Lukewarm About Lansing
By Melissa Maynard, Staff Writer
Governor Jennifer Granholm's 2006 State of the State address was an adventure in optimism. "In five years," she said, "you're going to be blown away by the strength and diversity of Michigan's transformed economy."
The five years are almost up, and to most Michigan residents, the only things blowing away are jobs, mortgages and income. Despite modest gains from some of Granholm's efforts to bring new jobs to Michigan — 6,600 in the life sciences, 5,000 in advanced battery technology — the state has had the worst unemployment rate in the nation for 43 months in a row. Granholm's line from 2006 has become a source of jokes and negative TV ads. There probably would be more of them if Granholm were not retiring this year.
"The challenge for candidates will be getting anyone in this state to think in a positive way not just about them but about the state's future," says Craig Ruff, a public policy consultant and former gubernatorial adviser. "The mood is one of high anxiety and considerable gloom. After 11 years of job losses you just get beaten down, and a lot of Michiganians feel that way. It would not be an easy time to be a candidate for that reason."
Given her impending departure, Democrat Granholm can afford to be a little more candid now than she was three years ago. "When you take this office," she says, "you're not issued a magic wand. No governor would have been able to come in and prevent the bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler, or prevent globalization from sucking these jobs to low-wage countries. "
In any event, the race to succeed Granholm has begun. But the word race is a misnomer in this case. Prospective candidates are asking themselves a reasonable question -"Why would anyone want to be governor of Michigan at this point?"- and coming up dry. Despite the best efforts of the state's political establishment, promising candidates have been hard to come by.
This is especially true on the Democratic side, where the field is surprisingly unsettled six months before the primary. The people who would appear to have the best shot at winning keep getting cold feet. First, Lieutenant Governor John Cherry, who was presumed by many to be the nominee, shocked the state by dropping out in early January. Even after more than a year of aggressive fundraising, the well-connected lieutenant governor had raised less than half of the $2.5 million he thought would be necessary. "I had to secure enough money to make my candidacy fully viable," he said in announcing his decision not to run. "I was not successful in that endeavor to the degree that was needed."
Then, on Feb. 10, Denise Illitch, a Detroit businesswoman who traveled to the White House to discuss a potential bid only a few weeks ago, unexpectedly announced that she would not be running. She said the election calendar was too compressed to give her the time she needed. At the time she withdrew, one poll gave Illitch 23 percent of likely Democratic voters, far ahead of the 8 percent received by her closest competitor, House Speaker Andy Dillon. And Dillon himself has not said for sure whether he's running.
Last week, Bob Bowman, a former state treasurer under Governor James Blanchard, also announced that he will not be a candidate. Although Bowman lives in New York for most of the year and merely owns a summer home in Michigan, he was thought by many to be the Democrats' last best hope. Others who have flirted with a run but ultimately opted out include Joe Dumars, the head of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons, and Congressman Bart Stupak.
Governor Blanchard said before Bowman's decision that he thought the former treasurer would make a fine governor and that he would support him as a candidate. But even Blanchard said he would never encourage Bowman to run because he understands what the job will entail for the next governor. "He's got to decide for himself whether he really wants to do this," Blanchard said.
Thad Beyle, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina who studies gubernatorial power, says that he won't be surprised if a number of other prospective candidates on both sides ultimately decide not to run. "They're scared to death of what might be on their shoulders," Beyle says, "and they have good reason to be."
Campaigning in this environment isn't much easier than the job itself will be for the person who wins. Fundraising is a challenge not only because prospective donors have less to give, but also because they have less motivation to give. With the perceived influence and power of state government severely crippled, the state's power brokers appear less likely to donate in hopes of bending the ear of the eventual administration later on.
And to make matters worse, candidates won't be able to rely on state matching funds to fill the gap. The legislature raided $7.2 million from the State Campaign Fund in 2007 to help balance the budget, and fewer taxpayers are opting to donate $3 on their income tax returns than have in the past. The depleted fund contains only $4.6 million to be spread across both the primary and general election. With a large potential field of primary contenders on both sides, this means that none of the candidates will likely receive anything close to the $990,000 per candidate allowed for the primary under state law.
The candidates' specific campaign messages and platforms are still taking shape, and hitting the right note won't be easy. In order to have any real shot at getting the job, some worry they may have to promise far more than any governor can possibly deliver. A few Michigan campaign veterans are warning that this tactic could backfire. "I don't think Pollyanna is going to fly this year," says Craig Ruff, a public policy consultant and former gubernatorial adviser. "There's just too much reality."
But if this is the wrong year for optimism, few of the campaigns seem to be showing it. ""I'm running to build Michigan up," Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero said in a speech that kicked off his campaign for the Democratic nomination. "And if I'm running against anything, it's a creeping cynicism that says Michigan's greatest days are behind it." Alma Wheeler Smith, also a Democratic candidate, insists that "we are a resilient people here in Michigan. We will definitely be back by the end of eight years, and we'll be well on our way by the end of four." It's not clear what is more telling: Bernero's and Smith's positive approach or the fact that they are the only declared candidates for the Democratic nomination.
On the Republican side, Ann Arbor venture capitalist Rick Snyder is confronting the "Pollyanna problem" by promoting himself as the ultimate overachiever, highlighting in a TV ad that he began reading Fortune magazine at the age of 8 and earned a college degree, law degree and MBA by the age of 23. The ad, which ran during the Super Bowl, introduces Snyder as a sort of super nerd who will swoop in and come to the state's rescue. "It's time for a nerd," Snyder says. While the screen shows the candidate tinkering away on a computer at his plan to reinvent Michigan government, a voiceover notes that the plan is "so detailed that, well, it's likely no politician could even understand it." Then Snyder takes a break from his work, throws up his hands, and announces with nerdy enthusiasm that his plan is "the way to finally save our state."
And what to do if you win?
The real work, of course, begins next January. A bipartisan group of longtime Michigan politicos has put together an online briefing book, called the Michigan's Next Governor Project, in hopes of giving the candidate who wins a head start.
Richard McLellan, one of the founders of that project and the director of former governor John Engler's transition team, says that competence and decisiveness are more important to him than a candidate's political affiliation or policy preferences. "It will take three things: money, brains, and boldness, a willingness to act," he says. "The next governor has got to be prepared to act."
Former Governor Blanchard notes that when he took office in 1983, Michigan's unemployment rate was even higher than it is now, at 17 percent, and the state faced a serious threat of bankruptcy. A $1.7 billion deficit was waiting for him on inauguration day. But he managed to win re-election in 1986. His advice for the next governor: "You have to make early and tough decisions and lay the foundation to the future. You don't want to wait. If you wait to make tough decisions, then people will believe that you're just cleaning up a mess you created. But it's tough."
Congressman Pete Hoekstra, one of this year's leading Republican candidates, acknowledges some concern about the factors that would be out of his control — but for which he would be held accountable by voters — as governor.
"You just need to be aware of them," he says. "I can't control the legislature. I can't control what happens on a national economic basis. In any job that I've ever been in, you focus on the things that you can influence and do have control over. You factor in the things you can't control, but you just can't spend too much time worrying about them."