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 http://ippsr.msu.edu/mplp/events.html).