Michigan's Time to Get Real

Dec 13, 2006 at 12:00 am

His announcement itself didn't get much attention, and almost nobody realized the full implications of it. But U.S. Sen. Carl Levin may have done the state of Michigan an enormous favor, possibly by accident.

Last week Levin, soon-to-be chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced he is going to run for re-election two years from now. That in itself wasn't much of a surprise. Why wouldn't he run?

The longest-serving senator in Michigan's history is about to have a lot more power at exactly the time when the nation seems ready to take a hard look at our disastrous war in Iraq, a mess that will take years to clean up.

The senator is still healthy and vigorous, and seems younger than his 72 years. By Senate standards, he is barely moving into middle age. He is also unbeatable. Five years ago, the Republican Party couldn't find anybody to run against him except a term-limited state legislator.

Next time, they may have to settle for SpongeBob SquarePants, or maybe rent Alan Keyes, a black man the GOP likes to run in hopeless races in various states. (He was last seen making a fool of himself in the Borat movie.)

What is unusual is that Carl Levin declared his candidacy now, rather than waiting a year, which a man in his position normally might have done.

I am not sure why he announced so early — but here's why it was a great thing. This means Jennifer Granholm can now concentrate fully on nothing except being the best possible governor she can be — at this time, when Michigan desperately needs her to be fully engaged with our collapsing economy.

The speculation for years has been that if Levin didn't run, she would jump into the Senate race. That would mean — unless she resigned from office — we would have a governor only partially focused on her job. We would also have a governor who was in perpetual campaign mode — and who would be tempted to avoid any kind of difficult decisions that might cause short-term pain.

Now, we won't have to worry about that. Thanks to term limits, Jennifer Granholm can't run for governor again. Thanks to political realities, there is virtually nothing she can run for in the foreseeable future.

The two U.S. Senate seats are held by Democrats, who will be there, barring an act of Krishna, for years and years. Her Canadian birth makes her ineligible to ever run for president or vice president. About her only avenue of advancement would be joining some future Democratic president's cabinet.

That means she has no incentive not to make the hard decisions she needs to for the good of this state. Last week, I talked to her for nearly half an hour, the first time I had done so in — well, years. Longtime readers of this column (hi, Mom!) know that I have sometimes been harshly critical.

But based on that conversation and a few other signs, I am cautiously optimistic that she may be far more willing now to do the right things.

First of all, I think she largely gets what a serious mess Michigan is in. Last week I was at the residence of the Japanese consul general, where I talked with one of the nation's leading auto economists. This man — and others like him — thinks it very likely that Ford Motor Co. will go bankrupt and be sold off piecemeal in the next few years. In fact, he said he was certain Ford was dead, "if there is a national recession, and unemployment rises 2 percent."

He paused. "Do you realize that Ford has more than 30,000 employees in Wayne County alone?" he asked. "Do you know what that could mean?

Ironically, he told me the Japanese and Toyota were trying hard behind the scenes to prop up Ford. Why? They fear the political backlash if it should go under, and also — "Toyota sales are increasing too fast. They are worried about eroding quality standards. They can't train enough new managers fast enough in the Toyota way," he said. "Do you know what their fear is?

"That they will become General Motors." In other words, a sloppy company with mostly mediocre products.

Think about the implications of that for GM's attempt to penetrate world markets. Whether or not Ford and General Motors survive, it is a new world. Jennifer Granholm does know this. You have four years, I said to her, after which you can never be governor again. What are your top priorities?

"Transformation of the economy. It's all about transformation of the economy," she said. To do that, she noted, we need a better-educated work force. What encouraged me most was a new willingness to stand up to the Legislature. Both houses have been meeting in a lame-duck session.

For now, they are both controlled by Republicans. Next month, the Democrats will control the state House and have another seat in the Senate.

These are the jokers who last fall, in a brazenly political move, abolished the main state tax on business without putting anything in its place. That leaves a $1.9 billion hole in the state budget. (No problem, if you want to destroy the state's universities and turn all the prisoners in the state loose.)

Republicans are hoping to partly replace that revenue and give business a $500 million tax cut. Without a doubt, that would badly damage education in this state, and Michigan's chance at competing in the future.

To my pleasant surprise, Jenny threw down the gauntlet and offered them a sensible plan that she said was "revenue-neutral." That meant it would replace the $1.9 billion, but no more. But would the troglodytes pass it? Why not wait till you have a more favorable crew coming aboard in January?

"I could do that," she said cheerfully. "But we have a lot of new legislators coming in who haven't been studying tax policy. Besides, these are the guys who made the mess. They did the easy part — abolishing the tax.

"They should have to clean it up. My message to business is, 'Hey, this is a pretty good deal, and you might want to take it, because you may not be able to get as good a deal in January.'" This was a tone I hadn't heard before.

Whether she manages to get the tax replacement through before Christmas seems unlikely. She did, however, get her merit scholarship program, now renamed the Michigan Promise Grant, boosted from $2,500 to $4,000, for any kid who manages to get through at least two years of college.

That isn't enough, of course; tuition alone at Michigan universities costs an average of $7,660 a year, with books, room and board on top of that. But it will help. A lot of these kids can't look to their parents for much help, with the torrent of auto layoffs and buyouts coming. The governor is big on retraining programs and on encouraging those with buyouts to start businesses.

She also said she would keep fighting for state-sponsored health care coverage — and would continue to push the Legislature to leave the Middle Ages behind by legalizing embryonic stem cell research.

How successful will she be? Republicans still control the state Senate. In the past, when the going got tough, this governor, more than once, has caved in.

This time it badly needs to be different. Let's hope it is.

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