Opinion

Well, the news got even worse for General Motors yesterday. Detroit’s future and the outcome of its bankruptcy remain much in doubt. I’ve talked about all these things before, and I am sure I’ll talk about them again. However, today I want to tell you a heartwarming little story of determination and resilience that you can share in.

If you are in the Lansing area tomorrow afternoon and have time, go to the Capital City Film Festival and see Stealing Home. If you are in the Detroit area, they are showing it in Ferndale Sunday afternoon at Renaissance Vineyard Church. More details are on the Stealing Home Facebook page.

My guess is that this film will blow you away. The French historian and philosopher Jacques Barzun famously said, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

If you heard my commentary yesterday on the latest in the Detroit bankruptcy battles, I began with the news that the city had reached a deal with the holders of its general obligation bonds.

All we knew then was that an agreement had been reached, and I said the bondholders were, to quote myself, “evidently going to settle for less than 20 cents on every dollar owed them.”

Well, I was astonishingly far off.

In fact, they ended up settling for 74 cents for every dollar. But there is a reason why I was so wrong.

If you aren’t following every twist and turn in the saga of Detroit’s bankruptcy, you may think things are well on track.

Today, in fact, came the good news that the city has apparently reached a deal with its unsecured bondholders, who are evidently going to settle for almost 75 cents of every dollar owed them. 

But the biggest and toughest challenges are ahead.

And if you think the Detroit Institute of Arts is now safe, think again.

Here is how things stand:

Congressmen don’t stay on the job forever, though it sometimes seems like it.

This year will be the last for Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, first elected in 1978, and Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan, the all-time longevity champ, who has represented a Detroit-area district since 1955.

Their retirements, while momentous, weren’t very surprising. Indeed, Carl Levin announced that he wouldn’t run for re-election more than a year ago. Far more shocking was the sudden decision by two mid-Michigan Republican Congressmen to bow out.

Both Rep. Dave Camp, R-Michigan, and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, had safe seats, a fair amount of seniority, and are youngish men by congressional standards. Yet within the last few days, both said they wouldn’t run for re-election.

That set off something of a mad scramble.

Remarkably, we already know virtually everyone who will be nominated by both parties for the major statewide offices this year. Every candidate, that is, except one. I’m not talking about candidates for statewide education boards or high court races.

I’m talking about the four high-profile elected positions. And though we are almost four months from the statewide primaries and the state party conventions, the lineup is pretty much set.

Republicans will run all their incumbents – Governor Rick Snyder, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Democrats are set to nominate Mark Schauer, a former congressman from Battle Creek, for governor, and Lisa Brown, the Oakland County clerk, as his running mate. Mark Totten is the only candidate for attorney general. But what about secretary of state?

There was a lot of rejoicing yesterday over a new plan to fix Michigan’s roads.

House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, is proposing coming up with $400 million a year in new money.

House Republicans say they can do that without raising taxes. Gov. Snyder, off in Europe on a trade mission, sent word that he thinks this is “a great first step” toward better roads.

Even a spokesperson for the Democrats indicated they thought “some of the elements of the plan make sense and are a good start.”

Well, excuse me, but they are wrong. Almost all wrong.

This year’s race for governor has been unusual in one way. Four years ago, both parties had intense primary campaigns going on, and we had no idea in April who the nominees would be.

But this time, it has been settled for months.

Democrats avoided an expensive and divisive fight by uniting early around former legislator and Battle Creek congressman Mark Schauer.

There was never any possibility of a GOP contest once it was clear Rick Snyder would run for reelection, but the last few months must have been frustrating for Schauer.

Most polls show the race close, or dead even, but Schauer has failed to attract much attention. In part, that’s because there’s been so much other news, from Detroit’s bankruptcy to retiring congressmen to General Motors’ huge ignition-switch crisis. But it is also due to the fact that Schauer, a likeable and intelligent man, does not “fill up a room,” with charisma and the force of his personality.

General Motors is clearly now in a crisis which could be far worse than bankruptcy was five years ago – one that may threaten the very survival of what once was the world’s biggest corporation.

Gregg Harper, an obscure Republican congressman from Mississippi, spoke for America yesterday, when he and other congressmen were grilling GM’s new CEO.

“We don’t trust your company right now,” he told Mary Barra, who endured more than two hours of hostile questioning from the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee.

What Harper thinks is what millions of Americans think.

Many of them stopped buying GM products long ago, tired of inferior quality and of being lied to by sales and service personnel.

They are like a man I know who bought a top-of-the line Buick in 1986, only to find the car afflicted with electrical problems the company couldn’t or wouldn’t fix. He traded it for a Honda Accord, and says he would never touch a General Motors car again.

He’s far from alone.

This isn’t an especially good April Fool’s Day, for a reason you might not suspect.

In the last few days, we’ve learned that our state is going to be considerably weaker in terms of political clout in Washington than we have been in many years.

Yesterday, Congressman Dave Camp of Midland, R-Michigan, the chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, suddenly announced he wouldn’t run for reelection.

I’ve talked before about the sweetheart deal that the city of Detroit gave Mike Ilitch in connection with the new hockey stadium and entertainment complex being built in downtown Detroit.

The city is giving Ilitch’s Olympia Entertainment all the land they need, absolutely free. The taxpayers are also kicking in most of the cost of the project.

In return, the city gets nothing – not one dime of the parking or pizza or ticket sales revenue.

Newspapers, even big-city newspapers, are in a sorry state these days.

Thanks largely to the Internet, their circulation and advertising revenue has been in free fall, with the result that they have far less staff than they once did.

There are also fewer papers than there used to be.

Washtenaw County, outside of Ann Arbor, is home to a collection of fascinating and picturesque little towns like Manchester, Saline, Dexter, and Chelsea. Each had its own thriving weekly newspaper: The Saline Reporter, Dexter Leader, and Chelsea Standard.

Years ago I did some consulting for the local company that owned those papers and learned that no matter how physically close these places might be, the good people of Chelsea did not want Dexter news in their paper, and vice-versa.

Times are different now.

There are a lot of bewildered and dejected people in Michigan today.

Most of all, perhaps, the 300 or so same-sex couples who got married last Saturday, after a federal judge overturned Michigan’s amendment outlawing such marriages. U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman ruled, as expected, that our state’s constitutional prohibition of such marriages was wrong.

But unlike federal judges in other states where this happened, he did not put his ruling on hold till the appellate courts could rule, so there was a mad scramble for licenses and ceremonies in those counties where the clerks were sympathetic.

Well, here’s some news you’ve been waiting for.

Two bills may soon be on the governor’s desk requiring suspicion-based drug testing for welfare recipients.

The Michigan Senate has approved both, the House has passed one, and the odds are that they will smooth out any differences and send them on to the governor.

Signing them would be the sort of thing politicians do in an election year.

Indeed, it would make lots of people happy. Just think of all those lazy welfare chiselers, using our hard-earned taxpayer dollars to get high.

Unless you were trapped underground last weekend, you probably have been following Michigan’s same-sex marriage drama.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman issued an opinion striking down Michigan’s state constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriages.

Less than 24 hours later, a federal appeals court put his ruling on hold.

In the meantime, several hundred couples rushed to get licenses and marry. Every legal scholar I know believes the legality of same-sex unions will eventually be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Liz Pfleger

When I was eight years old I wanted to be a lot of things: a Broadway actress, a princess, a member of the Spice Girls – and, what I thought was the most realistic of my lofty career dreams – a newspaper journalist.

My idea of being a newspaperwoman looked a lot like the best parts of His Girl Friday.

I'd be one of the guys in the newsroom, chasing after stories on the streets and writing under a constant time crunch. We'd send the papers to the printing press, and the next morning my byline would be on the front page.

There’s an old joke that says Republicans are the party in favor of local control, except when they aren’t, which is to say when local governments do something Republicans in the Legislature don’t like – for example, providing what they see as excessive health benefits to their employees.

Now it seems that the GOP is also the party which is aggressively in favor of the free market – except when it isn’t. And it is often convenient to be in favor of regulation in favor of the public interest in an election year.

Few remember this today, but 24 years ago, Bill Schuette, now Michigan’s Attorney General, gave up a safe seat in Congress in an attempt to defeat U.S. Senator Carl Levin.

Mark Totten was a 16-year-old kid growing up in Kalamazoo back then. Had he been able to, he would have voted for Schuette. His family was solidly Republican.

However, politics weren’t on Totten’s agenda then. As a teenager, his plan was to go to the seminary and become a Baptist minister. Totten went to a small Christian college in Ohio, but his views gradually started to change.

Making the world a better place continued to be important to him, but he realized the Republican Party didn’t represent his values. Totten became a Democrat, and then did something astonishing.

You may have wondered, especially if you didn’t grow up in this state, why some of us call ourselves Michiganians and some  Michiganders. Yesterday I heard from one gentleman who has strong feelings on the topic. He hates the term Michigander.

He wrote to me, “Michigan Radio disserves the listeners every single time it utilizes the term Michigander. Regardless of the result of a recent popular opinion poll, the usage is just plain wrong.”

He added that “Michigander is a derogatory term imposed on us,” by a freshman congressman from Illinois way-back-when.

Well, it is always good to think about words and what they mean. But in this case, I have to profoundly disagree.

I am a Michigander, I have always been a Michigander, and intend to always be one. And that’s because this is a word that is not only unique, but which has a rich history.

Yes, it was indeed coined by a new congressman – but one named Abraham Lincoln. Nor was he disrespecting us as a state. He was poking gentle fun back in 1848 at a political opponent, Lewis Cass, who was pretty much the political godfather of Michigan.

Cass was the Democratic nominee for president that year; Lincoln was a Whig. They disagreed on the Mexican War; Cass supported it, Lincoln did not. Though we today think of Lincoln as a marble statue, in his own time, he was famous for a sharp and sometimes biting sense of humor, and in a debate over the war, Lincoln said of Cass, “and there he sits, the great Michigander.”

During the long and agonizing Watergate scandal, the endless question was: What did he know, and when did he know it? That referred to President Richard Nixon, and the break-in and cover-up at the Democratic National Headquarters.

In the end, it turned out Nixon had known a lot, right from the start, which is how he became our only President ever forced from office.

Well, now people are beginning to ask: What did she know and when did she know it? Except the arena is not politics, but the auto industry, specifically, the reborn General Motors.

This time, the chief executive is a woman, Mary Barra, the first woman ever to lead a major car company.

Three months ago, many of us were stunned and delighted when she was appointed.

Well, yesterday the legislature approved a budget supplemental bill that includes more than two hundred million dollars in new money to fix the roads, and the politicians are congratulating themselves.

Governor Snyder issued a press release praising this, and congratulating the legislature on “working together” and creating the “positive relationship” needed to pass this bill.

Now if you think about it, what he said sounds pretty bizarre. Working together? Positive relationship? That’s the kind of language you use when two nations sign a trade agreement.

These are the two houses in our state’s legislature. Their job is to work together for our good. And you’d think a “positive relationship” should be a piece of cake, since they are both controlled by Republicans. But in fact, there isn’t all that much positive in this bill. The road funding, while necessary, doesn’t address the major problem, and it isn’t clear whether this money will be allocated fairly.

Despite appearances, those who make our laws sometimes do listen to those who elect them. Here’s one example happening right now. Anyone who drives knows that our roads are in terrible shape.

Nobody remembers them ever being this bad, especially in major urban areas. But the Legislature has stubbornly ignored appeals from Gov. Rick Snyder to fix them.

Detroit’s bankruptcy process, like this long and dreadful winter, is unlikely to end anytime soon. While it is still officially a “fast-track” bankruptcy, it is definitely a muddy track.

As of now, federal bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes has a hearing June 16 to consider the city’s “plan of adjustment” bankruptcy proposal, but that now seems certain to be pushed back.

Twenty years ago, Jack Kevorkian went on trial for the first time for assisted suicide charges in Wayne County Circuit Court. In one sense, it was the best of all the Kevorkian trials.

The prosecutor, Tim Kenny, who now is a judge himself, fought hard but clean. The case was heard by a no-nonsense judge, Thomas Jackson, who was respected by both sides.

Kevorkian and his attorney, the flamboyant Geoffrey Fieger, pushed the envelope a bit, but not enough to turn the trial into a circus. Kevorkian was clearly guilty – he admitted to breaking the law.

But the jury refused to convict him. Why? Some of them later told me the dead man was suffering hopelessly, wanted to die, and they thought his fate should be his choice.

Wayne County Prosecutor John O’Hair realized that further Kevorkian prosecutions would be a waste of time. But his counterpart in Oakland County, Prosecutor Richard Thompson, wouldn’t admit it. So he charged Jack Kevorkian again. Four times.

  As Detroit continues to move through the bankruptcy process, an outstanding issue is a plan to protect artwork at the Detroit Institute of Arts. A group of foundations and private donors have pledged over $300 million that would help cover city pensions and offset the need to sell the artwork. 

A recent op-ed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy questions the wisdom of this plan. William Schambra is the director of the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal in Washington D.C. and he joined us today.


There are many reasons to lament the slow disappearance of newspapers. But here’s one you may not have considered: the loss of cartoons and comic strips.

You might be startled that an old political and news analyst would say that. But in fact, comics, both overtly political and not so, have always been great political and social barometers. Back in the late 19th century, Boss Tweed, the corrupt New York City political boss, was largely done in by Thomas Nast’s cartoons.

Before he was carted off to jail, Tweed complained bitterly. He didn’t care what the reporters wrote. After all, many of his supporters didn’t read. But Tweed said “them damned pictures are killing me!”  Thanks to Nast, he died in jail.

Nationally syndicated political cartoons aren’t as big as they were when Feiffer and Herblock reigned supreme. In modern times, the national mood seems to be captured more often in comic strips. Doonesbury was the must-read of the 1970s; Bloom County captured the 1980s.

We still don’t know how Detroit’s bankruptcy is going to play out. We don’t know how much pensions will finally be cut. We don’t know whether the state will kick in the funds needed to save the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

But we do know two things.

In the end, a lot of people – pensioners – who don’t have much money now will have even less.

And we also know this: Bankrupt, poor Detroit and the state are going to spend more than $250 million to build a new hockey and entertainment arena for Mike Ilitch, who owns the Detroit Red Wings.

That’s more than half the entire cost of the project.

This is the second arena the city has helped build for the Red Wings. The team now plays in Joe Louis Arena, which was built 35 years ago.

They give a small cut of their proceeds to the city – about $7 million a year for Detroit, but once the new arena is finished, know how much the taxpayers will get? Nothing.

In an apparent attempt to pander to voters, the Michigan Legislature is rushing to pass an election year income tax cut. This is a little baffling, because the voters don’t want one.

The state has a budget surplus – on paper, anyway – of a little less than a billion dollars. Two weeks ago, an EPIC-MRA poll found only 11% of the voters thought a tax cut was a good idea. The rest were divided about evenly between those who wanted it to go to schools and those who want it to go to our roads.

Earlier this week, the newspapers and airwaves were full of tributes to John Dingell, who announced this term would be his last.

Dingell, who turns 88 this summer, is the longest-serving Congressmen in history, and when I first met him, was one of the physically most powerful men in Congress.

Today, he is hard of hearing and frail, but nobody has ever said he wasn’t mentally able to do the job.

This hasn’t always been the case with long-serving congressmen. During his last campaign for the U.S. Senate at age 94, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond spoke of the brave defenders of the Alamo, and added that they had held off “three thousand Russians.”

Thurmond’s handlers didn’t let him speak much in public after that. He won reelection, but spent most of his final term in Walter Reed Hospital, except when they brought him to the Senate to vote.

Nobody likes to talk about this, but there seems to have been a universal consensus that Dale Kildee, who decided not to run for reelection two years ago, needed to leave.

There’s a reason you haven’t seen him interviewed or commenting on issues since he left. He is, in fact, younger that John Dingell, but not all of us age at the same rate.

I know a woman in her 60s who no longer knows who her husband is.

I have very few inflexible notions, but one of them is this: It is better to learn than be ignorant. Unlike many dogmas, this one passes the practical test. Those who are better educated generally make more money and have happier and more fulfilled lives.

There’ve been a lot of crises in education in recent years. Most have been about money. But this year, it’s weather. This brutal winter has meant many schools have been closed for more “snow days” than usual. Legally, schools are allowed to miss up to six days. After that, they have to make up the time, or lose some of their school aid money. None of them want that, of course.

As most of the world knows by now, yesterday, the longest-serving congressman in our nation’s history announced his retirement.

I wasn’t the least surprised. After a long lunch with John Dingell last fall, I had become convinced this was going to happen.

Ten years ago, I would have bet that he would die in office. In fact, that’s what he told me he intended to do. Told me more than once, in fact.

“Do you know your history, young man? He asked me long ago. “Do you know about John Quincy Adams?”

Yes sir, said I, and I think that pleased him.

Adams was the only president who returned to the House of Representatives after the White House. He served there till he collapsed and died on the floor.

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