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Eric Freedman
Eric Freedman

Polishing the
Governor’s Image

January 16, 2011

As former governor, Jennifer Granholm gets to decide what her official, privately funded portrait will look like when it hangs in the Capitol between that of her immediate predecessor, John Engler, and G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams. Ferndale artist Charles Pompilius is working on the nearly life-sized painting, but details haven’t been disclosed publicly.

Perhaps Granholm will choose to incorporate symbols of her accomplishments, as Williams did. His portrait includes the Mackinac Bridge — which opened while he was in office — and a globe symbolizing his later public service as assistant secretary of State for African affairs and U.S. ambassador to the Philippines.

Or perhaps she’ll opt for something outré, as did John Swainson. Defeated for re-election in 1962, Swainson’s portrait looks sketchy and incomplete — reflecting his belief that his political career wasn’t over yet. The Senate was outraged enough to pass a resolution to publicly finance a more traditional replacement, a step that never took place. Yet Swainson’s portrayal proved prophetic, and he later won a spot on the state Supreme Court.

Granholm’s official portrait will do little if anything to shape future perceptions of her eight years in office, however.

Rather than counting on a painting — that most visitors to the Capitol are unlikely to see or will barely notice — to accomplish that goal, the Granholm administration, First Gentleman Dan Mulhern and the Democratic Party launched what was arguably the strongest post-election PR drive in the state’s history to buff her image and leave the public with positive vibes about her governorship and legacy.

Lobbying history by polishing the record is common practice for governors of both parties as they prepare to leave office, but Team Granholm did a masterful job. Lots of jobs created or retained? Yup. Unemployed workers retrained with new skills? Yup. A higher minimum wage? Yup. A more diversified, although smaller, economy? Yup. Action on Great Lakes preservation, alternative energy and environmental quality? Yup.

The on-her-way-out governor made her case in a flood of exit interviews with print and broadcast outlets (more than three dozen, by one scribe’s count).

Mulhern also took to the web to laud his wife on his own leadership website. “It would take chapters to discuss all of her strengths, and I’d guess I could spend a few pages on her shortcomings, but here are three dimensions of her leadership practice that inspire me,” he tells readers. If you missed it, here are the high points:

  • “Whether they were her own rare but inevitable mis-steps, flubs by her team or simply facing the mind-numbing challenges Michigan faced as a million manufacturing jobs evaporated, Jennifer got up every morning and focused not on who screwed up, self pity, or wishing and hoping, but on what was in her power (and much of which appeared to be beyond her grasp).”
  • “She does the personal-emotional side by seeing people, encouraging them and thanking them…Her cabinet and team have been freed and encouraged to ‘enlarge their territory.’”
  • “In the early years she wanted to do everything: cities, arts, higher ed, early childhood ed, a massive poverty reduction program, etc., and because she delegated so well her team got much of that done. But she became laser-focused on the core vision: diversification and education for 21st century jobs.”

And for audiovisual reinforcement, Mulhern links to a seven-minute video — “A Living Portrait” of Granholm produced by the foundation that commissioned her portrait.

Not surprisingly, the video features a lengthy list of laudatory comments from Democratic politicians — among them Detroit Mayor David Bing, U.S. Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, U.S. Rep. John Dingell and ex-Speaker Andy Dillon — and a quote from President Barack Obama. Also singing paeans of praise are CEOs and other executives of the Detroit 3 automakers, Dow Chemical, Crystal Mountain Resort, Henry Ford Health System, Detroit Medical Center, Charter One Bank, DTE and other businesses. UAW President Bob King provides a labor voice, Wendell Anthony of the Detroit NAACP a civil rights voice and the presidents of Lansing Community College and the state Board of Education an education voice.

The final buffing comes from the narrator: “The people chose a leader who then chose a path.”

Certainly Granholm’s actual record is mixed. A lengthy Associated Press analysis of the self-described “education governor” recounted some successes, such as higher reading and math scores and tougher high school graduation mandates, and she told AP, “We are still No. 2 in the country in terms of the percentage of our budget that is devoted to education.”

That said, there were a number of losses in the education arena, including reduced state support for public universities, elimination of the Michigan Promise college scholarships and shrinking public school enrollments. The state was able to avert severe cuts in state support for K-12 education only because Washington launched a stimulus money life raft.

A Booth Newspapers retrospective concluded that her governorship “shows signs of success” despite setbacks, including advancement of alternative energy technologies and high-tech manufacturing, sharp cuts in the state workforce and tax cuts.

The reality isn’t as rosy. She took office amid an increasingly globalizing economy that was dire news for Michigan manufacturing — and not just automakers — and left office with Michigan and California tied with the nation’s highest jobless rate. She inherited a massive structural deficit from Engler and in turn bequeathed an even more massive one to incoming Gov. Rick Snyder. Michigan became the only state to lose population between the 2000 and 2010 censuses and will lose a U.S. House seat in 2012.

None of those are her fault, of course. Governors have no control over world economic trends, they don’t have the power to create private-sector jobs and they can’t send the National Guard to the Ohio, Indiana or Wisconsin borders to block outbound moving vans.

On a mega-level, would things have been different had either former Governor James Blanchard or then-U.S. Rep. David Bonier won the 2002 Democratic nomination instead of Granholm and then beat the GOP candidates in the November 2002 and November 2006 general elections? And how different would things have been, again on a mega-level — the implosion of manufacturing, the outflow of population, the shriveling of revenue — if Republicans Dick Posthumus had defeated Granholm in 2002 or Dick DeVos defeated her in 2006?

And Granholm certainly confronted plenty of legislative resistance, even overt hostility. There were eight years of a conservative GOP-controlled Senate, four years of a conservative GOP-dominated House and four years of a divided and increasingly partisan legislature.

She spent much of her final two months handling routine end-of-session chores — wrangling with legislative leaders over matters fiscal, pardoning some crooks and commuting the sentences of others, announcing grants and appointments and watching key cabinet members leave for greener pastures. She signed lots of bills — 166 in December alone, ranging from big-ticket items like $968 million for capital projects and $20 million for the Pure Michigan tourism campaign to many of lesser import, such as restrictions on billboards for sexually oriented businesses.

She even dared incur the anger of some environmental scientists by moving Michigan a step closer to a moose-hunting season in the Upper Peninsula. She wielded her veto pen as well, rebuffing a freight trucking exemption in the Michigan Business Tax, among several other ill-fated bills. And she found time to refer the public to a new state website about the perils of improperly installed propane gas systems.

Nor did she go gentle into that good night, as the poet Dylan Thomas put it. Consider the 11th-hour verbal scuffle with Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, whom she accused of “fanning the flames of division” by worsening relations between Detroit and its suburbs. The outspokenly acerbic Patterson retorted that Granholm was “the worst governor” in state history.

No date is set for the unveiling of Granholm’s official portrait on the second floor of the Capitol Rotunda. To make room for it, the portrait of one-term Republican Kim Sigler will be moved to the third floor — the upper level of the building’s Gallery of Governors, says Kerry Chartkoff, the Capitol historian.

Sigler lost the governorship more than 60 years ago and is little remembered, except by some Michigan history buffs. But his portrait still gives knowledgeable passers-by something bizarre to ponder: The small airplane in the lower right corner of the painting is the one Sigler was piloting when it crashed into a television tower near Kalamazoo. Three passengers died with him.

Talk about a lasting image.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Eric Freedman is associate professor of journalism at Michigan State University and director of Capital News Service. He and Dome columnist Stephen A. Jones are editors of African Americans in Congress: A Documentary History (Congressional Quarterly Press).

January 10, 2011 · Filed under Freedman Tags: , , , ,

37 responses so far ↓

  • 1 harvey bronstein // Feb 4, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    In the interest of full disclosure, I was a supporter, fund-raiser,appointee and occasional very unofficial advisor to Jennifer Granholm. I think the article was quite fair in it’s analysis. In retrospect, she accomplished a great deal, but their were disappointments. If she had a fault, it was that she is too nice; the opposite of Engler. She was too loyal to her base including not traveling to China. Nobody tried harder. I hope that others who are more critical state it with respect.

  • 2 Suretta Must // Feb 4, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    I too was a supporter and fund raiser for Jennifer Granholm. I also think the article was a fair description of our former Governor. I too think she did the best she could under circumstances she was faced with. She was and is criticized so easily without remembering all the good things that she did accomplish. We should be able to see both sides shouldn’t we?

  • 3 Renee Holman // Oct 4, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Having conviently changed the laws during the Engler reign, Gov. Jennifer Granholm was stuck with Engler’s appointees, like a lead wieght. Our environment and regulatory oversight suffered historical blows, we are challenged to ever recover from.

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