Postcards from the ruins

Rush of referendums is bad news for representative government

For weeks now, everyone believed it was curtains for the emergency manager law rammed through the Legislature last year.

We were just waiting for the state to certify that its opponents had, in fact, collected enough signatures to get a measure to repeal it on the November ballot.

Once that happened, the law would be suspended until after the vote. Which probably meant forever, since virtually nobody thought the thing had the ghost of a chance of surviving a statewide vote.

And indeed, last week word finally came that enough signatures had been certified, and the repeal was good to go ...

But not so fast. The Board of State Canvassers last week refused to put the emergency manager repeal on the ballot! Why? Seems that the style of the letters on the petitions wasn't quite right.

The two Democrats on the board said that didn't matter, that the intent of the voters was clear. But the two Republicans said no. Stand Up for Democracy, the group that busted their butts collecting the signatures, cried foul, and headed to court.

They may still win there, but don't count on it. If they do, the case will undoubtedly be appealed up the line to the disgracefully partisan Michigan Supreme Court, where Republicans currently have four of the seven justices. How do you think they will rule?

Outraged workers are howling that what the Republicans did was thwart the will of the people, and they are right.

But Stand Up for Democracy is every bit as much to blame. Normally, every serious group seeking to get something on a ballot brings their petitions to the board of canvassers first, to get their wording, type style, etc., approved. This year, groups as diverse as the ones fighting to save collective bargaining and the one trying to preserve Matty Moroun's stranglehold on trade have done so.

If Stand Up had done that to begin with, they'd be on the ballot today. They didn't, and have paid a heavy price.

Michiganders, however, may end up paying a heavier one, not just with this issue, but when it comes to democracy itself — for other reasons. The attempted emergency manager repeal was a case of frustrated voters attempting to counter an insensitive Legislature.

But more and more, powerful interest groups are also trying to sabotage representative democracy by sticking things on the ballot that would take power out of our elected representatives' hands.

Matty Moroun, no surprise, is in the game. He is attempting to get an amendment on the ballot to effectively prevent any new bridge from ever being built. Unlike the grassroots volunteers of Stand Up for Democracy, his forces are expected to pay to get the needed signatures, something that is, bizarrely, fully legal.

But that's not the scariest prospect. A group called Michigan Alliance for Prosperity wants to essentially take much of the Legislature's power away. They are trying to get something on the ballot that would ban any state tax increases whatever, unless approved by a statewide vote, or something even harder to achieve, a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature.

This group sounds suspiciously like the group Americans for Prosperity, which has been funded by the infamous ultra-right wing oil billionaire brothers, David and Charles Koch. If that is the case, they can probably buy their way on to the ballot too.

Indeed, if all the different petitions out there do get certified, it may take people an hour to vote in November. The unions are trying for a constitutional amendment to protect collective bargaining. Another group wants to make marijuana legal for everyone.

There may also be others floating around. Some ideas I like; some I don't. But the problem is this: The more laws we make by popular vote, the weaker our Legislature becomes.

That's bad, because we have representative democracy for a reason. The Founding Fathers knew most of us would be too busy to see the whole picture, so they set up a system where we elect legislators to do it for us. But now that is being eroded.

We could easily fix this by passing just two more amendments. One, to repeal term limits. The other, to make it harder for special interests to amend the state Constitution.

Otherwise, we could end up with the worst government that money can buy. 

Fantasy Land: There's increasing speculation that longtime Wayne County political boss and fixer Mike Duggan is fixing to run for mayor of Detroit next year. Nolan Finley, editorial page editor of The Detroit News, recently approvingly quoted folks like radio talk show host Mildred Gaddis and former Detroit Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel as saying they "wouldn't rule out," the possibility that Duggan could win next year.

C'mon, people. True, Duggan is apparently in the process of leaving his longtime Livonia home and moving into Palmer Woods.

But does anyone on the street really think a majority of the poor black people of Detroit will vote for a white machine politician for mayor?

These are folks who are resentful now at the state's involvement in trying to steer their dysfunctional and near-bankrupt city.

They are sure to be whipped up by hotheads in the next election — if the next election means anything. There's no guarantee the "consent agreement" won't fall apart, which means Detroit could have an emergency manager by then.

Duggan himself is said to believe he could be elected mayor. If this is so, I would be surprised; he always was a good bit smarter than that. A shadowy figure to most voters, despite a stint as Wayne County prosecutor, Duggan grew up in the Wayne County political machine run by Boss Ed McNamara.

Insiders always said Duggan was the machine's smartest cog, one who took care that nothing stuck to him. Though nominally a Democrat, he managed to orchestrate things so that his good buddy, former Attorney General Mike Cox, a Republican, had no serious opposition when he ran for re-election six years ago.

Duggan would be a reasonable candidate for Wayne County executive if and when the pathetic Bob Ficano is shamed into resigning, or is hauled away by some arm of law enforcement.

He may even be a possible candidate for Detroit emergency manager, if things come to that, though again it is hard to believe the governor would name a paleface. So now hear this: Duggan's chances of being elected mayor are not much better than my being chosen Denby High School homecoming queen.

Other than for reasons of sheer ego, it also isn't clear why Duggan would want the job, unless he genuinely believes he can "fix" the city. All this reminds me of a conversation I had with the sainted Geoffrey Fieger years ago, when he told me he, too, was thinking about running for Mayor of the D. "Brilliant idea," said I.

"There are only three things wrong with it. First, you don't live there. Second, black voters aren't going to accept a white mayor."

"I can buy a house anywhere," he said, which was certainly true. Fieger also believed black voters would back him, thanks to his defending many of them in high-profile cases. I told him I still disagreed, but added that the third problem was far greater still.

"I might be dead wrong," I said. "You might win. And then what the hell would you do?" Fieger admitted I might have a point.

Just what Duggan thinks he would do isn't clear. Perhaps he has some idea of being provincial governor of Emperor Snyder's Great East Michigan Co-Prosperity Zone. In any event — we'll see.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Write to [email protected].