MUCC and Muchmore Reload
by Lester Graham
October 16, 2007
Unlike many in Michigan’s herd of organizations looking to influence the legislature, the Michigan United Conservation Clubs doesn’t work out of an office building near the state Capitol. (It tried that once, but that’s another story.) Instead, MUCC is tucked away in the quiet Groesbeck neighborhood on the north side of Lansing. The one-story building is surrounded by shrubbery, birdhouses and older, tree-lined subdivisions. Out back there’s a giant garage that holds the cages of Michigan birds of prey and other rescued creatures MUCC takes to schools and malls to let folks scope them out. It all seems fitting for an organization that has represented the interests of hunting and fishing clubs and associations, as well as individual hunters and outdoor enthusiasts, since 1937.
Walking into the MUCC lobby, you see stone walls, wood paneling and lots of prints of hunting scenes mixed in with taxidermied animals, including a massive black bear beside the reception desk. It’s a dated 1970s look that harkens back to the hey-day of the organization. Back when legislators cleared their calendars to make time for MUCC representatives, especially legendary leader Tom Washington — hailed as the state’s “Conservation Lion.” Back when the Michigan United Conservation Clubs had clout, a lot of it, and wasn’t afraid to use it. Like when the young Washington “blew up” over legislative maneuverings designed to kill bottle-deposit legislation and used MUCC’s grass-roots power to gather more than 212,000 signatures to put the proposal before voters in November 1976 — an unprecedented move for an environmental measure — and make Michigan a leading state in enacting beverage container laws.
The new executive director of MUCC, Dennis Muchmore, is late from his lunch. But in the easy way of a man accustomed to dealing with reporters, he jokes that someone else was buying and he didn’t want to duck out of a free lunch. Muchmore and this reporter discuss a couple of things we have in common. We’re both Illinois natives. And we’re both acquainted with a former Illinois governor, Jim Edgar. Muchmore was raised in the same town as the then-future governor, went to school with him, and is still in touch. I merely interviewed Edgar, covered his events and occasionally bumped into him at conferences. It’s indicative of Muchmore’s life. He’s worked and walked among the politically powerful most of his life.
He was a founder and principal of one of Michigan’s most powerful lobbying firms, Muchmore Harrington (later Muchmore Harrington Smalley & Associates), where he repeatedly came out on top in insider polls designed to determine the state’s most effective lobbyists. Before that he worked for a well-established and powerful multi-client lobbying firm, and before that for the political heavyweight Michigan Chamber of Commerce after 10 years as a Senate staffer.
Muchmore’s hiring by the MUCC caught many off guard, just as he did when he announced he was leaving the lobbying business at the end of 2002 to become an executive recruiter. Now, with the small chat out of the way — and Muchmore is very good at small chat, perhaps why he was such a good lobbyist — we get down to the question at hand: why would someone who gave up the fast-paced, persuasive, deal-making, well-paid life of a leading lobbyist to become a head-hunter for non-profits decide to run an organization which has lost many members and corresponding clout since the mid to late 1990s?
“Well, this is a little bit different opportunity,” the 60-year-old Muchmore explains of his decision to join MUCC. “I’ve got an executive directorship, for one thing.”
It is, in a very real sense, an opportunity for both Muchmore and MUCC to reload and start shooting their way back to the top. But if it happens, it won’t be by employing Washington’s old-time methods, sometimes referred to as “intimidating.” Times are different, and Muchmore is not Washington. Muchmore’s style is far smoother, more behind-the-scenes, more button-down than bombast. As we talk, Muchmore steers clear of announcing any public policy crusades.
He tries to make it clear that he’s MUCC’s new CEO, not its chief lobbyist. He says he’s trying to concentrate on some of the fundamental business issues facing the organization, such as staffing and depleted membership and finances. He says the political advocacy part of MUCC is the job of the deputy director for policy, Donna Stine, who served as interim director until Muchmore was hired. But he admits he finds it hard to resist answering policy questions that pop up from people who’ve known him all of his life as a lobbyist.
“I’m trying to stay out of her way, as difficult as it is at times, because people do call you, your old friends asking questions, and sometimes you do make off-the-cuff responses.”
Muchmore says the old lobbyist in him sometimes kicks in instinctively when he’s approached by legislators and lobbyists he’s known for years. “I’m trying to avoid it. I think Donna would probably wonder whether I’m doing a great job of avoiding it or not.”
Muchmore concedes that in the nearly five years since he left lobbying, things have changed a lot. Term limits have meant a lot of new faces in the legislature. The Engler administration, made up of people he knew well, has been replaced by the Granholm people. So, he says, he doesn’t know where the legislature is today in the way his deputy director for policy does. But Muchmore stresses his job is not formulating public policy; it’s running the association. He says he’s got membership issues, financial issues, the organization’s iconic television show “Michigan Outdoors,” radio program, magazine and countless programs to keep operating.
Lana Pollack, a former legislator and the president of the Lansing-based Michigan Environmental Council, the umbrella organization for dozens of environmental groups around the state, says even though Muchmore’s new job is not as a lobbyist, his experience will mean a lot to MUCC. “It’s a job I do,” she says of the CEO role. “You’re part of the strategy. Dennis will have an important role there,” Pollack said, adding: “Most of the work is done before you sit down with the legislators.”
Pollack said she was surprised and pleased when she learned MUCC chose Muchmore. She’s known him since 1982, when she was a member of the Senate. She said he took the time as a lobbyist to show her some of the ropes, including how to count votes. “We’ve sometimes clashed on issues, but he’s always been honorable,” Pollack said.
Muchmore says he’s got plenty to do outside of lobbying. The Michigan United Conservation Clubs has seen a huge drop in membership during the last 15 years.
“These days it’s hard to get people to join clubs and it’s hard to get clubs to join larger organizations, so that diminishes your ability to wield as much clout.” He believes people don’t trust organizations the way they once did. He adds that he doesn’t think as many young people in Michigan are picking up the hobbies of hunting and fishing as often as their fathers.
Julie Metty Bennet is a senior consultant for natural resources at Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based policy research group with a strong environmental bent. She worked for MUCC from 1994 to 2000, during a period that saw four different people head up the group. She agrees that part of the reason MUCC has lost membership is because younger people are not heading out to the woods and streams.
“The MUCC membership has always been an older set. Hunting and fishing seems to be something that appeals to a generation that’s aging,” Bennet said. “I think that’s part of their [MUCC’s] struggle,” she added. Bennet thinks Muchmore brings the business savvy to help turn around the trend of falling membership.
Muchmore did not want to reveal the exact numbers of members in MUCC, but said it was in the “fifty-thousand-member range,” which he says is a pretty dramatic drop, about half the membership it was 14 years ago.
Nationwide the numbers of people who hunt, fish and watch wildlife has dropped in recent years. According to a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, they went down again in 2006. The number of people who fished was down 12 percent from five years ago. The number of people who hunt was down about 4 percent. The Service agrees with Muchmore that fewer people are passing down the traditions to their kids.
Thirty years ago the numbers were large, and Washington was able to pull together fractious outdoor and environmental interests into a coalition that wielded a lot of power. In the glory days, the MUCC could make the Capitol shake with its influence. “Tom Washington really used the bully pulpit,” said Public Sector’s Bennett. Pollack says Washington “was a big man and usefully intimidating.” Washington used his size and the clout of the organizations and the membership he represented to get things done. Pollack said he was a man who said what he meant and meant what he said and delivered on what he promised.
A former reporter who frequently interviewed Tom Washington said he had a large personality that matched his large size. “Tom had grassroots power and political savvy and knew how to use it,” said David Poulson, who worked for Booth Newspapers. Poulson recalls when he covered the Capitol that he would approach Washington after a legislative hearing and the big man would loom over him.
“His belly would be into my notebook and he’d poke me right in the chest and say, ‘I’ll tell you another thing you ought to put in your goddamn newspaper,’ and he was just dictating to me. I could hardly get a question in edgewise. He was a very forceful guy like that,” Poulson said.
“What a fascinating guy,” recalls Dave Dempsey, communications director at Conservation Minnesota (formerly the Minnesota League of Conservation Voters), who has worked in Michigan most of his life, written books about Michigan’s environmental policy history and challenges, and is familiar with all the players in the conservation and environmental movements. “He and Denny [Muchmore] got along — Tom hired him for a time to do some MUCC lobbying. Their personalities couldn’t be more different. Bombast versus low-key.”
Washington believed in the “cause” of the hunters and fishers and spoke persuasively for that cause. He was an avid sportsman and was able to walk comfortably in the culture of the hunters and lawmakers. “He had the perception of being a blue collar guy…but he was a pretty sophisticated guy. He could talk the language of the lobbyists. He could schmooze lawmakers. They respected him. They feared him. He could move very easily in that world and between those worlds,” said Poulson.
Poulson noted that Muchmore will have to find a way to bring together all the various outdoor groups to build the coalition that Washington once commanded. Pollack believes the one thing that Washington and Muchmore have in common is their word. Both straight shooters, they knew what to promise and how to get those things done in the Capitol.
Washington passed away while holding the MUCC position. His successor, Rick Jameson, also knew how to wield the influence of the MUCC. He’d already helped push through Michigan’s controversial bottle deposit bill. He continued to use what he’d learned to the advantage of the MUCC. Jameson also died while leading the organization. Washington’s brother, Sam, took over the reins on an interim basis after Jameson passed away. The MUCC permanent replacement was Jim Goodheart. After Goodheart resigned, Sam Washington once again took control, this time on a permanent basis. Observers say as the MUCC membership numbers slipped and later MUCC executive directors did not command the clout that Tom Washington did, the MUCC’s influence on the legislature waned.
Muchmore also thinks MUCC lost influence because there are so many more lobbying groups that are vying for the attention of the legislators. He says that undermines the clout that some of the organizations such as MUCC used to have.
Muchmore, who had lobbied for MUCC as a multi-client lobbyist, said when he took the job of executive director he thought he had a pretty good idea of the pressures he’d be facing. He’s spent a lot of time with association directors, having worked with many of them as a lobbyist. “But I never quite understood the kinds of pressures that they’re under and the kind of difficulties that they have to work through just to operate on a day-to-day basis.” Membership, staffing, budgets, buildings “and, you know, reporters, etcetera.”
MUCC has had to work with a variety of interests to get legislation or policy friendly to hunters and anglers. One issue might find MUCC aligned with the National Rifle Association and then working with environmental groups on another. Muchmore says it’s a balance that’s tough at times.
“They (other organizations) will take a little niche, a little piece of the whole conservation puzzle, and they’ll run with that piece.” He says that while he might agree with that small group’s issue normally, it might not work for the larger interests of hunters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts. “It’s (MUCC) a conservation group, not an environmental organization. It’s a conservation organization,” Muchmore adds for emphasis. “We believe in ‘wise use’ of natural resources, not ‘no use.’”
The Michigan Environmental Council is one of the groups that the MUCC sometimes works with and sometimes works against. MEC President Pollack estimates the two groups agree about 80 percent of the time. “We rarely disagree. There’s an overlap,” Pollack said. But she conceded, “We come to issues from different perspectives. They might come to it with a view to protect wildlife and we might see it from a human health perspective, but we agree on the importance.”
Dempsey says Muchmore “…understands Lansing as well as anyone in the world, and I think he will form strategic alliances with business and groups like MEC on an issue-by-issue basis.”
Dempsey agrees that Muchmore will have his work cut out for him rebuilding the conservation group. “The ability of MUCC to inspire fear in the hearts of legislators has diminished. An aging membership is partially responsible.”
Within the MUCC there are critics who think the organization is too cozy with government agencies such as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Many hunters and anglers view the DNR with great suspicion. They don’t trust the wildlife management approach by the DNR, often suggesting the agency is anti-hunting. Muchmore says the MUCC has to help such agencies, to make sure they have all the tools and information they need to manage resources scientifically. That means when the MUCC thinks the government is wrong, it has to come up with alternatives that meet the goals of the government policy makers and keep hunters, anglers and recreationists happy.
While Muchmore’s hiring has been positively received, a few members were disappointed when the MUCC announced Muchmore as its choice at the organization’s convention in Sault Ste. Marie in June. It’s been mentioned that they thought Muchmore had too many other, possibly conflicting, interests.
Muchmore is an investor and serves on the board of Liberty Renewable Fuels, which plans to build Michigan’s largest ethanol plant in mid-Michigan. The trend of corn ethanol has pushed up corn prices. A Prospective Plantings report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service indicated 12-million acres of additional corn were planted this year over last. Farmers are being tempted to take marginal land idled in the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program and put it back into production. That could mean the loss of wildlife habitat.
Muchmore says he doesn’t think there’s much of a chance of that happening. “Whether you’ve got one ethanol plant or not doesn’t mean that you’re taking land that wasn’t producing and turning it into corn production. If it wasn’t producing before, they’re not going to start using it for corn,” Muchmore insisted, adding: “I don’t think it’s a conflict.”
Muchmore is a pragmatist. He sees other non-traditional allies, economic allies, that he thinks will strengthen the goals of hunters and fishers. That makes sense, he says, because hunting and fishing in the nation account for about $120 billion of the economy. He thinks the hunting and fishing interests should cooperate more with the tourism industry to get a bigger share of those dollars for Michigan.
A pheasant hunter and fisher himself, he says greater numbers of out-of-state hunters and fishers used to come into Michigan, buy licenses and stay for days at a time, driving the economy in some areas. He believes that should be encouraged. He says a friend, Glenn Shepherd of the North Woods Call newspaper, thinks he’s crazy. “He thinks that tourism kind of despoils the opportunity for hunting and fishing.” Muchmore sees hunting and fishing as an economic necessity for the state, something that should be encouraged not just for the tradition, but for the dollars it brings to Michigan.
Muchmore will tell you his job is not only about waving the banner for hunters and fishers. He believes his job is to run the MUCC like a business and get it back on its feet. “I’m not a cause-driven person. I’m a person who likes to take on projects and see them proactively build. I like to take problems and try to turn them into opportunities. My interest is always trying to say ‘It’s good. How can we make it better? How can it do better things? That’s what I like to do.”
He also makes it clear he doesn’t expect to be carried out of the MUCC job in a box. “This is not the rest of my life. I’m not going to spend the rest of my life doing this job,” he said. When asked if he’s having any fun in the job, Muchmore responded: “I will have fun when it gets turned to where I want it to be, then I’ll have fun.”
As an afterthought, Muchmore added: “I did not take the job to go hunting and fishing.” He says clubs are often asking him to come down, go fishing and then attend a meeting. He declines. “They’re not paying me to go hunting and fishing.”
Lester Graham is senior editor of the Environment Report, which produces environmental news reports for more than 160 public radio stations.