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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Whatever It Takes

January 27, 2017

LANSING – Few noticed, but when Gov. Rick Snyder arrived at the Capitol to deliver his seventh State of the State address, he was warmly greeted by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. That might have seemed completely natural.

Both men are Republicans who won their seats on the same day and have served together ever since.

But in fact, it was pure political hypocrisy.

The two men are anything but friends. Schuette has frequently stymied and embarrassed the governor, even on matters that had nothing to do with his office.

Sure enough, only hours after the State of the State, Schuette announced he wanted to file a brief in federal court opposing the governor, who is fighting a requirement that the state deliver bottled water to affected homes in Flint.

This is nothing new. Two years ago, the attorney general raised eyebrows by publicly opposing the governor’s ballot proposal to raise taxes to fix the roads.

“I never would have done that,” said Frank Kelley, who was Michigan attorney general for a record 37 years. “I don’t care what party the governor was. If it didn’t have anything to do with the attorney general’s job, I stayed out of it.”

What’s more, the relationship between the attorney general and the governor may be about to get worse – much worse.

It’s no secret in Lansing is that Schuette badly wants to be governor – and destroying Snyder, his fellow Republican, may be his only chance to get there.

Here’s why:  Whoever the GOP candidate for governor is next year starts with three strikes against him.

First, when a governor leaves office Michigan voters tend to move to the other party. They replaced Republican John Engler with Democrat Jennifer Granholm; Democrat Granholm with Republican Snyder.

Term limits mean an open seat next year. That favors Democrats from the start – and they have a second advantage. Voters almost always turn against the party holding the White House in midterm elections.

Matt Grossman, a political scientist who is director of Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, said this may be especially true next year, since President Trump starts with historically low approval ratings.

If that weren’t bad enough, Republicans face a third whammy:  the national horror of Flint. Governor Snyder’s appointees switched the city to a source that caused lead to leach out of old pipes into the citizens’ drinking water, and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality seems to have attempted to cover it up.

The result will probably cost the state and nation billions, may have caused brain damage to many Flint children, and has almost certainly destroyed any hope Snyder may have had of any political future.

After a slow start, Attorney General Schuette has been aggressively mounting an investigation that last month resulted in felony charges against two Snyder-appointed emergency managers. More charges may be on the way.

Rumors have been swirling that other high-ranking officials may be on the hook. Politicians and journalists have been skeptical of Snyder’s claim that he knew nothing about possible lead contamination for quite some time.

The governor also claims not to have known for more than a year about a possibly related outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease that killed at least a dozen people in the Flint area in 2014 and 2015, though emails show it, like the lead in the water, was common knowledge among some of his assistants.

What did the governor know and when did he know it?

How high will the attorney general go?

While nobody knows, it’s clear that if Schuette has any hope of being Michigan’s next governor, he needs to be seen as the man who brought those who poisoned Flint to justice.

Whatever that takes.

By the way, if you are still reeling from shock and fatigue after last year’s bruising campaign, you might think it is too early to be even thinking about the next election.

That would make you normal. But that’s not how politicians think. The results of last year’s presidential race hadn’t even been certified by Congress when Gretchen Whitmer, a former senate minority leader, announced with a breathless tweet that she was running for the Democratic nomination for governor.

“I’m IN! I’m running for governor! I’m ready to fight for a better Michigan,” she announced, two days into 2017.

Whitmer, 45, becomes the first declared candidate, but others are certain to follow. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), 58, a pioneer in the land bank movement and owner of a famous Michigan political name, is also widely expected to run.

He may start have an edge because of enormous statewide sympathy for Flint. Whitmer, however, has strong support in Lansing circles, and likely made points by being a prominent and eloquent speaker at the Women’s March to Lansing the day after President Trump’s inauguration.

On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, 39, also is believed to want to run, but faces an uphill battle against Schuette, 64, who has far more name recognition and a considerable inherited fortune.

In any event, you soon may be seeing a lot of all these candidates, and perhaps more to come. After all … Michigan’s primary election is only a little more than a year and a half away.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

January 26, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry



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