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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

LG Calley’s Greatest Challenge Isn’t AG Schuette

March 30, 2018

SOUTHFIELD, MI – Last week, in perhaps the least surprising development in politics this year, Rick Snyder endorsed his loyal lieutenant, Brian Calley, to succeed him as governor.  Politicians seldom say anything memorable on such occasions, and the Calley-Snyder team may have set a new standard for clichés. “It’s an opportunity to pass the baton on to leadership who can take it to an even higher level,” the governor said, standing with his deputy at the headquarters of the Barton Malow construction company, a place evidently chosen to emphasize the state’s growing economy. 

“We can bring it all to the next level, and keep this comeback going,” the 41-year-old Calley said, adding that it was “an honor” to work with and be mentored by the governor.  So what does this all mean for the campaign?  Probably … little to nothing.

Now, it would have meant much more had Rick Snyder not endorsed Brian Calley; that probably would have meant the end of the Calley campaign.  Currently, he is running considerably behind his main rival, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, in fund-raising, opinion polls and name recognition.  Snyder’s endorsement keeps Calley in the game — and could have some benefits if, as the governor promised, he gets out and helps raise funds for his lieutenant governor.

But the fact is that for the younger man, this endorsement is a mixed blessing at best.  For many voters, the 59-year-old Rick Snyder is the man responsible for taxing their pensions and poisoning Flint.  Polls for many months have shown more people disapprove of the governor’s job performance than approve.  But even if that were not the case, lieutenant governors, like vice presidents, have a hard time succeeding their bosses. In fact, they nearly always lose. 

Flash back more than a third of a century to another race with some uncanny similarities to this one. Governor William Milliken was voluntarily retiring in 1982, and stepped forward to enthusiastically endorse his lieutenant governor, Jim Brickley, as his successor.  I covered that campaign, and that endorsement was thought to seal the deal.  The Republican Party was turning sharply to the right then, and had become far more conservative than the governor.  But there were two formidable right-wing candidates in the race: Insurance executive Richard Headlee, the father of the famous property tax limitation amendment, and L. Brooks Patterson, then the Oakland County prosecutor.  The even more conservative State Sen. Jack Welborn of Kalamazoo was also running.

Most experts felt that the governor’s endorsement would seal the deal for Brickley, but they were wrong. Richard Headlee won the nomination, with 34 percent of the primary vote to 30 percent for Brickley.  Brooks Patterson was a close third with 28 percent, and Welborn got the rest.

That’s even a worse omen for Calley when you consider that Brickley had a lot more going for him.  For one thing, Milliken was far more popular than Snyder is now.  Jim Brickley was also considerably better known and was well liked and respected for his law enforcement background. He’d been an FBI agent before becoming a prosecutor and then U.S. District Attorney in Detroit. He went on to serve two separate four-year terms as lieutenant governor – and spent three years as president of Eastern Michigan University in between. But voters wanted something new. 

Brian Calley has no independent career to speak of, except for four years representing Ionia in the state house of representatives. Separating himself from the Snyder legacy may be impossible.  But if he doesn’t win the governorship, he will be far from alone. Lieutenant governors, like vice presidents, have a notoriously hard time getting voters to give the keys. For some reason, they seem to fail to get credit for what their administration did right.  Yet they still get stuck with blame for the problems.  

Only one serving lieutenant governor has been elected governor in our lifetimes: John Swainson, in 1960.  And he was a 35-year-old war hero who had to fight the bosses to win the nomination.  Since then, besides Brickley, Dick Posthumus did get the Republican nomination for governor in 2002, but lost to Jennifer Granholm in November. Democrat John Cherry, her lieutenant governor, was expected to run, but decided not to. 

U.S. vice presidents have done about the same. In recent years, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and Al Gore all ran and lost when they were sitting VPs.  In 1988, George H.W. Bush was the only vice president to get elected from that office since Martin Van Buren managed it in 1836 – and both were booted after one term.

There is, however, a way that Snyder could make Calley governor: Resign.  That’s what happened to another young LG who looked even more boyish than Calley – Bill Milliken.  He got the top job when Governor George Romney resigned in 1969 to serve in Richard Nixon’s cabinet. Many in Lansing thought the youthful-seeming Milliken was a placeholder who would merely serve out the remainder of the term.  Instead, he was elected on his own three times, and served longer than any governor in Michigan history.

Were Calley to suddenly inherit the top job, it would make him the incumbent, which usually gives anyone a considerable edge.  But there’s no sign Rick Snyder is even thinking of that.

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.

March 29, 2018 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Matt Tomasiewicz // Mar 30, 2018 at 8:22 am

    SPOT on. Snyder does not leave a positive legacy.

  • 2 harvey bronstein // Mar 30, 2018 at 9:44 am

    As I have said for more than 16 months, it will be Whitmer vs. Schutte. Brian Calley should have waited for another opportunity.

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