Former Gov. John Engler has given Metro Times ample reason to spank his plump bottom rosy red. At times it seemed that he was begging us to do it. And we happily obliged. But pen and pad was no match for the porky politician who mercilessly ravaged the environment, stacked the courts with conservatives, took from the poor to feed the rich, and left Michigan in worse financial shape than when he took office in 1991. And that’s not all, folks. Metro Times reflects on Engler’s dismal legacy.
Green to obscene
Michigan once was among the most environmentally progressive states in the nation. Engler changed that with his crimes against nature, from unleashing the oil and gas industry to polluter protection laws he engineered. Like his cohort currently occupying the White House, a lot of people "misunderestimated" Engler when he first took office, deceived by his comically rotund silhouette and wooden speaking style. But the choke's been on us ever since.
Bad to worse
When Engler took office the state was $1 billion in the hole. But our porky pal has left Michigan in worse fiscal shape than when he took office, due largely to the major tax cuts enacted under his administration — more than 20 in all. Skeptics warned that the soaring economy of the ’90s wouldn't last, and that someday we'd pay a price for all those reductions. As fate would have it, the bill is coming due as Engler exits, leaving a $1.5 billion barrel of red ink for his Democratic successor to deal with.
Down and out
Hell-bent on being a national leader in welfare reform, Engler eliminated General Assistance, cutting off aid to 83,000 single adults. He also saved a mint by dramatically reducing assistance to women with children. In protest, hundreds of makeshift homes went up on the capital grounds in Lansing. But the demonstration was as effective as the "Recall Engler" initiative also sparked by the cuts. You can’t blame folks for trying.
Kicked to the curb
The King Pigman allegedly saved the state millions by closing hospitals for the mentally ill. Sure, some folks had to be dragged — literally — out Detroit’s now-closed Lafayette Clinic. But he accomplished his mission and placed these vulnerable souls in private homes that are poorly regulated. Many mentally ill people wound up in the streets, jails and emergency rooms. Lucky for Engler these costs are not easily calculated. If they were, his plan would likely prove to be a fiscal failure and social disaster.
Though rid of Engler, we are stuck with the ultraconservative jurists he appointed. They are sure to continue his pro-business, anti-plaintiff agenda for years to come. The most blatant example of the state Supreme Court’s hostility toward those who sue was when his appointees suggested that sexually harassing comments made at work may be protected by the First Amendment. Never mind that there is no case law in the country to support this theory. Nor did the attorney representing the alleged sexual harasser raise the issue. Now, the judges are twiddling their thumbs to figure out a way to justify their lunacy. No doubt they will.
The conservative-packed courts also has wreaked havoc on injured workers.
"Engler's judicial appointments have provided a constant attack on injured workers," says workers comp lawyer Ron Glotta. Although the appointees claim to oppose judicial activism, their actions have been just the opposite, overturning legal precedents at an unprecedented rate.
"These people aren't conservatives," says Glotta. "They're radical reactionaries who have been relentless in their efforts to take away benefits from injured workers. The attack has been incessant and unforgiving."
When Big John first sought the governor's office, the insurance industry was there to support him in a major way. It was an investment that paid off big in the years since, with Engler engineering major changes in the laws governing the civil suits filed on behalf of people killed or maimed by faulty products, bungling doctors and the like. Alan Helmkamp, president of the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association, puts it this way: "Most people have no idea the many changes Engler's made that have benefited corporate Michigan and the insurance carriers of this state."
Again, Engler’s judges have been there to pick up any remaining slack.
"People come to me who have been injured, or who have a family member who has been killed, and I have to give them what I call "the speech," telling them they no longer have any civil remedy in this state," says Helmkamp.
Which is why Engler’s exit should evoke cheers from the maimed and broken, the widows and orphans.
Like a good Republican, Engler preaches local rule, but doesn’t walk the talk. The state takeover of the Detroit Public Schools is proof of that. Engler dismissed the elected school board and replaced them with appointees. What’s maddening is that throughout Engler’s reign he ignored Detroit, probably wishing that it would implode. He sure helped shift political power from the southeast to the west. So why the interest in Detroit’s failing school system? Some suspect that he used the school system to beef up his lousy education record in an attempt to get an appointment from Dubya Bush. We see where that got him. No job and more ill will among Detroiters. —Metro Times staff Send comments to
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