Our democracy at (sort of) work

Last month, the Michigan Democratic Party held a statewide convention that offered us a lot of good reasons to not call ourselves Democrats.

For some reason, Michigan is stuck in the bad old smoke-filled-room days when it comes to selecting candidates for two of the most important state offices there are — secretary of state and attorney general. Even Ohio has a primary in which voters get to choose these nominees.

Not our Water-Winter-Wonderland, however. (We used to call ourselves that on the license plates, back when people drove American cars.) Here, the nominees for those jobs are selected by the delegates to the party conventions.

What that means in reality is that they are selected by the party bosses; organized labor, particularly the United Auto Workers, gets what amounts to veto power. Years ago, as a wee lad in short pants, I was attempting to puzzle out why they seemed to pick so many hopeless idiots.

A wise (slightly) older woman, Ferndale's Betty Howe, who had been a member of Gov. Jim Blanchard's cabinet, took me by the hand and taught me about the meaning of life: "Young man, they don't care very much about who can win an election, most of the time. They care only about controlling the process, and being able to say who gets to go to dull meetings in boring cities with bad food." Suddenly, with a blinding realization, I lost my political virginity.

Little has changed. Let's look at what happened this year (as anticipated in this paper's News Hits column). For attorney general, Democrats nominated Amos Williams, a 59-year-old retired Detroit cop who earned a degree from the Detroit College of Law.

They took him over Gov. Jennifer Granholm's reported choice, M. Scott Bowen, a 41-year-old attorney and former judge from Grand Rapids. Dems have been making inroads on the west side of the state, and polls showed Bowen running almost neck-and-neck with the incumbent Republican, Mike Cox. Williams, on the other hand, trails badly.

But winning isn't, as Betty told me, the only thing — or even the main thing. Bowen, to be sure, is personally anti-abortion — not a popular stand in any Democratic crowd. But he firmly said that Roe vs. Wade was the settled law of the land, that he would enforce it, and that Michigan's attorney general had little to do with national abortion policy and plenty of other statewide problems.

His real problems, however, were two. Some told me that Bowen perhaps did not cultivate (meaning, grovel to) the unions sufficiently. In any event, they clearly preferred Williams. And so did Detroit's large mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick — and that mattered more this year than it normally would.

That's because Granholm desperately needs him, or thinks she does. Here's the backstory: The Canadian girl from California has never been overwhelmingly popular among black folks in the D — she finished third there in the primary three years ago, when she won everywhere else.

But she needs a big turnout in Detroit — and any Democrat's 94 percent support — to have any hope of getting past Dick DeVos and his millions this November. It's worth noting that her last opponent, cardboard Dick Posthumus, won a majority in the rest of the state. Detroit bailed her out.

Last year, she made it pretty clear that she would have preferred Freman Hendrix in the mayoral race. Oops. Sixteen years ago, Coleman Young "endorsed" Jim Blanchard, but got mad at him and sat on his hands on Election Day. As all the world knows, that gave us John Engler.

So now the governor needs to make nice with Hizzoner or risk having to go look for honest work in January. And Kwame Kilpatrick was insisting on Amos Williams for one and possibly two reasons — neither of which had anything to do with the fact both are black Detroiters.

The first was that Kwame's main goal was to destroy the candidacy of State Rep. Mary Waters, another black Detroiter who wanted to be the Democratic nominee for secretary of state. She committed the cardinal sin of openly endorsing Freman Hendrix last fall, when the lynch mob was sure he'd win. The mayor knew the Democrats would never put two blacks on the statewide ticket. Getting Williams on was the best way to keep Waters off.

And there are some who said there were more sinister motives. Mike Cox startled some when he refused to press an investigation into the famous "party" allegedly held at the Manoogian Mansion early in the mayor's glorious first term.

Some say that the mayor, in return, didn't want a candidate to give the former Wayne County assistant prosecutor too much of a hard time. That may be too Machiavellian, granted. But there is no sign that either Cox or Kilpatrick objects very much to each other's presence at the table.

Once Williams was assured, Waters was deep-sixed, and Democrats turned to one Carmella Sabaugh, the longtime Macomb County clerk. Actually, Sabaugh hadn't known she was a candidate till about then, but sometimes, as was said in Alice in Wonderland and Karl Rove's office, you hold the execution first, then the trial.

So the Democratic ticket was duly assured. I should note here that I do not personally know any of these candidates. I know nothing bad and a fair amount of good about Amos Williams, who served his country in Vietnam and was exposed to Agent Orange; eventually, he lost his arm.

And Carmella Sabaugh sounds more qualified for the job than Mary Waters. She is at least as qualified as Terri Lynn Land was four years ago. Land had been Kent County clerk; Macomb County is far larger and more complex.

It's also nice to see an end to the Democrats ghettoizing this position; since 1966, every Democratic nominee for Secretary of State has been black (counting Richard Austin's 24 years in office). Interestingly, had Kilpatrick been more magnanimous, it would have cost him nothing to bless Waters' nomination. The chances of anybody beating popular, well-funded Terri Land in November are slim to none.

So that's the Democratic process at work. Oh yes — they also nominated a host of "down-ballot" offices. Here, recognizable names matter. Therefore Debbie "wife of" Dingell was picked for the Wayne State board. She is a powerhouse in her own right, and that nomination makes some sense. More so than nominating former (and fired) Michigan State football coach George Perles for the MSU board.

Republicans did less mischief at their convention, mainly because all the top spots were already determined. They get the award, however, for picking the absolutely worst candidate for any job. That would be Tom McMillan, the former Auburn Hills mayor who became famous for his hatred of gay people. He was so over-the-top that L. Brooks Patterson called him a member of the Taliban, and once famously gave him a kiss to make fun of his obsession.

The Republicans saw fit to nominate this character for the State Board of Education, in what, I presume, was a concession to Right to Life.

They are hoping you don't notice. You damn well better.


I deserve a caning: Two weeks ago, in a column chastising the newspapers for failing to note the importance of scientist Iris Ovshinsky's death, I accidentally said she died near her home in Farmington Hills. It was actually in West Bloomfield; the funeral home was in Farmington Hills. I should be beaten.

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