Jack Lessenberry

Gov. Rick Snyder probably is not a big fan of Mitt Romney. Snyder wasn’t eager to campaign with him in Michigan this fall, which probably made political sense.

After all, Romney lost Michigan badly two years ago; Snyder has now been elected governor twice.

But I’m afraid that three years from now, Snyder may wish he had followed Romney’s lead on something. Twelve years ago, Republican Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts. He got much of his program through the Legislature, most notably his version of something that looked like the Affordable Care Act. But Romney then did not run for reelection.

This may have been because he felt he was unlikely to be reelected or because he intended to run for president. But he walked way undefeated and politically more or less undamaged.

For the next few weeks, the Michigan Legislature will be meeting in what is called a “lame-duck” session, since a third or more of its members are leaving afterwards, voluntarily or otherwise. Term limits will  end the careers of about a third, and a few others were defeated or are voluntarily moving on.

There’s more interest than usual in this year’s lame duck, in large part because the next legislature is likely to be even more tea-party driven than the last one. In other words, if there is any hope for actually coming up with new money to fix the roads, or extending civil rights protections to gay citizens, it may be now or never.

Governor Snyder is hoping, when it comes to the roads, that some lawmakers who were afraid to do the right thing before the election will be more willing now. My guess is that there is a reasonable chance of coming up with some road revenue, though probably not enough, and not much chance of expanding civil rights.

But what I find sad is that nobody is even talking about doing something to both invest in the future and help our neediest and most vulnerable citizens, people in trouble through no fault of their own.

Namely, our state’s children.

Pretty much everybody in Michigan knows that Gerald Ford was our state’s only president. We also know that Ford was the only man to become president when his predecessor resigned.

But quick – who was Ford’s vice president? If it took you a while, don’t feel bad. Most people today don’t remember. What’s ironic about that is that he was a man who for most of his life was far more famous than Gerald R. Ford.

It was Nelson Rockefeller – an heir to the famous fortune, flamboyant governor of New York, and for years a serious contender for the presidency who could never get the Republican nomination. He was a riveting and polarizing force – and a man who so far has defied definition. That is, until now.

Richard Norton Smith, who specializes in big biographies, has written a spellbinding book: "On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller."

Smith will be talking about his book and signing copies at seven tonight at the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, and tomorrow at the Ford Library at the University of Michigan.

Yesterday I talked with the author, whom I first met 14 years ago when he was director of the Ford Museum. He’s been working on this book ever since, writing and rewriting each beautifully written passage as many as 50 times.

Whenever surveys are taken as to which professions are the most trusted and admired, journalists are pretty near the bottom. We used to beat out used car salesmen, but I think that thanks to regulation, they are in better standing these days.

Today, journalists and lawyers usually take turns at being the least admired. I don’t propose to talk about why lawyers are so unpopular; after all, I don’t want to be sued. But I do know why reporters are held in such low repute.

Part of it is our own fault.

As in, when a TV reporter sticks a microphone in the face of somebody whose child has been murdered and asks, “how do you feel?”

But even when we do our jobs well, we make people dread us. We tell you that the system doesn’t work, and the politicians are corrupt, and the water is tainted, and the priest is embezzling from the parish - things like that.

That’s what we are supposed to do.

We seldom show up just to tell you good news. Maybe the best thing we can say about our society is that decent behavior still isn’t news.

Except - in some contexts.

Today let’s fire up the old time machine and go back to downtown Grand Rapids, say, on this day in 1964.

That would have been a Saturday, so we probably will be able to catch a lot of people at home. We’ll pretend to be taking a poll, and we’ll ask:

“Excuse me, but we’d like your opinion on this question. Fifty years from now, do you think it will be more likely that A) the United States will have a colony on the moon, or B) that homosexual marriage would be legal in many states of the union?”

The election is over, and I am about to turn from worrying about who will be elected to worrying about what they will do. But there’s something very troubling about what happened Tuesday that has nothing to do with who won.

Both parties and a scad of special interest groups spent a vast amount of money on this election, trying to get people out to vote for their candidates – or against candidates they didn’t like.

Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson calibrated his whole strategy on turnout, on getting the right people out to vote. But it didn’t work. His entire strategy was a tremendous flop. But the problem wasn’t just that.

Increasingly, people seem to have given up on politics and voting as a way to get things done. Four years ago, there was great concern because more than half a million fewer voters showed up than four years before. Political experts thought they were mainly disillusioned Democrats unhappy with the party’s candidate for governor that year, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero.

Yesterday’s election was, without a doubt, a Republican landslide of truly historic proportions, both nationwide and in Michigan. Republicans won legislative races even they probably didn’t think they had much chance of winning.

To everyone’s astonishment, they actually gained a seat on the state Senate, along with four in the Michigan House. Four years from now, Republicans will have held our state Senate for an astonishing 35 years.

Democrats now hold a mere 11 Senate seats and it is hard to see them winning control, well, almost ever. But there were two very odd things about this election: Turnout, which everybody expected would be higher than four years ago, was absolutely horrible.

New Democratic chair Lon Johnson put all his energies into increasing turnout, especially among absentee voters. He was hoping for 3.5 to 3.8 million voters. He felt that would have given Mark Schauer a reasonable shot at being elected governor.

Probably the best and most poetic description of what happens on Election Day was written more than half a century ago by the journalist and historian Theodore White.

“It was invisible, as always,” he began his Pulitzer-Prize winning book, "The Making of the President 1960."

“By the time the candidate had left his hotel, several million had already voted across the county – in schools, libraries, churches, stores, post offices. All of this is invisible, for it is the essence of the act that … it is a mystery in which millions of people each fit one fragment of a total secret together, none of them knowing the shape of the whole.”

That’s what’s happening today in Michigan, and around the nation. We think this may be the closest governor’s race since 1990, but we don’t really know.

We think the U.S. Senate race will be a decisive victory, but we don’t know that, either. We do know that there are candidates today who fully expect victory, but who will taste the bitter ashes of defeat, and there are others who will be surprise winners.

But we won’t know who for hours yet. Voting is, in a way, the secular equivalent of the confessional in the Roman Catholic Church. You can say whatever you like to your friends, but in the final analysis nobody but you will ever really know how you voted.

I was asked a thoughtful question this weekend by a listener named Paul Jordan, who agrees that politics in this country seems to be broken and increasingly dysfunctional. So he wonders: If this is in fact true, why do we get only two choices – meaning two major party candidates?

“Why does it seem that we can only vote for Coke or Pepsi? What if we don’t like cola anymore?” He noted that there are other candidates on the ballot, candidates mostly ignored by the media.

And he asked the classic chicken-and-egg question: “Are they minor candidates because they are ignored by the media, or does the media ignore them because they are minor candidates?”

Well, the answer to that question is yes. Both things are true. Now, classic mainstream media usually don’t ignore third parties entirely. Newspapers often do one obligatory story where they survey the minor candidates and report on their views. But they don’t get much attention because they aren’t seen as a serious threat to win.

Which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yesterday I talked about Congressman Kerry Bentivolio, who is running a write-in campaign to try to keep his seat after losing the Republican primary to David Trott. Bentivolio, who represents a collection of Oakland and Wayne County suburbs from Birmingham to Livonia, told me there was an unwritten rule, at least among Republicans, that you don’t challenge a congressman of your own party in a primary.

That is, as long as that congressman is doing a decent job. However, as I pointed out to Bentivolio, he did just that two years ago; he filed to run against Congressman Thaddeus McCotter.

McCotter later self-destructed and was disqualified from the ballot, but Bentivolio didn’t know that would happen when he filed.

He then told me why he did it. Bentivolio, a Vietnam veteran who is now 63, volunteered to serve in Iraq. His neck was broken, and he had to be evacuated.

Kerry Bentivolio wants you to know that much of what you’ve heard about him is wrong.

For the last two years, the media has called him the “accidental congressman.” He prefers, unexpected congressman.

He got to Washington after winning the Republican nomination in his suburban Detroit district when the incumbent, Thaddeus McCotter, was tossed off the primary ballot for fraudulent petition signatures. The GOP establishment recruited a former state senator to run a write-in campaign against him in the primary. She lost badly, and Bentivolio went on to win in November.

But this year, he in turn was defeated in the Republican primary by attorney and mortgage foreclosure king David Trott. But Bentivolio is running a full-press write-in campaign to try and keep his job.

Bentivolio has a reputation for not talking to the media, so I was surprised when he called me out of the blue yesterday afternoon. He was genial, warm and witty.

Basically, he feels that Trott and the GOP establishment stabbed him in the back, have worked for two years to ruin his reputation, and he isn’t going to take it anymore.

Yesterday, the most widely read newspaper in Michigan wrote this about Rick Snyder:

“The governor’s record of protecting Michigan’s natural assets is pretty sorry, and represents a misguided attempt to placate free-market forces at any cost.”

The Detroit Free Press added:

“When it comes to education, Snyder just doesn’t seem to get it,” and added “Michigan, during Snyder’s tenure, has become a less tolerant state, with more restrictions on reproductive rights and fewer labor protections.”

They said that the governor’s “self-fashioned profile as a champion of transparency has become a joke,” and that Snyder resists taking principled stances, something that the newspaper said “spoke volumes about his character.”

Harsh words. But now here’s the shocking part: The newspaper then endorsed Snyder’s reelection!

They did this because they said in spite of all that, the governor had shown leadership skills, and felt Democrat Mark Schauer had failed to show he could lead anywhere.

On Tuesday, The Detroit Free Press came out with a poll showing Gov. Rick Snyder eight points ahead of his challenger, Mark Schauer. That was the widest margin we’ve seen in a while. Most polls have had it much closer.

But within a day after that poll, news stories started matter-of-factly referring to the “fact” that Snyder was eight points ahead, as if these were actual, counted votes, or bushels of grain.

The sheer silliness of that wouldn’t matter much, except that polls drive pretty much everything in a campaign these days: Nobody wants to give money to a loser. Nobody wants to stand in line in the rain to vote for one, either. Polls can be self-fulfilling prophecies.

I seldom laugh out loud at anything I read, but I did at story in the Detroit News yesterday. The headline said: Snyder: Michigan has 1,000 isolation beds for Ebola. That’s all the proof I needed that, sure enough, we are all going to die. But before you put on your hazmat suit to walk the dog, I want to let you in on a little secret. 

We are indeed all going to die, but not of Ebola. I am frightened of many things, but I am not worried about Ebola in the least. If over the air gambling was legal, I’d happily bet anyone that nobody in Michigan is going to die of Ebola, ever. That is, unless they go to West Africa and come in contact with the body fluids of an infected person, and I’m not planning on that this weekend.

However, there is something that is hazardous to our emotional and mental health, and that is the appearance of any frightening disease close to an election.

For more than a century now, Detroit has been the Motor City: Home of the auto industry; the place that put the world on wheels.

You know that. You also probably know that as a result, Detroit utterly failed to build any kind of decent mass transit.

Other, that is, than a system of badly serviced city buses that don’t even coordinate with the suburban ones. The city is paying for that now, as thousands of adults who lack cars have no easy way to get to jobs in the suburbs. Belatedly, there are efforts to get a rapid transit bus system. There’s also the M1 light-rail project in the city, but these are partial solutions at best.

Michael Ryan is like a lot of us. He doesn’t think the health care system works very well, and as a self-employed dentist, he should know. He has problems with the Affordable Care Act. He thinks it needs to be a lot simpler and have better cost controls.

But he isn’t happy with the Republican failure to come up with any alternative, either. What makes Ryan different, however, is that he is a Republican, and is running for the state Legislature. You’ve probably never heard of him, but don’t feel bad.

Many people in his district haven’t, either. And here’s why I admire this man: Ryan, who has a wife and four kids, married relatively late in life, and is not wealthy.

He’s put his heart, soul and about $4,000 into this race. He’s talking about the issues, going door to door. But what’s most remarkable is that he knows he has little chance to win. He’s the Republican nominee in the 27th District.

That’s a collection of Detroit suburbs that are heavily Democratic – the Jewish and black city of Oak Park; liberal Ferndale and Huntington Woods; blue-collar Berkley and Hazel Park.

Two years ago, the last GOP nominee here lost almost four to one. There’s no incumbent this year, but the Democratic nominee, Robert Wittenberg, is seen as an automatic winner. But Mike Ryan thinks the people deserve a choice.

He’s anything but rigid, ideological and doctrinaire. Even his campaign literature admits he doesn’t always vote Republican. “Being exposed to my wife’s even more independent voting patterns forces me to think about how public laws affect ordinary people.”

When it comes to health care, what he would like to do is have Michigan come up with its own system. He would fund it partly by raising the sales tax. But he is open to suggestions. “That’s how you get somewhere, you know?” he told me.

When you look back at the long history of Detroit, yesterday may not have been quite as significant as July 24, 1701.

That was the day Cadillac and his men beached their canoes, scrambled up the riverbank near where the Cobo Center now stands, and started building a fort. But yesterday comes somewhat close.

Yesterday was the day the last major holdout creditor came to terms with the city, in a way that should help improve the city’s chances to make it after the bankruptcy process ends.

This also seems to remove the last threat facing the Detroit Institute of Arts. Financial Guaranty Insurance Company will get the land where Joe Louis Arena now sits, the place where the Red Wings play and where, 34 years ago, I saw Ronald Reagan nominated for President. Eventually, when a new hockey arena opens, this will be torn down and a gleaming new luxury riverfront hotel built here, surrounded by condos and some new retail.

Almost two years ago, I spoke to a group called CRAM, the County Road Association of Michigan. These are the folks who maintain Michigan’s streets and highways, both urban and rural.

I found these folks mainly had frustrating professional lives, trying to do too much with too few resources and being blamed for problems they weren’t being given enough money to fix.

Yesterday, however, some pundits may have been startled when their political action group, RUSH-PAC, announced it was endorsing Gov. Rick Snyder for re-election. That may surprise some because though the governor did announce a plan to raise revenue for the roads, he’s failed to get it through the Legislature.

papierdreams / Flickr

Election Day is just under a month away.

But Michigan Radio political commentator Jack Lessenberry has already voted – at his kitchen table, with an absentee ballot.

Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee irritated many Michigan Democrats when they canceled plans to buy advertising in four congressional races. These are seats now held by Republicans, but where Democrats believed that with hard work and strong candidates, they had a chance at an upset. Some think they still do.

However, national Democratic strategists made the purely political calculation that with dozens of seats on the line, their money would be better invested elsewhere. But there’s another seat that virtually no one thought would be in play, but which suddenly looks like the surprise sleeper race of 2014.

More than a year ago, a man told me I should get to know Paul Clements, who he said was going to beat Congressman Fred Upton in the Sixth Congressional District, which is based in Kalamazoo.

Twenty years ago, radio in Michigan was dominated by WJR-AM, which had the strongest signal around. You could get it nearly anywhere in the state. The station’s signature personality was the legendary J.P. McCarthy, who was an amazing interviewer.

Politically, I suspect he was conservative, but it was hard to tell; he interviewed politicians of all flavors with decency, courtesy and wit. But then, J.P. suddenly died.

Today, he has been succeeded by the sort of ideological slashers who have given talk radio a bad name.

If you love the Detroit Institute of Arts, and supported the “Grand Bargain” to save it, then you should be grateful that what surfaced this week wasn’t known a few months ago.

Specifically, the whopping raises and bonuses paid to Graham Beal, the director of the DIA, and Annmarie Erickson, the museum’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Two years ago, Beal, whose compensation is over half a million dollars a year, got a 13% raise. Erickson, who got a promotion and new responsibilities, got a 36% raise.

My guess is that Jerry Cannon is pretty upset today, and so are Pam Byrnes, Eric Schertzing and Bobby McKenzie.

They are all Democratic candidates for Congress in Michigan. They’ve been working their tails off for months trying to make some headway, three of them against Republican incumbents.

Cannon, a Vietnam veteran and former Kalkaska sheriff, was heavily recruited for the race by Lon Johnson, the new Democratic state chair. McKenzie, an anti-terrorism expert, and gave up a good job with the state department to come back and run.

There’s an old saying I know you’ve heard: “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” Benjamin Franklin said that, by the way. He was a shrewd old cynic who I think would be much more at home in the world today than the other founding fathers.

And I’d also guess Old Ben wouldn’t be surprised to know that his death-and-taxes maxim was, like most things, only about half right. Death remains certain, even if we don’t know where or when. But there is very little certain about taxes.

Oh, we are certain to be taxed, in one form or another. Which is a good thing, if you like clean water, fire departments and schools.

But who pays and who should pay the taxes?

What we should be asking is: How high should taxes be? How do you set tax rates to give us the services we need and help the economy grow? To me, those are terribly important questions.Well, we now have some answers.

Well, the election is officially four weeks away, but not for me. I voted yesterday morning, in the best place possible, at my kitchen table.

I can legally do this, because I am more than 60 years old. If you reach that age, you qualify to be sent an absentee ballot through the mail, every election.

I won’t tell you for whom I voted, but I will tell you this: We’d be a better democracy if everyone could vote this way, if everyone got a ballot in the mail, took the time to study it, and then mailed it in.

Or as I do, drop it off at city hall.

Almost 30 years ago, I was national editor of the Detroit News, which was then the largest-circulation paper in Michigan.

The newspaper was then locked in a competitive struggle with the Detroit Free Press, and each was trying to put the other out of business. They had the novel idea that not only low prices but high quality was the way to win, and they did a lot of excellent journalism.

Back then, in the days before the World Wide Web, both newspapers sold well over 600,000 copies every day. On Sundays, their combined circulation was more than a million and a half. You could subscribe to either paper anywhere in the state.

Michigan is an unusual state politically. Republicans have controlled the state Senate for more than 30 years, and now solidly hold the lower House as well.

We’ve had Republican governors more often than not. But the last time Michigan voted Republican for president, the World Wide Web hadn’t yet been invented and the Soviet Union was still going strong.

And Democrats have utterly dominated our U.S. Senate races. Republicans have won just once in the last 42 years. This year, Michigan had a rare open seat, thanks to the retirement of Sen. Carl Levin. GOP hopes of finally breaking through were strong.

But … maybe not.

They ended up with a candidate who seems allergic to the normal processes of campaigning. After what seems to have been a traumatic experience on Mackinac Island in May, Terri Lynn Land has avoided reporters, ignoring all interview requests, except from a few sympathetic conservatives in carefully controlled situations.

Nor has Land campaigned openly much. She sometimes shows up for parades or other events, but usually doesn’t announce her schedule in advance. Instead, she seems to be relying on a multi-million dollar TV ad campaign.

If you are following the campaign for governor you really aren’t normal. Yes, you heard me correctly. The media, me included, has been writing more and more about the campaign.

Not just for governor, but for the Senate and various other races. Today, the Detroit Free Press’s headline trumpets: “With vote just weeks away, Snyder builds lead.”

That’s written as if it were describing something tangible and real, like “new mountain discovered in Brazil.” In fact, that story is based on a poll the newspaper and a TV station paid for.

The data is based on a mere 600 people and shows 45% percent favored Rick Snyder; 39% percent favored Mark Schauer.

That’s pretty close to the margin of error.

Nevertheless, Bernie Porn, the man whose firm did the polling said authoritatively, “Snyder went up with his advertising campaign and it’s made a significant difference in the race.”

But, as if conscious that nobody likes a play whose ending is revealed in the first act, Porn added, “Even with Snyder’s lead, it is certainly not too late for Schauer to turn things around.”

In other words, it’s the Belmont Stakes and the horses are just coming into the backstretch. However, I have news for us political junkies. Far more people are like the server at the cheap restaurant where I had lunch yesterday.

When I asked him about the governor’s race, he said “Is that this year?” He also thought he was a registered voter, but wasn’t quite sure. Well, I don’t need Bernie Porn to tell me how that guy’s going to vote: He’s not. In fact, most registered voters aren’t going to  vote.

Pretty much every major political campaign develops a certain weirdness of its own. Some more than others.

There was Howard Wolpe, who ran for governor of Michigan by talking a lot about South Africa. And now we have the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Gary Peters and Republican Terri Lynn Land. You might think that there was a modern-day state or national issue or two worth worrying about, like jobs or education or ISIS.

But forget all that. For the past couple days, the candidates have been squabbling over what in economic terms is ancient history. Specifically, the so-called bailout of the auto industry in 2008 and 2009, and whether Land would have supported it.

What makes this weirder is that one of the candidates is only arguing about it by proxy. Land doesn’t talk to reporters or interviewers and so far hasn’t consented to debate her rival.

I once knew an opinion pollster who told me he could usually determine how anyone was going to vote without ever asking who they were going to vote for.

He did this by asking a series of litmus-test type questions about someone’s life, background and beliefs.

If you were a single mom with limited income, for example, that probably indicated you were a Democrat – unless you were a fundamentalist Christian. White professional male with a six-figure income?  Likely Republican if in business, for example. But probably not if he is a nonreligious professor.

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