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Andy Dillon

by Susan J. Demas
August 16, 2009

They had to be the oddest of couples — Andy Dillon, the contemplative, straight-as-an-arrow scion of a Wayne County judge, and Jerry Rubin, the shaggy, larger-than-life member of the Chicago Seven.

But there they were, “running tables” together in New York City nightclubs in 1985. The 23-year-old Notre Dame grad was working as a financial analyst for W.R. Grace when he happened to be invited to Rubin’s house for a party. He hit it off with the founder of the Yippie movement, almost a quarter-century his senior, and the two began a “brief business venture,” as Dillon now describes it. After a few months, he quit, since he had already committed to work as an aide in Washington for then-U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, the Ivy League Democrat from New Jersey.

“But I made more money than I did at W.R. Grace,” the now-Democratic speaker of the Michigan House reveals with a chuckle. “I didn’t know the whole story until it had taken off.”

The whole story, of course, is how Rubin, along with other ’60s radicals like Abbie Hoffman and Michigan’s Tom Hayden, were arrested after the bloody Democratic National Convention riots in 1968. After a theatrical trial (during which Rubin gave the judge a Nazi salute and shouted, “Heil, Hitler!”) he was acquitted of all charges. Rubin had since become a successful entrepreneur, but he maintained that outlaw persona.

“That’s not on my résumé,” Dillon adds, shooting a grin at Dan Farough, his media coordinator, during an interview this month. “There. That’s something no one knows about me.”

Farough’s face blanched slightly. “And now everyone will know in the pages of [Dome],” he murmurs with halting joviality, while moving to quickly wrap things up.

The former director of Progress Michigan, Farough is a political animal, much more liberal and aggressive than his Redford Township boss in their on-again, off-again, now-on-again pairing. He can instantly see the incendiary headlines, the jubilant Republican press release: “Andy Dillon pals around with communist thugs.”

But Dillon is nothing if not ruthlessly practical, pensive and sometimes tightly wound — witness him pacing the House floor during a legislative standoff, arms folded and grimacing. He’s donning jeans and a casual blue-striped button-down on a non-session day, but they’re both immaculately pressed (though he does have an array of hastily hung-up suits and jackets in a stately office armoire). The father of four has a few keepsakes carefully arranged on a bookshelf or two — a photo with Barack Obama, a football signed by Jim Brown.

“I’m not one to keep mementoes. It’s hard to find the space,” Dillon says. “When you don’t have your past to mull through, it forces you into today and tomorrow.”

But the lawyer and former private equity firm executive is an expert at assessing risk. He’s been the whipping boy of the right over the 2007 tax hike (and the subject of the only subsequent recall campaign) and now he’s being crucified by the left for his statewide health insurance pool plan.

No one’s garnered more press in Michigan this summer than the speaker, squeezing out the nine-person field for governor — something that’s caused more than a few cases of Dillon envy. So even as the chattering classes insist his pie-in-the-sky proposal will never go through, the impassioned reaction from both sides seems to indicate it just might.

“Andy’s a maverick,” declares Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, the Rochester Republican who’s butted heads with Dillon over budgets. “He’s got big ideas and will do the right thing — and in many cases, he’ll do it in opposition to his own party. And I admire the man. He’s driven by a desire to make Michigan a better place.”

The powerful Michigan Education Association’s executive director, Lu Battaglieri, met Dillon’s insurance plan head-on by quickly blasting out a brutal letter to members declaring it’s “not hyperbole to say we are at war on this issue” and taking an odd swipe at the undeniably cerebral speaker (“Nice house — nobody home. And that is not meant to be pejorative. I believe it is true.”) If Dillon presses on, the unions could spark a caucus mutiny, something he acknowledges.

“Maybe, but that’s not what’s going to drive my behavior. I think that the future of our state is before us right now. What we do over the next 60 days will have huge, long-term implications for this state,” he sighs. “And I don’t want to be afraid. If that means I’m politically not viable at the end of the budget cycle, that’s OK.”

If Dillon gets dumped by his own caucus for taking a principled stand, that probably only helps his outsider campaign for governor, should he jump in. Democratic primaries are not the ideological purity tests they are for the GOP, much to the chagrin of left-wing activists, and Michigan has a recent history of voting for pro-business candidates who aren’t beloved by the unions.

And if he’s subjected to silly, right-wing hit jobs over a harmless anecdote about Rubin, a la Obama and Bill Ayers, that only helps Dillon get some of the base back. Like the president, he’s a low-key, pragmatic intellectual, so the radical firebrand caricature ultimately won’t stick.

At 47, he’s been in legislative leadership just shy of three years. Right now, Andy Dillon seems to know exactly what he’s doing.

Mixed bag
Some days Dillon can’t help but glance up at the gilded Capitol dome and wonder what he’s doing here.

The former G.E. Capital vice president and Wynnchurch director could be making his $106,650 annual salary many times over in the private sector, but that’s not it. In an oft-told story, he ended up running for the 17th District seat in 2004 almost on a lark — filing a week before the deadline to set an example for his kids, armed with the naïve belief that it was a part-time gig.

The reaction of Jim Ryan, his friend of 40 years who’d held the post before him, was typical: “I thought, ‘Are you nuts?’”

It’s not that Dillon didn’t have the résumé (or surname) for the job. Having been born on November 22, 1961 — two years to the day before the assassination of John F. Kennedy (whose portrait hung in the Dillon living room “like all Irish-Catholic families,” he notes), he recalls “at a young age, I had some burning ambition to get into politics.” He would go on to read “every book I could find” on JFK, with William Manchester’s Portrait of a President his favorite. As the son of now-retired Judge John Dillon, Andy grew up working on his dad’s 1968 campaign and also did a stint with that of the late, legendary Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara. Dillon ran his own unsuccessful judicial campaign and, of course, worked for Bradley.

But by his early 30s, Dillon says his interest fizzled. Having spent most of the 1980s working and studying outside Michigan — Indiana, New York, Washington and Arizona — he returned to his hometown to practice law. In 1991, he married his high school sweetheart, Carol, a former court reporter (“We had four kids in four years. That put an end to [her career],” Dillon laughs). Matt is now 17, Jack 16, Austin 15 and Teagan 13. They live in the same kid-littered, middle-class neighborhood Dillon grew up in, and the boys attend his alma mater, Catholic Central High School.

Dillon’s subsequent foray into the financial world has fueled his reputation as a closet Republican. Says Ed Sarpolus, the MEA’s government affairs director, “He has a traditional business background, and little in labor, collective bargaining. He’s only getting one point of view and making assumptions based on his limited experience.” The fact that he’s also pro-life and not closely allied with Gov. Jennifer Granholm hasn’t further endeared him to party elites.

Dillon describes his pre-campaign politics as a “mixed bag,” professing fondness for both Dearborn Democrat U.S. Rep. John Dingell and Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of the GOP — which will no doubt cement labor’s paranoia.

“I have to admit, I liked a lot of what Reagan had to say,” Dillon says. “Reagan was kind of this grandfather figure who said, ‘Everything’s going to be OK.’”

But he ran as a Democrat because he believes in “fighting for the underdog” and the middle class. Since moving into elected office — and particularly after the brief 2007 state government shutdown — the corporate turnaround whiz can now wax eloquent about government in a way few Republicans would.

“I think it has an important role. I think, unfortunately, it’s gotten a bad rap,” Dillon says. “When you have tough times, people need someone to blame. And government is their easy target. … I think there’s this perception that government’s broken — and parts of it are — but lots of it is really doing great things. It’s not until people don’t have access to it that people realize they missed government, especially when you pick up the phone to call the police and no one arrives. That’s when you notice it, when it’s too late.”

Making his mark
In a time-honored Lansing tradition, Craig Ruff was making the rounds downtown after the governor’s 2005 State of the State address. That’s when he happened to have his first and only sitdown with Dillon. A former aide to William Milliken and then-president of policy-research firm Public Sector Consultants, Ruff had seen hundreds of leaders come and go, especially with the advent of term limits. But the voracious reader and film buff found himself blown away by the then-freshman representative.

In a back booth at the Exchange, their conversation oscillated between politics and philosophy, touching on health care, capital markets, leadership, the role of government and more. They closed down the bar.

“I would hardly profess to be a friend — and he might not even view me as an acquaintance,” says Ruff, who now writes a column for Dome. “But four years later, I can recollect virtually everything we talked about. He’s very penetrating and doesn’t seem to be preoccupied by the small stuff. He’s one of those terrific minds.”

Andy Dillon is hard to forget. Inherently commanding at six-foot-four with his signature slicked-back graying coif and deceptively placid blue eyes, the former track star has presence, something lawmakers are all too aware of when staring across at him at the bargaining table.

“He’s honed his negotiating style in the private sector,” says former Rep. Steve Tobocman (D-Detroit), who served as floor leader under Dillon. “That’s when he’s in his element.”

After being elected five years ago, Dillon dove right in, even while in the minority, drawing on his vast financial experience to help create the 21st Century Jobs Fund providing seed money for venture capital firms in Michigan. “I had a lot of fun in the first two years,” recalls Dillon, which prompted his successful bid for speaker in 2006 over Jennifer Granholm’s chosen candidate, the more liberal Andy Meisner. Unhampered by ideological rigidity, Dillon scored bipartisan victories in telecom reform in ’06 and last year’s overhaul of energy regulation — a personal passion.

The term “policy wonk” is often stretched nowadays to include anyone with any interest beyond his own re-election. But in Dillon’s case, it’s apt. When asked to describe himself, he bypasses broad, self-aggrandizing personal adjectives.

“I like to think about policy. It consumes most of my time right now — identifying a problem that’s affecting the state and trying to forge a solution. And I usually do it in a non-conventional way — I’m left-handed. I look at the world maybe a little differently,” he says and pauses to flash a sheepish smile.

“In a way, this is the worst job I could have. Because if I were to have a hobby in life, it would be to sift through public policy. So now I have a job that’s the same thing as your hobby. So in a way it’s good…but I don’t get a break from it.”

With a slightly nasal tenor tone, Dillon can sound like a bean counter while relentlessly dissecting an issue (he does have a Notre Dame accounting degree, after all), but he’s not lacking a sense of humor. In spring 2007, bicameral leaders held a tense meeting on the $1.6-billion budget deficit, with Senate Republicans bringing their list of cuts on salmon-colored paper. Tobocman recalls that Dillon excused himself as the sniping started to escalate.

“When he came back, he asked, ‘Were we supposed to keep the pink sheet confidential? Because I just gave mine to Tim Skubick.’ And the faces in the room just dropped.”

That helped break the tension, but it was just the beginning of the long, hard slog on a budget everyone knew would ultimately be resolved with a tax increase. It didn’t stop the political squabbling, ginned up by Leon Drolet, the fast-talking former rep and head of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, who threatened nervous lawmakers with recalls while tooling around the state with his giant prop pig sidekick, Mr. Perks.

Karoub Associates multi-client lobbyist Jim Curran recalls Dillon feverishly trying to broker deals with Republicans, ultimately walking away from the process disillusioned. “They didn’t keep their word and decided to put their partisan hats back on,” Curran recalls. “That was hard on him.”

Now-House Minority Leader Kevin Elsenheimer (R-Kewadin) did frequent battle against Dillon as part of the caucus strategy against tax increases, but says that hasn’t impeded their relationship since. “Considering this inauspicious start, he and I have gotten along quite well,” he notes.

Ultimately, the government shut down for four hours on that October 1, followed by the passage of income and sales tax hikes (the latter promptly repealed and replaced with a business tax surcharge). “All the stupid machinations were an embarrassment,” Dillon sighs.

But his ordeal wasn’t over. The speaker spent the next year fending off the only recall to materialize, writing his constituents a lengthy letter about his actions on the budget. For a while, he thought about quitting.

“It was misery,” recalls Ryan, now a multi-client lobbyist with Public Affairs Associates. “But he was completely confident that what he did was right. He was like, ‘If they do it, they do it.’”

The southpaw resoundingly beat back the recall in November and led the Democrats to scoop up an astounding nine more seats — quite the vindication. Dillon went unchallenged in the caucus leadership election.

“The bottom line is the voters get it,” he says, relief ringing in his voice nine months later. “They get it better than we think sometimes. I think they resent outsiders coming in on one agenda item.”

Surprisingly, Dillon says that wasn’t the hardest thing he’s faced as speaker. That would be the art of building caucus consensus for tough choices, while causing as little anxiety to members as possible. And he believes this year’s $2.8-billion budget deficit is an even dicier scenario than that of 2007.

Reform and resistance
True to form, Dillon has been toying with a number of sweeping government reforms for years. But once he heard the dire state economic forecast in May, he swung into hyperdrive. In July, he unveiled his plan for the Office of the State Employer to oversee all employee health insurance, something he claims will save $900 million. The Democrat is pushing an October 31 deadline. Unions fear this signals the end of collective bargaining, despite his assurances to the contrary. But it’s been a slam dunk with conservatives like Drolet — who praises him for “taking on a sacred cow” — centrists like The Center for Michigan founder Phil Power, and business leaders like Doug Rothwell.

“He’s kind of one of those unique people who will work with the opposing party and cut against the grain to get something done,” the Detroit Renaissance CEO says admiringly.

But the timing of Dillon’s plan has run afoul with Democrats and Republicans alike, with Lt. Gov. John Cherry dismissing it as “just something to distract legislators from their focus on the budget.” That touchiness might have something to do with the governor charging Cherry in this year’s State of the State to head a task force to restructure state government. While Cherry has been gathering input, Dillon stole the spotlight with his controversial plan, promising more reforms are in the offing.

Dillon does have a reputation for being aggravated by the pace of government and easily sidetracked. The former businessman cops to the former — “Very much so. I got criticized by the timelines I put in the white paper. But if you don’t set out goals, things can take forever in this town.”

Ryan says that’s a function of his background. “In the business world he came from, you bring smart people together and agree what the goal is and get them to agree to move forward. In politics, smart people get together and agree what the goal is, but there’s frustration in not being able to achieve.”

Dillon makes the case that long-term reforms are entwined with budget priorities. He doesn’t believe in cutting for the sake of cutting; he champions scaling back for the greater good — like Ford did under Alan Mulally. The Dearborn automaker shuttered plants and combined operations, but also leveraged itself and beefed up its outmoded product line. “That takes money to be more efficient, quicker, faster,” notes Dillon. “What I see in state government is none of that thinking.” Funding cuts for at-risk pregnancies, literacy and worker retraining make him wince, knowing the long-term costs will be far more devastating.

He takes a look back at Redford, which served as a springboard for his upwardly mobile generation. That’s not happening nowadays, something that deeply troubles him. “I think there are a lot of people who are going to slip through the cracks here,” Dillon shakes his head. “And we’ve got to reverse that trend.” That’s where an extra billion bucks could come in handy.

Gov. Dillon?
Naturally, many see the latest plan as a mere stalking horse for a gubernatorial campaign. After all, Dillon’s been exploring the idea for years and was reportedly trying to round up endorsements at his party in Washington during Obama’s inauguration. Look for Cherry to deploy that line of attack if Dillon jumps in the race, though for now the Democratic frontrunner only muses, “He said no, and I take him at his word.”

Elsenheimer thinks politics are at play and Dillon’s already written off labor in his calculus for governor. “I think the insurance pool proposal was a bold policy move for a Democrat leader and was also a shrewd political move,” he says. “Why not position himself in a way that might attract moderate Republicans and independents?”

Dillon denies that’s his motivation and says he’s waiting until fall to make a decision. But he doesn’t do a clipped dodge like Farough would probably advise — that’s just not his style.

“If I wanted to run, would I take a risk on something like this?” he asks rhetorically. “…I’m not going to worry about the run for governor until after October. You need to be free to do what’s right. I’m not a big fan of the political side of this life. I love the policy and figuring how to move our state in the right direction. The thought of running for governor, which is a whole year’s time campaigning, raising money, that’s not a decision I’m jumping at right now.”

He pauses. “And who would have predicted that it would get this much attention? I think we got caught by surprise on how hungry — we knew the public was hungry for bold change — but we were caught by surprise about the widespread support for this.”

But there’s one thing Dillon knows for sure. Even if term limits were abolished, he wouldn’t run for a third term as speaker. It’s been plenty of stress and time away from his kids (“There’s a lot of guilt associated with that,” he admits). But there’s a certain appeal for the former CEO in running the state.

“He’d rather be the master of his own fate, the state’s own fate, than be sucked into its vortex,” observes Ruff.

Even Bishop, a GOP candidate for attorney general who describes himself as having a “very different philosophy” from Dillon, says his friend would be a good governor — the kind who would “roll up his sleeves” and get it done.

“Right now the state desperately needs someone to be a bold leader,” Bishop says, “and I think Andy fits that criteria.”

What would get Dillon to take the plunge? “I’d need to know in my head that there were a few things I’d want to get done as governor,” he says. Without missing a beat, he lays out his vision for Michigan, which hinges on expanding its research and development prowess to life sciences, aerospace, defense and agriculture with the help of the state’s top-notch research universities. In the short-term, it means investing in education and worker retraining for those left behind in the Big Three’s near implosion.

And he harkens back to Reagan, after noting the Great Lakes State has a bad rap nowadays. “I think some of it’s self-inflicted. I think we are so tough on ourselves and so pessimistic that we feed into it. So I think we’ve got to have a little more optimism about our future.”

His ads almost write themselves: “I’m Speaker Andy Dillon. As a businessman, I had a proven track record of turning around troubled companies. Right now, Michigan’s in trouble. But with your help, I know we can turn our great state around.”

It would be quite the risk. He’s made a lot of enemies. He could seamlessly disappear back into the world of private equity — maybe invest in some auto suppliers — knowing he has four college tuition bills to look forward to soon.

No one seems to know what Dillon will do, not even Ryan. But the Sinatra fan has been willing to roll the dice on a tax hike, recall, big government reform and even a member of the Chicago Seven. Hard to imagine that Andy Dillon will just step down as speaker in January 2011 and go gently into that good night.

Susan J. Demas, a regular columnist and writer for Dome, is 2006 Knight Foundation Fellow in nonprofits journalism and a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service.

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