Two weeks after getting whacked in the primary, Jim Blanchard went to lease a car from a Southfield dealership. “I think your campaign is going great!” the saleswoman gushed, adding how much she loved his commercials.
Startled, Blanchard didn’t know what to say. “I didn’t have the heart to tell her,” he says. He then took a car to the airport — and got the same treatment from an enthusiastic limo driver. “Well, the primary is over, and, well, I lost,” he finally said.
Now it was the ordinary citizen’s turn to be surprised.
“When did that happen?” the driver exclaimed. When the former governor explained, the chauffeur had another fairly logical question: “Who won?”
Which is to say that those of us who do make some effort to figure out what’s going on in the world need to remember that most people don’t pay attention most of the time. Slightly less than half of us finally decide to tune in a bit right before a major statewide election. The voters then often find they don’t like many of the candidates the politically active few have selected for them.
To which the system says, tough. There may be little we can — or should — do about people who just won’t pay attention, at least not until government screws up so badly they can feel the pain.
But beyond that, one of the quietest government scandals is that Michigan’s system for selecting candidates for two of the most important statewide offices — attorney general and secretary of state — is completely and profoundly undemocratic.
Take John Austin, an earnest expert on public policy issues and a member of the state Board of Education. Four years ago, he ran hard to get the nomination for secretary of state. For most people, the secretary of state is far more important than the governor, since that office controls all motor vehicles and oversees how we vote.
Had there been a primary, Austin undoubtedly would have won, since he was the only candidate.
But who the people want doesn’t matter to either the Republican or Democratic parties. Picking the candidates for both attorney general and secretary of state is left up to the nominees for governor — with heavy input from labor in the Democratic Party, and the right-to-life and other hard-right elements in the Republican Party.
Geoffrey Fieger, the nominee that year, decided he needed a black woman from Detroit on the ticket. He wouldn’t give Austin the time of day and insisted on one Mary Sue Parks as his secretary of state. Her performance as a candidate was beyond pathetic; it was contemptible. She lost every county in the state and richly deserved humiliation.
This year, John Austin ran again. This time, he waged a vigorous, politically savvy and principled campaign. He raised $90,000 though small, individual contributions, the only kind he wanted. His main issues were campaign finance and election reform. Trouble was, he was toast from the start — at least if Granholm won. Granholm’s close friend, Melvin “Butch” Hollowell, also a former member of the McNamara machine which created Granholm, wanted the job.
“Butch can have anything he wants,” Granholm told me in March.
Tough cheese, Johnny boy.
Heading into the Democratic Party convention last weekend, Austin vowed to take his nomination to the floor. “I still think an open competition would have been healthy and good,” he says. But the labor allies he was counting on pulled the rug out from under him.
“They said this was what Jennifer wanted, and it was important to have a united ticket,” Austin says.
His young supporters urged him to mount a floor fight, but he calculated he wouldn’t win it, so he quietly withdrew.
Frankly, there is nothing wrong with Hollowell as a candidate, if you aren’t disturbed by the fact that he is, in every sense of the word, a crony of the Democratic nominee for governor. He is a savvy, charismatic and highly ambitious lawyer who worked in Florida for Gore and who in many ways has a stronger pedigree than Austin.
As a matter of fact, his pedigree would make him a far more logical candidate for ... attorney general. Hollowell reportedly came to realize that shortly before the convention, but was apparently told to sit down and shut up.
Labor wanted Gary Peters as attorney general, and so it was to be. Peters, both a lawyer and an MBA, is also a very good candidate.
Overall, in terms of competence, charisma and electability, this is the strongest ticket the Democrats have fielded in decades.
Yet so important are the offices of attorney general and secretary of state that voters ought to get the chance to choose them in a primary.
Democrats have another problem: They have evidently decided that secretary of state is their Negro job. Beginning in 1970, every Democratic nominee has been black. No African-American ever has been nominated by the Democrats for governor, lieutenant governor or attorney general. Just for license plate overseer, and that should give some people pause.
By the way, a recent poll showed that while Granholm was wiping Posthumus statewide, he had 24 percent in Detroit.
Even John Engler could manage only 14 percent in Motown. That number may be an indication some people are tired of being taken for granted.
Footnote: Candidates for governor more sensibly get to choose their candidate for lieutenant governor. After the primary, the media acted as if there was some suspense about Granholm’s pick, which made Old Cynical Pants chuckle. In May I sat next to Boss Ed McNamara’s daughter, Colleen, at a brunch.
Who do you suppose it will be? I asked.
“John Cherry,” she said, between dispatching petit-fours.
I don’t know if Jennifer had been told at that point, but, hey.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]