Opinion

Almost 30 years ago, I was national editor of the Detroit News, which was then the largest-circulation paper in Michigan.

The newspaper was then locked in a competitive struggle with the Detroit Free Press, and each was trying to put the other out of business. They had the novel idea that not only low prices but high quality was the way to win, and they did a lot of excellent journalism.

Back then, in the days before the World Wide Web, both newspapers sold well over 600,000 copies every day. On Sundays, their combined circulation was more than a million and a half. You could subscribe to either paper anywhere in the state.

Michigan is an unusual state politically. Republicans have controlled the state Senate for more than 30 years, and now solidly hold the lower House as well.

We’ve had Republican governors more often than not. But the last time Michigan voted Republican for president, the World Wide Web hadn’t yet been invented and the Soviet Union was still going strong.

And Democrats have utterly dominated our U.S. Senate races. Republicans have won just once in the last 42 years. This year, Michigan had a rare open seat, thanks to the retirement of Sen. Carl Levin. GOP hopes of finally breaking through were strong.

But … maybe not.

They ended up with a candidate who seems allergic to the normal processes of campaigning. After what seems to have been a traumatic experience on Mackinac Island in May, Terri Lynn Land has avoided reporters, ignoring all interview requests, except from a few sympathetic conservatives in carefully controlled situations.

Nor has Land campaigned openly much. She sometimes shows up for parades or other events, but usually doesn’t announce her schedule in advance. Instead, she seems to be relying on a multi-million dollar TV ad campaign.

If you are following the campaign for governor you really aren’t normal. Yes, you heard me correctly. The media, me included, has been writing more and more about the campaign.

Not just for governor, but for the Senate and various other races. Today, the Detroit Free Press’s headline trumpets: “With vote just weeks away, Snyder builds lead.”

That’s written as if it were describing something tangible and real, like “new mountain discovered in Brazil.” In fact, that story is based on a poll the newspaper and a TV station paid for.

The data is based on a mere 600 people and shows 45% percent favored Rick Snyder; 39% percent favored Mark Schauer.

That’s pretty close to the margin of error.

Nevertheless, Bernie Porn, the man whose firm did the polling said authoritatively, “Snyder went up with his advertising campaign and it’s made a significant difference in the race.”

But, as if conscious that nobody likes a play whose ending is revealed in the first act, Porn added, “Even with Snyder’s lead, it is certainly not too late for Schauer to turn things around.”

In other words, it’s the Belmont Stakes and the horses are just coming into the backstretch. However, I have news for us political junkies. Far more people are like the server at the cheap restaurant where I had lunch yesterday.

When I asked him about the governor’s race, he said “Is that this year?” He also thought he was a registered voter, but wasn’t quite sure. Well, I don’t need Bernie Porn to tell me how that guy’s going to vote: He’s not. In fact, most registered voters aren’t going to  vote.

Pretty much every major political campaign develops a certain weirdness of its own. Some more than others.

There was Howard Wolpe, who ran for governor of Michigan by talking a lot about South Africa. And now we have the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Gary Peters and Republican Terri Lynn Land. You might think that there was a modern-day state or national issue or two worth worrying about, like jobs or education or ISIS.

But forget all that. For the past couple days, the candidates have been squabbling over what in economic terms is ancient history. Specifically, the so-called bailout of the auto industry in 2008 and 2009, and whether Land would have supported it.

What makes this weirder is that one of the candidates is only arguing about it by proxy. Land doesn’t talk to reporters or interviewers and so far hasn’t consented to debate her rival.

I once knew an opinion pollster who told me he could usually determine how anyone was going to vote without ever asking who they were going to vote for.

He did this by asking a series of litmus-test type questions about someone’s life, background and beliefs.

If you were a single mom with limited income, for example, that probably indicated you were a Democrat – unless you were a fundamentalist Christian. White professional male with a six-figure income?  Likely Republican if in business, for example. But probably not if he is a nonreligious professor.

If you follow politics in this state, you probably know that John Dingell has served longer in Congress than anyone in American history.

You also probably know he is retiring at the end of this term, and that his wife Debbie is the Democratic nominee to succeed him. And given the realities of politics, it is absolutely as certain as anything can be that she will win.

Mrs. Dingell – she uses Mrs., by the way – would not want me to say that. Neither would her main opponent, Terry Bowman, a blue-collar Republican auto worker.

Yesterday Detroit’s City Council made a decision so sane, sensible and rational it may have left some flabbergasted.

The council voted unanimously to transfer power for all day-to-day decisions back to the city’s elected leadership.

But at the same time, emergency manager Kevyn Orr will remain on the job for issues having to do with Detroit’s ongoing bankruptcy case. That trial is still going on in federal court in Detroit, proceedings that may continue three more weeks.

Two months ago, I told the story of a Vietnam veterans’ group in Detroit that has been fighting for recognition for all veterans of all wars for years. Vietnam Veterans of America, Detroit Chapter 9, has been a force in Detroit for many years.

They have reached out to help homeless and messed-up veterans. They got an annual Veterans Day parade started again. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve let veterans of our newer conflicts know they were appreciated and welcomed.

They’ve also had a dream. They’ve wanted to build a Veterans memorial park open to anyone, which would commemorate all of America’s conflicts. I’ve seen the design; it is not overly militaristic, it doesn’t glorify combat. It mostly tells the story of our nation’s military history, and honors those who helped make freedom possible.

But for years, the veterans have been shown little respect by the city of Detroit. Originally, they wanted to build their park in a large vacant lot on Woodward Avenue, and at least one mayor told them that would be fine. The veterans cleaned it up, drove off the junkies, paid an architect to design a plan.

Then another mayor gave it to his buddies to park cars on instead. Later, Detroit City Council told the veterans they should consider Gabriel Richard Park on the Detroit River.

One of the things I’ve noticed over the last few years is how many local hospitals seem to have been taken over by McLaren Health Care, a chain that originally started in Flint.

That in itself may not be bad; there have certainly been cases of local stand-alone hospitals that lacked the resources to properly serve their communities.

But it sometimes seems to me that while America once had wards between rival steel and railroad magnates, we now have hospital system wars. And we now have a case of sheer hospital arrogance.

Phil Incarnati, McLaren’s president and CEO, seems to believe the state’s rules for allowing where hospitals can expand are just fine – as long as they don’t apply to him. Over and over again, McLaren has been denied permission to build a new hospital near Clarkston, an affluent area in northern Oakland County.

Yesterday, the Michigan League for Public Policy held a press conference to announce that our state is a disgrace when it comes to child care.

They didn’t say it that way, but I will.

What the nonpartisan league actually said was:

“Michigan’s child care program falls far short in ensuring high-quality child care.”

We are living in an age when more parents than ever need to work, and our politicians demand they work. And we are making it harder and harder for them to do so.

Over the last 10 years, Michigan has cut 70% of the funding for subsidized child care.

Back in 2005, before the Great Recession, 65,000 low-income parents got child care help from the state so that they could keep working.

Many more are in trouble now, but we only help a third as many.

Forget human compassion; from purely a business standpoint, this makes no sense.

To quote the league:

“Access to safe, stable and high-quality child care reduces employee absenteeism and turnover and improves businesses’ bottom line.”

We can say two things about the race for governor today: Mark Schauer and Rick Snyder are essentially tied in the polls. And it looks like we may not have a single televised debate.

The last time that happened was 16 years ago, when John Engler refused to debate Geoffrey Fieger. There was a certain logic to that.

Fieger was going around saying that the governor was a “corn-fed bowser,” and declared he would not accept that Engler was the father of his triplets unless they had corkscrew tails.

That was not a normal campaign. But this one is, and the voters have a lot at stake. This time, the challenger wants debates and the incumbent doesn’t.

Conventional wisdom says that’s because the governor doesn’t want to make it seem like his opponent is his equal, or because it is always harder to defend a record than attack one.

That may be. But it is also possible that Republicans are wasting a golden opportunity to put the challenger on the defensive. Here’s why.

There are two dirty little secrets about journalism most people don’t realize. One is that we assume that the good is normal. If you work hard, are not flamboyant, take care of your business and don’t kill your family, you may well live happily ignored by the media.

Same goes for your community, if it is solvent and your elected officials aren’t stealing or worse.

While great breakthroughs in science or human achievement do get recognized, news tends to be about system or human failures, which is one of the reasons journalists tend to be unpopular.

We come to show you that the mayor is a crook, the legislature incompetent, your schools are failing to educate "Susie," that your city is bankrupt and the water polluted.

Something happened in the auto industry recently that was mostly overlooked by the mainstream media – but which may have huge implications for the industry and the United Auto Workers union.  

Seven years ago, the UAW made a concession that I am convinced would have had Walter Reuther spinning in his grave.

They agreed to accept a two-tier wage system under which most new hires would be paid slightly less than half what long-time auto workers made.

Think about that.

This means most of them are earning less than $30,000 a year.  Can they buy a house with that salary?  Even buy one of the new cars and trucks they build?

You know the answer. Yet the union agreed, because it felt it had no choice.

Some years ago, I was studying some primitive TV campaign ads. One of them featured candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower being asked by a housewife, "Well, the Democrats have made mistakes, but weren't their intentions good?"

Squinting at cue cards, the nearsighted Ike replied woodenly, "Well, if you have a school bus driver who goes off the road, hits a pole and lands in a ditch you don't say his intentions are good. You get a new bus driver." 

Last night I thought it might be a good idea to send that ad to Governor Rick Snyder, with a note: Think about Aramark.

Many years ago, I met Thomas Friedman, the distinguished New York Times journalist who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his coverage of the Middle East by the time he was 35.

When I told him that I regarded his reporting as indispensable, he told me something I’ll never forget. He said “don’t read my stories every day.”  That startled me, and I asked what he meant.

He went on: “Daily journalists covering a beat have to produce a story just about every day.” That’s partly because everybody doesn’t always read everything. But if you look closely, you’ll see that much of the time, much of the daily stories are repetitious.

Six months ago, I was convinced Rick Snyder would be reelected in November -- not by the 18 point landslide he scored four years ago, but by a fairly comfortable margin.

Yes, I knew there was lingering anger over the pension tax and right to work, maybe other issues, but I figured that Snyder’s Republicans would have so much money they’d overwhelm Mark Schauer, his Democratic opponent, with broadcast commercials, the “air war” of modern politics.

Then too, Republicans have a built-in advantage over Democrats in midterm elections. Turnout is always smaller, and Republicans are better about showing up.

State Senator Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, looks absolutely nothing like Harry Truman, the 33rd President of the United States. Yet yesterday, when Warren introduced legislation to amend Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, he instantly came to mind.

And here’s why: Many people, especially the LGBT community and their allies, were excited when, with considerable fanfare, Warren introduced her bill. SB 1053 would make it illegal for anyone hiring employees or providing housing to discriminate against anyone based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Identity, or expression. Her bill, as I understand it, would also make it illegal to refuse to hire or sell or serve or rent to anyone because you don’t like the way they dress or define themselves.

These days, workplaces of all kinds from radio stations to corporate offices are filled with interns, mainly unpaid interns.

So imagine that you have such an intern in your office anywhere in this state. You think she, or he, is cute.

You ask what she does with her boyfriend at night, and begin touching her inappropriately. Finally, you suggest that if she wants a career, she should come to a meeting without her clothes on.

Can she sue you and the firm for sexual harassment?

The answer is … no.

Well, yesterday was indeed one of the more momentous days in Detroit’s modern history. The city not only reached an agreement with Syncora, the major opponent of its bankruptcy filing. Detroit also reached a deal with the suburbs on the water system, something that has eluded everyone for years.

When I heard about all this, I was instantly reminded of economist Paul Romer’s famous quote: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Detroit is in its worst crisis since Cadillac beached his canoes and scrabbled up the riverbank in 1701.

And for once, it hasn’t wasted it. Whatever you think of Federal Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes and Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr: This would not have happened without them. Rhodes is the real hero in the water settlement.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson acknowledged this yesterday. For more than 40 years, Patterson has had a political career based on bashing Detroit. He had no intention of ever agreeing to a water deal with the city.

But Patterson knew that if he wasn’t willing to play ball, Rhodes could, quote, “cram down our throats his settlement of this issue, and this was always looming over our heads.”

The settlement itself is reasonable, logical, simple, and could have been designed by a graduate class in political science. A new Great Lakes Water Authority is being created.

Two days ago, my eyes fell on a poignantly written column by a gallant woman who I felt I knew, though we’ve never met.

Sherri Muzher lives in the downriver Detroit suburb of Woodhaven.

She has multiple sclerosis, as do perhaps 400,000 other Americans. She is intellectually vibrant and only 44, but her disease is advancing quickly, and she knows it.

There isn’t any hope that she’ll get better, and she bravely accepts that, but she wants to make a contribution to humanity.

Today on Stateside:

  • The Canadians have chosen the team that will actually build the New International Trade Crossing Bridge, and they're setting up shop now in Windsor. What obstacles remain for the new bridge?
  • As college students head back to campus, we look at the long-term effect of debt, whether big debt burdens really pay off down the road, and an individual’s long journey struggling with student loans.
  • Beginning on Sept. 9, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will begin to apply lamprey-killing pesticides in the Muskegon River.
  • We learned how a summer job on Mackinac Island in 1960 led to a lifelong love affair with the island and its people.
  • We talked to an unconventional balloon sculptor. His work has just been featured in the newest edition of Ripley's "Believe It or Not! Reality Shock!" book and he's in the Guinness Book of World Records.
  • A reporter told us what he discovered, as he tracked down the history of a proposed dumping ground for radioactive fracking waste.

* Listen to the full show above.

As of now, it looks like Michigan may have no statewide televised debates in either the races for governor or U.S. Senator.

This is pretty universally seen as a bad thing – except by the candidates who don’t want to debate.

As of now, Gov. Rick Snyder has refused to commit to any debates with Democratic candidate Mark Schauer. That’s politically understandable, even though the race is close.

Incumbents generally never like debating challengers, because it elevates their opponent to their level. Usually, they only do so because of political pressure, or if they are themselves behind.

GOP Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land’s refusal to debate Democratic nominee Gary Peters might seem more surprising. This is an open seat, and she is trailing slightly in most polls.

There’s an old joke that asks, what’s the difference between an optimist, a pessimist and a Detroiter?

Well, the optimist, of course, sees the glass half full; the pessimist, half empty.

And the Detroiter asks: Who stole my glass?

Years ago, I found it interesting to tell that joke to different groups, suburbanites and city dwellers, and ask what it meant.

Detroiters, most of whom were black, often said it referred to the business interests who used the city up, then took their jobs and factories and left. White suburbanites, on the other hand, would say it referred to the corrupt black politicians who fleeced their own people.

That, or to crime in general, by which they meant black crime.

I had lunch yesterday in a fairly ordinary restaurant in midtown Detroit. Whenever there is a big news event, I’m curious as to what normal people are saying about it.

Yesterday, for example, I thought people might be talking about Detroit’s bankruptcy trial. After all, a couple of miles from where I was eating, one of the city’s creditors was telling the judge he wanted the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collections sold so he could get his money.

But nobody was talking about that. Instead, the few snatches of conversation I heard were all about the hacking – stealing, really – of pictures of naked celebrities, which were then uploaded where we could all see them, if we cared to. One of them was Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Justin Verlander, who may be the best-paid worker in the city.

Today marks a significant historical anniversary that is likely to go largely unnoticed. World War II really began 75 years ago today, when Great Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany for attacking Poland.

For the next six years, humans violently murdered each other at the rate of about 10 million a year. 

This anniversary is likely to get little notice because so much else is going on – and because historians are busy commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.

Now here is a little Michigan news story that isn’t likely to get much notice either. According to Livingston County police, a 69-year-old man was driving a pickup truck yesterday afternoon, when he passed a 43-year-old man driving a smaller vehicle.

They then both were stopped at a traffic light. The younger man got out of his car and approached the truck. And the truck driver shot him to death. Police say they were both from Howell, but didn’t know each other, that this was just a case of road rage.

Detroit’s bankruptcy has been with us so long that it is hard to believe that the actual trial is only starting today.

Technically, it is not a trial in the strict sense of the word, but something called a “plan confirmation hearing.”

But it is, in a very real sense, Detroit’s trial of the century. That’s an overused phrase, but totally appropriate here.

In fact, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, the most important figure in all of this, said it all last week: What happens here will determine “the future of the city of Detroit.”

Actually, it might be technically correct to say that this trial will determine whether the city has a future.

Well, it’s Labor Day weekend, unofficially known as the last weekend of summer, and this in itself seems horribly unfair.

Weren’t we still shoveling snow a few weeks ago?  Anyway, when it comes to things not being fair, those who work for a living know that all too well.

Especially, that is, if they have limited education or work in manufacturing jobs. I’ve just been reading a fascinating new Labor Day report issued by the Michigan League for Public Policy. It’s focus is on continuing wage disparities between men and women – the famous gender gap.

That’s an important issue, but to me it wasn’t the most significant thing in this report. What this report really does is illustrate how devastating the last 35 years have been for Michigan’s traditional blue-collar workers.

Last week, I went to see Douglas George, Canada’s top diplomat in Detroit, mostly to talk about where things stand with the New International Trade Crossing Bridge over the Detroit River.

The bridge is now almost certain to be built, but there are a few hang-ups, and one is the concerns of the residents in the Delray neighborhood where the American footprint of the bridge will land.

Those who live there want to make sure they aren’t trampled on. Now, they finally are having their voices heard, thanks in part to Detroit’s new system of electing council members by district.

Exactly a month ago, Detroit City Council was expected to approve the sale of 301 city-owned parcels of land in that neighborhood to the state of Michigan.

Michigan would then buy them with money provided by the government of Canada, and transfer the land to the new International Authority, which is to oversee bridge construction.

But the land sale was delayed.

Normally journalists never say how they vote, but I am about to violate that rule. Eight years ago, I voted to re-elect Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land. I thought she was doing a good job; I still think she was less partisan and more practical than others who have held that post.

Yet I have a hard time recognizing that official in the Terri Lynn Land now running for the U.S. Senate. And yesterday, she unveiled an idea that may be one of the worst I’ve ever heard. If you ever leave your house, you know many Michigan roads are in bad shape. Gov. Rick Snyder does.

He’s been trying to get lawmakers to come up with $1.2 billion a year in new money to restore our crumbling roads and bridges. Actually, experts with the Michigan Department of Transportation, now say more like $2 billion a year is needed. The governor suggested getting this from a combination of increased registration fees and raising the state gas tax.

Okay, now, here’s a test: How many members of the state board of education can you name?  Don’t feel bad.

I can’t name them all either.

What’s more, many people don’t even realize we elect these folks, and the trustees who run our three major universities. This might not be a bad idea if the campaigns involved honest debates over education policy.

But that almost never happens.

Instead, we rely on the political parties to select nominees who will devote themselves to mastering the issues and helping run our educational institutions with integrity.

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