Mike Bouchard Runs
as Straight-Shooting Voice
Oakland sheriff says he knows how to get state government back in line
by Susan J. Demas
February 16, 2010
Hurricane Katrina was slamming into New Orleans, leaving most of the coastal city underwater. The Category 5 hurricane would eventually claim the lives of 1,836 souls, making it the deadliest storm in eight decades.
It was August 29, 2005, and the raspy voice on the other end of the line belonged to Jefferson County Parish Sheriff Henry Lee. They had no communication system or bullets and desperately needed help. As the director of government affairs for the Major County Sheriff’s Association, Mike Bouchard was the man to call.
“And then his undersheriff called and he was actually crying,” the Oakland County sheriff recalls. “They couldn’t get any help out of the federal government, his deputies hadn’t slept in 48 hours, a lot of them didn’t know if their own families were alive — but they were still on the job.
“I called every federal agency I could to get approval. So they ran us around the circle like that for 24 hours. And I just said, ‘forget it.’”
That’s when Bouchard phoned three other large sheriff’s departments in Georgia, Alabama and Florida to form one of the first caravans with his Oakland County team. They headed down immediately and Bouchard surveyed the damage via helicopter. Then deputies started 12-hour shifts, setting up their own self-contained compound just outside the city in the parking lot of a shuttered restaurant.
“The official team from Michigan arrived eight days later,” Bouchard notes. “That’s kind of like arriving to the house fire after it’s already burned down.”
As a police officer across five decades, as well as a former state representative and senator, Bouchard says he’s seen his share of government incompetence in other ways. Long before 9/11, his law enforcement department was looking into a new communications system after a radio failure during the 1996 Ford Wixom plant shooting. The state later decided to transition, as well, but Bouchard says government bureaucracy was a roadblock to agencies working together, which ultimately cost taxpayers more money.
That’s one of the reasons why Bouchard, 53, decided to run for governor this year.
“Government is a very different animal than the private sector,” says the lifelong Michigander. “One of the things that [former Gov.] John Engler proved was that because he knew government, and state government in particular, so well, he could really be very successful in moving his agenda, whether you agreed with it or not. And I think that’s important to be effective, that you have to know the system in which you operate.
“[Gov. Jennifer Granholm] doesn’t have that knowledge or experience, and I think she even admitted that’s been one of her shortcomings. So I think the next governor is going to get into office with an even more pressing to-do list and even less time to do it in. And unless they know firsthand not only what they want to do, but how they want to do it, we’re going to be in a bad spot. And I’m confident that I know both, and I’m the only one who does — and ultimately, that’s why I decided to run.”
In a year when most candidates are campaigning as outsiders — with Ann Arbor businessman Rick Snyder’s frequent attacks on “career politicians” and U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Holland) playing up his days as an executive at Herman Miller — Bouchard is taking a different tack. The Republican is running as the straight-shooting voice of government experience.
It’s an interesting tactic from a former businessman who hasn’t worked in state government for 11 years, leaving to manage a department of more than 1,200 employees in the most prosperous county in the state. It wouldn’t be a stretch for the sheriff to claim the outsider mantle, as well. But as one of only two candidates in the GOP field with legislative experience — Sen. Tom George (R-Kalamazoo) being the other — Bouchard is clearly counting on it being an asset.
Indeed, his running mate, current Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, says that his time as a lawmaker was the biggest selling point for her.
“We need someone right now who really knows Michigan and understands how government works,” she says.
Bouchard has signed up for the business-friendly Republican agenda of less regulation and taxes — he was the first gubernatorial hopeful to take the no-tax pledge and the only one to attend the Tea Party protest of the North American International Auto Show in January. What separates him from some of the competition is his belief that the best way to achieve his agenda is through legislative know-how.
The sheriff is practically running as the heir to John Engler, with whom he consulted before jumping into the race in June (“He’s always been a valued confidante,” Bouchard notes.). Although Big John has stayed out of the race, his wife, Michelle, sent a clear signal last year by endorsing Bouchard together with Jane Abraham, wife of former U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham.
He made a splash by stating that he’s not afraid to make unpopular decisions and be a one-term governor. Bouchard touts his experience working with Democrats on signature legislation, like Proposal A, which fundamentally changed school funding, and the sex offender registry.
“It varies by issue and it varies by district,” says Bouchard, who wears a sheriff pin even on his tailored suits. “All those things play into how you get to 56 and 20 [majority votes in the House and Senate].”
“What’s Sheriff Mike Bouchard been up to?”
That’s the question drivers whizzing down I-75 in Auburn Hills are being asked on a billboard erected this month that advertises a political hit-job website, www.oaklandcounty.net. The personal attacks on the father of three come courtesy of the nonprofit Michigan Civic Educational Fund, which includes longtime GOP operative Joe Munem, as well as Democrats Michael Greiner and Jeff Schroder. Chair Cecil St. Pierre, a former Warren City councilman, has contributed to the campaign of Bouchard rival Attorney General Mike Cox, who denies any involvement. Radio ads have been pulled.
Land describes Bouchard as easygoing. “When things get tense on the trail, he’s always ready with a joke,” she says. “I’m like that, too. He brings people back to reality. This is about our families, our state. He doesn’t let the little things bother him.”
But the constant browbeating does seem to have worn on Bouchard, who also ran for U.S. Senate in 2006. He says there’s “no question” that this is the nastiest campaign he’s been in.
“What other business do you know where somebody walks in and says, ’I’d like to be vice president of sales,’” Bouchard says, pale blue-green eyes crinkling. “And the first thing you say is, ’Well, the reason I think you should hire me is that the other three applicants, they cheated when they were in kindergarten.’ In almost any other environment, any other business, people would say, ‘What? What are you talking about? Tell me about yourself. Tell me why you’re right for the job.’ That’s what I’m focused on.”
Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) has known Bouchard for 20 years, back to his time as a local prosecutor. Although he’s staying out of the governor’s race, Bishop says he’s “sickened” by the attacks.
“I know Mike and I know his family,” says Bishop, who’s running for attorney general. “I know that’s not the person he is…In Oakland County, we know Mike Bouchard as a strong leader who will step up and do the right thing.”
Land takes a tactical view. “People want to define you,” she says. “And we’re not going to let that happen.”
To combat that, Bouchard has hired Scott Howell. He’s a protégé of Karl Rove, best known for crafting the infamous 2006 ad against then-U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. in which a dolled-up blonde croons that she met him at a Playboy party and whispers, “Harold, call me.” Bouchard’s campaign manager, Ted Prill, worked on Bob McDonnell’s successful gubernatorial bid in Virginia last year.
They’re not the only heavy hitters in the race. Snyder has hired former John McCain message guru John Weaver, Cox has national GOP pollster Neil Newhouse on the payroll and House Speaker Andy Dillon (D-Redford Township) is hoping to capture some of Barack Obama’s magic by teaming up with AKPD Message and Media founded by David Axelrod and David Plouffe.
But Bouchard dismisses the competition with an almost off-handed dig (“It takes a lot more high-powered effort sometimes to package something that doesn’t have the same record.”).
He’s not the first or only gubernatorial hopeful to have been “smeared” — Hoekstra, Snyder and Cox have taken their lumps in robocalls and mailings. But the anti-Bouchard billboard has been the most public display.
While some in the field have been barnstorming and fundraising for more than a year, Bouchard sat back as Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson flirted with a run. After his longtime colleague said no in April, Bouchard dove in with Patterson as his campaign chair.
“To be honest with you, I had not planned to run for governor,” he says. “I am very happy with what I’m doing…But as I looked at the field developing — it’s not a knock on the other candidates, but I just didn’t see a candidate who had the combination of experience and skills that could step in on the first day and personally know what to do in Lansing as governor and with the legislature.”
Still, one of the most persistent knocks on Bouchard is that he doesn’t have the fire for the job. He’s not stepping down as sheriff — nor did he three years ago in challenging U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing).
“That’s more of other camps wanting to snipe and try to throw stuff at me,” he sighs in his slightly nasal pitch. “I don’t even entertain that. There’s no halfway running statewide. I’ve basically given up my personal life, my free time and a good chunk of my family life.”
Although Bouchard is the third candidate from Southeast Michigan, he says he’s not worried about finding a niche. He also dismisses the idea that he was encouraged to run due to many Republicans’ concerns that Cox could implode, given scandal in his past.
“I’m just basically running my campaign focused on why I think I’m the most qualified,” the Birmingham Republican says. “What happens to other candidates is not something I wake up thinking about.”
Land is the most popular statewide official. Last year, she was mulling her own bid for governor and expected to be a force — although she initially expected it would be a two-person battle with Cox. She and Bouchard had gotten to know each other well on the ’06 campaign trail and met for coffee (“I never look at anyone as a combatant or enemy,” Bouchard says.). In June, she shocked the political establishment by endorsing him. Three months later, he formally picked her as his lieutenant governor.
“She has the skill and the ability to be a great team member to govern with,” he raves. “The next governor is going to have to make the pivot real quick from campaigning to governing. And I thought she was uniquely positioned to do both. So I asked her. No one had ever picked a running mate so early. I honestly hadn’t made any list. The more time I spent with her, it became more obvious and natural. So she was my list.”
But the choice was dismissed by some as stunt, especially to pull in West Michigan support, something that Bouchard denies. “That’s not it at all. I find it odd that another campaign would criticize another campaign for trying to gain momentum when that’s all they’ve been trying to do for the many months before I was even in the race.”
When U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-Grand Rapids) unexpectedly announced his retirement this month, the campaign got another jolt, as the buzz was that Land would jump ship to run for Congress. But she says she’s not going anywhere, even though she said she’s “very honored” by the attention.
“I’ve spent eight years in state government with great employees,” Land says. “I want to take that experience and move Michigan forward. That’s where my heart is.”
Bouchard has turned heads by raising $900,000 in 2009 — which he says should end rumors that he’s not in it to win it. Though it was half of Cox’s take, Bouchard points out that he was in the race for less than half the time. Snyder was the frontrunner with $3.2 million, but all except $500,000 came from his own bank account.
“People have been trying to pass rumors that you can’t raise any money and you’re going to drop out,” Bouchard says. “I mean, all these other camps spend most of their day trying to plant rumors and attack other camps. I don’t listen and I don’t do that. I don’t play that game.”
Mike Bouchard never planned to be a cop (“Actually, I kind of backed into that,” he grins.). He started out in pre-med at Michigan State University in 1974.
It may seem hard to believe, because the plain-talking, weight-lifting, concealed-weapon-carrying sheriff is hardly the egghead type (former state GOP chair Saul Anuzis once described him as a “smart guy,” but not a “thinker” or “philosopher. He’s a street politician.”) With his meticulously combed dark brown hair, flecked with a bit of gray, and easy smile, Bouchard is regular-guy handsome.
But Mike McCabe, his undersheriff in Oakland County who was also his classmate at Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Township, recalls the basketball champion as “sharp, quick-witted and a very good student.”
“He was very gregarious, outgoing — not a whole lot different from how he is right now,” McCabe says. “He’s an approachable, high-energy kind of guy. In high school and college, people knew he was going places. You have a sense when certain people have it.”
Born in Flint on April 12, 1956, Mike was the youngest of Doris and Don Bouchard’s three boys. The family moved to Oakland County when he was two. At 18 he started volunteering for a program for abused children under Dr. Jerry Tobias, a University of Detroit education professor and police officer. He was the one who urged Bouchard to go to the police academy — which he did, graduating as class valedictorian in 1975.
A year later, Bouchard earned his bachelor’s in criminal justice and police administration from MSU and began working in the Southfield Township police youth bureau. He was hired as a full-time officer for Beverly Hills in 1977. He would go on to serve in the Bloomfield Township department, where he earned nine citations for actions in the line of duty and had a knack for catching the media’s attention.
But, says Bishop, “He’s never been one to jump out in front and say, ‘Look at me. I am the guy.’ He’s a real team player.”
McCabe, who has served in the sheriff’s department for more than 30 years, recalls that former Sheriff John Nichols always saw something special in Bouchard. “Nichols would always say, ‘You’re going to be the next sheriff.’ Mike always poo-pooed that.”
It’s Bouchard’s background as a “cop’s cop” that won him the endorsement of his former Senate colleague, Phil Hoffman, a retired sheriff’s deputy.
“At the end of the day, Mike Bouchard probably has the best quality you could ask for of a governor — he’ll keep our cities safe,” the Horton Republican says. “If you’re not safe in your home, all the education, all the health care you want won’t be of any use.”
Even on the campaign trail, Bouchard’s law enforcement duties come first, like rushing to a grizzly incident in Commerce Township hours before the governor’s State of the State Address on February 3.
“I dropped what I was doing…to go to a sad and tragic scene — the kind of thing I’ve seen in my 25-year career in law enforcement,” he says. “A mother had stabbed her one-year-old. No question I’m affected by what I see and the kinds of things I’ve worked on. It makes me sensitive on how we can better protect people and how we can better protect children, because that’s what I’ve done virtually my whole adult life.”
Bouchard also led a team to Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks and was part of both the rescue and recovery missions.
“It was a mess. It was staggering — the sights, the smells,” he recalls. “It was very, very overwhelming. The destruction of that city was staggering. I had been there about a year before…I was cutting through a building that was pretty much destroyed — the ceiling, the windows, all sorts of stuff were destroyed — and I realized that I had had lunch in that atrium. I couldn’t even recognize it, it was so demolished.”
His medical training wasn’t a factor in his trips to the World Trade Center or New Orleans, however; he says he’s never thought of the road not taken as Dr. Bouchard. “I’m not the kind of guy who looks back. I have no regrets. My philosophy is pretty basic, in that if I don’t love what I’m doing, I won’t do it…Nothing to me is a next step or a paycheck.”
Leap to politics
Every election, voters are greeted with assorted campaign fliers wedged in their doors. But if it weren’t for those advertising nuisances, Bouchard might not be a happily married man today.
He had been elected to the Beverly Hills City Council in 1986, after an unsuccessful state House bid in 1984 and work on both Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign and local judicial races. The police officer’s political appetite was whetted after investigating the crimes of an Oakland County serial rapist.
“I thought some of the victims were getting kind of an unfair deal in the system,” he recalls. “And I kind of saw how everything I did, whether it was the arrest or how the victims were treated or how they [criminals] were convicted, had to do with politics.”
While running for re-election, he dropped one of his brochures at a house, triggering fate. Pam Johnson picked it up and asked some of her friends what they knew about the guy. They set up a blind date and the rest was history (“I guess those brochures are good for something,” Bouchard smiles).
The couple married in 1988 and they have three children: Mikayla, 20, an MSU student, and two boys, 13 and 16, whom Bouchard declines to name out of privacy concerns. Mikayla has been in the spotlight, doing an ad for his U.S. senatorial campaign and a campus event this go-around, but he says it’s been a hard adjustment.
“Well, you know, it wasn’t my first choice, but the one thing that the campaign folks said is that it helped connect people to me as a person, not just as a political figure,” he says. “But we tried not to put her name or specific things out there everywhere. But you know, given the Internet and the world, you can find some of that stuff out, but I’m a very protective dad.”
After serving two terms as Council president, Bouchard was elected to the state House in 1990 in what was then the 65th District representing Birmingham and Bloomfield. In 1991 he won a special election to the state Senate, where he served for eight years, representing both the former 13th and 16th districts.
Bouchard swats away the idea that times were good in the 1990s and leaders didn’t make enough structural reforms. He calls 1991 “one of toughest years” and trumpets lawmakers cutting $1 billion in budget, particularly from welfare, without raising taxes.
“We did very tough things,” he recalls. “So tough that we had picketers outside the office for almost a year. There were picketers on the Capitol lawn…it took a court order to get them off.
“It’s kind of like lots of times when you take a house and you kill yourself fixin’ up the house,” the Republican adds. “And a couple years later, it’s like, ‘Oh, what a great house.’ The work tends to go away. You tend to forget — oh, my God, how many hours was I up all night stripping paint and redoing the lighting, all the work for a fix-it-up house. Well, that’s kind of like 1991, ’92, ’93. We were doing some very heavy lifting, so much so that Michigan became the example in the country for welfare reform.”
On his work on Proposal A, Bouchard stresses that “the key focal point at that time was to figure out a way to bring down property taxes,” not stabilize education funding. He also worked on banking reform and regulations for the new Detroit casinos. Former U.S. Rep. and state Sen. Joe Schwarz (R-Battle Creek) served with Bouchard for eight years and describes him as a “very good senator, easy to get along with. He was a good, solid caucus member — not too far right as some senators were on occasion.”
Then in 1998, Nichols died, leaving the Oakland County sheriff post open. Bouchard was encouraged to throw his hat in the ring by many — including McCabe — and was appointed in 1999 by a three-person panel. He describes it as a better fit with his young family (“Not necessarily that I would have more free time, but that I would be spending the night at home more.”).
Republicans recruited him to run against Stabenow in early 2005, but Bouchard had a health scare with high blood pressure and cholesterol. At the urging of his physicians, he dropped out (“In life, when you get a wakeup call, it’s my belief that you should answer.”). Months later, after the Rev. Keith Butler had declared, Bouchard announced he had a clean bill of health and leapt back in at then-U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s urging.
He went on to easily win the 2006 primary, although he admits some Republicans’ feathers were ruffled. Despite some high-profile campaign events with Kid Rock and then-first lady Laura Bush, Bouchard took a 16-point beating in November. He says that it just wasn’t in the cards, given the political winds at the time.
“There’s not really much you could have done differently,” he reflects. “The fact is, the president [George W. Bush] was very personally unpopular and every time he came in for a visit, I went down in the polls.”
Michigan was on the right track in the 1990s under John Engler, Bouchard says. The problem, as Bouchard he sees it, is that Granholm didn’t continue on the path to reform Michigan over the last seven years — something he would have.
“I think things would be dramatically different, certainly a much better fiscal place and a much better place for business,” he says. “Because the tough decisions they have ignored, I would have not.”
Bishop describes Bouchard as a mentor, with whom he worked on identity theft legislation.
“He’ll tell it like it is; he won’t candy-coat it much,” Bishop says. “He has a direct style; he’s very anti-politician. People he works with know he means business.”
Bouchard’s No. 1 goal as governor is to get the state straightened out. As head of one of the 20 largest sheriff’s departments in the country, he says he knows what it takes to run a big organization. He notes Oakland County is the only one in the state with a AAA bond rating and a stable outlook. Taking the county’s model of a three-year rolling budget, Bouchard would institute a two-year budget at the state level, something endorsed by Democrats Dillon and Granholm, as well.
For someone who never planned to run for governor, he has a clear idea of how he’d fill the job. And Bouchard credits his family for inspiring him to take the plunge.
“This wasn’t always on my to-do list,” he acknowledges. “For me at the end of the day, all I really care about is that these problems are fixed so that my kids and anyone else’s kids that want to stay here have an opportunity to stay here. The bottom line is, I want my kids to be around me. I don’t want to have to get on a plane to visit them because they couldn’t find a job and a future in this state.”
Susan J. Demas, a regular columnist and contributor to Dome, is 2006 Knight Foundation Fellow in nonprofits journalism and a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service.