Politics and Prejudices: What the August 2014 Michigan primary meant

There was some good news in last week's statewide primary elections: Turnout was a little better than expected.

True, that still meant four-fifths of the state's registered voters couldn't be bothered to show up. But for those who did, money, for once, wasn't everything. Two GOP millionaires, Brian Ellis and Paul Mitchell, spent vast chunks of their own fortunes in an effort to buy nominations to Congress, and were told no thanks by the voters.

Ethnicity is no longer everything either. A nearly all-black district in Detroit almost certainly will be sending Stephanie Chang to Lansing next year. She will apparently be the first Asian-American woman ever elected to Michigan's legislature.

Two openly gay candidates, Jeremy Moss in Southfield and Jon Hoadley in, of all places, Kalamazoo, also won nominations in safe Democratic districts. The state will send a second African-American and a second woman to Congress next year, and they will be the same person: most likely Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence, the nominee in the grotesquely gerrymandered, heavily Democratic 14th district. (Even in the inconceivable event that these voters sent a Republican to Congress, their token nominee is not only a black woman but, for some baffling reason, John Conyers' niece Christina.)

Ah, politics.

The voters did some other gratifyingly sensible things. Most local schools saw their millages renewed. Voters in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties staved off a new transportation disaster by easily renewing money for the SMART bus system.

And in a superb demonstration that humans are capable of rational behavior, a whopping 94 percent of Wayne County Democrats voted against renominating Robert Ficano, arguably America's worst county executive currently not under indictment.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that there are two Michigans, and outstate, the Tea Party scored some troubling successes. Strong Tea Party voters are the same sorts of people who used to make up the "Know Nothing" party in the 19th century. They are anti-immigrant, anti-gay, and fiercely and irrationally anti-intellectual.

They hate the government — any government — and oppose all taxes, even those that would help conservatives and business (as in, money to fix the roads). They are often fanatically Christian.

On Election Night last week, the first impression was that the Tea Party had basically suffered a defeat. None of their candidates had come close to winning nomination to Congress. In fact, incumbent Kerry Bentivolio, perhaps their biggest star, was going down, losing by a landslide to a slick GOP establishment lawyer.

Yet in fact, the reality was something different. One Tea Party candidate did knock off a sitting Republican legislator. Frank Foster of Petoskey lost to an unknown 26-year-old named Lee Chatfield.

Foster wasn't exactly a raving liberal. But he supported the Common Core teaching standards, themselves largely common-sense standards cooked up by the Republican Governors Association, and more significantly, Foster seems to think gays are human beings.

In other words, he supported efforts to extend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to gay Michiganders. The perception is that's why he lost. That makes his defeat a significant setback, and makes it far less likely other Republicans, even those who survived Tea Party challenges, will have the guts to stand up for human rights.

Additionally, three of the biggest leaders of the Tea Party movement, religious fanatic Todd Courser, his mini-me Cindy Gamrat, and Gary Glenn all won nominations to safe GOP legislative seats, and should win easily in the fall.

For many years, Glenn and his American Family Association have crusaded against women's rights and gay rights; his presence in the legislature will have, at the very least, a chilling effect on any Republicans who may be tempted toward moderation.

What happens next year largely depends, naturally, on what happens in November. Republicans are still likely to keep both houses of the legislature. Nothing in last week's primary results provides any indication as to how likely it is that Rick Snyder will be re-elected over Mark Schauer. More Republicans voted in the primary, although that is nearly always the case.

Terri Lynn Land might have been dismayed, however, if she noticed that about 30,000 Republicans voted for Snyder last week but declined to vote for her, even though she ran unopposed.

What is clear is that, in most cases, Republicans and Democrats, or at least those who we send to represent us, have fundamentally different views about what makes up a family, what is moral, and what the function of government in a modern state should be.

Those differences are getting wider, not narrower, and both sides are finding less and less common ground. That frankly scares me, and would scare me even more if I were young or had children.

If this doesn't concern you, too, one thing is clear:

You haven't been paying attention.

Behind the Scenes

One of the odder things about Michigan politics is that voters have no say in selecting the nominees for two of our most important state offices: Attorney General and Secretary of State. The candidates for those positions are picked at the major parties' annual summer state conventions, by delegates who are sometimes referred to by the elegant title of "party hacks."

Republicans normally run blond women for Secretary of State; a few years ago, Chuck Yob, one of their main strategists, actually said publicly that this was because women "like that kind of work."

OK, so we can't say the GOP isn't committed to diversity. Democrats, however, feel every statewide ticket has to be "balanced," meaning that one of the major nominees has to be black, and one has to be a woman. That's nice in theory.

In practice, what it has meant is that, in some cases, Democrats have lost elections they could've won in the name of preserving ethnic balance. Eight years ago, for instance, they shoved charismatic Grand Rapids attorney Scott Bowen under the bus, even though he likely could've been elected Attorney General. Instead, they insisted on nominating an obscure black former policeman, who got smeared.

Another time, they denied the Secretary of State nomination to the highly qualified John Austin in favor of a black woman who seemed addled, refused to campaign, and even lost Wayne County.

This year, however, they seem to have gotten smarter. Mark Totten, a dynamic former federal prosecutor and law professor, has been campaigning for the Attorney General's nomination for months.

But the ticket lacked a black face, and there was pressure to give the nomination to civil rights attorney Godfrey Dillard.

This had all the makings of one more nasty party split. But behind the scenes, Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson worked out a solution. Dillard, who is also a former diplomat, is highly qualified for either post, acutely interested in voting rights issues, and was persuaded he could do more in that area as Secretary of State.

So unless something happens, Democrats will nominate Totten for state Attorney General and Dillard for Secretary of State at their state convention in Grand Rapids in a couple of weeks.

However, the real question is how much the state party will do in the way to help them; both are stronger-than-usual candidates, but both face powerful incumbents. My guess? They'll keep the bucks for the Senate and governor's races, and leave the others to twist in the wind.

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