Reinventing Jim

It’s three weeks before the primary election, and former Gov. Jim Blanchard is spreading his gospel of reform in a conference room at the Atheneum hotel in Greektown.

His pulpit is a podium, plastered with bold lettering that reads “Blanchard for 2002.”

His congregation is a predominantly black audience of supporters who have come to witness his endorsement by eight present and past Detroit City Council members. They flank the politician on each side, his choir of acolytes.

As Blanchard hammers home his promises to fix the economy, the schools and the roads, the audience enthusiastically interjects comments of “That’s right!” “Yes, sir!” and “Uh huh!”

Fueled by the crowd’s enthusiasm, Blanchard’s voice — normally mild and clear — escalates to a booming resonance. When he pounds the podium with his fist and shouts that the times call for proven leadership, an elderly gentleman in a three-piece suit slaps his knee and roars “It sho does!”

The revival overtones seem fitting, because Jim Blanchard is attempting to revive a political career that peaked in the Reagan era.

After serving two terms as Michigan governor from 1983-1991, Blanchard is back for more. He says he is wiser, more experienced and eager to tackle the job once again, this time with a fresh yet veteran perspective.

He has name recognition — and with that recognition comes the sometimes sour memory of his surprising and narrow defeat in 1990 by John Engler. Some Democrats blame him for 12 abysmal years of Engler, while others feel his return is well-timed and fortuitous.

So what has the “Boy Guv,” as he was once called, been up to for 12 years?

Why now?

Blanchard has spent the past decade bouncing back and forth between Canada, Washington, D.C., and his hometown of Beverly Hills. He was a prime supporter of Bill Clinton, and in 1993 Clinton named Blanchard ambassador to Canada. He wrote a book about the experience, and says his accomplishments as ambassador included implementing the North American Free Trade Agreement, maintaining border and trade relations and broadening his international experience. After he left the position in 1996, he joined a law firm in Washington, D.C., maintaining a number of clients in Michigan, including General Motors.

Blanchard’s vast and varied political résumé is his prime selling point. However, a new generation of younger voters may not remember him, and those who do may not do so fondly.

Blanchard says he’s returning now because “I love this state. I love the people in this state. We’re in a downward slide, and I believe I can turn it around.”

It’s a declaration that rings hollow in some Democratic quarters.

Alex Sagady, an environmental consultant from East Lansing and creator of the Enviro-Mich listserv, is ambivalent about Blanchard’s environmental record. But when it comes to his overall opinion, Sagady, a David Bonior supporter, does not mince words.

“My personal feeling is that the guy had his chance,” says Sagady. “His lack of enthusiasm for his job at the end of his last term gave us Engler — 12 years of Engler. No Michigan Democrat should forget that.”

Ron Aronson, professor of humanities at Wayne State University and a self-described lifelong radical, feels Blanchard’s return is too little, too late.

“It’s not so much that he lost in ’90 narrowly, it’s that he lost and went away,” says Aronson. “He went away from Michigan and its problems, and we’ve gone through 12 years of an attack on working people.

“Now, it seems like a shoo-in election for the Democrats, and I think he sees this as easy pickin’s. I’m not sure that’s true, maybe he had a sudden conversion, and maybe he really does like Michigan and the people and all that. But, it just seems like too much of a coincidence for someone who wasn’t around fighting against Engler to come back now.”

Blanchard says his time away from Michigan helped him evolve as a leader and gain a fresh perspective. He says his ambassadorship provided extensive experience with international relations and trade, which he would apply to Michigan, by increasing Michigan’s exports to create new jobs and revenue, and promoting Michigan’s industries both nationally and internationally. He was inspired by Canada’s ability to revitalize neighborhoods, cities and roads, and hopes to create similar progress in Michigan.

Seeking the governorship in ’94 or ’98 was never a consideration for Blanchard.

“In ’94, I had just started my assignment as ambassador, and I really thought at that time — and I think the Democratic Party leaders did too — that we should allow someone new to run,” he says.

“Then in ‘98, I had just arrived back here, I had two people that had worked for me running, plus Geoffrey Fieger. And, I’m not sure I had the perspective of time, or the freshness that I bring now, being out 12 years, having done so many other things.”

Blanchard’s supporters say his return comes at the perfect time, both for the politician and for the state.

“I really feel we need strong leadership to come back into the state,” says Carl Martin, a Lansing resident and past president of the Central Michigan Law Enforcement Association. “He’s always been for the people, and I feel that’s important with the hard times we’re facing right now and what lies ahead.

“I think he’s learned from his mistakes, and with the experiences he’s had since his last term, he’s going to come back and be an even better governor than the first time around.”

Focused on Detroit

Depending on who’s talking, Blanchard’s record with Detroit is either triumphant or problematic.

Prior to his governorship, Blanchard was a congressman. He authored the Chrysler Loan Guarantee Act, which bailed out the declining auto giant — at the time, the largest employer in Detroit. The act saved thousands of jobs and earned Blanchard considerable respect and praise.

However, while he was governor Blanchard butted heads with former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young on occasion.

“There were tensions in the relationship between the two of them,” says Young’s former press secretary, Bob Berg. “There were times when Coleman felt Blanchard was not as forceful as he should have been in terms of looking out for the best interest of Detroit, and that affected their relationship.”

Detroit City Councilwoman Sharon McPhail, one of Blanchard’s endorsers and a close friend of Young’s, says the former mayor later regretted the spats, and wished Blanchard had been re-elected.

“A number of times when I spoke with [Young] before his death, he talked about how horrendous things were in Detroit because of Engler, and he said he regretted not working harder to re-elect Jim,” says McPhail. “He supported Jim, but he didn’t work as hard as he could have to get Jim re-elected, and he often said he wished he had.”

Blanchard won the city of Detroit in ’90, but lost the election statewide by 1 percentage point.

“Had Mayor Young worked harder to get people out to vote for Jim, he would have won, no doubt,” says McPhail. “I don’t think we should make that mistake again. Here’s a guy that’s good for the city, with a solid track record. Jim doesn’t pander. He can really hit the ground running, and I think he will. He is the best candidate for the city of Detroit.”

Blanchard — and most of Michigan — was surprised when Engler ousted him in 1990. Engler was an underdog that most Democrats didn’t take seriously. Early polls had Blanchard with a 20 percent lead. He chalks the loss up to low voter turnout statewide and having a difficult time getting voters “energized.”

To win this time around, Blanchard has been heavily campaigning in Detroit for 16 months. He’s gained the support of many clergy, former Mayor Dennis Archer, former mayoral candidate and Detroit police chief Gil Hill, as well as the blessing of four current City Council members.

He promises to fix the roads, by appointing former MDOT director Jim Pitz to head a task force composed of automotive executives, business and labor leaders and local officials. He feels MDOT has become “too political, and too short-term,” and plans to re-examine the relationship between MDOT and local governments, and how the money is managed.

He wants better public transit in Detroit and surrounding areas, and favors creation of the Detroit Area Regional Transit Authority (DARTA). The bill, supported by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and currently under consideration by the state Senate, outlines better regulation and expansion of bus services in Detroit and its suburbs.

Blanchard has produced a 23-page booklet detailing a new economic and educational plan. It focuses on closing the technology gap, expanding promotion of Michigan industries beyond manufacturing, resisting school vouchers and expanding the Michigan Education Trust, a sort of creative layaway plan to fund college. He’s also proposed the Michigan Community Partnership, a 50-point urban agenda that calls for improved neighborhood dialogue about race relations, grants for community groups and the creation of state parks in cities, including Detroit.

Blanchard says he is exceedingly fond of the city of Detroit, especially childhood memories of Tiger Stadium.

“Unlike most people, and certainly most white politicians, I feel comfortable anywhere in Detroit,” he says. “I could go anywhere in Detroit, and feel friendship and warmth and love. I’d feel safe.”

“I think Blanchard sees that Detroit needs a resurgence, and it needs a renaissance,” says Patricia Dignan, a Blanchard supporter and the executive director for student achievement in Detroit Public Schools. “Detroit is poised on the edge, and the next governor will either push it into the water or make it rise above its ashes.”

Youthful energy

Blanchard has the distinguished yet approachable politician look down pat. He has bright blue eyes that focus intently on whomever he is addressing. Blue is his favorite color, and he almost always wears a crisp button-down shirt the same color as his eyes, along with a maroon or red tie and a navy blue blazer. His short brown hair is dusted with flecks of gray, and he’s trim and tan, thanks to regular workouts on a treadmill and golf.

He was raised by a single mother in Ferndale, and grew up without “money, power or privilege,” as he is fond of repeating. As a schoolboy, he dreamed of being a professional baseball player and was an avid athlete. The sparks of politics ignited in high school when he decided to run for student council. He says he initially wanted to run for vice president, but was discouraged by the other council members, who suggested he run for secretary.

“I told my mother about it, and she said, ‘What is that all about? You could be president if you wanted. Why are you letting them talk you down?’” he recalls. “It’s about the only time my mother ever pushed me.”

He ran for president, and won.

“I won big. I bowled everyone over,” he says, his eyes lighting up at the memory. “Then I looked at myself differently, and thought, ‘I’m a good team player, but I can lead the team as well.’ And from that point forward, I went to college, was president of the class, became a U.S. congressman, then governor, then ambassador ...”

Supporters and detractors alike agree that Blanchard possesses seemingly boundless energy.

Although he will turn 60 a few days after the primary, he looks 10 years younger, and has the drive of a man in his 20s. To keep up with his whirlwind campaign schedule, Blanchard has filled key staff posts with young people. Erik Mueller, his press secretary, is 30 and fresh out of graduate school. The campaign finance coordinator, Doug Skrzyniarz, is only 25.

“We’re all very energetic and I think he purposely picked younger people who can match his level of enthusiasm,” says Skrzyniarz. “We’re young, so we still have a lot of innovation and creativity and idealism left.”

Two other twentysomething campaign members have joined forces to create “Gen X for Blanchard” — a committee that targets the notoriously no-show group of 18- to 30-year-old voters. Ericka Walker, the 27-year-old co-coordinator of the Gen X committee, says Blanchard is the best choice for young voters because of his commitment to create new jobs.

Blanchard, she says, is “promising to attract employers to Michigan that young professionals in particular will want to stay to work for, and come back [for] if they’ve left the state.”

Skrzyniarz adds, “For someone like myself who’s just out of college, it’s not easy to find a job, and in my opinion Jim is the only candidate who has a plan to create new jobs, especially for people who are just coming out of college.”

Stacking up

Aside from the occasional barb, the Blanchard campaign has little to say about the primary competition. Blanchard has criticized Jennifer Granholm’s stance on abortion, stating she wavers and has given a “wink and a nod to the pro-life” contingent. He has said almost nothing about Bonior. He’d rather tout his own issues than discuss his foes.

“I think he could be more vocal than he is,” says McPhail. “It’s not mudslinging to critique someone’s performance. But he thinks [remaining silent] is the right thing to do. He has a lot of integrity, and he’s head and shoulders above everyone else.”

Blanchard finds himself in the peculiar position of opposing a candidate he once helped financially. Through a PAC, Blanchard gave Granholm money for her campaign for attorney general. He now feels torn about the decision.

“I thought she would stay there, and not within a matter of a year and half be running for something else,” he says. “That is a disappointment to me.”

Now Blanchard trails Granholm considerably in terms of campaign money.

To date, Blanchard’s campaign has raised approximately $1.5 million in private funds. Like Bonior, but not Granholm, he’s opted into the state program that provides campaign grants based on the number of contributions of $100 or less a candidate accumulates. Candidates in the program cannot spend more than $2 million.

“David Bonior has raised comparable to what we’ve raised,” says Skrzyniarz, the finance coordinator. Granholm is close to double that figure.

“Jim’s base of donors is very diverse,” says Skrzyniarz. “We don’t have all of our money coming from big-name trial lawyers and unions. We have schoolteachers, entrepreneurs, retirees, UAW members; it comes from a very diverse group of people, in terms of geographic location, occupation, age and race.”

Skrzyniarz says Blanchard’s contributors include National Democratic Women’s Network chair Virginia Rollins, former UAW regional director Ken Morris, state House minority leader Buzz Thomas, Detroit NAACP President the Rev. Wendell Anthony, and businessman and former Detroit Piston David Bing.

According to Skrzyniarz, less than 5 percent of donations made directly to Blanchard’s campaign fund come from political action committees.

However, as Granholm has pointed out, both the Blanchard and Bonior campaigns are supplemented by so-called “soft money” from PACs ostensibly independent of the campaign. That money does not count against the $2 million spending limit.

The Citizens for Responsible Leadership Committee is supporting Blanchard, as well as 15 other candidates for statewide and local offices.

Larry Owen, the committee chair, says the PAC has raised in excess of half a million dollars, and that “the lion’s share” of the money is being spent on Blanchard. The committee has funded two television ads as well as neighborhood campaign efforts. Owen would not disclose any specific donors until July 27, when the committee files its second report.

The women’s vote

Blanchard takes a sip of cola from a plastic cup, and carefully wipes his mouth with a paper napkin emblazoned with the American flag. He’s standing in the plush living room of one of his supporters, Mary Richards, who has volunteered her Ann Arbor home for an informal meet-and-greet with the politician. The room is filled with women ranging in age from late 20s to early 70s.

Blanchard is the most aggressive and stalwart pro-choice candidate, and has a strong pro-choice record. He admits he sometimes worries that his abortion stance may cost him some voters who ride the fence on the issue. “But on the other hand,” he says, “I’ve been around too long to hedge on any big issues.”

Some pundits and press have hinted Blanchard may not sit well with women voters, citing his dismissal of his Lt. Gov. Martha Griffiths for the 1990 election, as well as the unflattering to Blanchard autobiography Till Politics Do Us Part, penned by his ex-wife, Paula. The book alleged that Blanchard had an affair with one of his staff members, Janet Fox, who is now his wife.

Betty Howe was Blanchard’s director of labor, and says he has the utmost respect for women.

“As one of the top female appointees of the governor, I had the full notion of just how important women were to his administration,” says Howe. “He appointed women in all levels of office, and his support of pro-choice never wavered, even though that was unpopular at the time.”

Blanchard is clearly trying to woo female voters, some of whom he fears may automatically vote for Granholm on the sole basis of her gender.

Richards, the owner of the Ann Arbor home, shares that worry.

“That’s the danger of assuming that every woman who’s running for political office is a pure pro-choice person,” Richards says.

“We need a definitive, unequivocal response, and Jim Blanchard is the only one who has talked the talk and walked the walk. I think he’s the best candidate for the female voter — because of the pro-choice issue and because of his record on all women’s issues.”

“Working again”

Blanchard feels his party has been “too passive and too defeatist,” and his campaign has been anything but. Political wags say Blanchard seems aggressive, enthusiastic, optimistic and grounded — everything he wasn’t during his last re-election campaign.

When Blanchard threw his hat into the gubenatorial ring, the announcement raised some eyebrows. Critics characterized the former governor as out-of-date, out-of-touch and out of his mind; but as the new, rejuvenated Blanchard burst forth, doubters began to give him a second look.

Blanchard doesn’t want to forget the past; he says he’s learned from it, tucked it aside, and is now ready to concentrate on the future.

“It’s not worth dwelling on,” he says. “What’s worth focusing on is where we go from here.”

Blanchard says if (or, as he puts it, when) he wins, the first thing he’ll do is create an emergency task force to assess damage control and clear up the current state of chaos in state government.

“All I can say is the first thing I’ll do is not to go to Disneyworld,” he says with a wry smile. “It’s going to be stick right here and get a transition team going, to minimize the damage and begin to rebuild the state from this point forward.”

Investigative reports on David Bonior and Jennifer Granholm are included below:

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

Destiny's child
With a lead in the polls and a huge war chest, the self-made Granholm is poised to transcend humble roots.

Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]
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