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Fighting for Change From Within

by Susan J. Demas
April 16, 2009

Shortly before more than 84,000 breathless supporters invaded Invesco Field to hear Barack Obama’s historic acceptance speech at last August’s Democratic National Convention, the 2010 Michigan governor’s race was already declared over.

“I went into a caucus room and [Lieutenant Governor] John Cherry preceded me,” recalls Representative Alma Wheeler Smith. “And he was introduced as the next governor of the state of Michigan. And when it was my turn, I said, ‘Well, now I know how Barack Obama felt when he entered a room and Hillary Clinton was the presumptive presidential candidate.’”

Indeed, most of the pundit class does consider the gubernatorial contest to be a foregone conclusion on the Democratic side, even though several candidates have expressed interest, including Smith, Genesee County Treasurer Dan Kildee, former Rep. John Freeman and Michigan State University Trustee George Perles. The only drama seems to be whether House Speaker Andy Dillon jumps into the fray.

For Smith, it’s an odd feeling of déjà vu. When the now 67-year-old Salem Township Democrat first ran for governor in 2002, she was overshadowed by then-Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, who was hailed for fighting to break the glass ceiling at the governor’s office. Little attention was paid to Smith, who would have not only busted that barrier but become the Great Lake State’s first African-American chief executive as well. Poor fundraising forced Smith to join forces with then-U.S. Rep. David Bonior as his running mate.

“She was a wonderful partner, very thoughtful about the issues,” he says. “She had the ability to reach out to so many communities — environmentalists, women, the African-American community, the Latino community.”

But the pair finished a distant second in the primary.

“People kept saying, ‘Why didn’t you support Granholm?’” Smith recalls. “And I said, ‘Because I don’t think she has the knowledge of the process or the issues or how to work it to get it done.’ Bonior was everywhere I wanted to be except for the choice issue. And a lot of people were upset with me because I ran with someone who had this moderate, 50/50 record on choice.”

That wouldn’t be the last time the mother of three was critical of Granholm. Now Smith is being ignored in favor of the governor’s running mate and appointed successor. To some degree, the friction is the result of the Democratic Party’s well-known jumble of constituencies. Smith hails from the great social activist tradition of the left, Cherry comes from the world of union politics and Granholm is the product of the Wayne County urban machine.

Smith is convinced the race isn’t over with 19 months to go and key interest groups on the sidelines, like the AFL-CIO and UAW. When asked about her raison d’être for running, she lays out a clear vision for the state in a sound-bite-free answer you wouldn’t expect from a member of the governor’s party.

“I think Michigan needs somebody who’s going to be bold enough to say to the constituents, ‘We need to change direction.’ That we the citizens need to take the reins and if there are things we know we need to do to make Michigan successful again, then we have to have the courage to do it,” Smith said. “If we talk about education being a priority and we commission studies that show that higher education is the key to our future, we have to have the guts to go out and say to the taxpayers, ‘This is what it’s going to take to get Michigan functional again. And this is the amount of money we need to make that happen.’ And tell them if we’re going to turn the corner, we have to invest in our future.

“I don’t hear that from anybody. And it’s time. If we want leadership from our public officials, we have to be candid with the public. And we have to be willing to put ideas out there that might shock them, but might make them think about what we need if we’re going to create a resurgent Michigan. I’m willing to do that.”

And, yes, that means raising taxes is on the table.

Ann Arbor activism

Alma Wheeler grew up in Ann Arbor and has heard all the cracks about the “wingnuts of Washtenaw.” But the segregated city she was reared in during the 1940s and 1950s bore little resemblance to modern-day stereotypes.

She and twin sister Lucille were born in Columbia, South Carolina, on August 6, 1941, four years before the bombing of Hiroshima. Their parents had fought prejudice to earn advanced degrees, a highly unusual feat at the time. Emma Wheeler had finished her master’s in public health and was raising the girls with their older sister, Mary. Their father, Al, had gone north to complete his doctorate at the University of Michigan. But there was no decent housing for African-Americans in Ann Arbor; banks wouldn’t loan and landlords wouldn’t rent.

The family soon moved to Michigan anyway, after Lucille died at age two. Smith was there, but she can only remember what she has been told. Seven decades later, she still gently spits out the words.

“She caught her dress on fire. She was running as kids will and the fire — it was just caught in the dress. It was just severe burns. And the ambulance was called and came and [the first responder] looked at my family and said, ‘We can’t help you.’ The family was black and they were not going to take her to the hospital because the service was white. So she died in my mom’s arms.”

Afterward, the Wheelers scraped up the money to move to Michigan with the help of Smith’s grandmother. They integrated the neighborhood on Eighth Street on the old Westside of Ann Arbor, buying the home for about $8,000 that Smith’s son, Conan, lives in today. But everyone was still worried about Alma.

“I don’t remember and I think that’s probably very merciful. My family says I was sufficiently traumatized,” Smith recalls. “My mom told me, ‘You didn’t talk for a year.’ Then Mom laughed and said, ‘You know, when you were three, we were telling a story about a train’…and she asked, ‘How should we end the story? We have to fix dinner.’ And she said, ‘You said, ‘caboose.’ And we were all so dumbfounded.’”

“I was unable to talk about it for years,” Smith adds. “But it is one of the reasons that I do what I do.”

Meanwhile, the Wheelers had another daughter, Nancy. Albert H. Wheeler finished his studies and became a microbiology and dermatology professor, the first black tenured faculty member at his alma mater. But his life outside of academia was just as busy, founding the local chapter of the NAACP with his wife, who would also serve as its president, as well as founding the Model Cities Dental Clinic. Wheeler rose to become the NAACP’s state president. Years later, in 1975, he was elected the first African-American mayor of Ann Arbor (“And as he would have said to you, ‘The only, and isn’t that a shame?’” Smith smiles ruefully).

“The faculty kept saying to him that he could have his full professorship if he would stop rocking the boat,” Smith smiles. “And he said, ‘I’ve got to rock the boat.’ Maybe that’s where I got it from.”

There were small fights at home and bigger battles in the community, as the Wheelers worked to integrate schools and neighborhoods. The family once found a dead squirrel strung up on a crucifix in their yard and there were waves of crank calls. But the kids found friends on Eighth Street.

“The neighbors were not exactly welcoming, but there were a couple that were hostile. But by and large, they were just kind of hands off,” Smith says. “I was old enough when we moved to watch them sort of turn around and better communication in the neighborhood as we grew up. And kids get together and play and bring families together, whether they want to or not, because sandlot baseball is a big thing and pickup games in the park were common.”

The Wheelers were community organizers and proud of it, with Al founding the Campaign for Human Development, which would eventually employ one Barack Obama. Their girls grew up in the commotion of social activism that went beyond passionate dinner table discussions. They went along to meetings, passed out literature and worked on political campaigns (“My parents didn’t do babysitters,” Smith grins). But she never recalls being frightened or wishing her parents would stop making waves.

“We were not shielded,” Smith says. “But there was this confidence in my parents that we could be anything we wanted to be. It just took our focus on our job, which at the time, was going to school and getting that education.”

But when Smith enrolled in the U of M, she took a sabbatical from politics (“I kind of had it up to my eyeballs,” she admits). Her sisters, meanwhile, never left the fold and are both elected judges today. After graduating with a degree in journalism, Smith worked as a senior producer at the university’s Television Center for nine years, mostly on documentaries. But in 1972 she was named to the Ann Arbor Cable-Casting Commission, pulling her back into politics for good.

She ran for the South Lyon Community School Board in 1984 (“I wanted to make changes from within,” she says, using a familiar phrase from the liberal organizing tradition). And she carried on the Wheeler family tradition of enlisting her brood — Conan, Dana and Tara — in her campaign. After eight years, Smith jumped to the Washtenaw County Commission, upon which Conan sits today. By then, Smith was a seasoned politico, having served as Sen. Lana Pollack’s legislative director since 1986, winning victories on polluter pay legislation and a ban on corporal punishment.

“Her father was a mentor to me,” Pollack says. “I felt knowing him was a source of inspiration. They’re a great family. …They’re all marked by exceptional intelligence and exceptional integrity.”

When Pollack decided to run for U.S. Senate in 1994, Smith went for her 18th District seat in the Michigan Senate. Her father died the day before her announcement. He never got to see her win handily in the Democratic-leading district in both the primary and general elections, but her mother did before passing away in 2000. Smith served two terms before bumping up against term limits.

After her defeat in the 2002 gubernatorial race, Smith ran for representative in the 54th District in 2004 and has since been re-elected twice. Her office walls are still as bare as the day she moved in, but her desk looks like it has 12 years’ worth of work on it, cluttered with a sea of binders and papers that threaten to engulf her keyboard.

With a penchant for fuzzy blazers in deep shades of red and plum and thick silver jewelry, Smith looks at least a decade younger than she is. Facing term limits again, she’s taking a second whack at governor and is determined to win.

“I’m on the phone raising money,” she lets out a full-bodied melodious laugh, “which is something I hate doing.”

Fight the power

Rep. Smith is a fighter; it’s part of the Wheeler DNA. That hasn’t gone unnoticed by Sen. Alan Cropsey (R-DeWitt), her frequent collaborator and sparring partner on the Corrections budget.

“I would describe Alma Wheeler Smith as a good person to work with,” he says. “And she’s tough; she sinks her teeth into something. She really wants to win, because she believes in something.”

After watching her parents scrap against segregation and sexism, Smith knows how to take an agenda and make it reality. That’s why she’s been baffled by Granholm’s meekness and incrementalism for the last six years.

She has emerged as the governor’s most visible Democratic critic, though she only says aloud what many legislators whisper in private. Smith doesn’t go out of her way to bash Granholm; she just answers reporters’ questions honestly, albeit with some hesitation (“We’re in a political environment,” she grimaces). Nor does she exact the joy from it that GOP Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop does. Her soft, schoolteacher’s voice (“People make a fuss about me whispering,” Smith murmurs) and emotive brown eyes blunt the sting of her remarks, although perhaps not in print.

“This administration has had some interesting challenges. But we have a governor who has terrific charisma, an ability to speak and change people’s minds about issues and give them hope. I’ve seen a lack of organization coherence — am I going to get in trouble for this,” she says and stops to laugh nervously. “Daring? I just don’t think we’ve been bold when Michigan needed bold leadership.”

Smith lays much of the blame for that at the feet of Granholm’s advisers, but she also sighs that the governor was overly concerned about her re-election two years ago.

Granholm declined to comment for the story, but Press Secretary Liz Boyd made sure to note a recent joint appearance by both the governor and Smith for a stimulus funds project kickoff in Ypsilanti. Boyd offered her standard comment to criticism: “We find the representative’s comments very interesting.”

Smith is more forgiving of Cherry, whom she says has a great sense of history. But her main case for governor is that her old Senate colleague can’t bring about the change Michigan needs. When asked how much blame the lieutenant governor deserves for Granholm’s failings, Smith admits she doesn’t know, noting she’s “definitely not an insider in that group.”

“He’s been in the administration and he’s had the ear of the governor,” Smith adds. “I don’t know if she’s listened and taken advice or listened and decided that wasn’t the direction she wanted to go. I don’t know if he’s thrilled with what’s happened with the administration or he’s frustrated.”

But when Smith contrasts the role Bonior carved out for her to the one Granholm assigned Cherry, she unveils a rather devastating critique of her rival’s weakness.

“I would have had a governor as a partner who would have allowed me to use my position,” she says. “David made no bones of what he was doing with the office. He was going to make sure that I was there next. … It would have been a partnership, and that didn’t happen for John.”

Cherry campaign spokesman Chris DeWitt had a similar reaction to Boyd’s. “She’s certainly welcome to her opinion, but I think many people would disagree with that opinion.”

Bonior is no longer active in Michigan politics, having managed John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign and later advising Obama. The founder of American Rights at Work says he doesn’t plan to endorse in the governor’s race, noting his friendships with both Cherry and Smith. Although Bonior’s former running mate didn’t consult him before she announced her second gubernatorial run, he praises her drive and stances on issues.

“Alma Wheeler Smith is someone who has a real firm belief in what she stands for,” he says. “She’s not mushy. You know what you’re getting. She’s tough.”


The ‘l-word’

There’s a word most Democrats are loathe to use, embracing baggage-less versions like “progressive” instead. But not Smith.

“I am a liberal; I have no qualms about telling people that,” she says. “But I do understand this process and I know that I don’t have all the answers and people bring other ideas to the table that working in conjunction with what I have as an idea can make a much better package. … As a pragmatic liberal, I can work with anybody.”

To prove it, Smith rattles off a long list of Republicans she’s worked with over the years, including former Senate Appropriations Chair Harry Gast, former Sen. Phil Hoffman and former Sen. George McManus.

“I put out a piece of legislation; I put it out the way I want it to look. And I know I’ll have to compromise along the way in order to get it done,” she says. “But if you don’t start high, you just end up lower and lower. If you start with what you’re willing to accept, you’ve got nowhere to go, and this process demands compromise.”

It’s her odd-couple pairing with Cropsey on Corrections that’s perhaps netted the most attention, as they’ve worked to lower the prison population without sacrificing safety. They speak of one another with genuine affection, with Smith smiling, “His heart’s in the right place.”

“I have a lot of respect for her even though we have some very fundamental disagreements,” Cropsey says.

A longtime veteran of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, Smith has watched the haphazard budget process year after year and tried to make her mark, especially on environmental, education and health issues. She’s known for provocative ideas, like proposing with her daughter-in-law, Rep. Rebekkah Warren (D-Ann Arbor), a 1.15-percent income tax hike to fund free college tuition and preschool for Michiganians.

Smith says this would be a “drawing card” for businesses, along with a universal health care plan. She notes Michigan is not a high-tax state, even for businesses, and offers up a scathing critique of their anti-tax sentiment, referencing Oliver Wendell Holmes.

“It’s something they can find as a focus for why they’re not doing well,” Smith says. “No business likes paying taxes. They’d rather see it go to their bottom line. And I’m sure that’s true of individual citizens, too. But we live in a society where we all have to pull together for the benefits that the state can bring, the infrastructure that we can build that helps move goods and services. The education infrastructure that gives us the opportunity to have an educated populace that’s good for democracy and good for business. So I don’t know why they gripe. It’s their part in a civil society.”

Those are the kind of statements that make Michigan Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President Bob LaBrant queasy. If Smith wins next year, he predicts that businesses will vote with their feet.

“She’s certainly more liberal that Granholm,” he says. “I think Gov. Granholm has found over time that it’s best to steer a moderate course. Nothing personal against Sen. Smith, but she’s far more liberal in her ideas.”

What Michigan can expect from a Smith governorship is big goals and boldness. Not unlike the blueprint left by former Gov. John Engler, but from the opposite side of the political spectrum.

“It takes a long time to move government. Michigan doesn’t have a long time. We’re at the crossroads here and we’ve got to change what we’re doing because it hasn’t worked. And if that means doing what some people say is ‘going to the left’…”

Smith pauses for a split second to flash a determined smile, knowing she’s about to unload something that will give Democratic consultants aneurisms. “…then, yeah, we need to go to the left.”

Those are fighting words. They’re words that Al and Emma Wheeler would have uttered.

Smith knows that, of course, and smiles again. “I really did learn everything I needed to know from my parents.”

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


7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Barbara Goodsitt // May 5, 2009 at 6:27 am

    This is a great woman.

  • 2 Dave Smith // May 5, 2009 at 6:30 am

    I sure hope the people of Michigan listen to Alma Smith. They need to change what they are doing and the direction they are going and Alma has the ideas, drive and honesty to get they there. She will not sugar coat the problems but will face them head on with all the energy and wisdom that she has.

  • 3 Betsy Garrett // May 5, 2009 at 8:26 am

    I feel very encouraged for Michigan after reading this article. I’m anxious to find out how I can volunteer to help with the campaign!

  • 4 Mort // May 12, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    Was glad to find this article. I gave money to and worked for her campaign in 2002 and look forward to doing so again. She’s a 100% class act.

    But please, it’s Michigander. Only people whose families have been here a more limited time have made up the term Michiganian.

  • 5 Marcie Lipsitt // Jun 28, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    Representative Alma Wheeler Smith deserves a real chance and Democrats and Independents should not simply view Lt. Governor Cherry as the Democratic nominee for the 2010 Governor’s race. Michigan is the most broken state in America and it will take a candidate with the courage to fight the “exhalted status quo” and that is Alma Wheeler Smith.

  • 6 Alex Krezel // Aug 2, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    I’ve known Alma Wheeler Smith for over 40 years. I know her to be strong and forthright in expressing her views, but, at the same time, smart enough, considerate enough and pragmatic enough to listen to and accept good ideas that others may bring to the table. She is that rare kind of leader who can bring people with diverse viewpoints together to create and implement the solutions Michigan so desperately needs.

  • 7 Ed // Jan 16, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    She proposes raising taxes for education. Granholm has done the same. It’s all good and well if we get really smart people out there, but they won’t do anything if their hands are tied with taxes.

    Now, she will lose in a land slide unless she starts proposing fewer taxes on the states earners. These are the people that make this country and this state move, entrepreneurs.
    Ask any blue collar worker what they want their government to do and you will hear the same thing I do: “lower taxes”.

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