by Susan J. Demas
May 16, 2009
It was November 1989, and boyish Congressman Bill Schuette was supposed to be planning for the race of his life. Instead, the 34-year-old Michigander took a three-day detour to meet with freedom fighters and scoop up a piece of the Berlin Wall.
He’d been in a bull session with consultants about his quest to knock off two-term U.S. Sen. Carl Levin when he flipped on the news. Revolution was brewing in East Berlin and something told him that he had to be there.
“I was thinking about (Ronald) Reagan,” recalls Schuette. “I was part of that Reagan Revolution, you see. And he had said, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.’ And Gorbachev didn’t, but the Germans did.”
He didn’t end up winning that race in 1990. In fact, his 16-point loss was the only one of his career. But for the Midland Republican, the trip to Germany was the ultimate confirmation that a strong national defense combined with tax cuts and very limited government not only worked, but bred freedom around the world. It’s the same philosophy that guides Schuette 21 years later, as he smiles at the slab of stone adorning his downtown Lansing law office.
He’s gearing up for another election, this time for state attorney general in 2010. Now 55, Schuette still fits the part of the handsome, well-heeled politician ubiquitous in movies, with his wavy brown hair, placid blue eyes, easy grin and pithy taglines ("As a judge, I know the difference between the bad guys and the good guys.").
Campaign mode is nothing new for Schuette, who’s won seats in Congress, the state Senate and the Michigan Court of Appeals. He looks to be facing two opponents in a party convention fight next summer: Sen. Bruce Patterson (R-Canton) — who can’t help but call him “quite a guy” — and Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester), whom Schuette has already dinged for allowing a tax increase under his watch. The Democratic side is murkier, but will likely include Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) and Richard Bernstein (of “Call Sam” Bernstein Law Firm fame). In the meantime, Schuette is practicing law with Warner, Norcross & Judd and traversing the state, completing an Upper Peninsula swing late last month.
“I’m not going to be outhustled on this,” he says as he flashes a determined smile. “I’ve always worked hard in every campaign I’ve run. It’s shoe leather and listening and connecting on values I think I and a lot of people in Michigan share.”
Schuette is vying to be “part of a new team that moves us in a new direction” in Michigan, whose poor economy is threatening to make the state a “sleepy little backwater where people from Chicago come to vacation.” He’s confident that history is on his party’s side and 2010 will be a “great” Republican year.
“(There’s) just this huge expansion of government with the Obama administration,” he shakes his head. “And I want our country to succeed, but the policies being advocated in Washington with nationalized health care, intrusion into our economy, I just think it’s wrong. And foreign policy, as well — (Obama’s) pattycake with Hugo Chavez. I just think that’s not what we should be doing. I think as these promises get more and more implemented, there will be a voter reaction to it the Republican way.”
‘Audacity of hope’
The way Bill Schuette tells it, he didn’t really lose in 1990.
He’d long chased Cynthia Grebe (“We went to the same bus stop, grade school, junior high, high school. And she ignored me for 20 years,” he bemoans). While on the stump in Grand Rapids, where Grebe was a television anchorwoman, he finally convinced her to have dinner. In less than six weeks, they both knew that was it.
“Within days of the election in 1990, I’d asked her to marry me. That was kind of my ‘audacity of hope,’” Schuette chuckles. “I had the audacity to ask my wife, this woman, Cynthia, to marry me, when I had lost the election, had no job and I was hoping she’d say yes.”
She did. It wasn’t long after that Schuette found gainful employment, this time as state agriculture director under Gov. John Engler, who had worked on his ’84 congressional campaign. The newlyweds settled in their hometown and soon had two children: Heidi, who was just rewarded for her 16th birthday with a silver Tonka Porsche Carrera from her dad, and Billy, 13, a star second baseman. Inspired by her husband’s job, Cynthia also conceived the idea of a charity, Michigan Harvest Gathering, which has since raised almost $7 million and more than seven million pounds of food. Schuette has been a chief fundraiser.
“Of all the various things, activities, responsibilities that I’ve done in government, the Michigan Harvest Gathering may be the most important and substantive,” he says.
The youngest of three children, Schuette was born in Midland, where his high-school-sweetheart parents had settled in 1941 for William Sr.’s job. He was in line to take over as CEO of Dow Chemical Company in 1959, but he died of a heart attack. When his namesake was in college at Georgetown University, his widow, Esther, married Dow Chairman Carl Gerstacker. Today, Bill Schuette helps oversee the family fortune on the boards of the Rollin M. Gerstacker and the Elsa U. Pardee foundations.
Schuette certainly inherited the clan’s business-savvy, but decided as a youngster to channel that into public service. (When he talks about his latest run, he does point out he’ll be “running a small business called ‘Bill Schuette for Attorney General.’”)
Dave Camp, who succeeded Schuette in Congress, grew up next door and recalls his best friend was “always interested in politics from day one.” When asked if he had always been a Republican, Schuette seems bemused. “Oh, yeah, absolutely,” he says, as if there is only one answer to that question.
He credits his time as a lawn boy for former Republican National Committeewoman Ranny Riecker as inspiring his first campaign. “I would rake leaves and cut the lawn and she and I would just talk politics,” he recalls. “And so she encouraged me to run for precinct delegate when I was 18. So I did.”
Soon afterward, Schuette joined the office of U.S. Rep. Elford Cederburg, followed by a stint on Gerald Ford’s 1976 reelection campaign, where he worked under Jim Baker. Three years later, while in law school at the University of San Francisco, Schuette answered a call from his old boss, who asked, “You want to work for a guy named George Bush?” He did, in both Florida and Michigan, knowing that he wanted to hit the campaign trail himself someday.
That time came in 1984, when Schuette ousted three-term U.S. Rep. Donald Albosta. The bachelor made a splash in Washington, toasted in Roll Call’s list of hunks on the Hill. (When asked if he ever reminds his wife of that, Schuette laughs, “All I know is Friday is garbage day. So I’m humble, that’s for sure.”)
Some politicians hate the stump, regarding the rubber-chicken circuit as a necessary evil. Not William Duncan Schuette, which is perhaps why he’s run for such a wide array of offices in the last quarter-century. He loves talking strategy and is particularly proud of his first campaign breakthrough, which he recounts in his effortless, homespun way.
“When you run for office, you hire all sorts of pollsters and media artists and people that are so smart,” Schuette says. “But no one came up with any decent way to deal with my name. And one Sunday afternoon, I went to my mother’s house. …And she said, ‘Bill, I have the idea.’ And she had a little piece of paper that had a shoe plus ‘T’ — and we took that idea and put that on billboards all across Michigan. So sometimes the best ideas come from home.”
Then there’s the “On Duty Bill Schuette” slogan, which he’s reviving for the AG campaign. The genesis of that might have come from Schuette’s student council secretary speech in fifth grade, when he vowed, “I’ll do my duty.” The handwritten lines are tucked inside his office drawer today as a reminder.
Known as a risk-taker emboldened by his family fortune, Schuette gave up his safe congressional spot, determined to wrest the U.S. Senate seat from Levin in ’90. Four years after that failed campaign, he was back on the horse, running for the state Senate at the urging of Engler and Gerstacker. This time, he won handily.
The staunch conservative ended up sparking a friendship with fellow Sen. Gary Peters, even though he said they “always had completely different, opposite philosophies.” The pair started the Senate Breakfast Group, a monthly, bipartisan, off-the-record gabfest that lives on today. Peters, now a freshman congressman from Bloomfield Township, recalls being “aggressive adversaries on the floor — we mixed it up,” but said bonding over their families led to a solid working relationship on economic development issues.
“He’s not bashful,” Peters says. “He stands up for something he cares very deeply about.”
Schuette spent eight years in the Senate before term limits kicked in. After flirting with an attorney general bid in 2002, he instead ran for the Appeals Court and won. In the spring of 2007 he starting mulling an AG run again with Cynthia (“We talked about this, discussed it, prayed upon it for about 10 months…and felt very peaceful with our decision.”). He recalls breaking the news to his kids over breakfast.
“One of them blurted out, ‘Daddy, how can you leave your job in the middle of a recession? Didn’t you watch The Today Show?’ True story. And then the other one said, ‘Are they going to say bad things about you just like they said about Governor Granholm?’ And I warned her and said, ‘Yeah, probably, when this is all over.’”
As Schuette was weighing his next move, he played a critical role in two ballot proposals last year. He ended up serving as chief judge on the three-judge Appeals Court panel that killed Reform Michigan Government Now!, a sweeping constitutional amendment hatched by the Michigan Democratic Party and unions that would have altered the redistricting process, cut the number of state-level judges and lowered pay for all three branches of government. Schuette doesn’t hold back his feelings about the measure, blasting it as the “Democrats’ Pearl Harbor — a sneak attack” and an attempt to “hijack the constitution.”
The judge ended up earning even more ire for heading up the No campaign for Proposal 1 that would legalize medical marijuana. He had dabbled in ballot initiatives before and lost with Proposal 1 of 2000, which would have allowed school vouchers. Schuette knew this one was also an uphill battle, but says philosophically, “I played a lot of baseball when I was a young guy, when I was a boy, and I never took a 3-2 pitch. You swing. Sometimes I hit home runs, sometimes you had a single, maybe even strike out.”
The proposal passed with more than two-thirds of the vote, but Schuette was named the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police Public Servant of the Year. That sparked speculation that he was just using the issue as a platform for his AG campaign, something he firmly denies. He also disclosed in a radio interview that he had used marijuana, which has inspired state Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer to lampoon him as “Bill ‘Bong’ Schuette.”
“Talk about rank hypocrisy,” Brewer declares. “On the Court of Appeals he wasn’t a fair or impartial judge at all. He served the right-wing agenda that put him there.”
Schuette bats away criticism, musing, “I think I came out just fine. A lot of that’s ancient history.”
Schuette is eager to make his case for attorney general, repeating it at the end of a recent interview as sort of closing argument. His No. 1 priority is being the chief law enforcement officer for the state, and he stresses his experience as a judge that no other candidate has. Other issues at the top of the list are fighting public corruption, protecting consumers, tackling cyber crime and cracking down on deadbeat parents.
He’s also hoping to work with a new Republican governor, though he hasn’t endorsed anyone yet (“I’m encouraging everybody,” he laughs), to beat back business-unfriendly bureaucracy in the state. “That’s a new element I want to work on,” Schuette says. He has high praise for current AG Mike Cox, who is running for governor, and says he wants to build on his success.
“You need to have a strong, tough, decisive attorney general, and I was a strong, tough, decisive judge,” Schuette says. “So I think I fit the bill, so to speak. …I’m prepared to lead on day one.”
That’s the same line used by Camp, his former chief of staff who often functions as his alter ego. “I’m doing what I can to help,” Camp says. “He has the right kind of experience.” Engler has also given Schuette his blessing, calling him “superbly prepared to be attorney general, to be a leader in this state.”
“That didn’t just make my day,” smiles Schuette. “It made my month. That might have even made my spring. And I think that sends a strong statement to grassroots Republicans across the state.”
Though he’s affable and a master of well-honed lines, that seems to belie a certain restlessness, as Schuette has hopscotched through every branch of government. But he doesn’t see it that way, insisting that “it’s all about the journey of service to Michigan. There’s no grand design.”
Nevertheless, it seems clear to many political observers that Schuette covets the governor’s mansion, something he quickly dismisses with: “I have no idea. I’m hoping to be Michigan’s next attorney general. That’s, that’s the focus. I can only see as far as 2010, November of 2010. Who knows?”
Camp is now serving his 10th term in Schuette’s old seat, rising to ranking member on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. But Schuette says he doesn’t have any “road not taken” moments, declaring that he is “so delighted” for his compatriot. The key, he says, is working to get Camp in the majority again so the country has the “correct policy” on fiscal matters.
Schuette is keenly aware that far more is at stake next year than his next job. He’s looking to spark a Republican resurgence, which he believes will happen if the party stays true to the principles of Reagan, cutting government and axing the Michigan Business Tax.
“Our messengers need to be the very best because I think the Democrats want to control all the statewide offices,” he says. “And they need to be able to carry a tune politically. And our messages need to be crisp and we need to be able to connect with people.”
Bill Schuette knows he fits the bill — and he’s already leading the charge.
Susan J. Demas is a 2006 Knight Foundation Fellow in nonprofits journalism and a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service.