Bare cupboards and empty skirts

Mar 30, 2005 at 12:00 am

Recently I was talking to a high-ranking official of one of Michigan’s best universities. She told me she had never imagined she could vote for a Republican for governor, given the far-right nature of that party today.

Nevertheless, this woman, who has spent her entire life in higher education, is more than half-ready to commit to voting for a Republican — any Republican — against Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Why? “She doesn’t get it, doesn’t keep her word and is not a leader,” she complained.

Bingo. Look out, Jennifer; the thinking classes are starting to get it. The reasons why the state’s universities are disillusioned with our governor aren’t hard to figure out. Granholm recently reneged on a pledge she made earlier not to cut higher education budgets any further if they held the line on tuition.

That’s because the state budget turned up out of balance again, as she and everyone else in government had to have known it would. Then, after some handwringing, she violated her promise by cutting universities another $25 million, while promising they might get it back if state revenues exceed projections. They won’t, of course, as Granholm well knows.

The system is structurally deeply flawed, and designed to turn up a billion-dollar deficit every year. That means, unless the Legislature has the guts to fix the system, the state faces painful budget cuts every year, since the state — unlike the nation — is not allowed to run deficits.

Eventually, this death-of-a-thousand-cuts process will so damage Michigan’s vital institutions, especially our research universities, that they won’t be able to be competitive for the best students, or for the best researchers. When that happens, we’re doomed economically, though we’ll probably be able to boast some pretty fair scrap-metal yards.

Now, what a leader is supposed to do is “think outside the box,” to borrow Jennifer’s favorite cliché. That, and come up with a solution that could be sold to the Legislature and the people. Not only has our governor not done that; she hasn’t even tried.

Years ago, when she first ran, I was prepared to be impressed. After years of John Engler, anything that had a pulse, weighed less than 500 pounds, and didn’t sport a Sauron bumper sticker had to look good. But the first time I interviewed her, I was terribly dismayed to discover how little substance and knowledge of the issues Granholm had. What’s worse, her husband had — and has — a penchant for chasing down any loose buck he can as a “leadership consultant.”

Far too often, his consulting contracts came from public institutions his wife has been part of. The mainstream media cared little about that, however; they were falling in love. Why, we could have our first woman governor, imagine that. Besides, Granholm was perfect for the media; trim, cute from a distance and able to give a wonderfully warm and moving speech. Never mind that nobody was too clear afterward on what she said. But when she was elected, I remembered that sometimes people do grow into the job.

By this time, I expected she’d have tackled and solved the state’s structural budget deficit — or at least be fighting for a plan. No way. It’s now perfectly clear that pretty much all that matters to Granholm is preserving her popularity through her re-election bid next year, and then hoping that U.S. Sen. Carl Levin will retire in 2008, when he’ll be 74, opening the door for her to succeed him and split for Washington.

Nothing wrong with that goal in itself; politicians are allowed to be ambitious. However, there are times when a governor is expected to be a statesman. And this is where she fails miserably, every time.

What Jennifer Granholm does do spectacularly well is pander. Having promised not to sign any bill allowing mourning doves to be shot, she turned right around and did exactly that, apparently calculating that she’d gain more votes from hunters than she’d lose from animal lovers. That’s the sort of dreary thinking-inside-the-box stuff politicians have done since evolution began.

She did far worse this month, however. Highland Park is a sadly hopeless little city within Detroit; economically destitute, abandoned by both Ford and Chrysler. Four years ago, the state had to take over Highland Park, as it did Hamtramck, because it just couldn’t pay its bills. Gov. Engler appointed an accountant named Ramona Henderson Pearson as financial manager of Highland Park. I’ve never met her and know little about her, except that she seems to have done a good job.

I say this because I did a study of the city’s hopeless financial situation a couple of years ago. Pearson did better than expectations, erasing some of the deficit. But then Granholm did something that should cost her the vote of anyone who cares about integrity. She fired Pearson and replaced her with a creature from the area’s seamy political past, specifically, one Arthur Blackwell II.

The Detroit News, which I agree with editorially about once per papacy, called him “a nickel-grasping bottom feeder.” That was too kind. In a world where Lonnie Bates was the pinnacle of integrity, Art Blackwell would be suspect.

Forget the fact that his father, ex-Mayor Bob Blackwell, famous for having his jaws wired shut and sometimes running the city from a strip bar called the Tender Trap, did more than anyone else to ruin Highland Park.

Forget the fact that Alibi Art abandoned Highland Park to run for mayor of Detroit a dozen years ago, losing badly in the primary despite tacit support from Coleman Young.

This is a man who hid consulting fees, used leftover campaign funds to build a deck on his home, and couldn’t explain $27,000 in “travel expenses” back during his days as chairman of the Port Authority.

This is a man who once had a $42,000-a-year mayoral appointment with the Detroit Fire Department, but seldom showed up for work.

This is a man, in short, whose appointment to handle Highland Park’s finances makes as much sense as appointing a child molester to run kindergarten sleepovers.

What Jennifer Granholm’s motives were in ousting Pearson aren’t clear. Some say it’s because Pearson took on the unions, and organized labor tugged at Jennifer’s sleeve. Her motives in replacing her with Crafty Art are also unclear, but are clearly bad. He was a cog in Ed McNamara’s oily Wayne County political machine at the same time she was. Since she doesn’t really know or understand the black community very well, my suspicion is that she somehow felt the appointment would help her popularity with black Detroiters, with whom she has never had exactly the warmest of relationships.

Not that African-Americans would vote for Dick DeVos of Amway fame, the likely GOP candidate against Granholm next year. But they might stay home, as they did in 1990, which is how Engler got elected in the first place.

Well, we’ll see whether throwing Highland Park to Honest Art will be enough to turn out the Negro vote. Meanwhile, those who’d like a candidate for governor who doesn’t make them hurl have some hard thinking to do.


Time to honor a heroine: Exactly 40 years ago last week, Viola Liuzzo was murdered in Alabama for supporting civil rights. Her death spurred passage of the Voting Rights Act. The only white woman to lose her life in the cause was a Wayne State student, and it would be a simple act of justice for WSU President Irvin Reid to give her her degree next month at commencement.

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