Dems get one right

Jun 4, 2008 at 12:00 am

Readers of this column know that I have often been sharply critical of Mark Brewer, state Democratic Party chair, and his assorted partners in crime. Well, guess what. I think he deserves praise for helping come up with and promote a sensible compromise that got Michigan's delegates finally seated at the national convention.

For months, it has looked like Michigan might not even be present when the Democrats get together in Denver in late August. That's because the state held its primary on Jan. 15, well before party rules said it was allowed to. Worse, most of the serious candidates, including Barack Obama, took their names off the ballot.

Not very many people bothered to vote. Of the 598,000 Dems who did show up, 55 percent voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton; 40 percent for uncommitted. Based on that ratio, Clinton should have received 73 delegates, uncommitted 55. Now, of course, there is no other choice except Obama. (We learned this weekend that something like 30,000 write-ins, not officially counted, were cast for the O-man.)

The Democratic National Committee had said they wouldn't even consider seating Michigan unless all the "parties at interest" agreed. Clinton insisted on her 73 delegates.

The Obama forces said the whole primary was a farce, and the best thing to do was divide them evenly, 64-64.

Brewer and crew came up with a sensible compromise last month: Halve the difference, and split the delegation 69 for Clinton, 59 for Obama. That was easy for Obama to accept; he had a large lead, and could spare a 10-delegate margin.

However, the Clinton crew went ballistic. (How dare she be cheated out of the illegal delegates she won!) On Saturday, everyone took their case to the rules committee of the Democratic National Committee, which held daylong televised hearings.

You could see Harold Ickes ranting and swearing on TV, all over a measly four delegates. Make that, a measly two delegates.

To punish Michigan and Florida for their rule-breaking part in the primary fiasco, the national committee voted to strip them of half their votes. So now, Clinton will get 34.5 delegates; Obama, 29.5

Much the same happened in Florida, with the delegate vote again cut in half. The result was that Clinton gained a net of about 24 delegates, but she still trailed by a couple hundred or so. That meant it was just a matter of playing out the string. By the time you are reading this, the race may be formally over; the last primaries were held Tuesday.

Ironically, Michigan, which wanted to be first, had its delegates finally awarded almost last. Our delegation was cut in half, and was seated only by means of a face-saving formula.

How did we get in this mess, anyway? To remind you, party leaders like U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Debbie Dingell had the idea of challenging the system, breaking the New Hampshire monopoly, and making themselves key players.

Instead, they ended up crafting a system that satisfied nobody, and left us having less influence over the Democratic nominee than any other state in the union. By the way, they did accomplish one thing: We were the only place in the whole country — including even Guam — where nobody was ever able to cast a primary or caucus vote for the man who won the nomination.

But then, as always, it's the principle of the thing.

By the way, you can bet your last dollar that, even though Levin and Dingell don't like it, Iowa and New Hampshire will again go first when it comes time to pick a nominee four years from now.

And well they should. The beauty of the system is that these are small states where a candidate without much money or name recognition can start to get known. If Michigan had been the first out of the box, the nominees might be Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney — or whoever had the most money to flood the airwaves.

Think about that.

What do you think? Joel Thurtell, a longtime talented and, in my opinion, undervalued Detroit Free Press reporter, was pounced on by management last year after it became known that he had donated money to the Democratic Party in 2004.

Traditionally, those in the media are supposed to hold themselves aloof from partisan politics, especially those who cover the stuff. But last year MSNBC published an article listing 143 journalists who had made contributions, and Thurtell was one.

He didn't donate to a candidate, but to the Michigan Democratic Party itself. When the suits found out, "Free Press editors rewrote the paper's ethical policy to prohibit donations like the one I made," Thurtell wrote on his blog,

"They also told me that if I made another political donation, I'd be subject to discipline up to and including termination." (What is amusing is that people yelling at him in 2007 weren't even there in 2004; the paper has changed corporate owners.)

Thurtell, who was best known for zany features and investigations of nonpartisan scandals, such as polluted rivers and problems at the Wayne County morgue, had an odd attitude about all this; he seemed to think he was still a citizen. "I also said I believed in my fundamental right — regardless of company policies — to make donations without interference from my employer."

The Newspaper Guild took it to arbitration, and guess what? Thurtell won a sweeping victory. Paul Glendon, the arbitrator, ruled that the Free Press had failed to show that Thurtell's contribution in any way compromised or affected the paper. Furthermore, the arbitrator threw out the new ethics policy forbidding contributions. This may come as a blessing for Freep Editor Paul Anger, who contributed $175 to the Political Action Committee of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. He said he was reimbursed by Gannett. (Isn't that the sort of thing for which they are trying to put Geoffrey Fieger in jail?)

Thurtell says the ruling "means, I believe, that Free Press staffers are free to make political contributions of their own in this highly political presidential election year."

So, OK, what does "Politics & Prejudices" think about that? Clearly, journalists are citizens, and have a right to have opinions. Frankly, I think we are better off most of the time when people reveal, instead of conceal, their true colors.

On the other hand, there are exceptions, and anyone who covers politics full-time cannot ethically take sides or make donations. There are many reporters who have strong opinions — and expertly and adroitly manage to keep them out of their reporting.

Personally, I don't think journalists should contribute financially to any partisan campaigns. But the media function as they do by grace of the First Amendment, and journalists also have rights as human beings.

There's room for debate on this issue. Incidentally, The guild wanted the arbitrator to lift the threatened discipline against Thurtell, but he declined, saying it was moot. Why?

No fool he, Thurtell, seeing the way things were going in Detroit journalism, took a buyout late last year, and happily retired to work on two books about polluted rivers.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]