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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

The Looming Challenge

February 10, 2017

FLINT, MI – Jim Ananich, a friendly, heavy-set man with a neatly trimmed beard, grew up in hardscrabble Flint carrying passionately about issues and wanting to make a difference.

Born during one auto recession in 1975, he came of age in Flint, a blue-collar General Motors town that has been perpetually in decline throughout his life.

He first became a teacher, then got involved in working in politics and got elected to the legislature.

Within four years, he had risen to become his party’s leader in the state senate – only to face one big drawback:

Senate Minority Leader Ananich’s entire delegation is so small he could pack them all in a couple medium-sized sedans. Thanks to gerrymandering and some big Republican victories, the GOP has a 27-11 lock on the state senate.

Democrats can’t even muster the votes to prevent a law from taking immediate effect. So how can he get anything done?

“Building relationships, finding common ground,” the 41-year-old Ananich said. “I don’t always look at the political leanings of the person. I find that I can work with people I know who keep their word, who have a good sense of humor, and are smart.” That means working with Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof to get what he can.

“There are many times when they want to do something and I say, look, we can’t agree to that. If you want to find 20 votes to pass this, you’re on your own.”

But other times, he is able to take advantages of splits among the Republican ranks to score some wins –or at least to make some legislation not as bad (from a Democratic point of view) as it might have been.

“Sometimes, I’ll say, look, if you want votes from us, you have to give us this. And they won’t give it to me, and they won’t give it to me … and then they finally give it to me,” he said. That doesn’t mean, he added, sacrificing your principles.

His voice betrays considerable emotion when he talks about the seeming callousness the Snyder administration has displayed towards Flint, where he’s lived nearly all his life.

There, thousands of children drank water heavily contaminated with lead for more than a year, while state officials ignored and tried to cover up the truth.

“What we have to do now is move from thinking in terms of a Flint disaster plan to a Flint recovery plan,” he said. What worries him is that the state and nation will soon forget about the crisis, which was caused by state-appointed emergency managers switching residents to toxic water to save money.

But his values were shaped long before the lead poisoning scandal. Jim Ananich says his interest in justice was first stirred as a very young child, when an unarmed black youth named Billy Taylor was shot to death in July 1980 by a police officer who thought the boy might be fleeing the scene of a burglary.

That case made a powerful impression on his late father, a once-homeless youth who became both a teacher and, eventually, Flint’s ombudsman before he died in 2000.

“If I have a hero, it is my dad,” said the senator, an only child whose mother died when he was 10.

Today, he notes that the legislature is his second most important job; he and his wife Andrea are intensely devoted to their 18-month old son Jacob.

Though Ananich taught high school social studies for four years (his wife still does) he had the political bug early. He got a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Michigan Flint and worked for both Flint’s congressman and a state senator.

From there it was on to Flint City Council, and then winning terms in the state house in 2010 and 2012. The next year, he won a special election to the state senate, and then easily won a full four-year term in 2014.

But though that was a good year for Ananich, the year was a disaster for the Democrats. They had hoped to gain seats in the senate, but instead lost one.

Worse, State Senator Virgil Smith (D-Detroit) was arrested in May 2015 and charged with a rash of felonies, including beating up his ex-wife and shooting up her car.

That, the minority leader acknowledges, was a major headache. Smith went to jail and that episode is behind him, but for the minority leader, hard slogging lies ahead.

He worries not just about Flint, but about other things, including the threat that 600,000 low-income Michigan residents now covered by the Healthy Michigan plan could lose health insurance if the Affordable Care Act is repealed.

For the next two years, his small band has to try to eke out any victories they can, in a state and a nation solidly under Republican control.

State Sen. Steve Bieda (D-Warren) said the minority leader’s calm demeanor helps accomplish that, as does that he is “thoughtful, and well-respected on both sides of the chamber and both sides of the aisle.” That’s rare in the current era.

“I like people challenging me. I know my ideas aren’t always right,” Ananich said. Indeed, when asked who his best friend in the legislature is, he said it was probably State Sen. Mike Shirkey, a conservative Republican.

There’s a looming challenge for Jim Ananich outside of the legislature, however: Flint Congressman Dan Kildee is expected to run for the Democratic nomination for governor next year. If so, Ananich would be the odds-on favorite to succeed him. “I can’t say I haven’t thought about it,” he said.

Congressmen also don’t have term limits. But for now, Jim Ananich said he’s focused on a year that for Democrats in Lansing, as in Washington, may be very hard indeed.

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.

February 9, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry


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