Rx for the Republicans

Apr 10, 2002 at 12:00 am

Most of the attention paid to the governor’s race this year has focused on the hot contest in the August Democratic primary between Jim Blanchard, David Bonior and Jennifer Granholm. There’s a reason for that. Virtually everyone in the know believes Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus has the Republican nomination sewn up.

And the same virtual everyones, including some top GOP strategists, also think he’ll be pureed in the November election. Posthumus is a Grand Rapids-area farmer who likes to drive home from Lansing at night and climb on his tractor.

He’s earnest, mild-mannered and dull. If he wanted a Sharper Image, he’d have to go to Somerset Collection. And if he did, the counter help would likely make him show ID: His is not a face people outside politics and the feed store recognize.

Yet even if our non-tricky Dick were charismatic, he’d have a hard road, thanks to the same syndrome that has haunted many a No. 2, including Al Gore. They get saddled with all the blame and little credit for whatever their main man did. And besides, after a dozen years of Englerosis, voters are in the mood for something new.

To meet that hunger, the Democrats are offering two respected but shopworn male politicians, Blanchard and Bonior. There is a “fresh” face too: The McNamara machine’s former legal rubber-stamp — oops — corporation counsel, Jennifer Granholm, whose knowledge of state government prompted veteran legislator Alma Wheeler Smith, now running for lieutenant governor with Bonior, to label her “totally unqualified.”

Well, that’s the field. And voters not overly enamored with the Democrats ought at least to get to know the good doctor, state Sen. John Schwarz, a physician from Battle Creek who for some mysterious reason has always been called Joe.

Two years ago, Old Joe accomplished something no Democrat ever has: He royally kicked John Engler’s ass, doing so by organizing John McCain’s successful Michigan primary campaign against George W. Bush.

Now, Schwarz is running for governor. There are plenty of issues on which most readers of this column may disagree with him. He loves the military and served not only in the Navy, but with the CIA. On most issues, he’s a fiscal conservative, though he has been perhaps the biggest supporter of Michigan’s university system in the Legislature.

He’s gruff, cranky, slightly bearlike and not against calling someone he disagrees with a “raving asshole.” But despite all that, or maybe because of it, he’s probably the most refreshing, down to earth, common-sense politician in the state.

Most Democrats regularly bend their knees to the bosses of organized labor, which is a trifle different from standing up for workers’ rights. Republican orthodoxy is worse. The gun lobby and right-to-life like to brag privately that they can make or break any GOP candidate for state office, and indeed, most ambitious Republicans will do about anything to avoid annoying the most rabid of them.

Except Schwarz, a medical doctor — a surgeon — who thinks Roe vs. Wade is “settled law,” and government ought to back off. “Abortion should be safe, legal and rare.” When Republican lemmings lined up in lockstep to give everyone from Dipsy to La-La the right to carry concealed weapons, Schwarz vehemently opposed it.

“Stupidest law I’ve ever seen,” he said.

What are you? I asked once. “A raging middle-of-the-roader,” he told me. “I’m so solidly in the middle on most issues that everyone on both extremes will be mad at me.” What he thinks is that the governor’s job is to “protect people from the avoidable hazards of life. To try and make sure that they have a job, and that the job has benefits and that they can live, own a home and support a family.”

That includes health care. “I’m a doctor in private practice, but look. This is the United States of America, and health care is a right,” he said. A guy who makes half a million dollars a year has no more right to high-quality health care than a mother who has a couple of kids, a minimum-wage job and gets no health insurance on the job.

“Is our system going to become more of a government-financed health care system? Yes it is,” he answered rhetorically. “It is going to evolve that way. The handwriting is on the wall,” he added, and proceeded to tell me how he would dissect and reassemble state-administered Medicare to make it work better.

What hit me was a wave of nostalgia. Once, there were a fair number of principled, sensible Republicans like him, people one could imagine voting for, especially when the Democrats nominated, as they often do, a clunker.

But that doesn’t happen much anymore in the world of today’s polarized politics. Personally, I think nominating someone like Schwarz would be the best thing that could happen to both parties, not to mention politics in this state. Whoever the Democrats nominate would have to work harder to earn the votes of normal Michiganders.

Schwarz knows this will be hard. “I’ve got to get (moderates) to come out and vote in the primary. If it is the same 19 percent of single-issue voters who traditionally come out to vote in a Republican primary, I’m toast.”

“And therein lies the challenge.” He leaned over and grinned. “Sure, I like people. But I don’t think people should expect the governor to be their best buddy. In fact, sometimes I’m a hardworking prick. But if that’s what it takes, that’s fine.”

Politics, in other words, for grown-ups. Yeah, we’re probably not ready. But wouldn’t it be damned tempting to give it a chance?

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]