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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

“Less Is More”
in Election 2012

November 9, 2012

DETROIT — Michigan voters sent several strong messages in this week’s Presidential election. They clearly didn’t regard Mitt Romney as any kind of a favorite son. They didn’t want all sorts of special interests messing with the state constitution, and didn’t seem interested in changing things very much. They don’t seem to mind divided government, and weren’t in the mood to be brainwashed by a torrent of TV commercials.

It was, after three consecutive elections triggering vast change every two years, something of a victory for the status quo. There was some disappointment in this for Democrats, who had strong hopes of winning Michigan’s northernmost Congressional seat, and an outside chance of winning two others. But freshman U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek eked out a win over Democrat Gary McDowell.

In Michigan’s Eleventh District, the bizarre last-minute meltdown and resignation of five-term GOP Congressman Thaddeus McCotter left Republicans with nominee Kerry Bentivolio, an extreme Tea Party supporter with bizarre views, a spotty employment record and a history of bankruptcy. Yet Bentivolio managed to defeat his moderate Democratic opponent and win a seat in Congress, despite charges from his own brother that he had undergone electroshock therapy for sniffing glue.

However, Republicans suffered two humiliating statewide defeats. Mitt Romney utterly failed to be competitive in Michigan, even losing the well-heeled suburban county in which he grew up. And Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow won a third term in a landslide against Pete Hoekstra, a former Congressman whom had originally been expected to be a strong candidate. Republicans have won only one U.S. Senate race in Michigan since 1972, and if U.S. Sen. Carl Levin runs again in 2014 they aren’t likely to be strongly competitive in that race, either.

But at the state level, it’s a different story. Republicans will still control all branches of government when the new Legislature convenes in January. Democrats gained five seats in the Michigan house, but Republicans still have a 59-51 majority. Democrats did elect one new Michigan Supreme Court justice: Bridget Mary McCormack. But voters also reelected two incumbent Republicans: Stephen Markman and Brian Zahra. This leaves the GOP with a 4-3 edge on a Supreme Court that a University of Chicago study has labeled one of the most partisan in the nation.

The most significant result, however, may have been the rejection of “ballot proposal mania.” Michigan voters faced five proposed constitutional amendments, plus a referendum on a tough new Emergency Manager law. Special interest groups spent more than $144 million in an attempt to get various proposals approved or defeated. The Governor and the business community advocated keeping the Emergency Manager law in place, possibly because many expect that Detroit may at some point need to be run by the state. Unions, however, bitterly opposed the law since it gave Emergency Managers the right to break union contracts.

But the voters narrowly turned it down—and rejected each of the five proposed constitutional amendments by decisive margins. Actually, you could make the argument that the two biggest losers of the night were not candidates, but United Auto Workers’ President Bob King and Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who suffered humiliating defeats.

King led a union drive to put an amendment protecting collective bargaining in the state constitution. The unions spent millions in an attempt to persuade voters to protect bargaining, while various business groups spent heavily to argue that Proposal 2 would be bad for the state. When the votes were counted, 58 percent had turned thumbs down on the unions.

Matty Moroun, the 85-year-old billionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge, suffered an equally embarrassing setback. Mr. Moroun, his wife and son spent more than $33 million in an effort to get voters to ratify a constitutional amendment that would have preserved his monopoly ownership of the only bridge that can transport heavy freight between Port Huron and Buffalo, N.Y.

Gov. Rick Snyder, the Michigan business community and the Canadian government have argued that a new bridge is needed, especially since the 1929-era Ambassador Bridge was not designed for today’s traffic. The two governments signed an agreement in June to build a New International Trade Crossing span two miles south of the current bridge. Moroun’s amendment was an attempt to prevent it from being built. He may, however, not be ready to give up.

When the votes were in, Moroun spokesman Mickey Blashfield charged that the new bridge would be built over, “unstable salt mine foundations” and hinted at new lawsuits.

Sandy Baruah, President of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, predicted more litigation lay ahead. He told Crain’s Detroit Business that even delaying the new bridge, “is a huge win for them,” because of the enormous profits their monopoly generates.

Voters also overwhelmingly rejected an amendment that would have required utilities to get 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources, another that required home health care workers to unionize, and one that sought to prevent any tax increases.

When the returns were final, it became clear that Michigan has become a state that is increasingly, reliably Democratic in Presidential and U.S. Senate elections, but which sends a mainly GOP delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives.

For the next two years the political landscape in Lansing will be just about what it has been, except that with a newly re-elected Democratic President, efforts to resist preparations for Obama’s health care reform may cease. Starting this January, we’ll learn whether a slightly diminished GOP in Lansing will continue to attempt to rule as it largely has, or whether—with the President re-elected and midterm elections approaching—there will be more of a spirit of compromise.

Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches 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.

November 8, 2012 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anagnorisis // Nov 9, 2012 at 8:18 am

    Compromise does not seem likely here. It is curious that since Michigan is preponderantly Democratic the Republican US House members prevail. The fulcrum is a bit off center in both directions – read schizophrenic. So be it; just wish we could get Clint Eastwood back – as a Democratic workingman w/tax credits. 2014?

  • 2 David Waymire // Nov 9, 2012 at 10:00 am

    Ana: Not curious. That’s how well done, strategically smart redistricting works. One team wins, the voter will be damned. Time to change our redistricting system, to one that will create more competitive seats that will encourage candidates to run to the middle, instead of the extreme.

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