Destiny's child

Jul 24, 2002 at 12:00 am

A woman in a bright green suit enters an Ann Arbor barbershop with her entourage. A young man sits up, excited.

“Are you Jennifer Granholm? Oh my gosh, you are just as gorgeous in person as you are on TV!”

She smiles and points her finger. “Thank you. But what’s important is that I’m effective,” says the state attorney general. “I’m running for governor. Please vote for me on Aug. 6.”

She leaves her fan smitten, a grin on his face.

Upon exiting the shop, Granholm shrugs. She’s often stopped by people who recognize her, and says it’s no bother when she’s called a bombshell. Certainly this lad meant only to compliment, stating he’ll vote for Granholm “because she’s not afraid to get her feet dirty.”

As Granholm, 43, battles to become Michigan’s first female governor and to wrest state government from its conservative reign, comments on her physical appearance — common among journalists, politicians, critics and fans — are the least of her concerns.

Since bursting onto Michigan’s political map in 1998 in a successful bid to become attorney general, Granholm has been a rising star. She became ubiquitous at luncheons, dinners and press conferences. Her campaign has focused as much on what she hopes to do as governor as on her record of accomplishment; from being the first in her family to get a college degree to honors at Harvard Law School; from civil rights activism to prosecuting abusive nursing home managers and rapacious pharmaceutical companies.

In 2000, she joined up-and-comers in addressing the Democratic National Convention, where she praised Al Gore and his watershed selection of Joseph Lieberman, a Jew, for vice president.

Her constant stumping is paying off: Early polls show the Northville mother of three leading the Democrats vying for the party’s nomination.

Former Attorney General Frank Kelley, who served for 37 years, calls her “probably the most qualified and experienced person to ever run for governor” in Michigan.

With the aid of Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara and his powerful network of politicians, contractors and party backers, Granholm dwarfs her opponents in fund-raising, with more than $4 million as of mid-July. She’s the only Democrat who rejected state campaign funds and the $2 million spending cap that comes with them. But she says she’s also the only candidate without a political action committee (which has no reporting requirements), raising and spending money.

Still, her path is not without obstacles. For it is not what she has done, but what she has not, that has some Democrats questioning the depth of her idealism. Her ties to McNamara — whom she served as lead attorney during a time he is accused of granting no-bid contracts to friends, family and political contributors — give many pause. She didn’t call for an investigation into county contracting practices until January, after months of prodding by Lansing Republicans.

As the state’s lead attorney since 1998, Granholm did not take a public stand against Engler’s privatization campaign or his battles against federal clean air standards and abortion rights.

Granholm retorts that fighting Engler was not her job as attorney general. Her constitutional duty was to be Engler’s lawyer, she says.

“I did not select my client. The people selected my client,” deadpans Granholm.

“As attorney general, I’ve been frustrated at what I’ve had to go to court to defend. I think I can restore fairness and justice and balance to the state. Those things have been attacked under a right-wing regime.

“That’s why I want to be governor. As attorney general, my job was not to make policy. I want to set the policy, to bring compassion to state government that has been missing under the current administration.”

In fact, her early struggles with Engler Republicans led to an attempt by some legislators to strip her office of its power; the 1999 bill failed after Granholm launched a scathing defense and Engler backed off.

But critics say she could have done more.

“I wish there was a woman candidate that I could support,” says Detroit Councilwoman Sharon McPhail, who has endorsed former Gov. Jim Blanchard. “But there just isn’t. When you have been in a position to do some things as attorney general and haven’t done them, why should I believe that you’re going to be governor and suddenly you’re going to do these things that you really could have already done?”

Clouds of the past

Granholm grows passionate while talking about civil rights, social justice and her commitment to Democratic values. She is proud of her days as an activist at Harvard Law School, where she and a group of students shut down the president’s office to demand the university divest its interests in apartheid South Africa.

But many ask why she didn’t have a greater impact on Ed McNamara’s political machine.

Granholm was Wayne County’s lead attorney from 1994 to 1998. Numerous reports have outlined problems with the county’s contracting practices, in particular at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Indeed, the airport’s shoddy condition is commonly blamed on McNamara and the county’s decades-long practice of renewing no-bid contracts with companies that provide less than stellar service.

“She should have been investigating that airport,” says Sen. Glenn Steil, R-Grand Rapids, who led a legislative probe into problems at the airport.

Bonior’s campaign says when it comes to McNamara, Granholm was a “rubber-stamper” who “went along to get along.”

“She did nothing to stop the cronyism, nepotism, influence peddling and irregular contracting that has been widely reported in the Detroit media,” says Mark Fisk, Bonior’s spokesman.

Granholm says she did act as soon as she learned of the airport contracting problems.

“We revamped the entire process,” in 1997 and 1998, she says. “We said, ‘Whoa, whoa, this has got to change.’”

Granholm says the county “became very strict” about following the process after the changes. But media reports continue to outline questionable contracts.

Granholm says she didn’t order an investigation because there’s been no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, despite numerous probes and audits. And she defends her old boss.

“He’s been a very effective county executive,” she says. “He pulled the county into the black. We have a new airport now. Yes, there were problems along the way. Those problems were fixed.”

She says there were “contracts that could have been bid. There were lapses in judgment.”

“Should they have jumped on that sooner? Yes. And I think they’d acknowledge that.”

Granholm says McNamara is a “friend and a former employer,” who’s been “great and very helpful,” but insists he’s only one of many who support her.

Wayne County contractors and lawyers who contract with the state are among Granholm’s biggest contributors. But she says she’s in debt to nobody.

“The bottom line is that I’m an independent person and I’m not beholden to anyone but the truth and myself,” says Granholm. “It’s utter nonsense — and insulting — to imply that I’m a puppet.”

Humble roots

It’s 8:30 a.m. and Granholm barely had a chance to finish her donut at an early morning campaign stop. En route to stump in Ann Arbor, she gets excited at the mention of lunch at the city’s gourmet deli, Zingermans.

“I’m a pig. I’m hungry all the time. I eat early and often. Just give me a hamburger and french fries, and I’m happy.” She plots her lunch order with campaigners: hot pastrami on sourdough.

If she doesn’t look like a junk-food junkie, it’s because Granholm is an avid runner. “I love to sweat it out, pound it out. I’m a tomboy at heart.” She hopes to run a marathon and looks forward to a more routine workout schedule after the campaign.

Her stamina is evident on July Fourth, as withering heat mutes marching bands in Mexicantown’s parade. Decked in shorts and tennis shoes, Granholm works the crowd. It’s her third parade of the day and she walks the entire way. By the end of the march, her face is flushed but she’s got more energy than seems possible.

Before the next event, Granholm insists on driving a mariachi guitarist to his vehicle. After dropping him at his pickup, she stops at McDonald’s. While awaiting a Quarter Pounder with cheese, french fries and a Coke, she talks about her history.

As she tells it, she was the first in her family to get a college degree. Her father was the son of impoverished Swedish-Norwegian immigrants and grew up in a cabin with no plumbing near Vancouver, British Columbia. Her father’s father, she says, committed suicide so his wife could get a widower’s pension and feed the three kids. Her father worked as a logger to help feed the family.

Later, as a bank teller in Vancouver, her father met her mother, the daughter of Irish-English immigrants to New-foundland. When Granholm was 4, the family moved to Anaheim, Calif., for a better job. They moved around until settling in San Carlos, between San Francisco and Palo Alto, when Granholm was in the 10th grade. Her father got a job as a bank manager. Granholm enjoyed a middle-class life in the “wholesome” community with her brother (now a Mennonite preacher).

When integration brought racial strife to her high school, she served as a mediator.

She says her family taught her values of goodness and hard work. Her ambition, apparently, came from within.

Hollywood square

Selected “foxiest” in her graduating class, Granholm left dreams of movie stardom at the gates of Hollywood two years after high school. Her only success while living in Los Angeles was as a tour guide at Universal Studios and a single appearance on “The Dating Game.”

The Tinseltown experience inspired her to be something beyond a sex symbol, wife or mother.

“It was very eye-opening. Something in me said, ‘The heck with this. I’m going to show them. This is baloney. Women don’t need to be put in this little box.’”

She graduated with honors and all A’s from the University of California at Berkeley. At Harvard Law School, she was elected editor-in-chief of the prestigious Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review. She wrote about the importance of open government and helped lead protests against the university president.

“I was quite an activist,” she says.

She met her husband, a Yale grad, as he was planning to become a priest.

“My husband is a saint,” says Granholm. She smiles at this and gives a wink, something she does often. With a note of seriousness, she continues: “He’s a saint for marrying me. He’s a great, selfless and caring man.”

Dan Mulhern and Jennifer Granholm took each other’s names when they married in 1986. He’s Granholm Mulhern; she’s Mulhern Granholm. Their kids — Kate, 12, Cecilia, 11, and Jack, 4 — are Granholm Mulherns.

Mulhern, an Inkster native, brought Granholm to Michigan from Harvard in 1987. They lived in Detroit for six years, first in an apartment in Indian Village, then in a home they bought in Rosedale Park.

“We wanted to live in an integrated community. We wanted to stimulate change,” says Granholm.

Granholm wanted to be a civil rights attorney. She worked for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon Keith, a civil rights icon who ordered busing to desegregate Pontiac schools.

“Being his clerk is like being in the entourage for a rock star,” says Granholm.

Keith says Granholm is among the best and brightest he’s seen.

“She was one of my most outstanding law clerks,” says Keith, who draws his clerks from the nation’s best law schools. “She is absolutely brilliant and she is one of the few people who not only have an excellent mind, but a compassionate heart. To have both of those qualities is a rarity. I think she would be an outstanding governor.”

In 1988, Granholm helped lead a picket of Joey’s on Jefferson, an all-white dance club. The story made national news as the protesters convinced the club to change its policies.

Melvin Butch Hollowell, a friend of Granholm’s and a Detroit developer who is running for secretary of state, says most people don’t know Granholm was at the genesis of the protest.

“There is nobody, nobody, who approaches her commitment to doing what’s right on social justice and civil rights. Nobody,” says the African-American Hollowell. “She was a rock.”

After her clerkship, Granholm worked as an assistant U.S. prosecutor and had several other jobs before McNamara hired her in 1994. In 1998, after little more than a decade in Michigan, she was elected attorney general.

Despite her accomplishments, she continues to face sexism.

In the July issue of Inside Michigan Politics, oft-quoted political analyst Bill Ballenger labels her “Bill Milliken in a skirt,” referring to Michigan’s long-serving, left-leaning Republican governor. Stating she hasn’t shown she can overcome adversity or work with Republicans, he adds that she’s “nowhere near the beauty touted by her adherents,” and suffers from “Dumbo-like appendages, wens and moles.”

The Engler factor

As Michigan’s top law enforcer and attorney, Granholm is credited with modernizing and streamlining the office, which handles 30,000 cases annually and represents 200 state agencies and the governor.

During her four-year tenure, she filed criminal charges against nursing home managers accused of fraud and abuse; pharmaceutical corporations accused of keeping lower-cost generics off the shelves; and polluters. She partnered with the FBI to nab online child pornographers and identity thieves. In 2000, she announced 20 charges against companies and individuals accused of selling cigarettes to minors over the Internet.

“She has an excellent record as being a pro-consumer attorney general,” says former Attorney General Frank Kelley.

Mike Knuth, a retired state police officer who served as commander of Granholm’s Internet crime task force, says, though he’s Republican, she’s got his vote.

“She very dynamic … and she’s got what it takes to get Washington’s attention for funding.”

But her critics say she concentrated too much on feel-good fights while Engler ran amok.

Environmentalists like Alex Sagady won’t forgive her for representing Engler in his battle against federal clean air standards. The fight went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it failed.

“She didn’t show much leadership,” Sagady says.

Granholm insists that she had no choice but to represent Engler in the case, and had she refused, the governor would have hired an outside attorney at an exorbitant cost to the state.

Also at Engler’s request, she wrote a legal brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold Nebraska’s partial-birth abortion ban, which did not make an exception for the health of the mother. The law was struck down, thereby negating Michigan’s similar law. Again, she says she had no choice and that no Michigan attorney general ever denied a governor’s request for such a legal brief.

And while the lone Democrat on the six-member state Administrative Board, Granholm voted in favor of more than 16,000 state contracts, including a series of no-bid contracts totaling $141 million for a state computer system and the privatization of a prison.

Bonior’s spokesman, Fisk, says she should have stood up against those and a handful of other questionable contracts.

“She should have said this is wrong. Instead, she went along with it,” Fisk says.

Kelley says the criticism is unfounded.

“Her vote on that board is whether it’s legal, that’s it. I had to vote for things all the time that I didn’t agree with. It’s an absolute bum charge.”

Dawn Phillips-Hertz, counsel and spokeswoman for the Michigan Press Association, say Granholm is a friend of open government.

“I give her “A” marks,” says Phillips-Hertz. “The state agencies under the current administration, they are not fond of openness. And it’s her job to represent them. I think her office has been able to talk sense into many departments,” which wanted to keep documents or meetings secret.

Phillips-Hertz says Granholm hosted seminars across the state to explain open government laws to officials and the public. The meetings were well-attended, she says, and Granholm did a good job of advocating for sunshine.

“Personally, I’d like to see her lose as governor so she can continue as attorney general,” says Phillips-Hertz.

Parsing fancy

Sitting in the backseat of her car between campaign events, Granholm gets peppered with questions about her background and stand on the issues. She often rebuts questions with questions. “Sorry I didn’t warn you, but she has a way of interviewing her interviewers,” quips Mary Dettloff, Granholm’s deputy communications director, from the front seat.

Granholm seems enthralled with others’ stories. When France is mentioned, she bursts into French. At her next stop, she breaks into Latin while talking to a group of seniors. As she greets supporters, she recalls minute details from conversations long ago and leaves audiences entranced.

“She’s the smartest person I’ve ever met, but somehow, she never makes you feel dumb,” says Dettloff.

Yet Granholm’s analytical responses to hard questions have gotten her into trouble of late. In a series of Detroit Free Press articles, Granholm came out smelling like a closet anti-abortionist who waffles on the issues.

She says the newspaper’s charts misrepresented her stand; her mistake was refusing to answer simply yes or no. She says the answers are tougher than that.

Indeed, Granholm seems at times painfully indirect. For instance, she says she would support a repeal of Michigan’s sodomy ban, but did not answer “yes” to register on the Free Press chart. She says she would support repeal of “a number of archaic laws.” Some of her top campaign staffers are gay.

When asked if she supports privatization of government services, Granholm responds, “What exactly do you mean by that?”

Following an explanation, she responds: “To assume the private sector can always work more efficiently is wrong. There’s no reason the state government can’t be the most successful, efficient employer in the state.”

On the other hand, Granholm says she’s not opposed to contracting with private businesses.

Does she support abortion at all stages of pregnancy to protect the health of the mother? Again, her response is anything but direct.

“I fully support Roe vs. Wade,” says Granholm of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows unfettered abortion until the point of “viability,” when a fetus may survive on its own. After that, the court says abortion is allowed to protect the mother’s health or life.

“The matter of health is between the woman and her doctor,” says Granholm.

If elected governor, Granholm, who is Catholic and rides with a Bible in her campaign vehicle, says she would defend a woman’s access to abortion and support an increase in abortion clinics. Eighty-one percent of Michigan counties lack an abortion provider.

“People up North have no place to go. You’re cutting their right to choose. I’d rather work on a decrease in the demand (for abortions), not the supply.”

She opposes legalization of marijuana — “When you start going down that path, it’s a dangerous path” — but she does support efforts among Michigan prosecutors to reduce minimum sentences and create greater judicial discretion on nonviolent drug offenses.

Each of Michigan’s 50,000 inmates “once were children,” she notes.

Indeed, if elected governor, the self-described “moderate” Democrat says she would change the focus of state government.

“Government is there to have a social safety net. It is to be lean, but not mean.”

Investigative reports on James Blanchard and David Bonior are included below:

Reinventing Jim
Ex-Gov. Blanchard — Michigan Democrats' darling of the '80s — says he's older, wiser and re-energized.

Congressional act
Bonior's approach kept him in the House for a quarter century. Now he wants the mansion.

Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]