Monday, November 6, 2006

2006 Governor’s race: What will they do for Jackson?

By Susan J. Demas
Jackson Citizen Patriot

Andy Nastally swapped the assembly line for the unemployment line after spending almost his entire adult life at TRW Automotive.

Nastally, 28, was one of 400 workers to get the ax when the plant closed in July. Now the Jackson dad worries how to pay his heating bill and afford clothes for his three kids.

“I’ll never find another job like that,” said Nastally, an almost 9-year TRW veteran. “It’s getting used to poverty, I guess.”

Former floor inspector Elizabeth Powell, 44, also is among the 80 percent who hasn’t landed a new job since the layoffs.

“It’s a struggle,” said Powell, a 7-year TRW employee from Blackman Township.

As Jackson County faces an uncertain future, with 7.3 percent unemployment and another 500-plus jobs on the line at Eaton Corp., voters such as Powell and Nastally are anxiously looking to the governor’s race Nov. 7.

They’re not party loyalists. They don’t care about the $50 million-plus ad campaign, the priciest in Michigan’s history.

They have just one question for Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm and GOP challenger Dick DeVos:

What will you do for us?

“I have a program, ‘No Worker Left Behind,’ for auto workers who are victims of the global economy,” Granholm said. “It helps them afford collapsed training in a new career like skilled trades or health care.”

DeVos counters it’s too little, too late – and he can do better.

“I’d tell them it’s time for a change,” DeVos said. “What (Granholm) is doing in Michigan obviously isn’t working.”

Governor’s grades

At the Jackson Coffee Co. this week, a khaki-clad Granholm came armed with hugs and handshakes for 200 supporters. After a full day on the campaign bus, her magnetic blue eyes still locked with every worker behind the counter.

What gets lost amid the shouts and cheers is that the governor — who has never lost an election — is fighting to keep her own job.

Four years ago, she was flying high as the state’s first female governor, with analysts lamenting Granholm’s Canadian birth blocked her road to the White House.

That was before Michigan bled 85,000 jobs, Ford Motor Co. announced 40,000 layoffs and General Motors hemorrhaged 35,000 buyouts.

Studies by University of Michigan economists and the nonpartisan,
Kalamazoo-based W.E. Upjohn Institute both project a net job loss through 2008 — regardless of who’s in the governor’s mansion.

Michigan’s dependence on the auto industry is one reason for its 7.1 percent state unemployment, Granholm argues.

Granholm also hastens to point out the state lost 240,000 jobs in the last three years of Republican Gov. John Engler, who also handed her a budget $4 billion out-of-whack.

“Like so many other women, I’m a mother and I’m used to cleaning up other people’s messes,” the mother of three said at a Michigan State University rally in October.

The centerpiece of her economic plan is the $2 billion 21st Century Jobs Fund investing in advanced manufacturing, alternative energy, homeland security and life sciences start-ups. She also signed a $600 million tax cut for manufacturers.

Granholm wants to replace the $1.9 billion in revenue lost from the repeal of the Single Business tax — almost one-quarter of the general fund — with a business tax weighted more on profits than wages.

U.S. House candidate Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, said Jackson County voters know Granholm has been “incompetent” at bringing the economy out of the doldrums.

“I would give her a ‘D’ grade,” said Walberg, who’s facing Sharon Renier, D-Munith, in the 7th District. “She won’t work with the Legislature. Engler worked with the Democratic House to get 21 tax cuts passed.”

Millionaire challenger

DeVos, 51, is shakier on the campaign trail than Granholm, but he was quick with a crinkled smile and hearty laugh at a 400-person Greater Jackson Chamber of Commerce mixer last week.

The father of four has run as a political outsider, having only served two brief stints on educational boards. His wife, Betsy, is the former state GOP chairwoman and the Ada Township couple has given millions to Republican groups.

DeVos says the race comes down to leadership.

Touting his credentials as the former CEO of Amway/Alticor, DeVos helped spearhead this year’s petition drive to kill the Single Business Tax in 2007.

He supports replacing “at least half” the lost revenue through a business-based levy but said he’ll propose a new tax structure after Election Day. To make up for the shortfall, DeVos wants to “trim the fat” from state services.

DeVos also wants to overhaul personal property taxes for business, which generates $1.8 billion, and enact a “30-day shovel in the ground” policy for construction. He said Ohio and Indiana have benefited from “high taxes driving Michigan businesses away.”

“We need a businessperson in the governor’s office,” DeVos said. “We need to transform taxes and have one-stop shopping in state government.”

It’s DeVos’ record in business that Democrats have seized on — pointing to 1,400 Michigan jobs lost while Amway invested $200 million in China in the 1990s.

DeVos calls the claim “salacious,” maintaining he did not ship jobs overseas.

But state Sen. Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek, says DeVos’ history hasn’t played well with Jackson County voters nervous about their jobs.

“He’s part of the problem in Michigan,” said Schauer, who’s being challenged by Elizabeth Fulton, R-Battle Creek. “People know Granholm is going to fight, like she has for the Big Three car companies.”

Jackson bound

During DeVos’ stop in Jackson, he called its 2004 “Cool Cities” designation a “nice-sounding idea” but questioned how much Granholm’s initiative had improved the area.

“I might be a little biased, but I think cities that work — that’s a cool thing,” DeVos said. “I know a little bit about that with what we’ve done in Grand Rapids.”

Granholm highlights the Armory Arts Project — which in May netted $10.5 million in state funds — as her “first example of how arts can foster economic development.”

She said it’s critical for manufacturing-based cities like Jackson to attract other development and attract young people.

Jackson County faces more challenges than with its economy. About 20,000 residents — 12 percent — lack health insurance, the Department of Community Health reports.

Granholm has proposed “no-frills” coverage for Michigan’s 1.1 million uninsured modeled around a plan signed by Gov. Mitt Romney, R-Mass. She argues it’s an investment since the high cost of health care is costing Michigan companies jobs, especially within the auto industry.

DeVos said it’s another example of “all talk, no action” by the governor, who hasn’t taken her plan to the Legislature. He favors tort reform to keep costs down and revamping Medicaid.

“We have got to get Michigan back to work,” DeVos said. “The best way to have health care is to get a job.”

Education is another area in which Jackson County lags, with only 16 percent of residents 25 or older holding bachelor’s degrees compared to 22 percent statewide.

Granholm has proposed a $4,000 merit scholarship for every Michigan student to meet her goal of doubling the number of college graduates by 2015. Vowing to invest more in K-12 education, she also signed a law beefing up high school graduation requirements.

“What I stress to kids is that there is a $1 million lifetime earning differential between those who graduate from high school and college,” she said.

DeVos argues Granholm has cut education too much. Though he led a 2000 effort for school vouchers, he said he’s “firmly committed” to public education and will fight to funnel more funding into the classroom.

Workers’ winners

So after sifting through the plans, the rhetoric and the non-stop TV ads, what do the laid-off TRW workers have to say about the race?

Nastally, who said he’s never voted a straight ticket, said he’s worried DeVos will slash school funding and other programs. Granholm won his vote with her plans for education and improving the skilled workforce.

“(DeVos) is wishy-washy in his answers on everything,” he said. “The governor has taken one hell of a mess and tried to turn it around. I don’t know if she could have done it any quicker.”

But Powell, who says she’s a lifelong Democrat, is pulling the lever for DeVos because “Granholm fell short of what she promised” about creating jobs. She also raised taxes on cigarettes.

“Things are so critical. I’ll vote for whoever can get the job done,” Powell said. “(DeVos) ran a corporation like Amway — he knows the ins and outs to bring new business here,” Powell said.

On Nov. 8, both Nastally and Powell will still be looking for work – and whoever falls short in the gubernatorial contest could be joining them. But offers likely will pour in for the multi-millionaire entrepreneur DeVos and Granholm, a Harvard-trained former federal prosecutor.

The TRW workers are in a different boat.
Facing her fifth month without a job, Powell lets out a long sigh. “I don’t know if either of them is concerned about us people.”