to draw a large crowd but also to populate it with a respectable number of lawmakers — including U.S. Congressman Dale Kildee, a Flint Democrat, who also spoke to the crowd.

This inter-denominational, congregation-based community organization, which was formed eight years ago, has seen its membership grow to include 19 churches and more than 5,000 inter-racial and inter-generational members from the Baptist, Catholic, Congregational, Lutheran, Methodist, and Pentecostal faiths. Member congregations pay annual dues and participate in organizational activities such as leadership training, congregational development, and public policy.

Ezekiel’s sister organizations, the Detroit-based MOSES and Kalamazoo’s Isaac, respectively account for 15,000 and 3,000 more members; thousands more will soon be involved in a similar group in Grand Rapids. Organizers say that a full, statewide effort may be underway by this summer; it will be called Michigan Inter-Faith Voice, or ‘MI Voice,’ and aims to serve as a powerful, coordinating roundtable for people of faith.

Small Steps, Big Agenda
The agenda for Sunday’s rally went well beyond the governor’s stumping for Smart Growth policies. It also covered a wide range of other concerns that urban, faith-based communities are addressing, including health care, crime, and metropolitan equity. A formidable list of speakers — ranging from church ministers, to the congressman, to the mayor of Saginaw, to the lead author of a report on Michigan’s sprawl problem — spoke to the large crowd about drug prescription programs, lead poisoning, truancy and crime, cost-sharing among municipal units, and the growing necessity of regional cooperation.

Myron Orfield, co-author of Michigan Metropatterns, a report published in April that found the economic stresses and racial separation that have diminished Michigan’s cities are now spreading to inner-ring suburbs, echoed the governor’s Smart Growth themes during his brief remarks. Mr. Orfield said that when communities compete against one another they are really hurting each other. He related the Smart Growth experiences of 16 other states to the governor’s “Fix It First” state highway policy and said that, with both central cities and older suburbs facing redevelopment challenges, Michigan must “find a forum where communities can work together.”

Saginaw Mayor Wilma Ham noted that her city is starting to do just that with its fire safety program. She said that officials from Saginaw and Buena Vista and Carlton townships have pledged to work with their respective legislative bodies towards the formation of a regional fire district.

“We’re coming together,” she told the assembly. “Step by step, we’re working together.”

Charlene Crowell is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Lansing policy specialist. You can reach her at Charlene@mlui.org.

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