Can MI Move Forward? – The 2018 Mackinac Policy Conference 

By on June 7th, 2018

The Mackinac Policy Conference just ended. The annual event sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber ( is held on the enchanted island of horse and fudge where you can accomplish a year of networking over a three day period to discuss policy and politics regarding the economy.  The issues that will continue to have an impact on regional communities around the State of Michigan. This year was no exception. 

Governor Rick Snyder speaking during his final Conference

Governor Snyder set the tone in his opening remarks saying: “How can we be the world’s greatest nation— when we can’t even get along with ourselves?”

There is a need to pull together to tackle the tough issues that face our state. While political rhetoric can tout Michigan as the “come back state,” obviously to anyone paying attention— we have a long way to go. Issues such as quality pre-K-12 education, affordable higher education, fixing our roads and other infrastructure, addressing the lack of a regional transit system, staying relevant in a warped speed global economy are just some of the issues awaiting a new governor. 

Clearly, there is a new spirit of success in Detroit and across Michigan.  As I pointed out in a recent column, Celebrate Detroit – The Comeback Is Real, “there ought to be a whole ‘lotta celebratin’” going on during the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference about just how far the City of Detroit has come since emerging from bankruptcy several years ago.

Sandy Baruah, President and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, and his entire team deserve credit for helping to set the stage for success once again.  The Conference creates a venue within which to celebrate regional accomplishments and give legislators, philanthropists, lobbyists, government, and political and business leaders the opportunity to unite and move forward for the benefit of the metro region and the state as a whole. It also serves as a font of ideas that will hopefully add value and make a difference for the citizens of Michigan going forward.

This year’s Conference business “pillars” (business talk for the themes to focus on) will be under the leadership of PWC Greater Michigan Market Managing Partner Ray Telang, who served as chair of the 2018 Mackinac Policy Conference.  

The theme (or “pillars”) for this conference are:

  • Is Michigan Prepared? Ensure Michigan’s competitiveness for major business investment by protecting the existing business climate and addressing issues preventing sustained prosperity for all.
  • The Mobility Disruption. Strengthen Michigan’s readiness for the disruption that next-generation mobility will create for industry and society.
  • Trust. Restore confidence in the critical institutions of government, media, and business to build trust in society.

A New Governor In 2019

The Detroit Regional Chamber Political Action Committee (PAC) hosted the first debate featuring both the top Democratic and Republican candidates for Michigan Governor at the 2018. The lineup:


  • Brian Calley, Lieutenant Governor, State of Michigan (23 percent)
  • Patrick Colbeck, Senator, State of Michigan (4.3 percent)
  • Bill Schuette, Attorney General, State of Michigan (36.3 percent)

Thirty-four  percent of Republican primary voters surveyed indicate that they are undecided at this point in time.


  • Abdul El-Sayed, Former Executive Director, Health Department, City of Detroit (6.5 percent)
  • Shri Thanedar, Author and Entrepreneur (29.6 percent)
  • Gretchen Whitmer, Former Senator, State of Michigan (26.3 percent)

Nearly thirty-five percent of Democratic primary voters surveyed indicate that they are undecided at this point in time.

The candidate debate was moderated by the Detroit Public Television (DPTV) “MiWeek” co-hosts Nolan Finley, Stephen Henderson, and Christy McDonald. The debate audience was comprised exclusively of Conference attendees. 

None of the candidates in either party made any campaign-ending mistakes and the debate was both fast moving and substantive.  Democrat Gretchen Whitmer landed some head and body shots on her suspected rival in the general election, Republican Bill Schuette.  Schuette’s counter punches were more glancing blows at best.  He raised former Governor Jennifer Granholm’s and President Trump’s enough (albeit for different affect), that you’d have thought they were running for Governor.

Leading candidates Attorney General Bill Schuette and former State Senator Gretchen Whitmer during the debate on Mackinac Island

On the national level and earlier in the day, John Boehner, Former US Speaker of the House, captured a truism saying, “There is no Republican Party- there is a Trump Party.”

Michigan Needs to Embrace Change!

A take away from the conference? Michigan is not ready for the changes we will continue to face as the 21st century unfolds.

I just spent three weeks in China and, as always, it opened my eyes. The changes I have witnessed since my first trip in 1989 have been remarkable and universally acknowledged. From a backward nation to a nation that is helping to define the future. The change is like watching a Black and White TV that suddenly switches to technicolor!

The Chinese are investing in education, infrastructure and technology and embracing the future. They understand that knowledge, innovation and creativity are the 21st century currency that will propel them forward as individuals, families and as a nation, and are investing heavily in them.

I worry about Michigan and America’s future because we are disinvesting in these very things.  Rather than embrace change, the future and technology, far too many of us are running from it.  Our strategy seems to be “blame China” as though this alone will solve what ails this great nation of ours. This does not bode well for us going forward.

Real Change, Requires Real Change

A problem in Michigan is that we pretend to solve problems, but seldom address them until we can’t ignore them any longer.  In previous columns I have expressed policies that leaders should also be focused on:


Who Will Rule The Future?

Michigan is once again at a crossroads. As history continues to tell us, leadership matters.  American states and global nations that invest in their people will prevail as the 21st century unfolds. 

A key takeaway from one of the Makinac Conference’s programs

The Mackinac Policy Conference provided a peek as to who and what will propel our own state into the hyper-competitive, disruptive, technologically-driven, global-knowledge economy as it continues to move relentlessly forward.

If Michigan does not embrace change—and lead—we will end up on the trash heap of history as a place that, “Once was…and no longer is.”

Stayed tuned for 2019.

Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins has an eclectic career in both the public and private sectors. He served the citizens of Michigan as state superintendent of schools and director of the department of mental health. He has held leadership positions in higher education, business and behavioral health. Watkins has a interest and passion in all things China and has written hundreds of article on the value of this most important bilateral relationship in the world today.

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Mark C. FrancisChuck Fellows Recent comment authors
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Chuck Fellows
Chuck Fellows

We fail to define the “problem” seeking instead the easy “instant pudding” fix. Our system of education and our culture taught us that. Problem is there is no such thing as “Instant Pudding”, read the box.

Mark C. Francis

I look at the state of not only our state but our country and shake my head. It is my belief that the politicians forgot who they are working for. It is more about the lobbyist and the money they can pile into each of their accounts and not about the average person and their families. I see, in an election year, we are finally having work done on our roads and that additional monies are being put into the schools. Great and the fault lies in the voters who have short memories. The current leadership in Lansing has been… Read more »

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