by Susan J. Demas
July 8, 2011
While other boys were playing baseball or riding their bikes, 10-year-old Phil Pavlov spent the summer of 1973 glued to the Watergate hearings on TV — “In the mornings, at least,” the Port Huron native says.
That was mostly because his mother, Lorraine, was “very into it,” Pavlov recalls. And thanks to his politically active father, Joe, the sixth-grader already knew he was a Republican.
“It was very interesting in the beginning and very disappointing as it all rolled out to see that amount of power used in a negative way,” Pavlov recalls.
Five decades later, Watergate’s lessons are still with him. The freshman senator hasn’t found himself immersed in any scandals. But he has been at the center of two of the legislature’s most controversial reforms this year — the emergency manager law enacted this spring and the teacher tenure reform that passed last week.
As Senate Education Committee chair, Pavlov worked with his House counterpart, Rep. Paul Scott (R-Grand Blanc), to steer tenure legislation that limits collective bargaining rights through the legislature during the narrow window between the budget’s passage and summer break. The package is rooted in the 2010 House Republican Education Taskforce recommendations, which Pavlov says partly served as a model for Gov. Rick Snyder’s education special message.
The bills got a little star power with in-person lobbying efforts by both former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who has come under fire for a cheating scandal during her tenure.
Pavlov, 48, who usually sports a bluff speaking style, nice tan and occasionally a beard, says criticism of the legislation is “overreaching” and “overblown.” But he adds that he’s tried to reach out to opponents, like members of the Michigan Education Association, and have a transparent process.
“I have a lot of friendships with members,” the St. Clair senator says. “It’s not that interested in changing the system — I think we understand that — but the system has to change.”
He says he’s given out his cell phone number to anyone who talks to him about the matter — something that he was repeatedly reminded of as the Senate took up the bills.
“I received a couple hundred voicemails and text messages on Thursday alone,” he recalls. “And for the most part they were respectful.”
After working on the 2009 Race to the Top reforms — which failed to earn Michigan a dime of billions in federal aid — Pavlov says he thinks the state is on the right track now.
“Reforms under a constrained timeframe don’t always work the best,” he says. “When you inject large amounts of financial support, that drives the conversation in areas you wouldn’t necessarily go. But the reforms were a good start. It was the first time we got serious about our failing schools.”
Pavlov came to head up Michigan’s education overhaul through a rather circuitous route. The fourth of five kids, he graduated from St. Clair High School in 1981 and went on to take classes at St. Clair Community College.
“I didn’t earn an associate’s degree,” he says. “I was more interested in the business side of things.”
He joined his father’s business, Marysville Trucking Equipment. He would go on to found two companies of his own, Dexter Sign Group and Dexter Equipment Co., neither of which bears his surname (“Dexter was something on the bottom of one of my shoes and easy to spell,” Pavlov grins).
But education has been on his mind when it comes to his two kids. Daughter Lindsey, 21, is trying to decide between Grand Valley State University and Michigan State (Dad is rooting for her to move into the Lansing area). And son Anson, 18, who just graduated from high school, is planning to attend SCCC like his dad. Pavlov has been divorced for four years from Whitney Pavlov, the assistant director of early childhood for St. Clair Regional Education Service Agency.
In 2001 Pavlov seized upon his early interest in politics and was elected to the St. Clair County Board of Commissioners, although it happened sooner than he’d planned (“I always thought it would be something for later in life, closer to my retirement date,” Pavlov says).
Three years later he launched a bid for the 81st House District seat left open by term-limited Rep. Lauren Hager. Pavlov collected more than twice the votes in the GOP primary than his two opponents put together.
“Fortunately, the trucking company was doing pretty well that I could campaign,” he says.
For his first term, he was focused on transportation issues, as well as Great Lakes and environment problems — fitting for someone hailing from the Blue Water region. It was only after Republicans lost the majority in 2006 — and now-Sen. Dave Hildenbrand (R-Lowell) ascended to caucus leadership — that Pavlov landed a slot on the Education Committee.
Last year Pavlov found himself in a game of term-limits musical chairs. He decided to run for the 25th Senate seat being vacated by then-Sen. Jud Gilbert (R-Algonac). Meanwhile, Gilbert had one term left in the House, so he campaigned for Pavlov’s 81st District slot. And to top it all off, Pavlov squared off in the Senate GOP primary against Hager, who had held the House seat before him.
In the end, both Pavlov and Gilbert were successful in their seat swap. And Pavlov has been working non-stop on school issues.
Tenure reform is only the appetizer for a full menu of education reforms Snyder and Republicans have in store, including expanding charter schools and school choice. When the legislature returns in the fall, Pavlov plans to have his days consumed by authorizing legislation to reconfigure Detroit Public Schools.
“There are some unique problems in urban school districts, but we need to focus on all school districts in Michigan,” Pavlov says. “When it comes to doing reforms, we’re talking months and years, not weeks and months.”