Brian Calley and the Reinvention of the Role
of Lieutenant Governor
by Susan J. Demas
May 16, 2011
Lt. Gov. Brian Calley didn’t have to cast the deciding vote last week on the biggest tax overhaul in Michigan in a generation.
Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville had the 20th vote in his back pocket if he needed it, although several freshmen had told the Monroe Republican they weren’t wild about backing the pension tax and freezing the income tax at 4.35 percent for another year.
But the newly minted LG wanted to be on record for the centerpiece of Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan — and he got his wish, which earned him the lead of most news stories. But before voting in his capacity as Senate president, Calley took the highly unusual step of “asking for the chamber’s indulgence” to make a statement.
Now, the second-youngest lieutenant governor in Michigan history is not an imposing figure — no taller than five-six with a banker’s haircut, and porcelain skin and slightly rosy cheeks somewhat reminiscent of a marionette. But standing on the Senate dais that afternoon, Calley displayed a powerful and almost serene confidence.
“So we have heard time and time again that there’s more needed to fund each of these budgets. I have listened patiently as we have heard time after time that we should not cut this and that,” he announced.
“And, yet again, I heard time after time we should pass out or restore over a billion dollars in additional tax credits. It seems to be self-defeating. It seems to be inconsistent. What I ask is that everyone in this state start to pull in the same direction; that we start believing in the future, instead of denying the reality that we face today.”
Democrats panned his remarks as unprofessional. Republicans lauded them as bold.
Regardless, Calley had made the ultimate declaration of allegiance to his boss’s vision, fully aware that his own political future will depend largely on its success. The speech was an interesting bookend for the Portland Republican, who had helped craft the much-reviled Michigan Business Tax while serving in the House in 2007, and who won a place on Snyder’s ticket in 2010 by devising the plan to dump it with a flat corporate income tax.
“That’s what’s so exciting about now,” Calley says. “In my time in the House, I was always responding to a policy someone else had set. And here we have the opportunity to use the executive branch to change the course of Michigan’s economy.”
Watching Calley in action that day, there could be no doubt that he’s redefining the role of the lieutenant governor.
With the tax reform down, he’s moving on to the next task Snyder has charged him with, securing votes for a controversial new public-private bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor — what used to be known as the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC). That’s something that’s none too popular with most Republicans, who would prefer the state stay out of the matter. Calley used to be in that camp himself when he was in the legislature, but now backs Snyder’s revamped proposal. And Sen. Dave Hildenbrand (R-Lowell), who served with Calley in the lower chamber, isn’t surprised that the governor is leaning on his friend.
“He’s just one of those guys who seems to work nonstop and get a lot done in a short amount of time,” Hildenbrand says. “The governor can assign him anything, like we did in the House. If you need something done, you give it to Brian Calley.”
And it’s little wonder that many Republicans expect to see him in the governor’s mansion or the halls of the U.S. Senate one day.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming back on December 13.
Rick Snyder was a few short weeks away from taking over as governor when he stood side-by-side in the Romney Building with then-state CEO Jennifer Granholm, announcing a joint approach to economic development.
After witnessing publicly cordial but bitter transitions between Jim Blanchard and John Engler, and then Engler and Granholm, everyone was a bit stunned by the two leaders’ collegiality and cheerfulness.
But they missed the bigger story. Smiling by their side was Brian Calley, then just 33 and armed with only four years of legislative experience. He didn’t play a big role at the event, but he was there — something you would have never seen from John Cherry, Dick Posthumus, Martha Griffiths or any other LG-to-be in the modern era. Not even James Brickley, Bill Milliken’s close confidante and second-in-command, regularly attended press conferences.
Sen. Judy Emmons (R-Sheridan), a longtime friend of Calley’s wife, Julie, says his public role makes sense, in light of the fact that Snyder doesn’t have any legislative experience. Calley remains extremely accessible to lawmakers, who call and text him at all hours with policy questions.
“It is unprecedented in my lifetime. But Snyder, himself, is a novelty,” notes Bill Ballenger, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics. “…The traditional role for the lieutenant governor is like the joke about vice presidents having two jobs. One is to preside over the Senate and the other is every morning to inquire over the governor’s health.”
Since then, Calley been a ubiquitous presence at Snyder’s side at press conferences, from announcing cabinet appointees in the winter to cheering passage of the tax bill last week. Calley has been dispatched around the state, evangelizing to colleges and chambers of commerce alike about the value of the Snyder fiscal plan.
And the two leaders occupy adjacent offices on the second floor of the Romney Building — quite a change from Cherry, who was sequestered three floors up. Although Granholm picked the former Senate minority leader as her running mate for his legislative experience, Cherry never established himself as a power in his own right. And he never ended up running to succeed her, despite his status as the obvious Democratic frontrunner during a long and lackluster pre-campaign.
“Calley has a far greater role than John Cherry,” Ballenger says. “He was the soul of loyalty to Granholm and they never disagreed, never shared a cross word. But you never had a sense he was driving the ship.”
For his part, Calley is modest about his place in the administration.
“The way I would describe our relationship here is you have several members of senior staff, and it’s a very tight, cohesive, cooperative team, and I’m just one of the members of that team,” Calley says. “And everybody is supporting each other and the different roles that they have. It’s really a good model of how I think government should work.”
While the LG’s very public role has raised some eyebrows — and questions about his ultimate ambitions — Ballenger notes that this is part of Snyder’s plan (“It’s not like [Calley is] elbowing people aside, and holding independent press conferences,” he says). Even Democratic consultant Joe DiSano, a frequent Snyder critic, compliments the governor for “making good use of Calley, who’s young and articulate — and he’s smart to do that.”
The governor says his No. 2’s strong position evolved during the campaign, as did their relationship. The pair talks almost every day, if not in person, then on the phone.
“In the past, the position has been largely ceremonial,” Snyder says. “That didn’t make any sense to me. He’s too talented and there are too many things to work on.…When I chose him as my running mate, I viewed him as a partner in government. Too often we think in two-month election cycles — not as having a partner for four, maybe eight years.”
Calley was scooping ice cream at the St. John’s Mint Festival last August when his cell phone rang.
The father of three was feeling good. He’d just trounced a well-funded opponent in the GOP primary, and was all but assured to win the seat in November in the Republican stronghold of the 33rd Senate District representing Clinton, Ionia, Isabella and Montcalm counties.
That was all about to change. Because Rick Snyder was calling to see if he was interested in being considered for lieutenant governor. Calley says he was shocked, but agreed.
Snyder was weighing a handful of other candidates, but says the legislator “really stood out” for his legislative and business experience and ability to work across the aisle. And he felt Calley could be a “promising next generation leader” for the Republican Party, which was in desperate need of an infusion of new blood.
Calley was one of the few lawmakers in Snyder’s outsider orbit. The pair had bonded during “what he calls his margin of error days,” Calley grins — before the “One Tough Nerd” ad blitz when the gubernatorial hopeful was polling at about 2 percent.
During his first years in Lansing, Calley had rarely crossed paths with Snyder, the former Gateway CEO whose only government position had been chairing the Michigan Economic Development Corp. board under Engler. But the two shared a political consultant, John Yob — scion of former GOP National Committeeman Chuck Yob — and they began talking in 2009.
Snyder sensed a kindred spirit for his economic vision with Calley, a two-term House member who also held an MBA (“He’s kind of a tax geek,” says his close friend, Democratic former House Majority Floor Leader Kathy Angerer). The Republicans both had experience in business finance, though Calley’s was more traditional as a banker making loans while Snyder was a trailblazer in venture capital.
And both Snyder and Calley say their common values tie them together, like focusing on getting results and being positive and forward-looking. A deacon at Portland Baptist Church, Calley’s squeaky-clean image is well-earned — he doesn’t drink and proposed to his high school sweetheart before graduation (but he wasn’t actually a Boy Scout, in spite of the nickname some have given him).
His Christian faith has sustained him during his most public struggle, his middle daughter’s autism. Calley joined Angerer on her crusade to mandate autism coverage in health insurance — which was a painful defeat for both of them in last year’s lame duck session.
Struck by Calley’s thoughtfulness, Snyder entrusted the lawmaker with the responsibility of writing a new business tax for the state — the hallmark of his campaign. That’s become the new flat, 6-percent corporate income tax (“It is identical to the plan formulated during the campaign,” Calley notes proudly).
A week before the GOP convention in late August, Emmons — who would assume the GOP nomination for the 33rd District — was sitting in Calley’s office when he was asked to return to the floor of the House. That’s where he got the call from Snyder formally asking him to join the ticket.
Angerer told him to go for it. “I told him that opportunity only comes once. Knowing the man he was, I knew he would be a great lieutenant governor.”
Hildenbrand had heard Calley’s name tossed around about a week before. When he got the MIRS newsletter alert on his phone that Calley indeed was going to be Snyder’s No. 2, the Lowell Republican immediately texted him: “Is this for real?”
But Calley couldn’t celebrate too soon. The ghosts of his bitter Senate primary were about to come back to haunt him. Although Snyder — the only GOP hopeful not to be endorsed by Right to Life — picked Calley, in part, to boost his social conservative bona fides, the future LG had endured his fair share of abuse from the Tea Party wing.
Mike Trebesh, a St. Johns accountant, had dumped almost $370,000 into the Senate race in losing to Calley. Today, he calls Calley a “very nice young fellow with a great future in front of him” and stresses he’s “concerned about the future, not the past.”
“There were policy differences. I am certainly conservative and believe in fiscal responsibility,” says Trebesh, who says he’s keeping his own political options open. “I’m not saying [Calley’s] not — I’m not saying he wasn’t.”
But that’s exactly what Trebesh said during the campaign over and over again, as he bashed Calley in almost daily mail pieces for voting for the “job-killing MBT” and even (horror of horrors) approving tax credits that allowed “filmmakers like Michael Moore to make their anti-America movies in Michigan!”
Calley shrugs off the criticism after his 17-point primary victory. “The way that campaigns are typically run is that people decide what they’re going to say about their opponent before they even know who their opponent is. It wasn’t any different in this case.”
His role in the business tax again became an issue at the state Republican convention, where former congressional candidate Bill Cooper — a Tea Party favorite — challenged him for the lieutenant governor nomination. But Calley has a well-honed response to the charge that he’s the father of the MBT.
“I was kind of flattered that people thought a freshman in the minority of the House of Representatives was in the driver’s seat of anything,” he smiles. “But on the other hand, that’s just part of politics. You have to have thick skin and learn to walk away from comments, even those that are sensational.”
Cooper ended up withdrawing his candidacy at the convention and Calley says he now counts the Fruitport businessman as a friend (“He’s a good guy at heart, who wanted to make a difference,” the LG says).
The next two months were a whirlwind on the campaign trail, with Snyder and Calley rarely being in the same city at once. But their hard work and a good national Republican year paid off, and Snyder defeated Democratic Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero by 18 points, an almost unheard-of margin for a non-incumbent.
Rick Snyder would become the first CEO-turned-governor since George Romney in 1963. And Brian Calley would become the youngest lieutenant governor since John Swainson a half decade earlier.
Growing Up GOP
Brian Calley’s first political memory was at age 11, watching President Reagan’s farewell speech on TV with his dad, Dr. Doyle Calley.
“I remember just thinking I’d just watched something pretty special at the time,” Brian Calley recalls. “That left quite an impact on me.”
So much so that 17 years later, he would name his first daughter “Reagan.” She’s now 4. The name had the added bonus of being Irish, as Calley has given all three of his children names reflecting his heritage. Collin is 6 and Karagan is 1.
Born on March 25, 1977, in Dearborn Heights and raised in Detroit’s Mexicantown while his father attended medical school at Wayne State University, Calley was the third of six children. Although mom Kathy was apolitical, his dad most certainly was not (“All the things that you’re not supposed to talk about at the dinner table are the things that the Calley family debated on a regular basis,” the lieutenant governor recalls).
By 1992 Calley was working on the first George Bush’s re-election campaign, stuffing envelopes while still a sophomore at Ionia High School. That’s where he met Julie Powell — who hailed from a political tradition herself, as her grandfather, Stanley Powell, was a GOP House member in the 1970s. Calley took choir with her (“Paul McCartney taught me to play piano,” the avid Beatles fan says proudly) — but they didn’t see much of each other, since Julie was a year older.
It took a man-eating plant to bring the couple together. The future Mr. and Mrs. Calley played opposite one another in the dark romantic comedy Little Shop of Horrors — he was the nerdy Seymour and she was blonde naïf Audrey.
Just a few days after turning 18, Calley proposed on April Fool’s Day, 1995, and they were married a year later. Julie attended Northwood University, where she would earn a bachelor’s in business management, while Calley finished the same degree at Michigan State University in 1998. The couple had a standing date every Wednesday at a McDonald’s in Ithaca.
After graduating, Calley took a job at Ionia County National Bank for seven years and then moved on as vice president of Irwin Union Bank in Lansing for three years. He also earned his MBA in 2000 from Grand Valley State University.
And at just age 25, he was elected as a Republican to the Ionia County Board of Commissioners (“Back then, I certainly wouldn’t have predicted this,” Emmons offers of his meteoric rise).
In January 2004, the Calleys flew out to Washington, D.C., for George W. Bush’s second inauguration. Their state representative, Gary Newell, also was traveling there, and they started talking. Newell was term-limited and he saw a perfect successor for the 87th District in the ambitious county commissioner.
“Had the suggestion been made to me anywhere else in the world other than while we drove them to their hotel and we were driving around Washington, D.C., and we happened to be going by the Lincoln Memorial at the time…I wouldn’t have taken it seriously,” Calley says. “That place — as vile as some of the activity is there today — the history is a major inspiration for me.”
Calley buckled down, knocking on more than 10,000 doors (“I met many dogs — didn’t get bit until my Senate primary last year,” he smirks). He came out with more than 40 percent of the vote in the seven-way GOP primary in 2006 and handily won the general election.
From the time he entered the legislature, the freshman became the go-to guy on tax policy, as he had a reputation for being the rare Republican the majority Democrats could work with. He also volunteered for the thankless task of running the House GOP campaign effort in 2008. But he ended up being passed over for minority leader that year, losing to now-former Rep. Kevin Elsenheimer.
“I think the caucus picked right and it turned out OK for me, too,” Calley says now, but he pauses. “I was a little surprised only because of the amount of effort I put into the campaign when no one else would do it. Two thousand and eight was a brutal year for Republicans and there weren’t really many who were willing to take any sort of leadership role and pull the effort together. So I took on the responsibility.”
When he wasn’t on the campaign trail, Calley’s time was tied up designing the MBT and working on the Health Policy Committee, which Kathy Angerer chaired. The two spent dozens of hours talking about their families, sports and what was going on in the world off the Speaker’s Library.
“While leaders were hashing out the budget, we sat on the balcony and chatted about our lives in the afternoon sun,” recalls Angerer, now AT&T’s government affairs director. “I believe in Brian Calley. I believe in him as a legislator who believes in Michigan and good public policy. In a term-limited environment, you have to invest time in the people you want to build relationships with.”
One of Angerer’s passions was helping families with autism — and that ended up changing Calley’s life forever.
“It was about two years later when we were taking committee testimony and my wife and I were really struggling with our daughter, knowing something was wrong,” Calley recalls. “But the pediatrician couldn’t really figure it out, and other professionals we were seeking out couldn’t figure it out. And it was during the committee testimony that it just hit me. They went through this list of symptoms and situations — and it was clear. They were describing my daughter. And kind of a light bulb went off: ‘Oh, my gosh, she has autism.’”
It’s been a rough road, especially for Julie, who stays at home with the kids. But Calley is upbeat about his daughter. “People with autism accomplish pretty amazing things,” he says. “Really what happens is they get too many smart genes and it just crowds out the social ones.”
However, the Calleys have struggled with caring for their youngest child, known as Kara, who was born with a heart defect. The 1-year-old will undergo major surgery in Ann Arbor on May 31. Calley frequently glances over at the bright marigold prayer shawl in his Romney office that a West Michigan church made for her.
“We kind of look at is as one in a million that we’d have two of our three kids with these type of issues,” Calley says quietly. “But to be an advocate for kids with autism in this state…everything happens for a reason.”
Before filing to run for the Senate last year, Calley weighed leaving politics, but decided against it (“It really seemed like walking away from being a powerful advocate was taking the easy way out,” he says). Having made the decision to stay in public life, he didn’t have any hesitation about signing on as Snyder’s running mate.
Nowadays, Calley gets to draft his own schedule, instead of being at the mercy of the speaker’s whims. “As lieutenant governor, it’s actually easier to schedule life,” he says. “You can’t get much past 90 or 100 hours, anyway.”
But the LG does miss some things at home, like when he attended his alma mater’s basketball banquet in March and spent the night hobnobbing with Coach Tom Izzo.
“When I got home, everyone was asleep,” Calley recalls. “And I read my wife’s Facebook status that said that she had thrown a diaper at a possum in the garage. And you think about the difference in that, that I had an exciting fun night and she was battling possums with a diaper in the garage.”
Before Calley could fully devote himself to being Rick Snyder’s No. 2 in 2010, there was the little matter of the 33rd Senate seat to take care of.
His former rival, Mike Trebesh, was interested in the Republican nomination, as was Judy Emmons. Although Trebesh didn’t call out Calley by name, he blasted “cigar-chomping party insiders” for freezing him out before the closed-door nomination process.
It was something of an open secret that Calley had played the role of kingmaker behind the scenes, much as former Sen. Alan Cropsey had for years in that neck of the woods. After all, Emmons had been in his office when Snyder called with a final offer.
Julie Calley nominated Emmons, who won the contest handily. Her husband didn’t endorse anyone — as Emmons carefully points out, that would have been “inappropriate.”
“I don’t like the idea of political establishments controlling all these different aspects of local elections,” Brian Calley says. “I’m happy to share my opinions with people when they ask, but Judy earned that nomination on her own and I’m real proud of the way she did it.”
Perhaps that story is worth keeping in mind as people speculate about Calley’s post-Snyder future. And with the LG grabbing his fair share of headlines, that’s become one of the most popular parlor games in Lansing.
“He’s a hard-right conservative, but he does put a fresh face on it,” says Joe DiSano, a partner with Lansing-based Mainstreet Strategies. “Right now the sky’s the limit for him. If the stars align, he can succeed [Snyder] as governor after two terms.”
For his part, the LG says he hasn’t heard much on that front. “I’m kind of busy to pay too much attention to speculation,” he says, as Snyder Communications Director Geralyn Lasher interjects that he does work 90 to 100 hours a week. But Calley does want to make it clear that he’s in it for the long haul with Snyder.
“I’m…I’m so focused in on the policy roles the governor has given me — I’m just so absolutely thrilled at the relationship he and I have and the part that I have in this whole process — and I could not imagine a circumstance where I would leave this effort for something else,” he says.
If Snyder does serve eight years, Calley will retire from the lieutenant governorship at the ripe old age of 41. His friends see him as a natural fit for governor, Congress or U.S. Senate. “He’s capable of anything he sets his mind to,” Emmons effuses.
The odds have always been against lieutenant governors in Michigan, of course. Of the 63 to assume the post, only two were elected governor in their own right — John Swainson and Bill Milliken. In the recent past, James Brickley failed to even capture the GOP gubernatorial nomination to succeed Milliken in 1982. Dick Posthumus lost to Jennifer Granholm in 2002. And John Cherry ended up bowing out of the 2010 contest before it even began.
“Maybe Calley will change that,” says Bill Ballenger. “He’s young enough. But it’s way too early. His success or failure depends almost entirely on the success of Snyder as governor.”
That’s true enough. But in a five short months, the hardworking Republican has already managed to bust open what’s perhaps the dullest job in state government and make it one of consequence.
Sure, he’d have to buck the odds to be elected Michigan’s 49th governor. But insiders don’t call him a Boy Scout for nothing. When it comes to his future, you can bet that Brian Calley will be prepared.