Stabenow risks it all 

Debbie Stabenow was once lucky enough to be backstabbed at exactly the right time. Five years ago, she was the Democrats’ likely nominee for governor when she made the mistake of showing leadership on an important issue.

Knowing that public education funding badly needed reform, Stabenow, then a state senator, proposed to end property tax financing and start over. John Engler, probably to her surprise, agreed. Then he got voters to raise the sales tax and shift responsibility (and power) to the state to pay for lots of school spending.

Whether that was the best idea is doubtful, but something had to be done. Naturally, that anything at all was done enraged the mossbacked bottom-feeders who led the Michigan Education Association, the AFL-CIO and the UAW.

They wanted revenge, and got it. They managed to narrowly defeat Stabenow in the primary, giving the nomination to a hopeless wanker named Howard Wolpe, who seemed to be interested only in Africa, odd for a white boy from Kalamazoo. Otherwise, he spent the campaign doing an impression of a bored autistic man.

Wolpe was creamed. Stabenow would have done better (so would my guinea pig, Leonard), but it is evident she would have lost badly too; it was the year of Newt.

Had she been beaten then it might have ended her career. (Technically, she was on the ticket as lieutenant governor, but no one blamed her for the mess.)

Two years later, when the hard right looked a little less right, she easily beat a horrid freshman congressman named Dick Chrysler for a seat centered in Lansing; last year she was easily re-elected, as she would have been next year.

But instead, she’s risking it all by taking on Spencer Abraham, the freshman U.S. senator elected in that same locust year of 1994. He is an interesting case; at first, though I knew he was the brainy son of an auto worker who had managed to get to Harvard Law School, I didn’t think he had a prayer in elected politics.

Early that summer, going into Tiger Stadium, I stumbled across Abraham, a sort of goony, moon-faced fat guy wearing, improbably, a stained purple sweatshirt and handing out leaflets. The next morning, he and the same shirt, apparently unlaundered, were at Eastern Market, frightening the chickens. I don’t think so, thought I. Wrong. He won easily, went to Washington, fathered twins, staying a modest littermate behind his triplet-spawning idol and mentor, and started to make a name.

Abraham is deeply conservative. He voted against humanitarian aid for Cuba and against confirming Clinton’s gentle surgeon general, David Satcher, who had performed some perfectly legal abortions. Naturally, he also voted to table a perfectly common-sense bill requiring gun dealers to provide child safety locks with every handgun sold.

To be fair, he hasn’t been completely awful. He has gotten credit for his stand on immigration, probably more than he deserves. Though he clearly thinks the wretched masses ought to stay wretched elsewhere, he did face down more hidebound racist senior Senate Republicans who wanted to reduce all immigration.

The more pragmatic Abraham, whose grandparents came from Lebanon, made the right noises about "a nation largely built on the contribution of immigrants," and succeeded in letting in more of the highly skilled newcomers needed by corporate computer culture. He also succeeded in getting some pothole-fixing money for Michigan, though he got more publicity for a silly-ass fight with a Vermont senator over whether or not to officially call Lake Champlain, a sort of large drainage pond, a Great Lake.

Yet he is seen as vulnerable; he hasn’t cultivated the home folks as slavishly as is prudent. There is also a vague sense he may be a little too far right; he is supporting Quayle for president. He is an average-to-poor speaker, and unfortunately cannot help looking like a refugee, not from Lebanon, but from the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.

Stabenow is a better speaker, and more prudently, has dropped 40 pounds or so the last few years. While from the other side of the spectrum, she also does not fit exactly into the mold. Though anti-NAFTA, one gets a sense she knows that battle is over. Though pro-union, she realizes, as AFL-CIO President Frank Garrison never could, that it is no longer 1936.

Indeed, she talks about "focusing on the new economy, not the old," and of giving businesses tax breaks for donating relatively new, not hopelessly obsolete, computers to schools. Oddly, she seems more interested in using the projected budget surpluses to actually reduce the national debt than does Abraham.

"That would reduce interest rates, which I think may be the best tax cut of all," she said. Both Abraham, 47, and Stabenow, 49, are more "normal" people than many of the exotic creatures (Ronna Romney, Geoffrey Fieger) we’ve been served up as candidates.

Stabenow, long and amicably divorced, has two children; one at Michigan State; the other just through it. She was a folk singer in college and now sings in her church choir.

What all this means is that we might, just might, have the prospect, ladies and gentlemen, of a major contest between candidates who are actually decent people with interesting ideas. That does sounds radical, and we-the-media may yet succeed in finding some sexual peccadillo to distract you. But at least think about it. Hey – this is, after all, an alternative newspaper.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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