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Our system of term limits in Michigan is an utter failure

May 10, 2016

Years ago, soon after term limits first took effect in Michigan, a friend of mine served her three terms, and was forced to retire. To my surprise, her husband ran to succeed her. She came to the Legislature with a background in local government; he had none.

I thought his running was somehow faintly wrong. In any event, he lost in the primary, possibly because he had a different last name than she did.

If anyone had asked me then, I would have said I thought his candidacy was an aberration. In fact, the only aberration was that he happened to lose.

These days, politics in Michigan is a sea of elected nepotism.

I was vaguely aware of this, but I didn’t know the scope of it until the latest issue of columnist Susan Demas’ newsletter, Inside Michigan Politics, Demas, who has done her homework, writes:

“The lineup for House contests looks like a family affair, with at least 13 races involving a spouse, sibling or other relation seeking to keep a seat within the stable.”

This is in addition, by the way, to another 16 cases of family ties already in the Legislature.

What’s more this has now become multi-generational; she notes that “in some cases, a third wave is ready to move in.” The wife serves, her husband follows, and then one of their kids appears to claim the family seat.

Now we’ve always had political families, even dynasties, in America.

Whatever your politics, various members of the Bush and Kennedy families were sincerely committed to public service. So were Mitt and George Romney. Closer to home, this is certainly true of the Hertel family, which has had many members serve this state with distinction.

But too often, this hasn’t been the case.

The voters were sold term limits back in 1992 as a way to make sure there was a consistent supply of fresh blood and new ideas in government. That may have been nice in theory.

It might be happening if your average voter had the time and desire to carefully research the candidates and issues. But they don’t.

And as a result, we were treated to the spectacle of former State Senator Virgil Smith Jr. elected because of his father, former State Senator Virgil Smith Sr., who is now a Wayne County circuit court judge.

His son, who was first elected at age 22, had a string of brushes with the law, no real qualifications, and is now in jail after assaulting his ex-wife and shooting up her car.

... we've transferred power to the lobbyists and special interests.

Demas’s newsletter includes a long list of less egregious but till questionable cases.

Now there is no way we could or should prevent family members from running. But what this does show is the utter failure of our system of term limits.

We now know that what term limits do is supply us with an endless stream of lawmakers who never stay long enough to really understand the process or build the relationships necessary to govern well.

Instead, we’ve transferred power to the lobbyists and special interests.

Meanwhile, the voters, hungry for continuity, vote for familiar names. We could do a lot to fix this by repealing term limits. But so far, nobody has even been willing to try.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's 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.