Opinion

Five months ago, Michigan Republicans nearly unseated their state chairman, Bobby Schostak, at their state convention.

Schostak is a successful fundraiser and commercial real estate developer. Until recently, he would have been seen as a hard-core conservative. But he wasn’t hard-core enough for 48 percent of the delegates to their annual state convention.

Those delegates voted for Todd Courser, an accountant and tax attorney from Lapeer. Courser lost that election, but if you saw the public affairs show Off The Record this weekend, it was clear he believes fervently in his own righteousness, and means for his troops to take over the GOP.

Last week, I said merging the governments of Detroit and Wayne County was a sensible solution to both their crises.

This idea was not wildly popular. One woman said I was out of my mind, and added Wayne County “just need(ed) to have their crooks behind bars.”

A more thoughtful man said I was “operating from the usual liberal impulse of having successful entities transfer resources to unsuccessful entities,” something he indicated didn’t work.

Well, that gentleman is right. It usually doesn’t work. That’s what has been happening with revenue sharing.

What I am proposing is creating an entirely new entity, writing a new charter and creating a combined county government. I am not suggesting Wayne County simply absorb Detroit.

  Everybody knows that former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was thoroughly corrupt. He currently is sitting in jail waiting sentencing in federal court on his latest round of convictions.

His political career is dead and his chance at being free is over, at least for years to come. But you can easily make the argument that, at least in terms of cost to the taxpayers, the administration of Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano is worse.

Certainly Ficano has wasted far more of the taxpayers’ money than Kilpatrick’s grubby crimes cost Detroit. One of the enduring mysteries of state politics is why this man is still in his job. Michigan’s largest county has lurched from scandal to scandal.

There was the case of Turkia Awada Mullin, the crony who somehow was vaulted over far more qualified applicants, made head of the airport authority and given a two hundred thousand dollar “severance” to go from one job to another.

There’s an odd story you might have missed from the Upper Peninsula. A member of the Michigan Republican state central committee is facing major felony charges in Wisconsin.

Various press accounts quote police as saying Douglas Sedenquist of Escanaba was arrested five months ago after his wife notified police that he was supposedly stalking her with a high-powered rifle and making suicide threats. His wife left him last year; she said he was physically abusing their daughters.

Police in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where she now lives, arrested Sedenquist after, police say, he repeatedly refused their orders to put down the rifle or get out of his truck. Instead, he asked them to let him shoot himself. Eventually they were able to arrest him, and now he faces a variety of charges.

I have gone into this in some detail because I haven‘t yet told you the weirdest part about all this. Nobody, so far as I know, is demanding that he step down from his party leadership roles. Sedenquist, by the way, is also vice-chair of the Delta County GOP.

For some time, there has been growing discontent among Michigan Democrats. The state has become reliably Democratic in presidential elections.

Republicans have won only one statewide race for the U.S. Senate in the last forty years. But below that level, Democrats have a stunning record of failure. Republicans hold the governor’s office, as they have for more than two-thirds of the last half-century.

Republicans control the Supreme Court and both houses of the state legislature. Democrats haven’t controlled the state senate for thirty years, and today don’t even have a third of the seats.

Those numbers -- and even stronger unhappiness among organized labor -- helped foster a revolt in the party that led to the ouster of longtime party chair Mark Brewer last February, and the election of Lon Johnson, a 42-year-old whirlwind, as his successor.

With the surprising outcome in the Detroit mayor’s race last week and other news, you may have missed a significant development on the transportation front.

John Hertel, the current head of SMART, the suburban bus system, was chosen as the first CEO of the new Regional Transit Authority for Southeastern Michigan, known as the RTA.

Hertel is a longtime successful political player with a reputation for getting it done. He’s been a state senator, chair of the Macomb County Commissioners, and for years successfully ran the State Fair. He is a Democrat who Republican governors have often found an acceptable partner.

If he succeeds, within a few years the entire metro area will be serviced by rapid buses which look more like railroad cars, and have their own special lanes. They’ll whiz passengers throughout Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw Counties, to and from Detroit Metro Airport, and connect with existing bus services.

We spend far more money on prisons than on higher education in this state, and the old saying is true. You really do reap what you sow. Michigan lags behind our neighboring states when it comes to percentage of highly educated young adults.

But we lead the nation in keeping people locked up. The average Michigan inmate serves 4.3 years, almost a year and a half longer than the national average. We are locking them up, and going broke doing so. We’re spending an average of $34,000 a year to keep each of our forty-three thousand inmates behind bars. 

To be fair to the Department of Corrections, it could be worse. Six years ago, there were fifty-one thousand inmates. If that were still the case, and if the department had not privatized food service and adopted other cost savings, the figure would be close to three billion.

But what we are spending is too much, and one courageous and conservative state representative is trying to do something about it. Joe Haveman, a Republican from Holland, is one of a number of lawmakers interested in possibly shortening sentences.

I travel to Toledo once a week, and if you make that trip, you know how wretched the roads are in some places.

The governor does too. For two years, he’s been trying to get the legislature to come up with new money to pay for the roads. Unfortunately, I can now report that our lawmakers have gone from doing nothing about Medicaid to doing nothing about the roads, unless moaning and finger-pointing count.

Yesterday, the Gongwer News Service produced a story which said there was finally optimism something would happen. Unfortunately, there was little evidence of it.

It did quote Speaker of the House Jase Bolger literally whining, “It is true the House Democrats have failed to offer any solutions for transportation funding, but that is par for the course.” The Speaker  added, “Some people might get the idea that Democrats would rather complain than cooperate.”

What happened yesterday in Detroit was truly astounding on a number of levels. More than half of the voters ignored the fourteen mayoral candidates on the ballot, and wrote in a name.

Detroiters are voting today in one of the strangest and yet most important primary elections the city’s ever had. Those they send to the November runoff will be fighting for jobs which at first will have no power. That’s because everything is now in the hands of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Stephen Rhodes.

For years, we’ve heard a lot about the Ambassador Bridge, and the battle to build a second span across the Detroit River. What didn’t ever seem to get in the news was the Detroit-Windsor tunnel.

Yesterday I talked about Washington’s offer to expand Medicaid to many Michiganders who currently have no health insurance. The government has offered to make the program available to many poor, but not officially poverty-stricken, Americans.

States who participate will pay only a fraction of the cost. This would immediately provide health care to hundreds of thousands who don’t now have it, and be extremely beneficial to virtually everyone, including employers, who would have a healthier work force.

Though some states sensibly ratified this almost immediately, Michigan has dragged its feet, largely because of bitter ideological opposition to anything that seems to be “government” health care. I said yesterday that this was irrational and was harming our state.

But while I heard from many people who agreed, not everybody did. One woman said I just didn’t understand that this would be terrible because it would be an expansion of government. In fact, the Tea Party has denounced more Medicaid as tyranny.

Well, I think that’s nonsense; I don’t think extending an already existing benefit to more people is expanding government.

Many months ago, the federal government offered the states an astonishing deal.  Washington would extend eligibility for Medicaid insurance to people who make up to a third more than the official poverty rate. We aren’t talking people who are well off.

Currently, Medicaid is available for a family of four making twenty-three thousand a year or less; this offer would enable the same family to be covered if they make up to a little over thirty-one thousand. That would mean almost half a million folks in Michigan now without health insurance would have it.

The cost to the state would be nothing at first, and never more than ten percent of the total. Economists say even when the state is paying ten percent, Michigan will actually save money, thanks to the benefits of having a healthier work force.

Michigan may be, in many ways, the most diverse state in the union. California and Texas are much larger. Alaska is out-of-the world vast, though fewer people live there than in Macomb County.

Politicians are falling all over themselves in Washington and in Lansing to oppose spending any money to, as they put it, “bail out” Detroit.

Last week, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette did something many found startling, especially those politically liberal. Schuette announced that in Detroit's bankruptcy filing he intended to intervene on behalf of those who have pensions coming.

If there was anything Detroit didn’t need, it is something else to makes the city and its residents a national laughingstock.

But sadly, that’s just what the city got yesterday, and this time, it seems that a part of the news media is to blame.

Here’s what happened. While for the last few months the spotlight has been on Detroit’s emergency manager, and its impending bankruptcy, there still are city elections this year. The expectation has been that after the emergency manager leaves, the people selected in November will eventually take over.

So whoever becomes mayor is important. There’s a primary election eleven days from now, when voters will determine which two candidates face each other in a November runoff. Though there are fourteen candidates on the ballot, much of the attention has gone to one man who is not, but who until yesterday was regarded as likely to make the runoff anyway.

  If you just arrived from some exotic place like the planet Mars, or maybe the city of Marquette, you would have to be puzzled about the twofold aspect of what’s going on in Detroit these days.

Take a look, for example, at today’s newspapers. Half the stories are about the city’s looming bankruptcy filing. Yesterday, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes told state courts to get lost and forget about getting involved in any matters regarding all this.

It is “within this court’s exclusive jurisdiction,“ Rhodes said, and since one of the few completely clear things about all this is that federal law always outranks state law, that settles that.

Many years ago, I had an unscrupulous high school algebra teacher, and the misfortune to have him the last hour of this day. His passion was horse racing, and his deal with the class was this:

He would give us a bunch of problems to solve, breeze through the basic concepts, and then take off for the race track. The understanding was that we wouldn’t squeal on him and everyone would pass. Somehow, he got away with this.

I have no idea if he ever got caught. Now most teachers aren’t like that. For years, I was married to a woman who was ranked one of the nation’s three best AP History teachers. Nor are teachers the only factor in educational achievement, But finding a way to distinguish good teachers from bad is important, and the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness has just submitted new recommendations I think are worth considering.

Today and tomorrow are anniversaries of two of the most important events in Detroit’s history, events almost never mentioned in the same breath.

Tomorrow it will be exactly three hundred and twelve years since a hundred Frenchmen scrambled up the riverbank, started cutting down trees, and establishing a fort they called Pontchartrain du Detroit.

There was an immense celebration of that anniversary a dozen years ago, a celebration virtually forgotten today. Nobody celebrates today’s anniversary, though we grimly discuss it.

You probably know by now that legendary journalist Helen Thomas died over the weekend, in her apartment in Washington.

She would have ninety-three next month. She spent her forty-first birthday in the place she worked for half a century, the White House, covering President Kennedy.

Kennedy was the first president Helen covered full time, and I am sure she had no idea that on that long-ago Tuesday, the last President she would cover was being born in far-off Hawaii.

detroit1701.org

The day before Detroit declared bankruptcy, I was driving with Jack Dempsey, president of the Michigan Historical Commission, along a weed-choked Detroit street, next to a forbidding fence.

“There it is,” he said, pointing to a battered old two-story wood frame house. The windows were boarded up; one of the slats was falling off the sides. “Know what that is?“ he asked. I did. It was the home of Ulysses S. Grant, the eighteenth President of the United States, the general who won the Civil War for the North.

Grant was the only president ever to live in Detroit, back when he was a young army officer, spending his time racing horses up and down Fort Street. Anywhere else, this house would be a tourist attraction and a shrine, but instead, Grant’s house sits there, decaying, as the historical commission scrambles to try to figure how to move it before someone firebombs it.

Keith Oppenheim

Public health should be about facts, but let’s face it -- it’s often also about perception and emotion.

The Palisades plant is located not too far from where I live in West Michigan -– but before I go there, allow me a quick digression.

I recently gave up diet soda.

I’m trying to be healthy and have been convinced by what I’ve read and been told that aspartame, the sweetener in diet pop, is really not a good thing to consume.

Is the evidence conclusive?

I don’t think so, but I certainly feel a whole lot better about myself now that I’ve kicked my addiction.

The emotional factors may not be so different with the Palisades nuclear power plant.

If I were young, single, and wanted to score, my guess is that I wouldn’t go to some hot place and say -- “have you been following what’s going on with the farm bill?”

No. Well, the farm bill may not sound too sexy, but it is, especially perhaps for Michigan. My guess is that few people have been following the farm bill wars. Those politically aware may know the U.S. Senate passed one version of the bill, the House another.

This sort of thing happens all the time, and then a conference committee, really a compromise committee, haggles and then puts something together both houses then pass.

Except that today’s is a rigidly polarized world. Democrats control the Senate, Republicans the House. After an earlier attempt failed, the Republicans passed an ideologically driven bill which completely eliminated funds for what in Washington jargon is called SNAP -- the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Most of us know this simply as food stamps.

America always has had strange outliers on the margins of our politics, from half-secret movements like the Know-Nothings to the left-wing crazies of the late 1960s. My eighth grade teacher referred to those on the farther shores of our politics as the “lunatic fringe.”

In more recent times, most of the nuts have been right-wing nuts. When I was young they opposed putting fluoride in the water, seeing that as a Communist plot. Indeed, they saw Communist plots everywhere. The head of the John Birch Society wrote a book claiming that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was an active agent of the Communist conspiracy. Asked about this once in Hillsdale, William F. Buckley Jr., said Eisenhower wasn’t a commie, but a golfer.

Well, classic communism is gone. Nobody talks about fluoride any more. But we still have a conspiracy-haunted fringe, and in Michigan today their latest cause is fighting what are called the Common Core Curriculum learning standards.

More and more of our local school districts are in financial trouble, and State Superintendent of Schools Mike Flanagan has a couple ideas as to what we can do about it.

As I discussed briefly last week, he is proposing either going to a system of county-wide districts, or, if that won't fly, at least consolidating and centralizing administrative and some academic functions at either a county or a regional level.

Eighteen years ago, I was teaching a large “survey of the media” class at Wayne State University when word came that there was a verdict in the O.J. Simpson case. I put television on.

This was a Wayne State University class with almost equal numbers of black and white students. When it was announced that OJ had been acquitted of the murders of his wife and her friend, the reaction seemed almost Pavlovian.

The white students were openly disgusted. The black ones, pleased. Times have changed. Today, we have a black President. 

But my guess is that if I had been teaching a similar class when the Trayvon Martin verdict was announced, I would have seen something like a mirror image. Certainly the African-Americans would have been outraged; though I am not sure the white students would have been all that pleased with George Zimmerman’s acquittal.

For years, I’ve been struck by something John F. Kennedy used to say when he was running for president: “The immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales.

“Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.“ In fact, JFK was actually quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Well, times have certainly changed.

Today, we seem to have a government frozen and paralyzed in the ice of ideological divide, at both federal and state levels. And if you aren’t outraged and worried, you either have a heart of stone or you aren’t paying attention.

I have nothing against the Theater of the Absurd. I was taught French years ago by an odd method based on the comedies of Eugene Ionesco, the master of irrational dialogue. But absurdity doesn’t work very well as a guide to life, unless, say, you are an infant, or have only months to live.

Two plus two is, after all four. If you want your children to be successful in life, they generally need to know reading, writing and arithmetic. However, we seem to have a set of leaders, both left and right, who have made careers out of denying reality.

Let’s take education, first of all. The non-partisan, respected Education Trust, Midwest released a report yesterday showing that Michigan students are performing below the national average in every category. That’s worse than thirty-five other states.

During the last year of World War II, as millions died in history’s most sustained orgy of violence, other men quietly and secretly planned what to do after the war was over. They worked out the details of the division of Germany and the administration of Japan even before those countries had been occupied. Doing that in advance was essential.

Historians agree that was a precondition for Europe’s eventual recovery, and Japan’s rebirth as a prosperous democracy.  This advance planning also went a long way to prevent a new world war breaking out in the rubble of the old.

I mention this because I hope somebody is thinking about what to do when Detroit declares bankruptcy, and even more importantly, when that process is over. Planning how the city will begin the process back to some form of prosperity.

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