Saturday, Apr 21, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

A raging moderate enters the governor's race

LANSING - If voters always elected the man with the most interesting resume, there is absolutely no doubt state Sen. John (whom everyone calls Joe) Schwarz would be Michigan's next governor.

For one thing, when he isn't making laws, Senator Schwarz is Dr. Schwarz, a 63-year-old thoracic surgeon from Battle Creek who is in the operating room at 7:30 every Monday morning and in his office seeing patients every afternoon.

He served in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam, went on to become a Naval attache in Indonesia, and had a brief career as a spymaster, working for the CIA in Southeast Asia.

The good doctor loves opera, Shakespeare, and culture - and has a huge cutout of Kellogg's Tony the Tiger across from his desk. Add the fact that he has a ranch in Montana and is the legislature's biggest railroad buff, whose Senate office is filled with paintings and photographs of the Iron Horse, and you begin to get the idea.

But only just begin. Mr. Schwarz, who has been elected to four terms in the state Senate, pulled off the political upset of the decade last year, bucking Gov. John Engler and virtually the Michigan GOP establishment to head U.S. Sen. John McCain's state campaign for president. Nobody gave him, or them, much chance ... until primary election night, when Mr. McCain easily beat George W. Bush.

Last week, the Arizona Republican was back in Michigan, but this time the roles were reversed. Mr. McCain was here to kick off Mr. Schwarz's campaign for governor.

“I am a raging middle-of-the-roader,” said Mr. Schwarz. “I'm solidly in the middle on enough issues that everyone on both extremes will be mad at me.”

He is in fact, one of an endangered species, an old-fashioned “Milliken moderate” in the mold of the governor who led the state from 1969 to 1983. That means that the good doctor is fairly conservative on fiscal issues, tolerant on social issues, and, if he had a slogan, it would probably be “common sense.”

“The trouble with ideologues is that while they are very sincere people, they forget there is a world out there,” he said. Mr. Schwarz was one of very few Republican legislators to oppose the bill allowing virtually everyone to carry a concealed weapon.

A practicing Roman Catholic and the devoted father of one grown daughter, he regrets that his wife Ann died before they could have more children. But he has infuriated the powerful Right-to-Life lobby by declaring that “abortion should be safe, legal, and rare,” and that “Roe vs. Wade is settled law.”

Rather than questions of public morality, he believes that the main task of a governor “is to be concerned with the 93 percent of people who have a job,” and pay bills, and are trying to build a life for themselves and their kids.

Mr. Schwarz thinks the first responsibility of any governor is to try to make the state a place where people can live relatively secure lives. “This is a manufacturing state,” he says flatly. While “we are much more diversified than we were 30 years ago, the fact is that we are still the auto state,” and any blue-sky economic plans have to take that into account. He also is a staunch supporter of what he sees as one of Michigan's biggest assets - possibly the best state university system in the country.

Frankly, if Republicans always nominated the man who was most likely to win a statewide election, again, it would be hard to bet against Mr. Schwarz, whose views may be closer to the mainstream than most of the candidates in either party.

The frontrunner for the Republican nomination, Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus, is a deeply conservative upstate farmer who is all but unknown in the state's heavily populated southeast. Polls show him badly trailing potential Democratic rivals.

Yet most of the powerful interest groups - the gun lobby, and Michigan Right-to-Life - are firmly backing Mr. Posthumus, and in past years they have had a disproportionate influence in selecting Republican candidates.

Mr. Schwarz has a simple message for them; he respects their opinions, but his mission is to put together enough of a “big tent” so that a Republican can win statewide.

The odds next year seem stacked against him. Michigan has no party registration, and any voter can vote in either party's primary. That helped Mr. McCain in February, 2000, when there was no Democratic contest. But next year, with a marquee-studded Democratic field, many potential Schwarz voters may opt for the other race.

That doesn't daunt him. “I'm in the race to stay, and I'm not beholden to anybody,” he says. He has a sneaking feeling there may be more “raging moderates” out there than the conventional wisdom has discovered. “I intend to appeal to Republicans and independents who are tired of getting bogged down on single issues.”

And if he doesn't make it, well, “I expect to get up the next morning and find the earth is still on its axis,” he laughed. The question may be: Are voters are ready for a governor who is this, well ... sane?

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

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