It's Just Politics

Fridays at 1:35 PM

Politics can be messy. Politics can be confusing. But, that certainly doesn't mean politics can't be a total thrilling joy-ride. Join It's Just Politics hosts Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta every Friday afternoon for a fast-paced spin around Michigan politics.

Want to know what's really going on inside the state Capitol building? Or, why your lawmaker really voted the way they did? They've got the answers... and much more.

It's Just Politics – every Friday afternoon at 1:35 pm on Michigan Radio.

Rick Pluta has covered Michigan government and politics since 1987. His first big Michigan political story was the brutal GOP presidential primary battle that pitted Vice President George H.W. Bush against former Congressman Jack Kemp and televangelist Pat Robertson. That battle spawned two competing state political conventions and the now-famous “I Survived the 1988 Michigan Republican Delegate Selection Process” t-shirt. He would pay money now that he did not pay then to get one. He collects political pins - a professional side hobby that’s hit the skids as cost-conscious campaigns have taken a tragic turn toward stickers. He is an excellent parallel parker. 

Zoe Clark is Michigan Radio’s resident political junkie. She was three years old in 1987 when Rick Pluta started covering the Capitol. She fell in love with politics when she was eight years old and begged her parents to let her stay up late to follow the 1992 presidential election returns. No way, they said. But she did convince them to wake her up when the race was called. (Which they did.) It was her job to wake up early for four years as the producer of Morning Edition on Michigan Radio. Now, in addition to being Michigan Radio’s resident political junkie, Zoe is the executive producer of Stateside.
She aspires to have an organized desk.

Follow Rick on Twitter at @rickpluta and Zoe at @ZoeMelina

The theme of the 11th Congressional District Republican establishment for the past couple of years might be “I Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along.” (We have kindly provided a link to that tune from “The Muppet Movie” sung by Rowlf the Dog and Kermit the Frog here. But we digress.)

The usual poobahs and potentates of the Oakland and Wayne county GOP circles have had to live with Rep. Kerry Bentivolio as their Republican in Congress since November of last year. But, this week, to the surprise of absolutely no one who has been paying attention, that Establishment may have gotten its wish when businessman/attorney David Trott announced he will challenge Bentivolio in a Republican primary.

And, in this case, the challenger probably starts with the advantage.

"War." That was the headline on the conservative blog “Right Michigan” following the state Senate’s vote this week to approve the Medicaid expansion. The GOP right, the Tea Party, say this is a vote that will not be forgotten – political collusion with the loathed and dreaded Obamacare by eight Republicans who voted with Democrats to get it passed.

Make that nine Tea Party targets if you count Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley, who was not forced to but stood ready to cast a tie-breaking vote if it was needed to get the expansion passed.

Last week, we outlined the political challenges facing Calley and, since then, a Tea Party opponent emerged. Wes Nakagiri says he is putting together a campaign to oust and replace Calley next year at a Republican state convention.

Calley, meanwhile, has gone on counter-offense, adopting the vernacular of the Tea Party, and sending out communications heavily laden with words like “freedom,” “liberty,” and “conservative.” He is also touting the endorsement of Congressman Justin Amash, a favorite of the “liberty” wing of the Republican coalition.

All of this is an effort to begin to re-set the conversation after the Senate vote. But there is still more road to travel before the Medicaid expansion is complete. The state House must adopt the Senate version to get it to Governor Rick Snyder’s desk.  The governor is actually delaying a trade-building mission to China and Japan to be on hand. (Remember, he rushed back from Israel after the Medicaid expansion stalled in the Senate earlier this summer.) It’s a good bet he’d like to sign the bill before joining the trade trip later in the week.

Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley is trying to burnish his conservative credentials as the Snyder administration takes on the Tea Party in the Medicaid expansion fight.

“I’m a voice on the inside that comes from the right side of the political spectrum,” said Calley on the Michigan Public Television show “Off The Record.”

Calley is trying to erase the political target on his back. He has become the focal point of Tea Party rage over the push for expanding Medicaid to cover more working poor people and other centrist sins of the Snyder administration, deemed by many Tea Partiers as insufficiently conservative. 

Now, the Tea Party doesn’t really harbor hopes of knocking down Governor Snyder with a primary challenge next year. But it does believe the Tea Party is a necessary element of any coalition to ensure a Republican victory next year, and it knows, that (even if Rick Snyder is pretty much guaranteed re-nomination in a primary election) Calley – or whomever the lieutenant governor candidate will be – has to be nominated at a state party convention.

Tuesday’s local primaries have come and gone. The November runoffs are set. But don’t think people, political people, aren’t looking ahead even further… to next year’s primaries and beyond.  We have big statewide races for governor and an open U.S. Senate seat, and some big congressional races.

At this juncture, it still looks like Democrats are succeeding in their plan to avoid expensive, bitter primaries in their big, key races. In the “D” column, former Congressman Mark Schauer looks uncontested as the candidate to face Governor Rick Snyder. Congressman Gary Peters is in line to be the Senate nominee without a fight. And, this week, in northern Michigan, retired general and former Kalkaska County Sheriff Democrat Jerry Cannon announced his plans to challenge Republican Congressman Dan Benishek. The First Congressional District is one of the state’s very few true toss-up races and Democrats have big hopes to win it come 2014. In fact, the campaign arm of the House Democratic conference is already airing radio ads in northern Michigan. The First is considered winnable by the right pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, conservative Democrat. And, interestingly enough, Democrats think their chances in this seat will actually improve next year without President Barack Obama at the top of the ballot.

This week, it’s another shenanigans edition of It’s Just Politics. Thanks to Jack Lessenberry for his explainer on the latest political mischief coming out of Detroit. It’s important to note this kind of political behavior is nothing new: Very crowded primary ballots with names that are very similar; recruited by opposing campaigns. Efforts to divide the vote can also take into account ethnicity, gender when one side recruits candidates with no hope of winning but, can maybe split the vote to sink another campaign come Election Day. No matter what you think of political games, they’re pretty normal.

Mike Duggan, former hospital CEO, prosecutor and problem-solver for the late Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara launched his Detroit mayoral write-in campaign after he was booted from the ballot after one his opponents challenged him for filing his nomination petitions before he was a city resident for a full-year. But a lot of experts were giving his write-in effort a pretty good shot at getting him into the two-person runoff this coming fall. He’s topping the polls and appeared to have a good shot at winning a spot on the November runoff.

The Detroit bankruptcy filing is Michigan’s biggest news story of the year, with effects that will ripple out in all kinds of ways; many that are unpredictable.  It would be naïve to suggest that politics will not be a big part of how this plays out – if it hasn’t already.

So let’s run the bases on this, starting with Governor Rick Snyder. Snyder approved the bankruptcy filing, the largest in U.S. history, and it is now part of his legacy and his resume (whether he likes it or not) as he prepares to seek reelection next year. Every painful and controversial decision by a federal bankruptcy judge will be laid upon Rick Snyder by Democrats. Snyder may not own Detroit, but he sure owns its problems.

This is an awkward place for any leader to be, although not an unusual one. This is a governor being controlled by events, not controlling them. A couple years ago Snyder relentlessly, positively insisted that bankruptcy for Detroit was not an option; almost unthinkable. Now, he says there was really no other choice.   “This is a difficult situation – but the answer is, by not doing this path, where would we be? And, so, this is an opportunity to say ‘let’s get that fresh start’ and show the rest of the country why Detroit can be an exciting place that can grow into the future,” Snyder said yesterday evening, about two hours after the Chapter 9 filing.

Welcome to our post-Independence Day edition of It’s Just Politics and, today, we’re talking Independents.

This week, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel let it be known he wants the “D,” for Democrat, stripped from the column alongside his name in the Macomb County directory. Hackel told The Macomb Daily that he doesn’t think being a Democrat, or a Republican for that matter, really makes a difference in his job as county executive. And, that he doesn’t really consider himself a party person.

This certainly isn’t the only incarnation of Hackel’s independent streak. He has refused to endorse the presumptive Democratic candidate for governor, Mark Schauer. Nor, will he utter an unkind word about Governor Rick Snyder; and he’s been silent on the controversial right-to-work law.

But this latest episode did prompt a statement from Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson, who embraced Hackel and praised his service to the Democratic Party.

We should be clear: Hackel is not making noises about leaving the Democratic Party. But there is a history in fickle Macomb County – Michigan’s hotbed of political disharmony – of Democrats bailing.

The Legislature’s off on its summer recess and Governor Rick Snyder is on a Pure Michigan tour of Republican senators’ districts to hammer them for leaving Lansing without voting on his top policy priority, the Medicaid expansion.

We are now at another point in this administration where Governor Snyder is trying to grab hold of the Lansing agenda and shape it to his liking. This is the Nerd’s version of offense: hitting members’ districts, trying to engage the public to compel recalcitrant Republicans to interrupt their summer recess to approve the Medicaid expansion, something that is fiercely opposed by the Tea Party.

And, that’s a good reason why state Senate Republicans, out of principle, political expediency or both, have not been able to get a majority of the GOP caucus to support the expansion – or, at least, putting the question up for a vote. Which is what’s so frustrating to Governor Snyder, who thinks there are enough votes in the state Senate to support the Medicaid expansion. It’s just that most of the votes are Democrats. Twelve of them; we’re pretty sure they’d all vote for it. Which means it would only take eight Republican senators to pass it or, seven Republican senators with Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley casting the tie-breaking vote.

This week on It’s Just Politics, we break down the breakdown over the Medicaid expansion. We’re thinking a bit about Mick Jagger right now (something along the lines of, “You can’t always get what you want") and Jagger might just have been singing that tune for Governor Snyder, who, yesterday, was once again denied by the Michigan Legislature. This time, by the state Senate, they left town, out-of-dodge for the summer apparently, without voting on an expansion of Medicaid.

The Medicaid expansion is the governor’s top policy objective at the moment and, so, Mr. Relentless Positive Action ain’t too happy. “I wouldn’t use the word ‘angry,’ but, obviously this is not my normal demeanor. What word you’d like to put on it, I’ll leave it to you.”

Peeved? Vexed? Splenetic. We’ll step away from the thesaurus, now, and breakdown this breakdown. First of all, Rick Snyder played a big part in creating this problem for himself. He and Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley were both missing during some critical days of these negotiations. This was the final week of session before the Legislature’s summer break and, yet, face-to-face Medicaid negotiations were delegated while the governor went on a trade trip to Israel and the lieutenant governor was on a tour of the U.P.

Both of those trips were cut short as things melted down in Lansing, but precious time was lost. There are things only a governor can promise and he has to be in the room to do it. But, the governor may have set the stage for this impasse two summers ago when he signed into law the new legislative district maps; a lot of very safe Republican seats. When you do that, you also give outsize influence to the more extreme elements of your party. No wonder you can’t get Republicans to support you, governor. That’s how you set it up.

This week on It's Just Politics, it's all about the art of the campaign announcement.

This morning Congressman Mike Rogers surprised no one when he told the world, or, at least, the state of Michigan, that he will not be a candidate to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy created by the retirement of Carl Levin in 2014. Rogers says he has too much on his plate as the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. And, there’s truth to that: Syria, Iran, and North Korea, not to mention the renewed scrutiny over how the U.S. gathers intelligence.  A very competitive U.S. doesn’t fit well with those big responsibilities.

We should point out Mike Rogers could not do that job if he didn’t live in the safely Republican 8th Congressional District, nicely drawn for him courtesy of the Michigan Legislature’s GOP majorities. Rogers hasn’t had a tough race since his first congressional race in 2000. That race against Democrat Dianne Byrum a dozen years ago was one of the closest in the country. But that’s not a problem for Rogers anymore. He probably has this seat for as long as he wants it.

Rogers let us know his plans via e-mail, which is how it’s done these days. Earlier this month, Republican Terri Lynn Land announced her U.S. Senate plans (she’s in) on Twitter. And, former-Michigan Congressman Mark Schauer did the same thing; filed his papers to run for Governor as a Democrat and, then, Tweeted it.

This week on "It’s Just Politics," it’s all about ch-ch-changes (cue your best David Bowie impersonation here). Changes are afoot vis-a-vis lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Michigan.

Democrats in the Legislature made news this week by introducing a package of bills to reverse Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage and to recognize same-sex marriages that are legal in other states. All of this is occurring, of course, as we wait for the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings on gay marriage, due sometime this month. There is also a federal case in Michigan that could be affected by the decision.

The big question is: How significant is this new legislation when all of the sponsors are Democrats? We all know Republicans run the show in Lansing; controlling the state House, state Senate and the Governor’s office. And the Republican leadership has shown no signs of wanting to make this issue a priority. When Gov. Snyder is asked about it, he tends to tap dance around the issue, won’t say "no," won’t say "yes." “I’m staying focused on jobs and kids and seniors at this point,” the governor said this week.

This week we are taping It's Just Politics at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Policy Conference on Mackinac Island. This is an annual statewide event where business people and politicians come to plot the future of Michigan. Big shots. Serious stuff. Except, of course, for the iced-vodka luge.

Really this is Rick Snyder’s party. Most of the people that attend the conference are his people: Moderate, but right-of-center business folks, impressed by cutting taxes and balanced budgets.

Two years ago at this conference, the Governor had only been in office for six months and, in his words, “working in dog years."  One Tough Nerd came to the conference with a state budget done in record time; nothing like the budget gridlock we saw in a couple showdowns in the Granholm years (2007 and 2009 were doozies). Also, in that six months, Snyder had gotten a couple big wins on tax policy and it sure seemed like he was simpatico with the Legislature’s Republican majority.

Basically, the 2011 Mackinac Policy Conference was Rick Snyder’s jam.

This week on "It’s Just Politics," we’re talking scandals, or at least, perceived scandals. In D.C., at the White House, the Obama administration is dealing with the Benghazi emails, the IRS alleged targeting of certain Tea Party groups and the Department of Justice investigating the phone records of journalists.

Scandals: They have the ability to alter the political landscape. Watergate, a national scandal so profound that all subsequent national scandals of any note get “-gate” attached to them.

Back in 1993, here in Michigan, there was the House Fiscal Agency scandal. Some agency employees were caught using what was kind of a petty cash account for all kinds of things that had nothing to do with their jobs. The long-time chairman of the House Appropriations Committee lost his job and people went to prison. It gave Republicans a bump in the next election; winning control of the state House after two years of evenly shared power with the Democrats.

Sufficient to say, scandals can change elections. We are in an era where elections are nationalized. So here we are, going into a presidential mid-term race in 2014 and, as we've talked about before on "It’s Just Politics," mid-term elections are seldom kind to the party in the White House. Here in Michigan, that puts Democrats on defense as they’re hoping to notch some major victories come November 2014.

Democrats are being given the edge in keeping the U.S. Senate seat that Carl Levin is vacating. And in the gubernatorial race, former Democratic Congressmen Mark Schauer, who's hasn't officially announced he’s in the race yet, is running even with Governor Snyder, according to some very early polling from EPIC MRA.

This week’s It’s Just Politics deserves a little running music (we’re thinking the theme to Chariots of Fire would fit well) because we’re looking at who’s in, who’s out, who’s thinking of getting in and who’s thinking about who’s thinking about getting in when it comes to Election 2014.

This week Detroit Mayor Dave Bing announced he’s out; won’t seek another term as Mayor. He delivered this lengthy apologia that seemed about as long as the entire Bing administration to the people who had to sit through it before he made the big announcement. In journalism, we call that burying the lead. There was some question as to whether Mayor Bing could actually win reelection, but clearly this breaks open that race. Twenty two people running, the biggest slate in almost two decades.

The candidates getting the most attention are Mike Duggan, former Detroit Medical Center CEO and Wayne County problem-solver, and Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon. The other candidates are in a race right now to make themselves the top alternative should one or both of them falter. Kind of like what we saw last year in the Republican presidential primary as it seemed like a different candidate every month became the alternative to Mitt Romney.

So, we have this big race for Detroit mayor, while the filing deadline for Michigan’s big statewide races – governor and U.S. senator – is still a year away. We’re at that weird stage of the gubernatorial race. Let’s start with Rick Snyder, who says he’s not ready to announce that he’s running but, really, he’s running. “I’m not formally announcing anything. I’m honored to be governor. And I’ve got a lot of things I’d like to do over the next few years,” Snyder said this week.

Welcome to our “Anatomy of a Kerfuffle” edition of "It’s Just Politics." This week: a throw-down between Republican state House Speaker Jase Bolger and state House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel. It culminated in the speaker yanking eight Democrats off their legislative committees. This was a big deal, a really unprecedented move and a classic example of the principle: it is better to be feared than loved.

This week on It’s Just Politics, we delve into a secret project dubbed “skunk works.” The name means a project done in secret, usually to get something complex or controversial done quickly, without getting mucked up in organizational bureaucracy.

Skunkworks: A History

The name is actually trademarked by the Lockheed Martin Corporation. Lockheed’s Skunk Works was created to handle aircraft projects that needed to be wrapped up quickly during World War II. Now, jump ahead almost 70 years, and it was revealed last week by The Detroit News that Michigan has recently had its own skunk works project. But this time: education rather than aircrafts.

Skunkworks Closer to Home

The group involved members of Governor Rick Snyder’s administration and was led by Richard McLellan, a well-known attorney in Lansing known as a Republican deal-maker and conjurer of political plots.

Governor Snyder had already asked McLellan to devise a plan to revamp Michigan’s school funding system. But Skunkworks was a separate operation. This plan was to create a string of low-cost charter schools authorized by a tribal community college with statewide reach. The group involved in the plan did not include the education lobby – teachers’ unions, administrators and school boards.

McLellan was the one who tagged the project “skunk works" (a name we’re pretty sure he has come to regret) and in an email that was leaked to The Detroit News, he details what the project was about. Education lobbyists saw this as a plot to undercut them and create a new pipeline of charters competing for school funding. These schools would be middle and high schools, something that would be ground-breaking as charter operators typically don’t run middle and high schools. That’s because they tend to be more expensive than elementary schools (they have to pay for things like chemistry labs and big gyms).

Education Lobby None Too Pleased

When the Lansing education lobby found about this – they cried foul at not being part of the discussions, especially ones involving people so close to the governor. One of Governor Snyder’s political brands has always been the ‘hands-on CEO” so, it’s interesting to note that the governor distanced himself from the group pretty quickly after it was made public.

This week's It's Just Politics is all about the politics of gas taxes; there’s a turbo-charged effort this week at the state Capitol to pull together a transportation funding package that will most likely include some kind of increase in the gas tax. Governor Snyder continues to say that he wants at least $1.2 billion dollars more in annual transportation funding. And, even though everyone seems to agree that Michigan’s roads are in dire condition… not everyone can agree on how to pay for the repairs.

It is a complicated state of affairs. Everybody hates the disease. But no one likes the cure: more money for infrastructure. That’s a good reason why the gas tax hasn’t been increased in Michigan since 1996, under then-Governor John Engler.

It’s not as simple as just raising the state gas tax (which is currently 19 cents per gallon). As we know, raising taxes is not typically part of the recipe for reelection, and every House member and state Senator who is not term-limited is up for reelection in November 2014, along with Governor Snyder.

Dealing with this road funding conundrum is complicated by the fact that we pay a lot of different taxes at the pump. There’s the state gas tax and the federal gas tax. We also pay the state sales tax, which goes to schools and local governments. It doesn’t pay for roads. That’s why a lot of people want to either exempt fuel sales from the sales tax or turn a portion of it over to road funding. But that’s a problem because then you’re taking a billion dollars from schools and local governments, both of which are not feeling a lot of love from Lansing lately. So, cut the sales tax from the cost of buying fuel and you’ve suddenly got yourself a new (billion-dollar) problem.

Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta

We really hadn’t heard much about referendum-proofing since back in December and the Legislature’s now-infamous “lame duck” session. But the wait is over. We now have a new controversy and a new referendum-proofed bill before the state Senate which could be voted on as early as next week.

We’ve talked about referendum-proofing before on It’s Just Politics, it’s when the Legislature wants to make sure a controversial bit of business can’t be reversed by voters using the referendum, lawmakers put a little spending in it. That makes the legislation an appropriation, and to protect the full faith and credit of the state, the Michigan Constitution says that’s the only kind of law that can’t be challenged by a referendum.

Referendum-proofing has been going on for a long time but, it’s really picked up steam in the last three years. The Republican-majority ruled state Legislature now regularly makes its controversial work immune to referendums – the repeal of the item pricing law, the income tax on pensions, and the controversial right to work law, just to name a few.

Strangely, the Legislature did not referendum-proof the first emergency manager law it passed in the last session, and after voters rejected it last November, turned around and passed a new emergency manager law with a referendum-proofing appropriation in it.

We’re more than a year away from the next statewide election – November 2014 – but, we’re already seeing plenty of hand-wringing among Republicans and Democrats over who will run for statewide offices.

Success for Democrats will depend a lot on voters in an off-presidential year. They need to hit or come close to hitting the 62 percent turnout – about 7.5 million voters across the state - that was part of the Democrats’ winning formula last year.

Republicans meanwhile, want to – need to – alter their message to capture a bigger share of whoever turns out without adulterating their values on gay marriage, affirmative action.

So that’s the backdrop as both parties try to sort out who will run. There’s no shortage of Republicans interested in that Senate seat that’s open because Carl Levin is retiring. There’s a sense that Congressman Mike Rogers could clear the field if he decides to run. We're not totally convinced that’s the case. An open Senate seat in Michigan is pretty rare. There’s some early, somewhat conflicting polling on this.

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