by Susan J. Demas
July 15, 2011
As an economics student in the 1980s at what’s now the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy, Gary Garbarino played on a very poor soccer team called the Marginals.
“Because economists are always interested in what’s on the margins,” he laughs.
Garbarino has a fantastically goofy laugh that goes along with his absentminded professor-style gray hair and googly brown eyes. If you want to get a sense for what his world is like, consider the fact that a Three Stooges tie hangs in his Capitol office near a blowup likeness of the beady-eyed ghoul from Edvard Munch’s seminal painting, The Scream (“I used to take the original version, which was bigger, out at parties, and people would dance with it,” he grins).
At 52, Garbarino is an institution in Lansing, having served under six legislative floor leaders during his 27 years in state government. He has called former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, former House Minority Leader Pat Gagliardi, former House Majority Leader Steve Tobocman, former Sen. Gilda Jacobs and former House Majority Floor Leader Kathy Angerer “boss.”
He began his career as an economist with the Senate Democrats in 1984 right after two members were recalled over tax increases and Republicans took power under John Engler. Garbarino worked closely with his GOP counterpart, Gary Wolfram, now a Hillsdale College professor.
“He would go so far to the right and I would go so far to the left that as economists, we tended to agree with each other,” Garbarino grins.
Now he serves as special assistant to House Minority Floor Leader Kate Segal (D-Battle Creek). The two have known each other since they were both on Schauer’s staff during his stint as Senate minority floor leader in his first term.
Garbarino has spent nine years in the Senate, 17 in the House and one in the governor’s office (“I loved working for the governor, but this is where I belong,” Garbarino offers).
He did have a slight detour. Shortly after marrying his wife, Michigan Health and Hospital Association lobbyist Laura Appel, in 2003, Garbarino had a stent put in his heart. In 2004 he collapsed and suffered a brain injury. It took four months of rehab to relearn the basics of walking and talking. He also lost his sense of smell — a bummer for the avid home brewer who could no longer taste his creations.
Garbarino has since made a full recovery. At the Capitol, his area of expertise is legislative rules, something of supreme importance during the era of term limits when institutional memory is in short supply. Most of his time is dedicated to just to going over the basics of House rules and how to run the lower chamber.
And Garbarino knows both sides of the coin, having served most years in the minority, four years in the majority and even a couple during shared power during the Paul Hillegonds-Curtis Hertel regime.
His goal is to improve the way the legislature runs, a little bit each year that he’s around. Garbarino says he and House Clerk Gary Randall, a former GOP representative, are both dedicated to preserving the institution.
“He has the same vision as I do,” Garbarino says. “It’s not about Democrat or Republican. It’s about the House of Representatives.…The majority should be able to do what it wants to do without trampling the rights of the minority.”
And Garbarino, who was captain of his Notre Dame High School soccer team and a referee for years, sees the parallel with that and his job.
“I’m a good referee because I don’t care who wins the game,” he says. “I make sure the game is safe and I make sure the game is fair. I know the rules as well as anybody else in this building — and better than most.”
Garbarino was born on July 15, 1959, in Warren to his Roman Catholic parents. Steve was an automotive engineer and Joan was a teacher (“She would sometimes substitute teach at my school, which was traumatic,” he recalls).
He attended Catholic schools and graduated from Notre Dame in 1977, the same year as Full House star Dave Coulier, with whom he worked on a comedy show. That was the era of Welcome Back, Kotter, which featured John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino — so you can imagine the ribbing young Gary Garbarino got in school.
He went on to win a scholarship to Oakland University, where he earned his bachelor’s of public administration in 1981. Garbarino worked for the campus radio station, adopting the on-air moniker “Midnight Rambler” in honor of the Rolling Stones (“I didn’t know what the song was about,” he says sheepishly. “It was about the Boston Strangler”).
During Garbarino’s senior year, he joined the staff of the Oakland Sail newspaper when the university was searching for a new president. An administration source (“We called him Deep Throat,” he recalls) leaked that it would be Joe Champagne, so Garbarino went into overdrive to put out a special edition.
“We were up all night and just geeked,” Garbarino chuckles. “Pulitzer Prize, here we come. But that was the night John Lennon died.”
The Sail staff entered the story in a college newspaper contest, but was disqualified for putting the wrong phone number on the application.
“That’s when I learned details are important,” he notes.
Meticulousness is something that’s served him well in his four decades in Lansing. And his knowledge of legislative procedure has made him a must-hire for new leaders coming in.
“It’s why I’ll never have a job outside this ZIP code,” he jokes.