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Granholm Gubernatorial Victory Studied for 2004

Decisive role for environment in Michigan could affect presidential campaign

October 25, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  President George W. Bush’s visit to a power plant in Monroe in September underscored Michigan’s importance as a swing state at the political and geographic center of the eight-state Great Lakes region.

Thanks to President George W. Bush’s unexpected visit in mid-September, Michigan learned several fun facts about Detroit Edison’s Monroe Power Plant, 40 miles south of Detroit. They learned that the 32-year-old electrical generating station is one of the largest coal-burning power plants in the world. They also discovered that the plant produces more air pollution than any industrial facility in Michigan and is in the top ten polluters among all coal-fired power plants in the United States; some 17.6 million tons of global warming gases pour from its smoke stacks each year along with 150,000 more tons of pollutants that cause acid rain, smog, induce asthma, and add to the toxic burden in fish and wildife.

Citizens also learned that the Monroe power station has become a poster child for the American utility industry, which insists that the federal Clean Air Act is overly burdensome and discourages investments in new and cleaner equipment that would make power plants cleaner. President Bush backs that much-disputed view; on September 15 he swooped into Monroe to tour the plant and discuss clean air, energy, and his own record of stewardship with a hand-picked private audience.

Confusing Presidential Visit
But as an exploration of the president’s ideas about environmental policy the appearance was completely baffling. At one point, for instance, the president cited a new EPA study that said that, since the Clean Air Act was enacted three decades ago, the economy has nearly tripled in size while emissions of six major air pollutants were cut in half. “That should say to the people that we can grow our economy, that we can work to create the conditions for job growth, and that we can be good stewards of the air we breathe,” said Bush.

Environmentalists, who’d organized a protest nearby that featured an inflatable power plant, were astonished. In effect, Bush lauded improvements in the economy and the environment that were the result of air pollution control laws that his administration is desperately trying to weaken.

But as a campaign stop, Bush’s 11th to Michigan as president, the Monroe visit made perfect sense. Michigan is an important swing state at the political and geographic center of the eight-state Great Lakes region. It is crucial to the outcome of the 2004 presidential election — not only for its votes, but for the lessons it can teach the rest of the nation.  During last year's gubernatorial election Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, a centrist Democrat, swept into office on a platform that stressed protecting natural resources as a foundation for improving the state's economic competitiveness. That victory provided politicians of both parties with an object lesson in the galvanizing effect that environmental protection can have on voters in the Great Lakes region and beyond.

Michigan Voters Care About the Land and Water
Three years ago, Al Gore and Ralph Nader reaped rewards in Michigan and most of the other Great Lakes states by making plain their allegiance to environmental protection and energy conservation. During his visits to the Great Lakes region, Mr. Gore talked about ensuring clean water and improving public transportation to reduce traffic congestion. 

More boldly, he predicted the end of the internal combustion engine. He handily won Michigan and five other Great Lakes states, collecting 117 electoral votes. The Great Lakes, in fact, provided 44 percent of the 266 electoral votes that Gore earned in 2000. Bush won Ohio and Indiana for 33 electoral votes. Mr. Nader didn't score any electoral votes, but he did win 892,500 votes in the Great Lakes — more than in any other region of the country.  In fact, he gathered almost 300,000 more votes in the area than he did on the West Coast, and more than twice as many as he attracted in New England.

The Bush administration knows that the Great Lakes states will be critical to what happens in 2004:  Karl Rove, the president's political advisor, has predicted that the election will be very tight, and he's told Michigan's Republican activists that Bush needs to do better in the Great Lakes in '04 than he did in 2000.  In an effort to bolster his image, Bush has become a frequent visitor to the region:  Besides his frequent Michigan visits, he's been to Ohio 10 times, and to Pennsylvania 22 times since becoming President.

If the region is important to Republicans, it is utterly crucial to Democrats, who simply cannot prevail unless they do at least as well as Mr. Gore did there in 2000. Great Lakes states have lost nine congressional seats and as many electoral votes to the much faster growing Republican Sunbelt states, the same number of electoral votes that Colorado or Louisiana represent. The other Democratic strongholds in 2000 were New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the West Coast. The Democrats will have to win those regions as well to win in 2004, plus Florida and a couple of Rocky Mountain states --most likely Arizona and New Mexico, which have Democratic governors.

Thus as the 2004 campaign gathers momentum the electoral dynamics of the playing field are well understood. So are the top issues: Jobs and the economy, war and national security, and health care.

Environment as an Election Priority
Still, Democratic strategists say their candidate will need another top priority to distinguish themselves from President Bush. In Michigan and the other Great Lakes states there is no better issue for the Democrats to embrace than the environment. Conservation is a decades-old value in the Great Lakes region, home to the largest supply of surface fresh water on the planet.

All those homes along the shoreline and deep in the north woods are owned by people who care about the condition of lakes and rivers and wild lands, and will vote for a candidate that has credibility on the environment. As for those blue-collar workers that the Republicans think they've locked up: Many of them spend a good bit of time fishing, hunting, and boating, and are devoted to protecting what is still a clean and expansive natural domain.

Republicans know they are vulnerable on the issue. Late last year, for instance, Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster, wrote a memorandum to right wing activists and Republican elected officials that was obtained and widely distributed by the Environmental Working Group, a research organization in Washington. In the memorandum, Mr. Luntz acknowledged that Republicans are seen as "cold, uncaring, ruthless, even downright anti-social" on environmental issues. He advised, among other things, that GOP leaders and candidates counter the impression by "showing people your heart is in the right place." In other words, do what you are doing to foster ruin but sound green enough to make people "comfortable with listening to what you have to say."

This did not work in Michigan. Environmentally minded voters were crucial to the outcome of the state's 2002 gubernatorial race. If the Democratic Party learns from that race, those voters could be equally crucial to the 2004 presidential election. 

In fact, when it comes to environmental politics, the similarities of the approaching national campaign and the 2002 Michigan gubernatorial campaign are striking. Former Michigan Republican Gov. John Engler, who was elected in a close race in 1990, spent most of his three terms attempting to gut those state laws that safeguarded wetlands, water, air, public forests, and the Great Lakes coastline. The state’s nonprofit environmental and conservation organizations, initially overwhelmed by the attack, gradually realized its dimensions and by the late 1990s were collaborating  as they never had before to fight back.

The groups organized at the grassroots, focused on elevating to public attention a handful of high profile issues like overflowing sewers that closed beaches, or drilling for oil and natural gas beneath the Great Lakes. They published investigative reports about the deals Mr. Engler was making with his industrial campaign donors to open forests, energy, minerals, water, and land to development. And they helped the state media track the consequences of his neglect.

By 2001, Mr. Engler’s natural resources stewardship had become a source of public controversy, so much so that Republican gubernatorial candidates distanced themselves from their mentor. The candidates of both parties competed to command the issue.

By the spring of 2002, the security of the Great Lakes, the loss of farmland and wild spaces to sprawl, and the prevention of water contamination were priorities for Michigan voters, according to polls by both campaigns. Along with education, the economy, and the looming $1.8 billion state budget deficit, the oversight of the environment and natural resources was playing a more influential role in the Michigan election than in any other race for governor in the nation.

The “Same Hymnal” But Divergent Outcome in 2002
“We have a very active, very aggressive, and very smart environmental movement in Michigan,” said Dave Ladd, a Republican lobbyist in Lansing who served in the late 1990s as Mr. Engler’s environmental advisor and then as his director of the Office of Great Lakes. “Their work to raise these issues had a major impact in shaping the platforms of both candidates. In 2002, both candidates took the same position on many, if not all of the significant issues in Michigan – land use, water, solid waste, out of state trash. They were singing from the same hymnal.”

But the important point about Michigan in 2002, and for the nation in 2004, is that once environmental stewardship became a prominent issue, the advantage went to the Democratic nominee, whose environmental record and credibility was much stronger than her Republican opponent. In November 2002, by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent, Ms. Granholm defeated Mr. Engler's hand-picked successor, Republican Lieutenant Governor Dick Posthumus.

Polls taken before and after the election showed that Mr. Posthumus was unable to sufficiently distance himself from Mr. Engler’s dismal environmental record. Gov. Granholm, who is 43, a Harvard-educated lawyer, and a mother of three, became the first woman elected governor of Michigan because voters found her capable and a refreshing change from the domineering Mr. Engler. She campaigned on improving public education, strengthening cities, and being more responsive to citizens. The fact that she also embraced reviving environmental enforcement, defending clean water, and attacking suburban sprawl as centerpieces of her campaign solidified her reputation as a determined reformer.

Exit polls, particularly those taken by Epic-MRA, a respected non-partisan Lansing-based polling company, provided insight into the elements of Gov. Granholm’s victory and the importance of her environmental advocacy. According to Ed Sarpolus, the company’s principal pollster, eight percent of Republicans, most of them suburban women, switched parties to vote for Ms. Granholm; they indicated that her environmental credentials were a big reason why.

“Governor Granholm was credible on a wide range of issues and she was right on the environment,” said Sarpolus. “Dick Posthumus never really focused on the environment, which appeals to women and to independent voters. The only ad he did on the environment showed him in hunting garb, holding a shotgun and a dead pheasant. That appealed to male gun owners, who were going to vote for him anyway. He ignored women and that hurt him.”

Elements of Granholm Victory
Ms. Granholm won big in the state's cities and inner ring suburbs, the Democratic strongholds. But she also attracted surprising support in the fast-growing, mostly white, and heavily Republican newer suburbs and rural counties along the coast of Lake Michigan. For example in Benzie County, located near the top of Lake Michigan and dominated for decades by Republicans, Ms. Granholm came within 450 votes of beating Mr. Posthumus.

The same opportunities are available to the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee. The Bush administration, under cover of war and fear, is waging a quiet but extraordinarily aggressive assault on America's environment. What’s more, the White House is following a story line that Michigan residents readily recognized and rejected in 2002: A determined chief executive whose party controls both houses of the legislature mounts a stealthy attack on popular laws that safeguard forests, water, air, and public health. His right wing advisors, who view their top priority as advancing the economic prospects of select industries that also are top campaign donors, zealously pursue the mission.

The parallels between Michigan in 2002, and the 2004 presidential campaign are close enough that national environmental organizations look to Michigan as a model for how to elevate the president’s environmental record to a top political priority. The state is one of four swing states that the Natural Resources Defense Council has targeted for a major grassroots communications and public education campaign that began this month.

Michigan Vital To Both Parties
 “We’re going to be working in a number of states to amplify the message we’ve long been sending regarding the affect of the president’s fundamental retreat on the environment,” said Greg Wetstone, the advocacy director for the NRDC in Washington. “We want the White House to know there is a cost and to back away from their assault. Michigan is one of the states we’re working in. It is a vitally important state where the public cares deeply about the environment and where Bush’s assaults are having a real impact.”

It’s long been said, and it’s also true, that the vast majority of Americans — 70 percent and more in most polls — want their air and water to get cleaner, they want forests to remain standing, and they want their communities to be orderly, safe, and unpolluted even if it raises taxes. The disconnect in elections is that most voters can’t fathom that their government is actually attempting to roll back laws that do so much good. Though major national newspapers have done a good job covering the Bush administration’s retreat, smaller papers aren’t much interested and television barely cares.

The job of educating citizens falls mostly to environmental organizations. Before his visit to Monroe, Mr. Bush was apparently betting, just as John Engler did, that he can do what he wants on environmental policy because voters aren’t paying attention. But the visit to southeast Michigan in September may indicate that the president is reconsidering the capacity and savvy of environmental organizations to educate and galvanize citizen action and Democratic candidate interest.

True, it is harder now in a context of war, fear, and economic worries to break through and alert people about how the White House wants, for instance, to rewrite the Clean Water Act to allow companies to increase the amount of contaminants they pour into rivers and lakes. But it’s not impossible, especially in Michigan, where voters are especially savvy about what happens when elected leaders either renounce or embrace their duties to protect natural resources.

Gov. Granholm, who’s already protected two natural rivers, advanced Legislative recommendations to curb sprawl, and put 17 wasteful highway projects on hol, is enjoying high public approval ratings in part because she’s acting quickly to put her environmental ideas into effect.

Michigan’s 2002 election campaign was a testing ground for the importance of environmental protection to determine a crucial election. Judging from the Democratic winner’s experience in Michigan a year ago, Mr. Bush could face very stiff electoral resistance from voters who oppose his program to dirty the air and water.

Keith Schneider, a journalist, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org. A version of this article was published on October 15, 2003 by Gristmagazine.com.

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