Cynicism and sacrificial lambs

I recently chatted with the Rev. Keith Butler, the man Michigan Republican Party leaders have chosen to be beaten by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow next year. They would deny they expect him to lose, naturally.

But they do. If they thought Stabenow could be taken out, congressmen like Mike Rogers of Brighton, or perhaps Candice Miller, formerly secretary of state, would be leaving the poor preacher in the dust.

That’s not happening, however, because Debbie has done nothing politically wrong in her first term. People know her mainly for two things: fighting to allow them to buy cheaper drugs from Canada and fighting to keep Canada from sending its trash to Michigan. In both cases, the Bush administration has opposed her, and in both cases, even most Republicans are on her side.

A skilled politician, Stabenow managed to win appointment to the number three job (secretary) in the Democratic Senate Caucus, which gives her some influence and, more importantly, fundraising clout. In her personal life, she has been as free from any rumor of scandal as the church cookie lady.

Top Republicans with safe jobs looked at this, and shook their heads. No, thank you. And so, a year before the primary, they’ve left the field to Butler and a fellow preacher from Grand Rapids named Jerry Zandstra. (Not to worry if you never heard of him — nobody else has either.)

That means, barring divine intervention, Keith Butler will be the Republican nominee and, barring the sudden revelation that Debbie Stabenow is really Moqtada al Sadr, or his sister, she will win easily, probably in a landslide.

What may be puzzling is why Butler is seen as a legitimate candidate at all. Normally, someone nominated for the Senate has been elected to a number of different jobs before, or has some experience on a national scale. Stabenow, for example, was a U.S. representative and a state senator.

The man she replaced, Spencer Abraham, had been head of the Republican Party in the state, and then went on to high party positions in Washington. Keith Butler, on the other hand, served a single term on Detroit’s City Council, left office in 1994, and then moved to Troy.

He has founded a major religious enterprise, the Word of Faith International Christian Center Church, which he and his family still run. My earlier reference to him as a poor preacher isn’t literally true; he pulls down more than $1 million a year in salary and other forms of compensation from the church.

Well, so much for vows of poverty. That isn’t to say that Butler isn’t an intelligent and accomplished man; he clearly is. He is handsome and an excellent speaker. But why is the state Republican Party, which has nine congressmen and controls both houses of the Legislature, uniting happily behind someone whose political and governmental credentials are so flimsy?

Because he is black, that’s why.

This is a taboo topic, but, more and more often, when a statewide race is hopeless, the GOP these days turns to an African-American. In Ohio, where an enormous scandal has wrecked the state Republican Party, there is talk of giving the gubernatorial nomination next year to the secretary of state, who is black.

The reasons are as simple as they are cynical. If Republicans can make any kind of inroads at all into the black vote, where they normally get 10 percent or less, they will be virtually unbeatable in close races.

That’s why they trot out everybody with even a deep suntan when they have a national convention and the television cameras are around. Republicans are also trying to make common cause on some so-called social issues with some prominent blacks, especially clergymen.

And they are trying to put black conservatives into the electoral arena. Sometimes, this has backfired. Last year, they sent their rent-a-black, Alan Keyes, to Illinois, a state where he had never lived, to run against Barack Obama. Not that anyone was going to beat Obama anyway — but Keyes lost by almost 3-to-1 in an exhibition that was more of a farce than a contest.

Michigan was ahead of its time. Twenty years ago, William Lucas, who had been Wayne County executive, switched parties to run for governor.

Republicans nominated him, partly because the preferred white candidate got caught in an unemployment compensation mess. The great GOP hope was that Lucas would add enough black votes to the Republican base to win, or at least make a good showing. Instead he lost white votes, attracted very few new black ones, and got less than one-third of the vote overall.

Butler says that’s irrelevant. “He was a Johnny-come-lately who had just become a Republican. I’ve been a Republican since 1980,” he told me.

That’s true — but he is going to face an even bigger problem: affirmative action. While the matter is tied up in the courts for now, it is as sure as shoe polish that the “Michigan Civil Rights Initiative,” a proposal to widely outlaw affirmative action will get on the ballot. How does Butler stand?

He refuses to say. “If it gets on the ballot, then I’ll take a stand,” he said, in a statement that indicated a stunning lack of bony material around his spine. But his reluctance is not politically surprising: Either way, he is dead meat.

“The one touchstone for blacks in politics today is affirmative action,” the shrewd Robert Sedler, professor of constitutional law at Wayne State University, observed. Republicans may indeed be able to appeal to African-Americans on a number of social issues. But not on this. If Butler comes out against affirmative action, he will instantly lose any credibility in the black community.

If he opposes the misnamed “Michigan Civil Rights Initiative,” he will lose white conservatives, who will see him as “just one more of them.”

Incidentally, top Republican strategists who are more interested in winning elections than in ideology wish this would go away. The odds are strong that the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative will pass — but cause record turnouts in black communities here, and they aren’t going to be voting for Dick DeVos.

Following that, there are certain to be a raft of court challenges, etc., the net effect of which will not make Republicans look good.

What, by the way, would be the real nightmare scenario for the Grand Old Party? The worst thing that could happen to them politically would be for the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse Roe vs. Wade.

That would cause political chaos, and galvanize moderates against the right-wingers like nothing else. The dirty little secret is that there are millions of women who think abortion should be legal in only three circumstances: “rape, incest and me,” as Ellen Goodman once famously observed.

Opposing partial-birth abortion is easy enough, but most of the 1.3 million abortions every year are in the first trimester, and many of them are middle-class women, many of whom are married, white and Republicans.


When not to play ball: Let’s do the wave for Bob Costas, the nation’s best baseball intellectual, who last week struck a rare blow for principle in journalism. He was asked to be a guest anchor on the Larry King show. When told the topic would be one more show on the disappearance of hard-partying blonde teenager Natalee Holloway, he said no.

By the way, last weekend the body of LaToyia Figueroa was found, a pregnant young black woman from Philadelphia who vanished a month ago. Guess how many shows have been done on her disappearance.

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