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by Susan J. Demas
September 16, 2008

The placid white English cottage outside Ann Arbor seems like an unlikely place to plot the overthrow of Michigan as we know it.

But inside the book-crammed lair is Phil Power, a tornado of reddish hair and twinkling blue eyes who technically retired when he sold his chain of 64 newspapers in 2005. He’s still vice chair of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC), chair of the state chapter of The Nature Conservancy and president of the Power Foundation.

All that’s just the warm-up act, however. Power’s true passion is the Center for Michigan, the nonpartisan, nonprofit “think-and-do tank” he founded in January 2006 (“Thinking without doing gets you into a lot of trouble,” the grandfather of two often quips.) His modest goal is to corral 10,000 citizens by 2010 to bust through partisanship and inexperience in Lansing and change how the Wolverine State does business.

“You better eat your Wheaties before you come to work for Phil,” laughs Center Executive Director John Bebow. “His mind works a mile a minute; it’s hard to keep up with him.…My version of retirement at age 70 isn’t to trudge uphill at 8 a.m. every day to fight with politicians and change the world. I’ll be too tired for that. Phil will do that till the day he dies.”

No, Power’s not really interested in going gentle into that good night. The former HomeTown Communications magnate has sunk $750,000 of his own money into his new venture, which grew, in part, out of ardent exchanges with friends over the years in his home. DTE Vice President Paul Hillegonds remembers many a night spent with Power, Meijer President Mark Murray, former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz, Public Sector Consultants’ Craig Ruff and others musing over what could be done to “engage people in the middle who were turned off of politics.”

“It became increasingly clear that Michigan was in trouble. In part, because of the difficulties faced by the automobile industry. In part, because of the ineptitude and partisanship of the political and policy system that plainly was not functioning in a very effective way to help us out of this jam,” Power says, amping up to the crescendo.

“And I sat down and said, ‘I’ll be damned if I will let the Florida sand flow through my toes and stick my hands in my jacket pocket while my state is going to hell.’”

Power’s commanding voice is known to almost every politician and business leader across the state. And when Phil called about the centrist organization in 2005, they answered.

The Center’s 100 founding champions is a bipartisan who’s who of the state, including former Senate Majority Leader Dan DeGrow, DTE CEO Tony Earley, Michigan Environmental Council President Lana Pollack, state Superintendent of Schools Mike Flanagan, Genesee County Treasurer Dan Kildee and Dykema-Gossett partner Richard McClellan.

Many are old pals of Power’s, but there are also some new ones, like former Marygrove College President Glenda Price. She said she was “instantly intrigued” when she met with him last year and was inspired to become a co-chair of the organization’s Michigan’s Defining Moment (MDM) campaign.

“For our state to move forward, we need to think more critically about issues and less about party platforms,” says Price, who describes herself as a true independent.

There are centrist reform movements out there in other states, such as the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS), Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth (MASSInc), Iowa Policy Project, California Forward and Center for the Future of Arizona.

But the Center for Michigan appears to be the most ambitious in scope, aimed squarely at influencing the 2010 election. It’s not about endorsing candidates or parties — the organization’s 501(c)3 status wouldn’t permit it — but shaping the agenda and transforming the state’s culture.

Which, as Power points out, is a much bigger challenge.

Slaying the Stalking Horse

Before we go forward, it must be said: Phil Power is not running for governor. He’s not running for anything.

“I’ve been there, done that. And I don’t need it,” Power says flatly. “There’s no way I’m going to run for any political office.”

He and Bebow make that point clear several times during the course of our interviews and at public events. You really can’t blame them. Power was a Democratic U.S. senatorial candidate in 1978, University of Michigan regent from 1987 to 1998 and a member of former Gov. Jim Blanchard’s cabinet from 1983 to 1990.

Not to mention the fact that 43 years ago, the Ann Arbor native took two “bedraggled” papers in Plymouth and Livonia and built up the state’s biggest local news media empire. In this celebrity CEO culture, Ross Perot runs for president, Dick DeVos takes a stab at governor and Dave Bing mulls being mayor of Detroit. With Power’s larger-than-life persona, he might well be expected to take another crack at politics.

Those Michiganders with any sense of history will recall American Motors CEO George Romney’s Citizens for Michigan, a crusade for good government that led to our modern Constitution birthed at the convention from 1961 to 1962. That effort also served as the springboard for Romney’s election as the state’s 43rd governor shortly afterward. The stalking horse factor is one reason citizens have been nervous about Con-Cons ever since.

Power is aware of all of this, most acutely of the Romney comparison. But he says the Center is not about him, though he’s the public face of it. (“This can’t be Phil Power’s old civics sandbox. This has to be done by a lot of people working together, building from the bottom up,” he insists.)

Joseph Lehman, president of the free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, says he welcomes Power to the think-tank fold. “Come on in, the water’s warm,” he smiles.

But Lehman adds, “I’m sure (Power) knows it has to be more than one man’s platform.”

Power is a mercurial Alpha Male for sure (a “strong personality,” Bebow says) who has a clear vision for the state, but he didn’t draft the Center’s agenda single-handedly. That started with the founding champions and was fleshed out by more than 1,000 citizens.

If it were the Phil Power Show, the Center probably would have shriveled up by now. Although his friends love him dearly, they wouldn’t devote so much time and money to a vanity project.

“Phil is provocative — sometimes that’s the first thing people see,” says Murray, a co-chair of the 2010-focused campaign. “But he has a real heart and passion for the state.”

Indeed, if you talk to Power for even a few minutes, it’s clear that this is a man deeply in love with Michigan, where he traces his roots back to the 1824 founding of Farmington by his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.

The father of two can wax poetic about the dunes on Michigan’s west coast, Ann Arbor’s culture, fly fishing in the UP and rambling through Royal Oak’s downtown.

After graduating in 1960 from his beloved University of Michigan, where his father also had been a regent, Power briefly departed the Mitten State. First he did a stint editing a paper in Fairbanks, Alaska (“Because I had no saleable skills, I became a newspaperman.”) Then he jumped across the pond as a Marshall scholar to complete his master’s degree at Oxford. His last stop was running Phil Hart’s congressional office in Washington from 1965 to 1966.

Power didn’t hesitate to return to his home state, something he fervently wants more young people to do. In the decades since, he’s made his opinions known on everything from township consolidation to Proposal A as a prolific newspaper columnist.

“Sometimes I looked at my typewriter with a blank page in it and I said, ‘What the hell am I going to write about?’” he recalls. But he adds, “There’s no shortage of material now.”

Center of Change
“It’s been a wild ride,” declares Bebow of his 28 months with the Center.

The veteran journalist, who reported in Iraq for Gannett papers, left a new gig at the Detroit News after six months, which he describes as “clumsy.” But the Lansing native hasn’t looked back, summing up his job as a “professional citizen,” which includes “writing reports, promoting the Center, raising money, paying the bills and changing coffee filters.”

Gone are the days when Bebow, 41, would huddle with Power and his wife, Kathy, in the country cottage. The Center has mushroomed to seven employees, including three outreach organizers who crisscross the state to bring more folks into the fold — especially young people. There also are a half-dozen researchers with the Center’s partner, Public Sector Consultants in Lansing, to share the ever-growing list of projects, which includes periodic dinners linking about 30 current legislators to citizens.

Through all the changes, the bungalow still serves as the Center’s bucolic headquarters, located up the hill from Power’s estate in rural Superior Township and down the road from the Dominican nunnery established by Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan.

The nonprofit now sports a budget of $2.5 million through 2010, thanks to funding from AT&T, the Kellogg Foundation, Meijer, DTE Energy Foundation, Davenport Universities and several others.

Although the Center is active in this fall’s election, sponsoring 15 state House debates and interviewing candidates, Power has his eyes on the bigger prize.

That’s the watershed election of 2010, when the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, at least 32 senators and dozens of representatives will be term-limited out of office.

“The decisions we make over the next 10 years or so will go a long way to determining what kind of state we have for the next 50 years, 75 years. And now’s the time to do it,” Power says.

He isn’t shy about laying the blame for last year’s government shutdown and $2 billion deficit at the feet of inexperience, term limits and parties beholden to special interests. When asked how leaders did, he gruffly replies: “Not very well,” and doesn’t bother masking his exasperation.

“There was a time last fall when relationships between the governor and Speaker [Andy] Dillon and Leader Mike [Bishop] were so bad that they were negotiating the tax plans by text message,” Power continues. “Come on. That’s not any way to run a state. And so much of what happened then and what is somewhat to a lesser degree happening now, the political leadership of the caucuses, both Republican and Democrat, both Senate and House, seem to be more interested in scoring political points than they are in getting far-reaching solutions to get the state out of the trouble we’re in. And that’s ridiculous.”

The Center kicked off its work with three statewide conferences on the state’s finances, tax system and education in 2006 and 2007. Out of that, the Michigan’s Defining Moment (MDM) campaign was born.

The title might sound familiar, as it was a widely quoted phrase in the report of Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s Emergency Financial Advisory Panel, which in early 2007 urged governmental reforms, spending cuts and tax increases to get the state back on track.

S. Martin Taylor, who served on the panel and is now an MDM co-chair, tartly notes the similarities.

“It fell on deaf ears, as you well know,” sighs Taylor, chair of the UM Board of Regents. “Of course, we’re hoping the Center has more influence. But you can’t just make one report and the reforms will take place. It takes a lot of work and a lot of people. It’s a collaborative process.”

All this begs the question: Hasn’t this ground been covered before by assorted interest and good-government groups? The state already has think tanks, such as the conservative Mackinac Center and the liberal Michigan Prospect for Renewed Citizenship. And if you lunch at Troppo in downtown Lansing on any weekday, you’ll hear dozens of movers and shakers give their take on how to fix Michigan.

That kind of cynicism is a great way to get Phil Power’s goat. The difference, he says, is more than 1,800 people from across the state have participated in two rounds of Community Conversations to set the MDM agenda. It’s their involvement that makes the difference in an effort that’s not “top down, but from the bottom up.”

“Eventually, a political movement that has critical mass will make the political establishment stand up and pay attention,” Power says.

Domino’s Pizza CEO David Brandon, a founding champion, raves that the Center has already “exceeded expectations in terms of their impact.”

But Murray acknowledges that the think-and-do tank has more branching out to do, especially to reach 10,000 members.

“The biggest challenge is to break out of being only a group of people who have been experienced in public policy and always talked to each other,” says former Gov. John Engler’s former budget director, “and bring in additional voices into the conversation and the development of solutions.”

Count Drew Bennett, 43, as a convert. The Kalamazoo native voluntarily transferred back to Michigan three and a half years ago from a high-tech enterprise in a tony New York City suburb. He’s now a senior vice president with the Pleasant Ridge startup, EPrize, which the MEDC has trumpeted in its “Upper Hand” campaign. 

EPrize hosted a Community Conversation last year and Bennett has been hooked ever since, saying the Center’s optimistic outlook and nonpartisanship drew him in. The Northville father of three has attended several Conversations and a legislative dinner and is now helping with some of the candidate forums. He’s also been known to shoot off e-mails to friends and neighbors about the Center.

“I say, ‘If you want something different, here’s at least one opportunity to do things differently,’” Bennett says. “We have both sides working together. It’s very compelling to me, personally.”

So what is the Center’s agenda, exactly?

First, Michigan has to develop a globally competitive workforce, which the Center argues means a strong educational system, pre-K through college, as well as an emphasis on lifelong learning. 

Second, the state needs a vibrant economy and great quality of life. To get there, the Center stresses diversifying the economy and encouraging entrepreneurialism. But it’s also quality of life -- livable cities, smart development, culture -- and taking advantage of Michigan’s natural resources to market the state as the “North Coast” of beauty and innovation.

Third, there’s effective, efficient and accountable government. That means bipartisan leadership, clear taxing and spending priorities and intra-government collaboration.

All that seems easier said than done. But the citizens at the Conversations appear up to the challenge, brainstorming dozens of practical strategies to get there, such as lengthening the school year, simplifying the new Michigan Business Tax and increasing service sharing between governments.

“It’s proven surprisingly easy to get the public interested,” Bebow says. “There is a hunger to have the opportunity to share their opinions in a constructive way.”

Center’s Not Where Everyone’s At
Every movement has its skeptics — even one dedicated to bringing the left and right together.

Count Jerry Vorva among them. The GOP former state representative is challenging current Rep. Mark Corriveau (D-Northville) for the 20th District seat Nov. 4 and recently sat down for a candidate interview with the Center.

Although Vorva said he always likes to see people “talking in a civil fashion about government,” he hasn’t reviewed the Center’s agenda and says he really isn’t interested unless cutting taxes is at the heart of it. And he’s dubious of something “headed by Phil Power, so I view it as a left-leaning organization.”

Hillegonds, a Republican former House speaker, can’t help but chuckle at the criticism, noting most of the folks who prodded Power to start up the Center belong to the GOP.

“I don’t think Republicans can dismiss this as a Democratic organization,” Hillegonds says. “If you look at who’s involved, it’s a very balanced mix of Republicans, Democrats and independents.”

Bebow points out the Center lives up to its name — garnering heat from the left for backing spending cuts and smaller government, and from the right for its openness to higher taxes to fund priorities like infrastructure and education.

And if that doesn’t quell conservative fears, consider this:

“There is far too much entitlement thinking going on in Michigan,” Power says. “I’m entitled to my gold-plated fringe benefits. And there’s too much feeling that all I need to do is get taken care of by Mother GM. And there’s too much feeling that the way you get things done is through confrontation, with the auto companies and the UAW. All of those cultural habits arise, particularly in Southeast Michigan, from our history with the automobile industry.”

But there will always be those like Lehman, the Mackinac Center head, who believe that being moderate means perpetual compromise without conviction. He’s proud that his think tank’s research always comes from a limited government perspective.

“We don’t think we should be like Rodney King, saying: ‘Can’t we all just get along?’” he quips.

Taylor counters that the legislature today is paralyzed by polarization and wedge issues.

“The system doesn’t work,” he declares. “We need to look at the tough questions. It is so partisan and no one wants to take on the tough issues and reforms. It’s time to bite the bullet.”

Michigan Dreamin’
When Phil Power closes his eyes and pictures Michigan 10 or 20 years in the future, he smiles.

“The state will be changed and have a far more educated, world-competitive and productive workforce,” he predicts. “The economy will be far more diverse and be characterized by entrepreneurship and innovation.”

In other words, it’s the Michigan’s Defining Moment campaign come true. It’s certainly miles from the 26th state’s current battle with the nation’s highest unemployment rate, severe budget shortfalls and shrinking auto industry.

So Power will push on, full speed ahead for about 50 hours a week, for what’s really been his lifelong passion. He remains a Wolverine, a whirling dervish of kinetic energy, and he’s never been known to give up on anything in his life. So he’s not about to walk away from Michigan.

“This state has been very good to me and to my family,” he says with a hint of wistfulness. “And it’s a wonderful state. It’s beautiful and rugged and hard-working and common sense and practical. And it’s a place where I learned how to fly-fish for trout with my grandfather. And it’s everything that is bound up in who I am and every success I’ve been able to have and the history of our family. It is distinctive and magnificent. And I simply cannot bear the idea of Michigan becoming Mississippi but with bad weather.”

Susan J. Demas is a 2006 Knight Foundation Fellow in nonprofits journalism and a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service. In the interest of full disclosure, the author has done freelance research for the Center for Michigan.

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