Trolling for a governor

Mar 10, 2010 at 12:00 am

Twenty-five years ago, when my hair was still dark and "hypertext" was something you banged out after too many cups of coffee, I was in Poland, reporting about life under communism's last repressive phase. One day, a bitter young man at the University of Warsaw put things this way: "Countries go through historical stages. Right now, Poland is having a bad 5 million years."

Poland's doing better now, but some days I feel that Michigan may well be starting its million years of hell. Take our politics over the past two decades: For the first dozen years, we had a governor who was skilled, savvy and competent. He had an agenda and knew how to use the levers of power to get it done.

Trouble was, most of what John Engler wanted was, a good progressive might say, malevolent to awful. He was followed by Jennifer Granholm, whose ideals and goals were vastly different and sounded much better. Unfortunately, times turned sour, and she was as weak and ineffectual a governor as we've ever had, with the heartbreaking result that little got accomplished.

Now, thanks to term limits, we are certain to elect a new governor this fall. So, whom do we have to choose from?

Republicans offer us a cafeteria of right-wing alternatives. The way it looks now, if you vote in the GOP primary, you can pick state Attorney General Mike Cox, who is focused, ambitious and believes fervently in furthering his career.

Next is Pete Hoekstra, the conservative, Dutch-born congressman from west Michigan. Pete, who knows a whole lot about homeland security, stands ready to protect us from any new thigh bombers. He actually seems to think our 701,000 officially unemployed workers are more worried about homeland security than finding a job. I think he might be shocked at what would happen if Osama bin Laden showed up in Pontiac and announced he was opening a factory and was ready to hire.

Then there is Mike Bouchard, the Oakland County sheriff who lost to Sen. Debbie Stabenow four years ago, and Rick Snyder, a very rich venture capitalist who spent millions on a commercial that tells us he is smarter than the other politicians. There's also state Sen. Tom George, a doctor from Kalamazoo.

But the important thing to remember is that, because the current administration is so unpopular, whoever wins the Republican primary is the odds-on favorite to win in November. If you doubt that, look at the Democratic field. G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams would clearly have been their strongest candidate, having been elected six times and all. Unfortunately, he happens to be dead. Has been, sadly, since 1987. This year, a huge number of Democrats have jumped into the race, or sorta kinda, and then jumped almost immediately out again.

The latest of these is Dan Kildee, former Genesee County treasurer and nephew of Dale Kildee, Flint's ancient and still-popular congressman. Dan the man looked, at least on paper, like the potentially strongest Demo. Great name, and great record on his own.

Kildee the younger was well-respected for the work he did over a quarter-century, first as county commissioner and then treasurer. He also worked for both the Genesee County Land Bank and a nonprofit urban policy center. He has political expertise, but isn't tied to the partisan mess in Lansing. Voters just might have found him appealing. But, alas, he bailed out barely a week after getting in.

The reasons are mysterious; apparently, he thought he'd get union backing that didn't materialize — or maybe he just concluded no Democrat was likely to win this year. So who does that leave to represent the party of the common people, the unemployed?

Well, there is Virgil "Virg" Bernero, the 46-year-old mayor of Lansing. The unions seem to want him; he has taken a number of stands for workers' rights. He has a track record of standing up for the LBGT community and the mentally ill.

Unfortunately, he is also sort of a Jiminy Cricket, chronically running for a new office the minute he wins one. He's been running for things since he was 21. In the last 10 years, he has run for state representative, state senator, and mayor of Lansing three times. During his last campaign for mayor, he pledged that he didn't want higher office, wouldn't run for governor, and would serve all four years as mayor. Once the votes were in, he started running for governor immediately. His highest degree is a BA from Adrian College, and, as far as I know, he's never had a private-sector job. All of which call his judgment and electability into question.

Speaker of the House Andy Dillon of Redford might be the Dems' strongest candidate in a general election. He is 48, handsome and charismatic, though his hairstyle is something out of a James Dean movie. He's both a lawyer and a successful venture capitalist.

However, there's a question in many minds as to whether he is a ... Democrat. The unions are mad at him because he wants to put all state and municipal employees under the same health care plan. Dillon actually deserves credit for that; the reality is that the state just can't afford the sort of "Cadillac" arrangements it could back when they were financed by taxes from hundreds of thousands of well-paid and now jobless autoworkers.

But Dillon also is a right-to-lifer who opposed embryonic stem cell research. He made a so-called "deal" on the budget last year with Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop that gave Republicans everything they wanted and Democrats nothing at all. How committed he is to traditional Democratic values remains to be seen.

That leaves state Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith of Washtenaw County. She has a lot of legislative experience, having served in the Senate before the House. She is savvy and smart, and not afraid to tell the truth, which is that taxes need to be raised to save this state and give its young people the education they need if they and we are going to have a future. Trouble is, nobody thinks she has any chance to win.

That may be because she is an unabashed liberal 69-year-old black woman from Ann Arbor. But what's clear is that she can scare up barely any money, at least not so far.

Well, breakfast clubbers, that seems to be the pretty nearly complete lineup of those who would lead us out of our current mess.

If you are less than inspired, welcome to the club. It is possible that one of these male candidates may yet grow a brain, a heart and some cojones to go with them. Yet if not, there is another possibility.

Next week, I plan to talk about that.

Forgotten, but back again:
A few weeks ago, I mentioned Macomb Community College's stunning series, "And Still They Prospered: Living Through the Great Depression." As part of that, the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts is performing Forgotten: The Murder at the Ford Rouge Plant, an absolutely unforgettable jazz opera about attempts to organize the Ford Motor Co.

Forgotten has been put on twice before in Detroit, in 2004 and 2005, and W. Kim Heron took a compelling look at the backstory in MT back in '04. But this is a different production, and deserves to be seen. The curtain goes up just once — at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 26, and ticket prices depend on whether and where you are employed. Call 596-286-2222, especially, brother, if you can spare a dime.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]