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People before politics

May 3, 2016

I had dinner last night with John Hertel, who runs SMART, the efficient and cost-effective bus system for suburban Detroit. This hasn’t been an easy spring for John; his younger brother Curtis Hertel Sr., a revered former speaker of the Michigan House, died unexpectedly five weeks ago.

The Hertels were members of a species now rare in politics.

They were a political family. John himself was elected to three terms in the state Senate; he has two other brothers who served in the Legislature, one of whom also spent six terms in Congress.

They are proud Democrats. But they were people before politicians. They’ve always been dedicated first to getting the job done and making things work, and they had lives outside of politics. John Hertel is a creature these days almost as rare as passenger pigeons: a Democrat who has been repeatedly appointed by governors of both parties to important posts.

John Engler appointed him manager of the Michigan State Fair, which he did for 13 years, making it more modern and cost-effective until Governor Granholm inexplicably killed the fair. Three different governors have appointed him to the Huron-Clinton Metroparks Authority, which he chairs, and he is also chair of the Detroit Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

He’s also the only man in Michigan history ever to be chairman of the board of commissioners in two separate counties – Wayne and Macomb. But when you talk to him, he doesn’t start spouting statistics from some tracking poll. He’s more likely to talk about his kids or the light of his life, his prize giant Percheron horses, one of which became the first American horse ever selected to go back to France and enrich European bloodlines.

Hertel, an early baby boomer who will turn 70 this year, has seen a lot of strange stuff, inside politics and out. But for the first time, he is deeply worried about this country.

Like many of us, he can scarcely believe that a major political party is going to nominate a presidential candidate who has essentially incited his supporters to violence, called for the registration of members of a minority group, and who seems cheerfully and arrogantly ignorant of how government or democracy work.

But that’s not all that’s bothering him. Hertel grew up in Detroit, in an era when its public schools were excellent, and when both Republican and Democratic parents automatically agreed that every child deserves a good public education.

Now, he is baffled that the Legislature seems far more reluctant to save the schools than they were to save the Detroit Institute of Arts during the Detroit bankruptcy crisis two years ago.

And he says that as one of the art museum’s biggest fans. The Hertels came from a working class family to build meaningful and successful lives.

But I left thinking about the 40-something mother I know who is trying to figure out how she and her husband can afford college for their two kids, and wondering what kind of jobs – or state – will be there for them.

Hertel’s generation saw the task of politics and government as one of making things work better for all of us, even if they disagreed on how to get there.

Somehow, a big piece of that seems to be missing today.

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.