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The politics of irrational behavior

Jan 4, 2018

Macomb County Clerk Karen Spranger
Credit Macomb Daily

There’s a principle in law called the “presumption of regularity” that holds that, generally speaking, the things government does are considered to be legal unless proven otherwise.

That’s why, a law professor once told me, it took so long for people to really believe that President Nixon was lying and encouraging members of his administration to break the law.

We make a similar presumption about those we elect to higher office. I strongly disagreed, for example, with President George W. Bush’s decision to launch a war with Iraq. But I didn’t doubt that he sincerely believed it was the right thing to do.

I would have stood in line for hours to vote against him. But it never occurred to anyone that he and Vice President Dick Cheney were plotting to overthrow the Constitution and make us a vassal state of Russia, or anything like that.

Again, I made a presumption of regularity about him. But it is now becoming more and more painfully apparent that our system is not set up to deal with cases where office holders may not be on anything that resembles the normal plane of behavior.

I am talking about Macomb County, the third largest in the state, where 14 months ago, voters elected a Republican named Karen Spranger as county clerk. Nobody expected her to win; she was locally known by those who covered government as a perennial gadfly who sometimes showed up for public meetings in a tin foil outfit.

Ironically, she probably owes her victory to Democrats, who successfully blocked a Republican effort to outlaw straight-ticket voting. Donald Trump swept the county by a landslide, and as a result, Spranger squeaked in.

The result has been chaos. Being clerk in a large county is an important job, if not a flashy one. If you do it well, you almost never get noticed, as was the case with Spranger’s predecessor, Carmella Sabaugh. But Spranger is in the news every day, for the wrong reasons.

It became quickly evident that she had no idea what her job was, how to do it, or even how an elected official should behave. She once had an aide call 911 because she didn’t like a question a reporter asked. She has repeatedly gotten in trouble for things like allowing outsiders to use county computers, and illegally hiring temporary employees.

Yesterday, she filed yet another massive lawsuit in federal court alleging a conspiracy to violate her constitutional rights, plus assorted other nonsense. It also accuses two respected news reporters of being biased against her. There’s no evidence that they are, but even if they were, that’s not against the law, thanks to a little thing called the First Amendment.

County officials think they can remove her soon for lying about her residence when she filed to run; she claimed to be living in a trash-strewn house that had no water, electricity or heat. But for now, there’s something like chaos that threatens to severely affect vital functions in a county where 850,000 people live.

There are several lessons here, one of which is the need to cast an informed vote. But beyond that, we need to consider how to deal with officeholders who may not be sane.

If this were to happen at higher levels, it could be disastrous.

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.