by Susan J. Demas
March 16, 2009
In 2004, a letter from a precocious child put Mike Bishop’s life into focus.
The son of former state Senator Donald Bishop was a busy senator himself, the self-described “techie of the caucus,” serving on the Judiciary and Banking and Financial Institutions committees in his first term. Before that, the Rochester Republican had spent two terms in the House and had been an assistant majority floor leader. Life with his young family was a balancing act, and yet Bishop still managed to squeeze in time as a senior attorney with Simon, Galasso & Franz and as president of Freedom Realty.
But the workaholic — who’s been known to sneak in workouts at 3 a.m. — somehow found time to slit open an envelope from Roy Kaiser, his former principal at St. John Lutheran School in Rochester.
Bishop suddenly remembered an old eighth grade assignment — writing a letter to himself as an adult, which the principal promised to mail back in 10 years. It ended up taking more than 20, but Dr. Kaiser was a man of his word.
The first lines were a doozy: “Dear Senator: How’s the wife and kids? I know you live nearby.”
Staring yourself in the face can be an odd thing.
“I was reduced to a pile of rubble when I read this because I was just blown away by the idea that I had nailed it so well,” recalls Bishop, now 41. “In the back of my mind, I had always thought that one day I would like to do what my father did.”
That may seem hard to believe for the man who was sworn in as Senate majority leader before his 40th birthday, who’s running for attorney general in 2010 and openly dreams about becoming governor. A tireless advocate for business, he constantly wages war on fiscal policy with Governor Jennifer Granholm and the Democrats (“He’s the man with his finger in the dike,” says Rochester Mayor Jeff Cuthbertson).
Ambition and quiet intensity are Bishop’s stock and trade. He is the man every liberal loves to hate.
But as he sits in his sprawling, gold-chandeliered Capitol suite, there’s not a whiff of the arrogance you might expect from a well-coifed attorney with a penchant for well-tailored navy suits. There is only the specter of his father, who does occasionally visit (“He’d come up every day if he could,” the younger Bishop grins).
“My dad was always very much the kind of person who taught that you need to respect government and you need to respect the institution,” he says.
“I always admired him for that and the way he handled his job,” Bishop adds — not that he really has to.
Michael Dean Bishop was literally born into politics.
Mom Nancy was carrying him while his attorney father stumped for his first state House race. The youngest of five made his debut on March 18, 1967, two months after the newly minted Sen. Bishop arrived at the Capitol. Mike actually wasn’t born in Rochester but in nearby Almont Hospital, where his grandfather, Gilbert Bishop, was a physician.
Nancy Bishop was a part-time teacher and artist, whose dreamy watercolors of snowy downtown Rochester and the Round Island Lighthouse adorn her son’s lobby. “I have four sisters that all have artistic talent, as well,” he notes. “I’m the only one in the family that didn’t get that.”
When asked if he got the political talent, Bishop flashes a self-deprecating smile and replies, “No, I don’t know what I got.”
After two terms in the House, his father won his 1970 race for the Senate. Twelve years later, 15-year-old Mike was waiting for the returns to come for his dad’s newly redrawn district, which included the Democratic stronghold of Pontiac.
“We lost by 5,000 votes,” Bishop recalls quietly, a subtle reminder that politics is the family business.
“You know, it wasn’t hard on him at all,” he adds. “It was very hard on the family. As a family, seeing your dad lose is not easy. It was devastating to the family.”
Bishop went on to study Southeast Asian history at the University of Michigan and earn his J.D. from the Detroit College of Law, studying at both Cambridge University and the Sorbonne. He flirted with international law, but knew that he didn’t want to stray far from home.
“When I went to school it was about the farthest I ever got,” he smiles. “I realized that was really what I wanted. I wanted a smaller town. I wanted a good place to get married and raise a family.”
Bishop married his college sweetheart, Cristina, in 1996 after establishing his own law practice, eventually merging with Booth Patterson in Waterford. He says his years as a litigator helped spark his interest in the attorney general post, which will be vacated in 2011 by term-limited Mike Cox.
At the same time, the young lawyer discovered a talent for flipping houses he fixed up on the side — a neat trick to pay off his student loans. That meant being in and out of a lot of homes in Rochester and Birmingham (“I was pretty much a vagrant there for awhile,” he laughs). That experiment prompted him to earn his broker’s license and start his own real estate company. He’s basically shut down the practice now, with his political career on the rise and the market in freefall.
Sen. Mark Jansen (R-Gaines Township) sees the influence of Bishop’s background on his style as Senate majority leader, describing him as “very legally minded” and an “empowering leader” who trusts caucus members to lead on big issues like business taxes and individual market health insurance.
Today the Bishops live less than a mile from his old St. John’s school with their three children, Benjamin, 9; Gabriella, 7; and Nathan, 3. The senator does the 85-minute commute almost every day, often rushing home to coach his oldest’s basketball team or take his daughter to gymnastics.
Cuthbertson, another lifelong Rochester resident, says Bishop has never forgotten where he came from, most recently helping to secure tax relief for a new company. “He’s focused not only on what’s going on locally in Rochester, but he does a great job understanding what that means at the state level,” he says.
If there’s one thing Mike Bishop likes, it’s being the underdog.
Soft-spoken with coy aquamarine eyes, it’s often hard to know what the majority leader is thinking. But you can bet that he is. And he’s calculated that his years as a businessman, litigator and leader in state politics will help him triumph in what looks at the moment to be a three-way Republican AG race with Bill Schuette and Sen. Bruce Patterson (R-Canton).
Although Schuette — the former Midland congressman and Court of Appeals judge – is considered the frontrunner, political observers think Bishop could still come out ahead.
One reason is that Bishop won’t be appearing on a primary ballot. Parties nominate their attorney general and secretary of state candidates at state conventions. So it’s all about lavishing attention on grassroots activists and making your case, which Bishop declares is “right in my wheelhouse.”
“I have a history of upsetting and uprooting and beating the heir apparent. It’s not something I’ll shy away from,” he says.
That didn’t happen in 1996 when he ran for U of M regent, dragged down by Bob Dole’s poor showing at the top of the ticket. But when term limits left a House seat open two years later, Bishop decided to jump into a five-way primary.
“It was everybody who was supposed to have the job and I was the odd man out. Everybody else had a name and a history,” he says.
Bishop, of course, had a golden name in the 45th House District. But while his father had inspired him to public service, the younger Bishop ran his own campaign.
“I tried to do this on my own,” he says. “I think my dad respected that. He would have helped in anything I wanted to do. He knew that I had to accomplish this task on my own.”
The senator pauses for a moment and murmurs, “Maybe it’s me trying to prove myself to my parents that I didn’t need to have that guided hand.”
Without bags of money and big endorsements, Bishop won by the old standby of knocking on doors (“What I had was what they called at the time, ‘youthful exuberance,’” he chuckles). After two terms, the 12th District Senate seat opened up, covering much of the same territory that his dad’s did. This time, Bishop won handily in a primary against fellow Rep. David Galloway and won the general election in the strong Republican district by 32 points.
All in the family
In the fall of 2005, Bishop decided to run for majority leader in his second term. He promptly outworked his two opponents, Sens. Jason Allen (R-Traverse City) and Wayne Kuipers (R-Holland), particularly at the ’06 Michigan Republican Party convention. That bodes well for Bishop’s AG quest.
He describes his leadership bid as a “personal decision” due to an “ethics-related” caucus matter. Bishop will only say that he was guided by the Donald Bishop mantra — “Don’t do damage to the institution” — but he’s not about to reveal details or name names. (“Maybe someday it’ll be in my book,” he says ruefully).
The Mike Bishop mantra could be, “Don’t break the code of the caucus.” Under his guidance, the Senate Republicans have operated like a sort of country club mafia. You dress nicely. You don’t leak to the press. You keep it all in the family.
That’s won him praise from members like Sen. Michelle McManus (R-Lake Leelanau), who calls Bishop “one of my favorite legislators.”
“He’s generous, an easy person to approach and a good listener — whether you have a good idea or not,” she laughs.
The caucus has remained remarkably united, even through most of the devastating budget crisis of 2007. Bishop describes that as the most trying time in his career (although he adds that figuring out the federal stimulus package is right up there) but in the end, he did allow votes to raise taxes to avoid a prolonged government shutdown. That will certainly hurt him with some GOP convention delegates. But in the last year, Bishop and the caucus have pushed through a series of tax breaks and are trying to slay the hated Michigan Business Tax surcharge.
Still, there has been one public blowup, with Patterson battling Bishop over an annexation issue in Northville Township. Patterson hasn’t been shy about his beef with Bishop and has publicly questioned his integrity. He even said in January he can “neither confirm nor deny” that he’s running for attorney general to torpedo his leader’s chances. But Patterson this month declined to detail his ongoing problems with Bishop because he’s concerned it “would sound too self-serving,” given the fact that they both want the same job.
For his part, Bishop says he’s tried to bury the hatchet many times, but has been rebuffed. The leader has a reputation for being conflict-averse, a characterization he says he hasn’t heard.
“I’ve always been the Teddy Roosevelt — ‘Walk softly but carry a big stick,’” Bishop says. “To me, that’s the way it should be done. I’m more the type of person that would turn the handle rather than kick in the door. That’s my style. I’ve always been that way. And it’s worked well for me. I don’t need to be confrontational with people to get the job done.”
For two years, Mike Bishop has also played the role of boogeyman for the left.
It started with his icy clashes with Granholm on the fiscal 2008 budget and has been immortalized in T-shirts splashed with a curly-haired cartoon of him as “Obstructionman” (“Saw one at a football game,” Bishop shrugs).
On left-wing blogs like Michiganliberal.com, “Sen. Mike Bishop (R-Hair Gel)” makes an almost daily appearance as the arch-villain in their virtual world. And once you get Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer going on Bishop — whom he calls the leader of the state GOP — he won’t stop whacking.
“I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been in this job since 1995 and I’ve seen a lot of people. And he is far and away the worst legislative leader in the modern history of the state,” Brewer unloads. “You look at foreign trash, drug immunity, salary and benefits cuts for lawmakers and election reform that passed in the House and are popular with voters. And they just die in the Senate.”
Of course, that could be a very helpful endorsement for Bishop at the Republican convention and he gladly embraces being a “standard-bearer for my party.” In an office adorned with marble and pewter elephants every Republican politico must have, he says he makes no apologies for the fact that he believes in “very limited government” and is a strong fiscal and social conservative.
“I’ve done what I’m supposed to do — stand up for what I believe in. There will always be people out there who want to throw rocks,” he says.
Bishop has been known to come off as thin-skinned, especially in his skirmishes with Granholm, but he insists he’s the type of guy who can “take punches in the face and still move forward.”
When asked if he has any regrets about his relationship with Granholm, Bishop is blunt: “Yeah, I regret that it has not been functional.” For that, he puts most of the blame squarely on the governor, arguing it’s her role to develop dialogue as the state CEO. He dismisses Granholm as being “tangential to the process” and puts far more stock in his working relationship with House Speaker Andy Dillon (D-Redford Township).
Bishop describes the gulf with “this governor” — he rarely refers to her by name — as 99.9 percent ideological, insisting it’s not personal at all.
“Government’s become this behemoth, this out-of-control beast that grows daily,” he argues. “There’s always a proposal out there to make it bigger and bigger and bigger. And that’s been the fight for the last two years. That’s been the hardest part for me. Being part of a process that seems to be out of control at times.”
Granholm declined to speak about Bishop for this story. Press Secretary Liz Boyd would only say that “we find the Senate majority leader’s comments very interesting.”
It’s also clear Bishop thinks he’d have done a better job than the governor. “I firmly believe that as governor either you want to be governor and enjoy that position or you want to govern and get your hands in the mix,” he says — leaving no mystery as to which category he believes he falls into.
Back in 2007, Bishop was frequently mentioned as a top gubernatorial candidate (the domain name, bishopforgovernor.com, has already been purchased). The senator admits, “I’ve never really stopped considering it.…I would love the opportunity to assume that role.”
When Bishop talks about his plans for attorney general, he dutifully promises to be consumer-oriented and churn out opinions on time. He rattles off his AG-related accomplishments in the legislature — the Identity Theft Protection Act and first child protection registry in the country — in a stilted way that sounds like it was ripped right off his press release.
But he’s much more comfortable and passionate talking about the needs of businesses in Michigan. “It is my highest priority to do whatever we can for this economy and turn it around,” he declares.
Which begs the question: if the fiscal 2008 budget hadn’t been a disaster and Republicans had done better last November, is governor what Mike Bishop would be running for in 2010?
He hesitates and clears his throat. “For me, [attorney general] is the right step at the right time. I have a young family. I want to make sure I make the right decision. As much as I would love to run for governor, I understand that there are sacrifices that are necessary and that I’ll have to make them in the role of attorney general, but they’re nowhere near the amount of sacrifice that needs to be made for the role of governor.”
One thing does seem clear. If Bishop wins, he’ll carry on the Granholm tradition of making sure AG stands for “aspiring governor.”
If he does win, he’ll certainly make his father proud. And just last year, Bishop had a little taste of things coming full circle.
Shuttling his son Benjamin home in the family black SUV, he gave his standard dad lecture to learn to read and do well in school, so his oldest would have his pick of professions — teacher, plumber, police officer, maybe even doctor.
“And he was quiet for a second and we got out of the car,” Bishop recalls. “And he said, ‘You know, I think I want to be a senator.’ And my heart sank a little. No son, you must be successful.”
But Bishop smiles broadly — something the low-key leader isn’t apt to do, at least in front of reporters, anyway. “I would discourage it,” he muses. “But I completely relate. This is something you have a calling for. It rings a bell inside you.”
Susan J. Demas is 2006 Knight Foundation Fellow in nonprofits journalism and a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service.