Opinion

Thanksgiving always has reminded me of the famous Charles Dickens quote, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Some of this goes back to my childhood, when President Kennedy was assassinated just days before Thanksgiving, and a gloom hung over the nation in a way now hard to imagine.

Add to that the fact that I seem to be deeply un-American in that I would rather do almost anything other than spend hours trapped in front of a TV watching football.

Unless, that is, it involves that form of mass hysteria known as holiday shopping. Last week I overheard two excited women sharing the news that they weren’t going to have to wait till Black Friday. This year, the shopping malls will open on Turkey Day itself.

There’s a century-old red brick building that used to be a convent in Detroit, in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge.

It’s next to the city’s oldest Roman Catholic Church, St. Anne’s. Inside that church is a rough-hewn box holding the bones of an immigrant who arrived without papers, a priest by the name of Gabriel Richard, one of the founders of the University of Michigan.

Inside the old convent are 40 living undocumented immigrants from 18 different countries, people who fled torture and murder, fled for their lives, and are here seeking asylum.

They are in less fear of deportation than most of our nation’s eleven million “illegal” immigrants. This is a place called Freedom House Detroit, and for more than 30 years, it has helped such folks win asylum in the United States and Canada.

That has become harder in recent years, and the refugees, who are usually destitute, are not allowed to work while they await a decision on their fate. But the ones in Freedom House nearly always win asylum in the end.

Our Constitution firmly establishes the right of victims of persecution to asylum.

I saw a poster the other day on the Internet that I really wish I could have framed and put on the wall. It said something like “Illegal immigrants refuse to learn our language, yet still get food assistance.”

What it showed was the first Thanksgiving.

What it could have added was that those same undocumented aliens were often guilty of tremendous violence against the native population.

Today, the descendants of those illegal immigrants have been wrestling with what do to about those who followed in their footsteps, centuries later.

The fact is that there are millions of so-called undocumented aliens in this country, maybe 100,000 in Michigan, and that our economy depends on them.

These immigrants, by and large, do the jobs nobody else wants, working hard for little money. When they do become legal, they tend to be tremendous job creators. Gov. Rick Snyder knows this; that’s why he has asked Washington to make more visas available for immigrants with special skills to come to Detroit.

There are legal immigration routes, complex and bureaucratic. But there are also millions who came without papers, or were brought here as children.

When it comes to maintaining trust in government, possibly the most important thing is the integrity of the courts. As a journalist, I spend a lot of time talking about what’s wrong with government, but today I want to talk about something that seems to work pretty well, which is the relationship between the press and the people in charge of our justice system.

Surveys show that people don’t hold journalists or lawyers in very high esteem, to put it mildly. Judges do better, but in recent years the bench has also been touched by controversy and scandal, from the Michigan Supreme Court justice who went to federal prison to the Wayne County judge who had sex in his chambers.

Recently I presided over two panels, completely open to the public, that were designed to explore how the press covers the courts. The sessions were mostly on the record, no holds barred, and were jointly sponsored by the State Bar of Michigan and the Society or Professional Journalists.

Last week’s panel featured two of Michigan’s top prosecutors, Barbara McQuade, the federal attorney for the eastern half of Michigan, and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.

Last night, it was U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds, who presided over the long and media-intense Kwame Kilpatrick trial. Topic A was what they thought of the press and how they felt the press covered the legal process and the courts.

The elections were two weeks ago today, although it somehow seems longer. Yesterday, I spent a little time with Lon Johnson, the chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. He’s been getting a lot of criticism about what happened.

Johnson is a statistics-crunching data freak, a man who plays politics largely by the numbers. He pinned the party’s hopes this year on turnout, on getting Democrats to the polls.

His operation identified nearly a million Democratic-leaning voters who sat out the election four years ago. They were targeted by his team, urged to vote, and sent absentee ballot applications.

The weekend before the vote, he was convinced that Mark Schauer was going to win the governor’s race. But in the end, his candidate fell short by a little more than four points. Democrats lost ground in the Legislature, which few thought they would do.

Michigan's future starts with new ideas

Nov 17, 2014
Wikimedia

Americans love the next thing: the newest gadget, the latest fashion, and all manner of ground-breaking artistic creations. In fact, our entire worldview, economic system, and personal behavior are based on the idea that progress and growth is good.

We are driven to be better and new.

You’ve probably heard that the state Senate passed a bill last week that would finally raise some significant money to fix Michigan’s terrible roads. Most of us who ever have to leave the house and drive were happy about this.

For years, the roads have gotten worse, and our lawmakers have done virtually nothing about them.

However, there are a number of important things to know about this bill and this issue. First of all, this is not a done deal. The state House of Representatives won’t even take this up until next month. While there is a lot of pressure to do something about the roads, there is no guarantee they will pass the Senate bill in its present form – or indeed, pass any bill at all.

But here’s something else you may not have read elsewhere. The bill passed by the Senate is really a pretty lousy way of coming up with money for road repair. The formula it uses is very hard to understand, and provides no guaranteed amount.

What Gov. Rick Snyder proposed, and what usually happens when more road repair money is needed, is that lawmakers raise the gas tax by a certain number of cents on the gallon. Driving habits vary, but not by very much.

Transportation experts can calculate pretty closely how much new revenue, say, a 10-cent-a-gallon increase would bring. But that’s not what the Senate is proposing.

Our political system may be flawed, but one of the great things about it is that it provides for the peaceful passage of power. We sometimes forget how revolutionary that was.

The world marveled back in 1800 when President John Adams was defeated by Thomas Jefferson. Adams didn’t even think of trying to pull a coup or call out the army to hang on to power.  

He just left town and Jefferson, who had won more electoral votes than he had, took over.

That’s the way it has been ever since.

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.

Detroit has barely half the number of people it did 30 years ago, and only about a third of its population 60 years ago.

The city is now waiting, as we all are, to see how federal Judge Steven Rhodes will rule on the city’s plan to get out of bankruptcy. Nobody has any illusions the future will be easy.

But here’s something to think about: there was no mass arson in the city last night. Devil’s Night seems truly a thing of the past.

Even that term is politically incorrect. They call it Angels’ Night now.

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.

Recently, Suzette Hackney of POLITICO wrote an article that asked the question, “Is There Room for Black People in the New Detroit?” Her account begins at the corner of Agnes and Parker at a local restaurant where she describes seeing “designer dogs” and “tattooed millennials."

From her piece: 

The whole scene was a far cry from when I lived in the adjoining apartment building in the early 2000s... but this is the new Detroit.

I live in the neighborhood she describes, and even though Craft Work could be considered a “hip” establishment, I'm a little sad the area she described was reduced to a gentrified stereotype.

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.

Thirty years ago, I was briefly involved in the dog show world, when we had a collie that went on to become a champion.

That was during the long ago and now long-forgotten race in which President Ronald Reagan was running for re-election against Walter Mondale.

Both offered vastly different views of America. There were a some people who were very passionate about that campaign, either because they loved Reagan, hated his policies or were excited about the first woman on a major party ticket, Geraldine Ferraro.

But when I came off the campaign and consorted with regular humans, I learned that wasn’t true for most. The show dog people I knew, for example, were more bitterly passionate about their rivals and paid more attention to the idiosyncrasies of the various judges than most people did the election.

Most of them could recite their dogs’ pedigrees at the drop of a hat, or point at a collie and say – “see, you can tell from his hindquarters that he’s out of Champion La Estancia Travolta.” The woman who told me that did ask me once “who’s that guy running against Reagan?” but I think she did so to be polite.

What I took away from this is that America is a land of a million subcultures, and increasingly, politics is just one of those.

There are big differences between the candidates for governor this time, and the candidates are spending tens of millions to try and get your attention in the hope that you might actually vote. But we know already that most people won’t. Apart from the candidates themselves, I’ve seen just two races this year where people seem energized and excited.

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.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Eighth-ranked Michigan State is favored to beat the struggling Wolverines by more than two touchdowns.

A victory would mark the Spartans’ sixth win over the Wolverines in their last seven games, establishing unquestioned dominance over the state for the first time in 50 years.

Calling your little brother “Little Brother” gets a bit awkward when he keeps kicking your butt. A win would also preserve the Spartans’ hopes of a national title – something no other Big Ten team can realistically claim.

Michigan’s dreams are more modest, but more urgent.

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.

Four years ago, it looked as if efforts to build a badly needed new bridge over the Detroit River were doomed to failure.

Matty Moroun, the now 87-year-old owner of the Ambassador Bridge, had managed to corrupt the Legislature through that form of legalized bribery known as campaign contributions.

He poured hundreds of thousands into the campaigns and causes of influential legislators, most notably former Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop.

In fact, as Jim Blanchard, the former governor and ambassador to Canada told me, Bishop broke his promise to the people. He had promised to allow a vote in the state Senate on whether or not to allow a partnership with Canada to build the bridge.

This is a bridge, by the way, that just about every business and corporate leader in Michigan agrees we need to stay competitive.

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.

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