June 1, 2008
In Washington, the longstanding joke is never get between U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and a TV camera. Here in Lansing, that maxim is best heeded in regard to Leon Drolet.
The former Republican representative turned Recall King has the Capitol press corps on speed dial, always armed with a biting quote when he’s got something cooking (and even when he doesn’t). There’s no sweeter sound for the Clinton Township anti-tax crusader than a Google alert for his name.
The man responsible for Leon’s love affair with the media is none other than GOP former House Speaker Rick Johnson, who made sure the then-freshman sat near the press box in 2000.
“I told him, ‘Walk up to there and talk to them; don’t be afraid to talk to the press,’” Johnson recalls. “So he did — a lot.”
Flash forward to 2007, when Leon spent most of his time stalking lawmakers with a giant foam pig, Michigan Taxpayer Alliance mascot Mr. Perks (who was once hauled away to the impound lot for illegal squatting outside the Capitol). Drolet certainly wasn’t clocking a lot of hours as a Macomb County commissioner (his new public perk after leaving the legislature).
By day, he railed against any murmur of a tax increase as treason. By night, he fretted his threats had worked too well, inadvertently foiling his grand recall scheme and chance for conservative superstardom. (Bye-bye, “O’Reilly Factor.”)
After the inevitable tax hikes went through last fall, Drolet made noises about recalling more than a dozen lawmakers, but he lacked the money and manpower. So he dumped more than $100,000 into ousting House Speaker Andy Dillon (D-Redford Township), something Leon says has never been done. He was ready for his close-up.
Ironically, Johnson emerged as one of the most powerful critics of the recalls, pitting him against his protégé, whom he still describes as “a good friend.” But given the fact that upward of 80 lawmakers voted for tax increases (and almost all voted to spend the extra cash afterward) Johnson questions how principled the recall cause was.
“They pick and choose people that they think they could beat, apparently,” he notes. “And I think that’s unfair.”
Drolet didn’t let the high-profile criticism slow him down. Working the refs was a key part of his strategy. Reporters received weekly, even daily briefings on the “thugs” harassing the MTA’s honorable petitioners in the “friggin’ war zone.” Most importantly, Leon coaxed TV stations into investigating the rampant skullduggery afoot. Jackpot.
In reality, Leon was little more than the little boy who cried wolf. And more of us in the media should have raised that as a possibility. (I rather like my crotchety former editor’s philosophy on media hounds: “Let ’em buy an ad.”)
By the time he turned in more than 15,000 signatures (8,724 were required) on May 1, most of Lansing thought Leon had it in the bag — even the speaker, who looked increasingly wan and booked some R & R in Mexico with his family.
Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer vowed to fight every last signature, but Drolet smugly cited his triumph against fraud charges in 2006’s anti-affirmative action Proposal 2.
“I know Brewer’s and Dillon’s moves before they do,” he snorted.
When political consultant Mark Grebner challenged more than half the signatures, Mr. Recall’s bravado continued. (“My only fear is for Grebner’s reputation.”)
But Leon abruptly lost on May 23 and lost badly. The secretary of state tossed out more than 7,000 signatures, a supreme humiliation, which Grebner acidly termed a “bull—- sandwich.”
My, how the worm has turned. Dillon looks tanned, rested and ready to serve his final term at the House’s helm. (When I asked him on the floor how his Memorial Day weekend was, he grinned, the familiar twinkle springing back in his blue eyes).
Now a haggard Drolet is the one begging the courts to cry fraud, claiming the Democrats sabotaged his campaign. No one expects him to win, except perhaps if he files suit against the Oakland County firm that somehow managed to flub fact-checking his petitions for accuracy. No word yet if any angry donors will sue for financial malfeasance over the botched, pricy campaign. That was the first clue that Leon’s tax revolt wasn’t real, of course, as less than $100 came from Dillon’s district.
Drolet’s career prospects are shot with groups like Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, and even a state Senate seat seems unlikely, since he has the bad luck of being in the Democratic-leaning 10th District.
More importantly, his days as a media darling are over. Whatever credibility he had has vaporized. Reporters will certainly think twice when Leon calls with a hot story, mindful of the old adage: Consider the source.
There’s a lesson here that we in the media shouldn’t be suckered by someone’s infectious enthusiasm and eagerness to leak information. That means not always reporting a story, especially when it’s just a very interested party’s account (read: propaganda) — even if we think our competition will have it. By and large, I don’t think we were guilty of falling for Drolet’s shell game, but I do think we rewarded him with too much ink.
So in the future, Leon, don’t call us. We’ll call you.
Susan J. Demas is a 2006 Knight Foundation Fellow in nonprofits journalism and a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service.