Kildee’s dilemma

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Here's how nutty our politics has gotten: Michigan's next primary election for governor is a year and three months away.

People who haven't yet met will marry, get pregnant, and have a baby before that. The November election is a year and a half away.

Yet people (most of them journalists) are telling Dan Kildee, the congressman from Flint, time is running out and that he better and decide now: Is he going to run for governor or not? Tell us, now! Hurry up! This is a new 90-second news cycle!

Even Gongwer, the normally sensible and restrained news service, observed in mid-April, "For an open seat in the term limits era, it is getting relatively late."

Late for what? Kildee is serving his third term in Congress, where there aren't any term limits!

Late for the impatient media, and those looking for a place to park campaign funds, Gongwer might have said. Today, thanks to Twitter, smartphones, and competing cable news channels going 60/24/7, we live, after all, in what we ought to call our "premature ejaculation news culture."

Today, only a geek would dream of stopping to assess things or waiting a week to see how something turned out. I have little doubt that if we'd had Twitter and Anderson Cooper at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we'd have had a nuclear war. (Decide, JFK, decide. He hasn't tweeted in two minutes! Vice news is upset. We're looking weak! Arm the warheads! )

Even an old manual typewriter guy like myself can't help but be infected by some of this. So I went to see Kildee a couple of weeks ago, partly to see what his plans were all about.

I caught up with him in a coffee shop in downtown Detroit. To my mild surprise, he told me something that sounded extremely adult — and sincere. "It's too early."

Gretchen Whitmer, the former Senate minority leader, thinks it's anything but. She officially launched her campaign for the Democratic nomination right after New Year's Day.

Not a day goes by when I don't get a breathless tweet coupled with a fundraising appeal from her.

Kildee doesn't seem unnerved. Yes, he told me, he is thinking hard about running. Part of him would very much like to be governor, if only to try and tackle the structural issues, such as outrageous gerrymandering, that have made Michigan government steadily more dysfunctional.

But he loves being in Congress too — even though much of what he's been reduced to doing is trying to block the worst atrocities of the opposition, like zeroing out the budget for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the EPA.

Kildee told me that when it finally comes down to a decision, "it really depends on where I think I can make the biggest difference." He has an entirely safe seat in Congress.

Were he to stay in it, and Democrats manage to take control of the U.S. House back over the next couple cycles, he might find himself in a position of real power.

But this could also be that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play an enormous role in fixing Michigan government. "If I were to run, it wouldn't be with the idea that there was a policy agenda that only I could execute," he said.

Instead, he would run largely in an attempt to reform our politics "so that what I leave behind is a system that is much more rational and allows the body politic," to elect a legislature capable of listening to the people and getting the job done.

That's not what we have now. The worst part is not that the districts are gerrymandered to ensure all but certain perpetual GOP control. It's that they are so distorted that no Republican dare risk a common-sense compromise, lest he is defeated by an even crazier opponent in a primary. Democrats, meanwhile, have districts that will renominate and reelect the likes of slimy Brian Banks.

Kildee wants to replace that with a redistricting commission "as non-partisan and independent as possible."

If he does want to be governor, this is probably his best, perhaps only shot. Dan Kildee will be 60 the summer before the election; he's eight days older than Rick Snyder.

This may be the best opportunity for Democrats in ages. There's no incumbent. Not only are people tired of the Republicans, who have controlled everything for eight years, the Flint water poisoning crisis hangs over the Snyder administration. Additionally, the party holding the White House almost always does badly in midterm elections.

Trump's unpopularity could add to that. Dan Kildee, for those of you who are still anxious, told me he'd probably decide whether to run by late fall. In the meantime, he said that while it might sound trite, if he does decide to run for governor, "the best way to campaign is to do well at the job I have now."

'Nuff said.

Disgrace at the DWMHA

Four years ago, Tom Watkins, a former Michigan state superintendent of schools, became head of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.

Watkins was a surprise choice, but he was a good one. He turned out to have a passionate interest in mental health issues, and oversaw its transformation of the agency from a crony-ridden Wayne County agency to an independent authority.

He reduced administrative costs, cut deadwood and contracts that didn't make sense, and standardized rates they paid providers. This meant more money for mental health. But in the end, the old culture of cronyism did him in.

He found out that one of the authority's service providers, something called the Integrated Care Alliance, had been slyly tacking on unapproved "administrative fees" to a contract it had. Watkins was properly outraged.

He then went to the board of directors, and asked them to support him in demanding a refund of these fees — which had mounted up to about $1.4 million. But they stunningly voted to let them keep the money, 6-5. The outrage gets worse.

ICA turns out to have been taken over in 2015 by a for-profit company, Molina Health Systems. An unnamed source close to the board told me that a number of its members had close ties to Molina — something no one is denying.

Watkins, in fact, should have seen the writing on the wall. He had tried to terminate the contract with ICA in December 2015, over issues of violating its contract — and because it was the lowest-ranked of all disability providers under contract with the agency. But the board, which hadn't flinched when he terminated several other contracts, stepped in and stopped him.

They also voted to prevent him from terminating any other contracts without their approval. Watkins is a man of principle. A few years ago, when he really needed a job, he was offered a position as superintendent of Toledo Public Schools.

But he turned it down because he didn't have the unanimous support of the board, telling me at the time, "I would have had to make hard decisions, and that would have been impossible without their support."

Now, with his authority clearly diminished, he notified the DWMHA board that he was leaving as of Aug. 31.

This may have thrilled some of the pigs at the trough, but they now need another CEO. Fortunately, there is someone available who is ideal, doesn't ask many questions and would fit in well with the get-along, go-along Wayne County political culture: Robert Ficano, the hapless former county executive.

Don't bother to thank me — it was a pleasure.

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