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Carol Cain

Carol Cain

Michigan’s Political Finishing School

November 13, 2015

It’s a weekend boot camp of sorts for wanna-be politicians with a who’s who of over 600 alums that has helped the Michigan Political Leadership Program blaze a trail as no other.

Run out of Institute for Public Policy and Social Research (IPPSR) at Michigan State University, the non-partisan Michigan Political Leadership Program (MPLP), started in 1992, continues to make an impact.

MPLP provides 24 fellows selected each year a fast-paced education on politics and policy, enabling them to interact with each other and network with the state’s political elite, and provide them with skills to become better candidates and leaders.

“I’m so proud of MPLP’s accomplishments,” said Douglas Roberts, director of IPPSR who is retiring in late December after 13 years. “Consider these records, about 600 alumni trained, 45 percent of them are serving or have served in an elected or appointed capacity. Two have served as elected chair of a Michigan tribal government. Eleven are now serving in the Michigan Legislature – four are in the state Senate and seven are in the state House.”

The fellows are split between Republicans, Democrats and Independents, and hail from all corners of Michigan. They run the gamut of ages and backgrounds.

Among some MPLP alums — former Detroit Mayor Kenneth Cockrel, Jr., Gov. Rick Snyder’s outgoing press secretary Sara Wurfel (who is leaving at the end of this month to join Truscott Rossman as vice president), former House Speaker Craig DeRoche, former Sen. Wayne Kuipers, House Minority Leader Tim Greimel and Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

Nearly everyone chosen for one of the 24 spots brags about their MPLP experience.


Count Edgar Vann III, 34, son of well known activist Rev. Edgar Vann, among them.

The younger Vann is district director of government relations for Wayne County Community College District.

He’s in the current MPLP class which winds down its 10-month training this month.

He ran unsuccessfully for state representative but hasn’t given up his goal of one day running and winning. He knows the MPLP training will help in whatever he does.

When asked about the MPLP and what stood out, Vann mentioned one weekend that revolved around media training.

It’s when fellows are grilled by invited journalists, write campaign speeches and tape political commercials.

“For many this was terrifying but what I liked about this we all supported and encouraged one another and that weekend made me realize how much of a bond had been created through the MPLP experience,” Vann said.

The fellows are chosen from those who apply to the program which is open to anyone.

The 2015 class started its training in February and is finishing up this month. Applicants for the 2016 class are now being interviewed with the class that starts this February.

The MPLP training takes place one weekend each month for 10 months and covers a multitude of issues like campaign finance, and learning how to get a bill through the legislature. Sessions are held around the state so fellows can network with each other and local and statewide politicos.

The MPLP’s co-directors have experience in state legislative leadership and state executive administration. Co-Director Anne Mervenne, a Republican, was a member of Gov. John Engler’s executive team, and Steve Tobocman, a Democrat, is former state House Majority Floor Leader.

“The Michigan Political Leadership Program is known as one of the nation’s premier training grounds for up-and-coming leaders,” said Mervenne, who is CEO of Mervenne & Company, a governmental relations consulting firm.

Bryan Barnhill, who served as campaign manager for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and works as the city’s Chief Talent Officer, is also an alum.

“MPLP is a finishing school for aspiring political leaders in the state,” said Barnhill.

“MPLP is a critical component of re-inventing Michigan politics,” added Tobocman, who is Managing Partner of New Solutions Group, LLC, a Detroit-based consulting firm.

Tobocman mentioned how partisanship and politicization have gridlocked Lansing and Washington and how MPLP is trying to teach people how to work in that environment.

“I can think of no more important contribution I can make to my children’s future than the work we do in MPLP to build a more thoughtful, collaborative, and ethical political system,” said Tobocman.

What has changed is more fellows opting to run for office while in the program or right after.

“(Former) State Representative Maureen Stapleton took the program thinking she was never going to run, but wanted to continue her work supporting candidates,” Tobocman said. “The program made the difference for her running,” Stapleton, CEO of Community Enterprises – a Detroit based consulting firm — added how MPLP helped her in Lansing.

“It made me understand how to listen to another side of an issue,” she said. “While I could often not agree, the program taught us how to at least listen to another view and debate without being disagreeable.”

Scott Benson had been a business owner, served in the military and worked for a community organization.

Knowing he had a goal of running for public office, he applied and was accepted into the MPLP program in 2011.

“I had the chance to meet and network with people and leaders from across the state,” said Benson, who ran for Detroit City Council and won.

The MPLP program has had impact in other ways too.

Two alums –former House Speaker Craig DeRoche and Aaron Payment, the Tribal Chair of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, have both recounted the relationship they struck while in the program that helped later.

DeRoche called Payment via cell phone as he was walking into budget negotiations in 2006 to ask about the Indian Tuition Waiver policy. That conversation was critical to making sure the program was not devastated by the Legislature.

As part of its training, MPLP has had to ramp up the conversation on technology and its impact on politics.

“The internet and technology has radically changed how campaigns are conducted,” said Mervenne. “We also added a segment to our media weekend this year about crisis management. With ever shorter news cycles, this is an important skill.”

A big chunk of MPLP’s funding comes from its annual dinner in Livonia and breakfast the next morning in Grand Rapids which have also proven to be the hottest ticket in politics.

The events feature well known speakers from both sides of the political aisle.

They have a blockbuster program lined up with GOP strategist Karl Rove and Democrat strategist Jim Messina set to take to the MPLP stage in March.

Rove was the architect of President George W. Bush’s electoral success and Messina credited with orchestrating President Barack Obama’s re-election.


I will moderate the March 3 MPLP dinner and WGVU morning host Shelley Irwin the breakfast in Grand Rapids.

The timing of the events will make it even more in demand.

“Karl Rove and Jim Messina have been at the apex of national politics so what better commentators can we offer during the most fascinating election cycle of my lifetime,” said Mervenne. “Given the March 8 Michigan primary, our March 2 dinner and March 3 breakfast events could not be better timed.”

The cost of the MPLP program is $1,000 though the organization offers scholarships that can defray some cost.

Nationally known MSU political scientist Matt Grossmann takes over in January as IPPSR’s next director and is looking ahead.

“My first priority will be to build MPLP’s already strong reputation and improve its financial sustainability,” said Grossmann.

Grossmann comes from a politically active family as his mother, Jan Grossmann, runs a statewide women’s leadership program in Missouri and his father , Larry Grossmann, consults with local and state candidates.

As Grossmann gets set to pack his bags to move into new quarters, Roberts, who plans to travel with his wife, Bobby, to see their children and grandchildren, is preparing to pack up for his move into a new chapter of his life which also included 28 years serving in state government.

With so many speakers and moments, I asked Roberts which stood out during his 13 years at the helm.

“Without question, the single best moment for me was when we were able to welcome former Gov. James Blanchard and former Gov. John Engler to appear together, on (the MPLP in 2010) stage, for both the dinner and a breakfast,” Roberts said.

With a seamless transition in leadership, no doubt there will be more memories and political history made through the fellows and programs at the Michigan Political Leadership Program.

(For more on fellow applications, or information about the MPLP annual dinner/ breakfast: call 517-353-0891 or

Carol Cain is an eight-time Emmy Award winning journalist who serves as senior producer/host of “Michigan Matters” on CBS 62. She is assisting the CBS Detroit station with its Peabody-nominated “Eye on the Future” initiative which includes TV specials tackling vital issues. Cain also is a columnist at the Detroit Free Press, writing about business, politics, and more. Born in Detroit, she obtained her BA in Communications from Michigan State University and MBA from the University of Michigan.

November 12, 2015 · Filed under Carol Cain

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anagnorisis // Nov 13, 2015 at 8:50 am

    Exquisitely researched and stated as usual, this essay inspires some other background verbiage. Whereas it is true that formal training begets a sure knowledge of how any field of endeavor functions in full, the histories of the various professions and trades are replete and often dominated by forerunners without organized and hence “legitimate” training. For one cogent illustration it is pertinent to review the life and times of Benjamin Franklin, multiple diplomat to many of the Revolutionary War era summits and forums, even becoming dismayed at his son Richard’s reticence to recognize the Colonial efforts and needs. Franklin presumably thereby avoided the presidency bid, somewhat by age but, due to his other involvements that had grassroots in public and business perceptions. But for health care and concomitant technological developments recently, formal education and inner-sanctum type forum exposure tend to explore the political workings of how the country is run, often deplete of how the public perceives and relates to it, the ” Democrat taxes and spends, Republican cuts taxes for friends” dichotomy. That’s the only explanation for why Donald Trump is prevailing: in his own words, “Nobody tells [him] what to say”. Be that as it may, Karl Rove exemplifies the obverse view of centralized politics, poling for votes and slogans, those winning tactics that can be synthesized. Rove once quipped off the cuff that “When people start doing better (making more money) they vote Republican, unless they’ve had too much education and vote Democratic”, a double-edged sword that viewpoint. On the other hand, if we all had lots of money, perhaps bestowed by magnanimous leaders, maybe we’d all be Republicans, should anyone ever get that message and implement it. Franklin and Rove were and are both wealthy men so you pays your money and you takes your chances. X votes = $1000.

  • 2 Janice Gooder // Nov 13, 2015 at 10:35 am

    Didn’t know about this program.. Very interesting and am going to mention to my neighbor’s son is a natural born politician!

  • 3 Tim Mahone // Nov 13, 2015 at 2:07 pm

    Maybe we could make this program mandatory for every sitting politician in Lansing, Maybe we’d learn how to get things done

  • 4 Richard McLellan // Nov 13, 2015 at 2:25 pm

    I have been a speaker at this program for 15+ years. The ability to get diverse political types from all over the state to sit together for several weekends a year is one of the reasons I think MPLP is a positive force for Michigan. This is an effort worth attending if you are serious about politics. And it is a great investment for those of us who want a strong, effective state political system and government.

  • 5 Rude Difazio // Nov 13, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    A reading of Ben Franklin’s womanizing and providing post master jobs to many relatives throughout the colonies, would suggest that he would never have lasted long in government in today’s media environment. The world has changed, and organizations like this one have become vital. Only question: Have any Tea Party members gone through the program, yet?

  • 6 Janet Smith // Nov 13, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    If this program is so good, and there so many MPLP members in legislature, then why do we have such mayhem getting things done ??

  • 7 John Q. Public // Nov 14, 2015 at 10:13 pm

    Janet, there’s no better question than the one you asked. Part of the answer is that the program is training on “how to get.” It does a good job at that.

    It’s far less effective at guiding future politicians at “what to want.” So, they want all the wrong things, and as a result of their training, they’re very good at getting them.

  • 8 Janet Smith // Nov 15, 2015 at 6:40 am

    John, maybe they ought to add a session on teaching them just that. It too is part of the process..

  • 9 George Moroz // Nov 16, 2015 at 2:20 pm

    I am proud that I’ve had the opportunity over the past five or six years to address the then current crop of MPLP participants on the importance and value of the non-profit sector and The Henry Ford, in particular, to the State’s economy and national reputation. I hope that over those years I have helped influence a few of those future policy-makers to regard us more as the “impact sector” rather than just the non-profit sector. I’m looking forward to meeting and exchanging ideas with the new class next March.

  • 10 Harris // Nov 20, 2015 at 10:41 am

    The present dysfunction of our State government argues against this program. When the Legislature and the governor believe it effective policy to pass the buck on roads — what are we to do? Something more, something better must be done.

  • 11 Dave Lambert // Nov 23, 2015 at 3:14 pm

    I attended the program during 2002, and found it to be a great learning experience.



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