Bridging the Generation Gap
by Susan J. Demas
March 18, 2011
When Bill Rustem went to work for then-Governor Bill Milliken 41 years ago, the goal was to save the Great Lakes.
Now as current Gov. Rick Snyder’s director of strategy, his goal is to make Michigan a place of hope for young people.
“We had to change the whole dynamic between Michigan and the environment. We knew it was important for the future, not just for today,” Rustem says. “We were at the point of losing the Great Lakes. We have the same situation now. We’re at the point where we’re losing a generation of kids.”
For Rustem, 61, it’s personal. His two daughters, both studying at his alma mater of Michigan State, have already told him they’re headed for Chicago after graduation. Stephanie, 23, is an elementary education major looking to land a teaching job, and Kimberly, 21, is a James Madison student who “wants to change the world,” according to her dad.
“They’re the reason I came to work here,” Rustem says. “There’s no hope for this generation in Michigan. And it tears my heart apart.”
As the former president and CEO of the Lansing policy shop Public Sector Consultants, Rustem had met and talked to Snyder a number of times during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. The former Gateway CEO, who had never held public office, stood out.
“He asked a lot of questions,” Rustem recalls. “He wanted to know how this worked. Why does the state do this? What’s the constitutional basis? He asked good, intelligent questions. I was impressed. I like to ask questions. I think you learn by asking questions.”
But when Snyder approached him in the fall about a job before the November election, Rustem initially said no. He was content at PSC, earning a good living and had plenty of time for hunting and fishing (former PSC partner Craig Ruff refers to firearm deer season as Rustem’s “high holy days”).
Then Rustem talked to his daughters, and the rest is history. He sold his interest in the company and now toils away in the executive branch, where he began his career under Michigan’s longest-serving governor.
Milliken had asked Rustem, who was MSU student body president, to meet with him during the student strike over the Vietnam War. Later, the governor offered him a job as an intern, which led to gigs as assistant press secretary, head of consumer protection and policy advisor. Rustem also took a leave of absence to run the successful “bottle bill” initiative in 1976. He served until Milliken’s term ended in 1982.
Like many political observers, the Frankenmuth native sees similarities between Milliken and Snyder, businessmen known as political moderates.
“Milliken always said that good policy makes good politics,” Rustem says. “Rick Snyder says, ‘Let’s do the right thing.’…They don’t believe it’s about the vote you take today. It’s about the legacy you leave behind 20, 30 or 50 years down the line, like Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR.”
But he says that Snyder is “a little more hands-on” than Milliken was at this point and is engaged in all the policy decisions. There are also stylistic differences. Milliken liked his speeches written out, whereas Snyder prefers notes so he can improvise a bit.
There are definitely some changes since he last worked for a governor — and he notes it’s not just the lack of polyester and bell bottoms around the office.
“There are 10 times as many lobbyists and 100 times as many interest groups…and they all demand time to talk to you,” Rustem says. “The challenge of the Internet is that untruths can become fact in a matter of hours.”
Even though he’s had his hand in several controversial proposals, from scrapping the refundable film tax credits to taxing pensions, the mustachioed Rustem still displays an easy grin when talking about his work. He says he’s heard all the arguments before about killing businesses when he was crafting Milliken’s environmental policy.
And he argues the pension tax is an issue of fairness for the next generation. Rustem isn’t shy about the fact that he and his wife, Brenda, a retired Michigan Education Trust official, will enjoy $130,000 of tax-free retirement income — something he blasts as “ridiculous.” Meanwhile, he notes his daughters — if they stayed in Michigan — would be paying taxes on their much more meager salaries.
“We’ve got to stop punishing young people,” Rustem declares. “My generation is very guilty of pushing costs on our kids on the federal level and on the state level.”
He also doesn’t buy the argument that seniors will leave because of the pension tax, noting more are choosing to live where their grandkids are. If young Michiganders want to stay here, Rustem says their parents won’t want to pack up and leave.
“Family ties are important,” he says. “You make your decision where you want to be based on family ties, not on how much you’re taxed.”
Snyder has made his dashboard — a list of 21 benchmarks for the state on everything from unemployment rate to the rate of childhood obesity — the hallmark of his young governorship. But Rustem said he’s not using his daughters staying in the Great Lakes State as a barometer of his own success.
“My mindset is elsewhere,” he says. “It’s on the lack of hope. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when college graduates stay here. It may not be my daughters. It could be someone else’s daughters and sons.”
As for Rustem, he’s not planning to move out of Michigan, even after his tenure with Snyder ends. Retirement also isn’t in his vocabulary (“I love to hunt and fish, but you can’t do it 24/7,” he smiles), although he doesn’t plan to be putting in the hours he is in the Romney building.
Years ago, he toyed with the idea of running for office himself, but says he’s discovered “you can make just as much of an impact behind the scenes.”
“I am in the perfect place for me,” he says. “It’s the bookend of my career — starting with the governor and ending with the governor. It was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.”