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Mackinac vs. Michigan

May 30, 2017

The Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual Mackinac Policy Conference begins today; I’ll be there, though so far, it doesn’t look like the most momentous conference they’ve ever had.

There will be a few national speakers worth hearing, including historian Michael Beschloss and journalist and author Walter Isaacson.

Governor Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan will give keynote addresses, and there will be panels on politics, and on things like “Michigan’s Digital Future.”

Mostly, there will be flocks of politicians trolling for support for various offices next year. They won’t be looking for support from voters so much as from those who might contribute to their campaigns.

Money is so much a part of politics these days that some politicians who aren’t running for anything, like State Senators Jim Ananich, a Democrat, and Arlan Meekhof, a Republican, are holding major, $5,000 a sponsorship fundraisers on the island.

I think I’ll pass. My guess is that most of what goes on at Mackinac this year would be seen as irrelevant and probably irritating by the vast majority of Michiganders. Over the weekend I talked to Vicki Barnett, a former state legislator who is now chair of the Oakland County Democratic Party.

Barnett is not a typical Democrat; she has an MBA and has been an investment consultant and an insurance agent.

Oakland County is not a typical Michigan county either. The state’s second largest, it is certainly the most affluent, and its citizens among the best educated. You might think that would make it safely Republican turf, but that’s not the case.

Donald Trump scored an upset to win Michigan last fall, but he not only lost Oakland County, he did worse there than Mitt Romney had. Most Democrats running for countywide offices also won.

Barnett herself lost to longtime County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, but did better than any of his previous opponents.

But she isn’t all that rosy about what’s going on politically. “You have a lot of people very angry with the political system,” she told me. “They feel that they have not been listened to, period.”

Many of them are loosely associated with the "indivisible" movement, which was formed to counter President Trump’s agenda.

But Barnett, who is a realist, noted, “they don’t necessarily want to be affiliated with the Democrats. Right now our country is in political turmoil.”

While she thinks most of these folks could find a home in her party, she thinks that Democrats now should just be trying to listen to them and understand their discontent.

Barnett was a strong Hillary Clinton supporter last year. But she is also brutally honest enough to admit that Clinton didn’t do a good enough job of giving people an agenda to vote for.

She is also annoyed because, as she said, “I think we are seeing a great number of politicians who are afraid to take a stand."

“It is easy to say, let’s cut taxes. It is harder to say we may need more money to fix our infrastructure and schools.

Somehow, I don’t think that most of the politicians I’ll see on Mackinac Island this week are doing much listening to those who can’t afford to hang out at the Grand Hotel.

I’ll report back if it turns out I was wrong.

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.