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Calley needs Snyder's endorsement, even if it hurts his bid for governor

Mar 22, 2018

Credit Michigan House Republicans

Once upon a time, there was a Republican governor of Michigan who enthusiastically endorsed his lieutenant governor as his successor. The governor was very popular.

His lieutenant governor was also respected and well-liked. He was good-looking and had an impressive background as a lawyer, FBI agent, and president of Eastern Michigan University.

Both men were moderates, and the lieutenant was competing in the August primary with three more conservative candidates. The governor’s endorsement was expected to seal the deal.

But it didn’t. In what was seen as a considerable upset, Lieutenant Governor James Brickley was beaten by eccentric anti-tax insurance executive Dick Headlee, who went on to lose in November. Brickley barely managed to finish second, just ahead of Oakland County Prosecutor L. Brooks Patterson, who was running on a pro-death penalty, anti-Detroit platform.

Another candidate even further to the right got eight percent of the vote. That was in the long-ago world of 1982, and I covered that campaign. There was no Internet and no smart phones then, and many things about that race were different.

Bill Milliken, governor at the time, was popular. Rick Snyder is not. James Brickley was better known and had considerably more credentials than Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley does today. Yet none of that helped Brickley. Nor is it clear that Snyder’s endorsement of Calley will do much to help the younger man either.

Rick Snyder, in many people’s minds, is the man who taxed their pensions and whose policies poisoned an entire city’s water supply. Brian Calley will be depicted as his understudy by those who support Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, or ultra-right State Senator Patrick Colbeck, the third Republican gubernatorial primary candidate.

But even if Snyder is not greatly loved, and even if his endorsement is problematic, it would be far worse for Calley not to be endorsed by Rick Snyder.

After all, the two men were partners for eight years, and not to have his boss’s backing would certainly be the kiss of death. And there is one thing the men have going for them: Michigan’s economy today is far better than it was when they took office. Calley needs to claim that as his legacy, while distancing himself from Flint.

Yet the fact remains that it is extremely hard for any lieutenant governor or sitting vice-president to win the top job. People usually want to change parties, and the number two guy tends to inherit all the bad and none of the good.

By the way -- can you name the last lieutenant governor of Michigan to get elected governor? It was Democrat John Swainson, who was elected in 1960. And he ran against the party establishment, which wanted another candidate.

Since then, besides Brickley’s failure, Republican Lieutenant Governor Dick Posthumus did get the nomination in 2002, but lost the general election. John Cherry, Michigan’s next lieutenant governor, knew his lot was hopeless and decided not to run.

And the political graveyard is littered with sitting vice presidents who tried for the White House; George H.W. Bush is the only one to make it in the last 182 years.

Brian Calley can, indeed, take comfort in knowing Snyder is behind him. But he is still going to have to work very hard to roll that stone up the hill.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.