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Published: Sunday, 11/12/2000

Michigan results show big winners, big losers

DETROIT - Sometime in the wee hours the morning after, when he knew nobody could say when we might know who the next president would be, CBS' Dan Rather looked into the camera and said, “This is Alice in Wonderland.”

Michigan's presidential balloting was much more straightforward: a swift and surprisingly easy victory for Al Gore. But look past that, and it quickly seems that in the mitten state as elsewhere, this was an election scripted by Lewis Carroll.

That is especially clear when you look at what the numbers really mean. Consider:

  • The party that appeared to have won the most in Michigan Tuesday actually experienced a barely hidden electoral disaster.

  • The biggest winner was a candidate who everyone - including this columnist - had given up for dead just three short weeks ago.

  • And the biggest loser was a man who was nowhere on the ballot this year, but who suffered the three greatest - and possibly, career-ending - embarrassments of his life at the hands of Michigan's voters in 2000.

    Can you fill in the blanks? Well, if there is ever a Michigan millionaire political trivia quiz, here's a lifeline. First: George W. Bush must have regretted the many trips and millions of dollars he wasted on Michigan when its polls closed Tuesday night.

    It was expected to be a real cliffhanger. But Michigan went into Al Gore's column - and unlike the Sunshine state, stayed there. Buoyed by a heavy African-American turnout and the votes of auto workers who had the day off as a paid holiday for the first time, the vice-president won a solid, 200,000-vote victory.

    Not only that, he helped carry Debbie Stabenow to an narrow upset over U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham, and his coattails helped sweep in Democratic nominees to a host of university regent and State Board of Education seats.

    Yet the Democratic Party lost this election where it mattered most for the future. They failed to capture the state House Of Representatives, which remains 58-52 Republican. And though Democrats spent millions in an attempt to defeat three incumbent Michigan Supreme Court justices, their nominees all lost badly.

    Why does that matter so much? Next year, Michigan lawmakers, as those in every other state, will redistrict congressional and state legislative seats in accordance with the 2000 census. While each district has to have the same number of people, there are creative ways to draw boundaries that can pay off handsomely for one party.

    For example, throughout most of the 1990s Michigan sent 10 Democrats and six Republicans to Congress - though usually, about the same number of votes were cast for both parties statewide. That happened because most Republicans were in overwhelmingly GOP districts, while others were fashioned to give a slight edge to the Democrats.

    Next year, however, the new boundaries will be drawn by a Republican Legislature, approved by a Republican governor, and reviewed, if there is a court challenge, by an overwhelmingly GOP Supreme Court. It isn't hard to imagine that soon, the same voters will be electing 10 Republicans and six Democrats.

    Many expect U.S. Rep. David Bonior, who would have been House Majority Leader if Democrats had won the U.S. House Tuesday, to have his seat gerrymandered out of existence; his neighboring House Democrat, Sander Levin, may retire to avoid the same thing. Similar boundary changes could make the state house more safely GOP.

    On the other hand, to continue the fairy tale theme, the true Cinderella election was the amazing triumph of Democrat Debbie Stabenow, whose campaign was nearly given up for dead, but who roared back in the final two weeks to defeat U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham by about 50,000 votes.

    Mr. Abraham and his allies, including the Microsoft Corp. and a number of big pharmaceutical firms, spent more than $25 million on his re-election effort. Polls had him ahead, 50 per cent to 36 per cent, in mid-October. But Ms. Stabenow, who had about half as much money, struck back with a series of highly effective ads in the campaign's final weeks, and their one televised debate gave her some momentum.

    Though the auto worker turnout was essential, in the end, top Republicans say privately, Mr. Abraham lost the race because he spent virtually all his time in Washington, neglected his constituency, and was anything but a “people person,” even refusing sometimes to leave his office to meet and shake hands with major contributors.

    Yet there was another big loser in this election: John Engler, the lame-duck governor, who can't run for re-election in 2002. He started this year by assuring Mr. Bush he could deliver Michigan's GOP primary, that it would be a “firewall” after his upset loss to U.S. Sen. John McCain in New Hampshire.

    But Mr. McCain won easily. That pattern repeated itself in the fall. Mr. Bush made visit after visit to Michigan, partly at the governor's urgings. Once again, he was embarrassed. For months, it's been said the Englers, John and accomplished attorney spouse Michelle, were hoping for a top appointment in a Bush administration, if there is one. But it is hard now to see why a President Bush would either feel the need to reward John Engler - or have confidence in his political judgment.

    Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman and a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit. E-mail him at OMBLADE@aol.com or call 1-888-746-8610.



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