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Politics and Two Determined Women Cross on Highways

Shirley Johnson thrives as Granholm’s tenacious foe

June 27, 2003 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Office of Sen. Shirley Johnson
  Shirley Johnson has used her post as the influential chair of the state Senate Appropriations Committee to probe, criticize, rebuke, and directly confront Governor Jennifer Granholm and members of her administration.

That Senator Shirley Johnson governed with grit and savvy certainly was clear to those who work with her in the Legislature and the constituents who supported her during 18 years in the state House and four more in the Senate. “Shirley’s always been hard-nosed,” explained Brooks Patterson, the executive of Oakland County and a longtime friend, in an interview.

But a less well-known facet of Ms. Johnson’s political character is her ruthlessness, a trait that has emerged publicly in recent months as the Republican from Royal Oak steadily transformed herself into the Legislature’s most powerful and vocal critic of Governor Jennifer Granholm.

From the very first days of the Granholm administration, Ms. Johnson has used her post as the influential chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee — the panel that helps decide state spending — to probe, criticize, rebuke, and directly confront the Democratic governor and members of her administration.

Sen. Johnson has chided Ms. Granholm for not selling the state-supported vacation home that governors have traditionally enjoyed on Mackinac Island, attacked Ms. Granholm’s proposed budget as a “house of cards,” and generally let it be known that she rejected the governor’s approach of “inclusion and cooperation” and instead was prepared to give Ms. Granholm a hard time in the Legislature on any issue that came before her committee.

Target # 1: Road Policy
Sen. Johnson’s favorite target, though, has been Gov. Granholm’s transportation policy, especially her proposal to develop a new “Preserve First” program to repair roads before building new highways.

In April, Ms. Granholm proposed to delay 34 new road construction projects in order to focus more than $181 million into investments for road repair. Ms. Johnson immediately expressed her irritation. Ten of the projects were in Oakland County. “Road projects in our area were thrown out the window by Gov. Granholm without so much as a phone call” to lawmakers, she said in a statement.

Now comes the real test of political wills. Five days ago, on June 24, Ms. Johnson sent Ms. Granholm a $357.4 million spending bill that passed the Legislature with near unanimous support. More than half of the proposed spending in the bill is devoted to restoring all of the 34 road projects that Ms. Johnson insists must go forward and Gov. Granholm asserts must be delayed.

Gov. Granholm has until July 8 to decide whether to approve, veto, or accept a select number of the new roads. That decision, say political veterans in Lansing, has enormous significance even beyond the realm of highway construction. Whatever the governor decides, it is viewed in the state capital as an exceptionally clear moment to determine whether Ms. Granholm has the resolve and political skill to carry out the proposals that voters elected her to enact, or whether Sen. Johnson and other Republican leaders will be successful in their apparent strategy of thwarting the administration at every turn.

On Top For The Moment
Sen. Johnson’s friends believe that for the time being she has the advantage.  “She’s in a position to be a force in Lansing,” Mr. Patterson said.

To be sure, Ms. Granholm has already signaled that she may relent and approve some of the 34 projects, a position that editorial pages across the state, including in Detroit and Traverse City, adamantly oppose. “I’m willing to talk one-on-one about projects that deal with things like safety issues,” the governor told the Detroit Free Press.
Sen. Johnson viewed the concession as a validation of her criticism and authority. “Roads are about safety, and safety cannot be held hostage as a political bargaining chip,” Sen. Johnson said in a press release.

Even her Republican colleagues noted Ms. Johnson’s hard-charging approach, which they generally applaud. Early in the Granholm administration, for instance, Ms. Johnson pointedly asked whether the state-supported home that governors enjoy on Mackinac Island was necessary in lean times. Republican state Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema joined Ms. Johnson in chastising Ms. Granholm about the island home, a point neither lawmaker had ever mentioned during the 12-year administration of former Republican Governor John Engler.
Ms. Johnson also was the first to stridently attack the governor’s proposal to reduce the $1.8 billion state budget deficit. “I’ve worked on 21 state budgets, and by far this one has the most assumptions built into it that I’ve ever seen,” she said. “This budget is so fragile it’s like a house of cards. One wrong breath could bring it tumbling down.”

Response? What Response?
What’s surprised policy makers in Lansing, even many who supported Ms. Granholm, is how difficult it has been for the governor to develop an effective response.  In the face of direct confrontation by Sen. Johnson and other Republican legislative leaders, the Granholm administration appears defenseless. “The administration is looking forward to a collaborative relationship with state lawmakers, including Sen. Johnson,” said Liz Boyd, the governor’s spokesperson, in an interview. “Certainly we have heard the Senator’s complaints, or concerns rather, and we appreciate her position.”

Given such a compliant response, Sen. Johnson has been emboldened, especially in whipping her favorite dog — Gov. Granholm’s transportation plan.

During the winter, Sen. Johnson blocked legislative debate to authorize a new regional transit authority in southeast Michigan, which has the worst public transit of any major metropolitan region in the nation. Gov. Granholm, who said the transit authority was her top legislative priority, was forced to go outside the legislature to broker an agreement with local governments that produced a pact in May to establish the Detroit Area Regional Transportation Authority.

Sen. Johnson then cut state funding for public transit by nearly $30 million, with most of the money taken out of budgets for the already weak bus systems in Wayne and Oakland counties. Those bus systems “are inefficient and ineffective,” said Brian O’Connell, Ms. Johnson’s chief of staff.

Citing a recent newspaper article to buttress his point, Mr. O'Connell noted that Joseph Harris, Detroit's auditor general told the Detroit News on May 4, 2003,  "You take a long look at all the  numbers, and after a while, you push them away and say, 'We suck'". 

A Grandmother With Teeth
Sen. Johnson, who is 65 and declined to be interviewed for this article, was raised in Chicago and introduced to politics 32 years ago when she volunteered for President Nixon’s re-election campaign.

“I passed out literature at a supermarket in Royal Oak,” she said in an interview in 2002 with Michigan Retailer, the newspaper of the Michigan Retail Association. “I’ve been involved ever since.” Her first official political position was chairwoman of Oakland County’s community development advisory council that managed millions of dollars in federal funds to help low-income residents afford housing.

In 1981, Ms. Johnson, who is married to a lawyer and has two children and a grandson, won her first campaign as a state representative. She hasn’t lost an election since. She was elected to the state Senate in 1999.

During her legislative career, Ms. Johnson has been a champion of mental health protection and spearheaded measures to extend Medicaid coverage. She also developed expertise in the budget process, serving as vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee before becoming in January the first woman to chair the Senate Appropriations committee.

Target # 2: Gloria Jeff
This year, as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, Ms. Johnson has used the post to blister the governor and her transportation aides.

In January, for example, during confirmation hearings for Gloria Jeff, the governor’s nominee to direct of the state Department of Transportation, Sen. Johnson personally attacked Ms. Jeff saying she “didn’t appreciate the attitude” and promised to vote against her. After Sen. Sikkema intervened, Ms. Johnson relented and voted for Ms. Jeff’s appointment.

Later, however, Ms. Johnson proposed cutting $10,000 from Ms. Jeff’s salary and proposed financial penalties on Ms. Jeff for delays in producing a financial report that was actually started under Republican Governor John Engler.

A Cabinet Member Left On Her Own
Neither the governor nor anybody in Ms. Granholm’s administration responded publicly to what many in the state capital viewed as Ms. Johnson’s effort to intimidate the Transportation Department chief. Even today, the Granholm administration remains solicitous. “I really don’t want to get into the personal stuff,” Ben Kohrman, the spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. “We really respect Sen. Johnson’s fierce advocacy.”

Sen. Johnson also has proposed to dramatically reduce spending on public transit. Governor Granholm proposed a $10 million cut, already recognizing the state’s $1.8 billion budget deficit.  Sen. Johnson added $19 million more, bringing the proposed reduction in transit spending to nearly $30 million. The proposal was approved by the Senate 22-16 on a party line vote and is now under consideration by the House.

Ms. Granholm’s aides insist that the governor’s “Preserve First” plan to repair existing roads rather than build new ones represents a new reckoning in Michigan with the spiraling costs of transportation and the stark fiscal realities of the current economic downturn.  But the governor’s aides also acknowledge that they may have stumbled in introducing the proposal, and allowed Sen. Johnson to gain an advantage.

When asked why the administration did not alert communities and lawmakers about the specific roads that the “Preserve First” plan would delay, Liz Boyd sounded contrite. “We always strive to communicate with the Legislature on issues,” said the governor’s spokesperson. “Certainly I think in the future, perhaps, we will make it a point to do everything we can to communicate. But I believe that this plan was articulated. I believe that Director Jeff is working hard to improve communication between her department and state lawmakers.”


July 8, 2003

Governor Jennifer Granholm vetoed the 34 highway construction projects that legislators wanted continued, but said she would work with lawmakers to "identify priority road projects." The veto, first reported by Gongwer News Service, was part of a series of line-item vetoes made to HB 4032, the 2002-03 supplemental budget that Ms. Granholm signed. The budget, PA 39, was signed Monday morning but not filed with the Secretary of State's office until Tuesday morning. The 34 projects-none of which is in the actual construction phase-were delayed by the administration earlier this year to focus on more road maintenance projects. Furious by the action, Republican lawmakers sought to restore funds for the road project through the supplemental budget.



July 14, 2003


Gov. Jennifer Granholm today reinstated 17 of the 34 road projects that she vetoed last week. The restored projects will be included in the Fiscal Year 2004 transportation budget that begins October 1. Thus, the legislature's Fix It Later approach has consumed half of the governor's Fix It First program.

A silver lining is that three long-term road studies - the proposed widening of I-94 in Wayne County, the widening of I-75 throughout Oakland County, and the US-31/Grand Haven bypass through the state's most productive farmland - are still delayed. That fact could allow alternatives - including better land use planning, local road improvements and public transit - to catch up and truly compete.


Kyle Smiddie, a student at Haverford College, joined the Institute’s news desk this summer as a Haverford College Peace and Global Citizenship intern.  The Institute and Haverford College established the internship program earlier this year. This is his first article for the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. Reach him at smiddie@mlui.org

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