Friday, May 30, 2008

Every day is lobby day in Lansing

John Kelly is old-school, God love him. The former state senator wasn't afraid to tell interest groups where to go.

You might recall that three decades ago, Chrysler was ready to go belly-up. The No. 3 automaker demanded $1.5 billion in federal loan guarantees, as well as a $150 million loan from the state of Michigan and hundreds of millions in worker concessions. Oh, and six Detroit-area plants would get the ax.

That's where Kelly drew the line. As state Senate Banking Committee chairman, the Democrat told then-CEO Lee Iacocca the factories would stay open if he wanted his check.

"I had a hundred bankers in my office telling me I couldn't do that," Kelly recalls. "I told them all to back off."

In the end, Kelly triumphed and helped save 38,000 jobs. And yes, there was unreal tension and recall threats, same as what paralyzed the Legislature for months during last year's budget crisis. But that didn't faze him.

"You have to muster up the courage to do the right thing. You can shut the government down, but it goes to the institution's credibility," Kelly says pointedly. "People think you're a bunch of idiots."

In that magical time before term limits, lawmakers would actually write some of their bills or at least know what was in them. Committee chairs had real expertise in their fields, as opposed to today when sophomore House members, who've just mastered where the bathrooms are in the Capitol, run the show.

To say there's a leadership void in Lansing is a vast understatement.

That's why I hear these crass words far too often in committee meetings: "I'd like to thank the interest groups for helping us write the legislation."

It makes my blood boil.

That's gross incompetence at best and utter contempt for the democratic process at worst. At $80,000 per year plus perks, lawmakers should be able to do their own damn research without handholding (or handing over the pen) to lobbyists, who have their client's best interest in mind - not necessarily that of 10 million Michiganders.

Does anyone really think this is how government should work?

It's no wonder voters feel ignored - especially those of us in the middle. Republicans are beholden to Right to Life and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, while Democrats can't say no to the Michigan Education Association and UAW.

When lawmakers do bite the hand that feeds them - like on tax increases or school health insurance reform - lobbyists scream like their entire family was slaughtered and threaten to withhold money, endorsements and job offers.

And the beat goes on.

On Tuesday, the House once again demonstrated its uncanny ability to take up completely irrelevant measures while our economically annihilated state burns. The federal partial-birth abortion ban has been on the books since 2003, but Right to Life held the chamber hostage to push what lawmakers admit is duplicate legislation.

The bill is light on medicine but heavy on incendiary rhetoric, because this isn't about the rarest of rare procedures, dilation and extraction, reserved for when the mother's life is in danger. It's about politics and an organization desperate for a victory when many of its own members find its position on embryonic stem cell research medieval.

"I believe this is truly a sad day in the history of the Michigan Legislature," sighed state Rep. Rebekkah Warren, D-Ann Arbor. "We're letting a special interest dictate the actions of this Legislature."

Actually, it's just another day in paradise. Almost daily, groups from the Michigan Propane Gas Association to the American Cancer Society cram the Capitol and miraculously, new legislation often follows.

But Kelly hit upon something when speaking to a group of tobacco lobbyists years ago. No legislator on the panel was willing to look them in the eye and tell them the truth: Smoking bans were coming and they'd better get used to them. Never a wallflower, Kelly told them the score and was promptly thanked by several of Big Tobacco's finest.

Nowadays in Lansing, legislators lack the gravitas to tell special interests where they stand and just vote their conscience. That kind of gumption wasn't unique to Kelly, by the way; former Gov. John Engler wrote the book on it.

So dear legislators, it wouldn't hurt to think for yourselves once and awhile. You just might like it.

There is a fatal flaw in the current warped situation. If interest groups have carte blanche to write laws, Kelly notes they'll start wondering, "Why am I paying these people $100,000 if I can do it myself?"

It completely negates the need for lobbyists, one of the few growth occupations in Michigan. Little wonder that lobbyists routinely wax nostalgic for the good ole days pre-term limits and the Chamber has sounded the battle cry to extend them.

A few fair fights never hurt anyone. For lobbyists, they even can be good for business.

Friday, May 23, 2008

What's the matter with Michigan?

"When are you going to leave Michigan?"

That's the question my exasperated parents ask me at least once a month.

It's their endearing effort to entice me to move back to Sweet Home Chicago, a magnet for Gen Xers in the Midwest and beyond. They really don't have to sell me on a city with stellar theater, independent cinema, museums, outdoor dining, urban parks and, of course, miles of beachfront along Lake Michigan.

Too bad I'm head-over-heels in love with the Wolverine State, a land of tragically flawed heroes, from Lewis Cass to W.K. Kellogg. It's home to perhaps the finest historical museum in the country, the sprawling Henry Ford, and the rare and used bookstore I could die in, John K. King's concrete paradise in Detroit. We have the unblemished side of Lake Michigan, thank you very much - not to mention three other Great Lakes that carve out our two peninsulas.

But in the eyes of my protective parents, Michigan is the rustiest of the rust belt states - a lumbering, rancid remnant of manufacturing's glory days.

What they see in the news is 6.9 percent unemployment - sadly the lowest rate we've hit in a year, which still tops the country. They shudder about crime rates in Detroit, Flint and Saginaw (not to mention their third-world infant mortality rates).

My Republican accountant father sighs at our business-unfriendly tax structure and my Democratic teacher mother shakes her head at our abysmal high school dropout and college graduation rates.

Those are the problems we've grappled with for years.

But lately, it seems Michigan is even more determined to become the laughingstock of the nation. If we're on tee-vee, you can bet you'll want to cover your eyes.

That's what happens when you're overrun by folks suffering from childhood regression and determined to take it out on Michigan.

There was our 11-month soap opera last year over a budget bleeding $2 billion. We all knew how it would end thanks to our clueless, preening leaders, who at least looked pretty for the cameras before they shut the government down.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm (whose smile beat out two grownups in the 2002 Democratic primary) still had to be the most popular girl in school and couldn't make tough choices. Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, tried to be the Big Man on Campus and lost badly, while House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township, was a freshman trying to be student body president.

In the press box, I glanced up from rereading David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest" to watch rumple-shirted, sleep-starved senators screaming, pouting and almost busting into fisticuffs like 6-year-olds coming down from a sugar high on the playground. And I wanted to weep.

Then there was our January primary, a glorified toddler tantrum by Democratic National Committeewoman Debbie Dingell and Michigan Republican Party Chair Saul Anuzis. (Nyah, nyah, Iowa and New Hampshire, you can't keep us down). Only Saul was smart enough to massage his national party, while Mrs. D flicked off the DNC and got the state's delegates yanked.

While the botched primary permits Hillary Clinton to throw her own hissy fit about seating the Michigan delegation (seriously, Hillz, it's like the struggle to free the slaves?) it really just makes us look stupider than 48 other states plus Guam.

And now Leon Drolet, still trapped in the moody adolescent phase of Ayn Rand worship that sets in when your sweetie says no to prom, wants to "make history" by recalling Dillon. Evidently, the speaker raised taxes all by himself last year.

Boy, I just can't wait for national coverage of Libertarian Leon (neither can he) throwing the state into further chaos.

Fortunately, there is a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens, as Margaret Mead would say, who want to change the world - or the state, more precisely. The Center for Michigan, an Ann Arbor think-and-do tank, on Thursday released its 35-page, common-ground agenda for the Michigan's Defining Moment campaign.

It's chock-full of priorities for the state to embrace leading up to the 2010 election, including education, bipartisanship, quality of life and economic diversification, thanks to hours of work from more than 1,800 citizens. And in the interest of full disclosure, I was one of the wonks who helped write part of the report.

More importantly, the campaign has real-world strategies and is a call to action. In a sense, it's a blueprint for how the Great Lakes State can come of age even with a hamstrung term-limited Legislature, dismal economy and outmoded, underfunded schools.

Newspaper magnate Phil Power started the center after he sold his company in 2005 and decided, "I'll be damned if I will let the Florida sand flow through my toes and stick my hands in my jacket pocket while my state is going to hell."

Former Gov. Jim Blanchard tells me he's optimistic: "I just can't believe the great state of Michigan can stay down."

That's why I love this state, why I want to fight for it. And that starts with my decision to stay put.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Obama checks McCain in Michigan

WARREN - John McCain left the door ajar in Michigan last week with a lackluster town hall - and Obama busted right through it with his own here on Wednesday.

Fresh off a walloping in West Virginia on Tuesday, Obama hit Macomb County to talk trade and jobs with those elusive Reagan Democrats. He'd obviously had a heart-to-heart with former U.S. Rep. David Bonior, the patron saint of organized labor who endorsed him last week and started a stampede of superdelegates.

By the end of the day, no one was mentioning the Mountain State and Michigan was on everyone's lips. It was a brilliant tactical move.

For the presumptive Democratic nominee, Macomb is the mother of all political symbols, crammed with blue-collar workers aloof to his charm and even hostile after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright scandal.

McCain blew his chance to shore up support in the Wolverine State on May 7 with a rambling speech on child pornography and human trafficking in Rochester Hills.

But Obama got that it's all about the economy, baby.

He ditched the soaring rhetoric, long speeches and stadium crowds for an invitation-only town hall meeting for 200 at Macomb Community College.

Obama obliterated Hillary Clinton's hokey critique that he's "all hat and no cattle," outlining detailed plans for jobs, energy, health care, manufacturing, trade agreements and education, like a $150 billion investment over 10 years in clean energy.

"People are anxious about the future and rightfully so," said Obama, his barely-blue sleeves symbolically rolled up.

He even gave a shout-out to Michigan's 21st Century Jobs Fund, saying we should "replicate that all across the country."

He won over folks like Dave Sahlaney, a 67-year-old shuttle driver who was just laid off from St. John Macomb-Oakland Hospital. The Warren grandfather of nine voted for Clinton in the primary and frankly says working-class and white voters have reservations about Obama. But he thinks the senator can win them over.

"He's a real straight-talker; he hits on issues that affect all Americans," Sahlaney said. "I'm disappointed he doesn't go personal with Hillary Clinton's attacks on him, but I respect him for it."

Then Obama capped it off with rock-star rally for 15,000 in Grand Rapids, where John Edwards, the highest-profile "hardworking white American" (as Clinton recklessly described her base) flashed his trademark toothy grin and endorsed him. Bonior's imprint was there again, as Edwards' former campaign manager.

"I felt guilty about not campaigning here," Obama grinned at the crowd, which started lining up more than 12 hours early. "... I decided that in my first full day in Michigan that I wouldn't be fooling around, the same old thing."

I couldn't help but think of Clinton mocking Obama's message of hope, back in February when people still took her and her campaign seriously.

"The sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing, and the world will be perfect," the empress brayed in a singsong tone.

And lo, that is indeed what appeared to happen to both Obama and Michigan this week.

It's ironic that Obama, whose name wasn't even on the ballot, is finally bringing a positive glow to the state, as opposed to the Democratic primary hatched by U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and National Committeewoman Debbie Dingell that only elicited ridicule. Maybe that's why Dingell appeared so dour in Warren, but it could just be because the state party's girl seems down for the count.

One thing is clear: If Obama wins Michigan after a yearlong absence, he'll have Bonior to thank.

Let's not forget that the frontrunner's last foray here was an admirable but combative speech at the Detroit Economic Club on the Big Three's obstinacy on fuel-economy standards. On Wednesday, Obama wisely pivoted, praising their strides in hybrids and vehicle quality while subtly slamming the Bush administration for throwing manufacturers to the wolves of the global economy.

Obama vowed to spend "every day in the White House fighting for you," ending his Warren speech on a note of humility: "I hope you guys will give me the chance."

His Michigan coming-out parties looked like Bonior checking Chuck Yob, McCain's co-chair who's consistently bungled operations here, starting with a 9-point primary loss. With the Democrats' mangled contest, the state was the GOP's to win, but Yob cares only about wooing the far right and West Michigan.

Obama, who sports the finest political operation since the Kennedys, didn't even bother sending three scraggly college kids to keep hope alive here. That was a big misstep, which will cost him some Mitten State delegates. All that changed last weekend with his drive to recruit 1 million volunteers, including an electric event in Detroit.

Bonior acknowledged Obama has ground to make up, but assured me "he'll be coming back on a regular basis." Smart man.

If it comes down to Bonior vs. Yob in Michigan, I'd bet the farm the state stays blue.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Where, oh where, will Hillary Clinton Democrats go?

The newest political trend story is hand-wringing over the so-called Hillary Democrats. Where will these poor ex-Reagan Democrats go in November?

Conventional wisdom says they can't go to Barack Obama, though no one seems eager to bring up race as the reason. Of course, Hillary herself said as much. Some polls have shown more than 30 percent will defect to John McCain.

Ooh, juicy. Only these polls are completely worthless at this stage of the game. After Michael Dukakis secured the 1988 Democratic nomination, polls showed him crushing George Bush The Elder. 'Nuf said.

As usual, the fight will be over independents and both Obama and McCain have their appeal. We'll see if McCain's love affair with Iraq or Rev. Jeremiah Wright hurt in the fall. For now, as the networks say on election night, it's too early to call.

One group worth talking about is the bitter white women who were the bedrock of Hillary's campaign - the ones who claim females who vote for Obama are anti-feminist ingrates and traitors. The ones who swear they'll never, ever vote for the guy who stole her job.

Three words, my sisters: Roe vs. Wade. You want John McCain to have control of your uterus? If you have any doubts, check out his speech this week on his judicial philosophy. Want more? He won't challenge the Republican Party platform, as he once advocated, to include exceptions to abortion for rape, incest and the mother's life.

Still anti-Obama, ladies? That's what I thought.

Friday, May 9, 2008

New Susan J. Demas page on RealClearPolitics

Starting today, you can find my columns on my page at RealClearPolitics. My latest column on John McCain and Michigan is there.

The column also is featured on The Politico.

McCain's not-so-secret plan to lose Michigan

ROCHESTER HILLS - Say you're running for president and dropping by the most economically ravaged state in the nation.

Your Democratic rivals are too busy butchering one another to campaign here, much less notice 7.2 percent unemployment, record foreclosures and skyrocketing demand at local food banks.

So naturally, you'd give a speech on child pornography and human trafficking around the world, right?

It's not that John McCain's 20-minute indictment of these heinous crimes at Oakland University on Wednesday wasn't admirable.

But it was a speech you deliver outside the United Nations, not a few miles from Delphi world headquarters, which just emerged from bankruptcy after shuttering factories and slashing wages in half for many autoworkers.

In Michigan, it's the economy, stupid.

Republican after Republican I talked to, including McCain's most diehard supporters, were floored by the misstep. He has a great shot at winning the Mitten State thanks to a botched Democratic primary, but his advisers seem intent on blowing it.

Most of the 700 attendees stared at McCain with slack-jawed politeness before the town hall portion, in which they hungrily fired off questions about jobs, the Iraq war, fuel-economy standards and even his temper (to which he drolly shot back, "How dare you ask me that question").

My man McCain, whom I proudly voted for in the Jan. 15 primary, is not a born orator. He gives a tired, rambling speech with the same awkward punchlines ("The French now have a pro-American president, which shows that if you live long enough, anything can happen") he unfurled back in the start of primary season.

He also took a long layover in Panderville to appease a crowd more conservative than he, filled with party activists who voted for Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee and cried for days when Mighty Mac crushed them. McCain's lines about trial lawyers, conservative judges, victory in Iraq and nuclear power won cheers; his straight talk on global warming was met with crickets.

Even the barebones traveling press corps seemed exhausted and cranky, perhaps knowing the A-Team was having a blast covering the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama smackdown. During the heat of the Michigan primary, I wanted to break out the popcorn as Time magazine columnists Joe Klein and Ana Marie Cox sniped over who got to cover McCain in Howell.

In Rochester Hills, the only person who looked like he wanted to be there was Michigan Co-Chair Chuck Yob, who held court at the jumbled affair for more than an hour before McCain arrived.

McCain has a window to define himself in Michigan. Democratic hopefuls have barely stepped foot here since National Committeewoman Debbie Dingell hatched her harebrained primary scheme that cost the state every delegate, a mess they're still trying to mop up.

He failed this week. He failed when he turned down the keynote address at the influential Mackinac Policy Conference this month to do a fundraiser in Grand Rapids. McCain's not going to get that many more chances before the Dems (finally) get their act together.

If you want to know why the virtually nonexistent McCain Michigan campaign is wheezing, look no further than Yob, a knee-jerk reactionary who miraculously hung onto his job after spouting off that women make fine secretaries of state "because they like that sort of work."

Yob and his boy, John Patrick, launched a boneheaded West Michigan strategy (their only strategy) that handed McCain a 9-point primary loss. Keep in mind that McCain won a stunning upset here against George W. Bush in 2000, back when his campaign was headed by the brilliant former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz.

The Yobs are completely tone-deaf when it comes to Oakland County, which will be the key to a McCain victory in November. Where was iconic County Executive L. Brooks Patterson on Wednesday? Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop couldn't even make it back to his district because the event was scheduled at the exact same time as session.

That's who you want on stage, not state Rep. Jack Hoogendyk, R-Kalamazoo, the sacrificial right-wing lamb praying to break 40 percent against U.S. Sen. Carl Levin this fall.

What's best for McCain would be turning the Yobs loose to pursue their true passion, polarizing the party and making state Chair Saul Anuzis' life miserable (sorry, Saul, I'm rootin' for you).

When Chuckie was making noises about running for party chair in 2004, Attorney General Mike Cox adeptly surmised it would be disastrous because "he's more concerned with party elections than with beating Democrats." Cox went on to be McCain's state chair, only to quit last summer after chafing with the Yob West Michigan mafia.

What McCain should do now is aggressively court powerbrokers like Patterson, Bishop and U.S. Rep. Candice Miller to be his ambassadors in Southeast Michigan. And he should give his old friend Joe Schwarz a call and beg him to run the show again, since he's about the only credible moderate voice left here who could woo votes away from Obama.

That's just good politics if you're serious about winning Michigan. Your move, McCain.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Susan J. Demas on "Off the Record"

"Off the Record," hosted by Senior Capitol Correspondent Tim Skubick, featured a panel Friday, May 2, of Susan J. Demas of MIRS, Bill Ballenger of Inside Michigan Politics, Kathy Barks Hoffman of the Associated Press and Rick Pluta of Michigan Radio.

The recall attempt of House Speaker Andy Dillon, Gov. Jennifer Granholm's emergency surgery, the Michigan Democratic delegate debacle and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy were debated.

To catch the show online:

Off the Record 5.2.08

Friday, May 2, 2008

The taxpayer revolt that wasn’t

During last year’s budget crisis, we were promised a good, old-fashioned taxpayer rebellion, complete with pitchfork-waving citizens storming the Capitol to impale cowering, tax-hiking lawmakers.

What a letdown.

My old pal Leon Drolet swore there would be recalls by the dozens thanks to boatloads of cash and a groundswell of popular support. But the GOP former legislator has only mustered one real effort against House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township.

And how much has the Michigan Recalls Organization raised in Dillon’s 17th District?

A whopping $5, which can buy you a Whopper value meal at Burger King, as long as you don’t get all greedy and king-size it. I should note that since campaign finance reports were filed through April 20, the group claims to have raised a full $75 more.

Even Drolet - whose best friend is a giant foam pig named Mr. Perks - admits in his lucid moments that a taxpayer rebellion this isn’t.

But no matter - he’s got a good chance of pulling the recall off anyway.

This would, of course, be devastating for the state, as even Republicans know Dillon is hardly the symbol of all that is wrong in Lansing. He was the voice of centrist sanity last year while the state faced a $2 billion shortfall and is the architect of the only notable economic program passed in recent years, the 21st Century Jobs Fund.

If all legislators had Dillon’s intellect, conscience and wit, the state would be in far better shape, even in this era of cowardice and crippling term limits.

Drolet’s henchwoman, Rose Bogaert, fired off a grammatically challenged e-mail to me weeks ago whining that Dillon is personally responsible for the tax hike, which costs the average family $200 a year. That’s about a month or two’s worth of gas price increases, but I don’t see Bogaert protesting OPEC.

Learn to keep a budget like the rest of us, sister. And what were you doing to help save Michigan while it burned last year? Andy Dillon was so sleep-deprived and anxiety-ridden that he dropped 15 pounds in September living off protein shakes.

It’s out of sheer ego that Drolet is hell-bent on “making history” to recall the first sitting speaker of the House. Anyone who thinks Leon, himself a victim of term limits, is content as a mere Macomb County commissioner (which evidently ain’t a time-consuming job) probably believes Mr. Perks is a real porker, too.

No, with Leon, it’s all about headlines (send me a thank-you card later) and what he wants to be when he grows up - be it a congressman or a professional anti-tax warrior with any one of the whacked-out groups in Washington.

So thanks to some wealthy, misguided donors, Drolet amassed $103,000 to boot Dillon.

It’s eerily reminiscent of plutocrats who fueled U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg’s bid in 2006, thanks to the shadowy Club for Growth lobby. It was a trip to call up his donors in the posh enclaves of Andover, Mass., and Santa Monica, Calif., and ask what they knew about Walberg, R-Tipton. None of them, of course, could pick the good reverend out of a police lineup.

Yep, that’s democracy at work.

But on Thursday, Drolet’s group turned more than 15,000 signatures, far more than the 8,427 required to put a recall on the Aug. 5 ballot. The fact that the recallers reportedly had to pay $10 a signature to job-starved, out-of-district circulators and lie that petitions would stop a 12-percent gas tax hike (which was caught on tape) once again shows the deafening clamor to dump Dillon.

Drolet’s made a lot of noise about Michigan Democratic Party “thugs” hired as petition blockers, ignoring the fact that his hired guns aren’t exactly pure as the driven snow. The Pigman has even convinced a couple naïve TV stations there’s something fishy about state employees volunteering after hours to help Dillon in the “war zone,” as Drolet calls it, when that’s standard fare during election season.

And while Drolet makes me chuckle every time he calls with more recall and anti-tax propaganda, his over-the-top metaphors comparing a chief Dillon ally to Bull Connor and raising taxes to rape makes my stomach turn.

Where we go from here depends on voters. Dillon has more than $600,000 in the bank, which will help, but groups like Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform are waiting in the wings to fill Drolet’s coffers.

Sure, the Dems will fight the petitions in court but they’ll lose, just as they did with the blatantly fraudulent anti-affirmative action ballot measure in 2006 (another Leon Drolet production). Michigan law is notoriously inept in this regard.

Dillon can beat the recall flat-out if his supporters turn out, not just the angry mob. If he loses, he can turn around and run for reelection again in November and only be out for a few months.

If either happens, Leon will forever go down as a Lansing punchline. But at least nobody’s started their own revolt to recall him - yet.