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Published: Friday, 1/27/2006

Michigan governor needs to turn rhetoric into reality

LANSING, Mich. - Gov. Jennifer Granholm's election year state-of-the state speech this week said a lot about both her strengths and weaknesses - and about those of her GOP opponents.

She inspired listeners, connected with them emotionally, and at times seemed to have both a joint session of the Legislature and a statewide TV audience hanging on every word. Republicans, who solidly control both houses of the Legislature. tacitly admitted they couldn't begin to match her oratory.

"The challenge for this governor has never been making a good speech," State Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema said. "Her challenge has been matching rhetoric to reality."

Indeed, the speech at times seemed like a traditional old-time national Democratic platform. The 48-year-old governor announced plans to create a health insurance plan for 550,000 working poor who have no health-care coverage.

She called for raising the minimum wage, apparently by a statewide vote, called for a big rollback in auto and home insurance rates, promised to boost the state merit scholarship from $2,500 to $4,000, and at times seemed on the point of offering to buy every child in the state a pony. However, she offered no specifics on how the cash-strapped state would pay for any of these programs.

Nor did there seem to be any chance that the Legislature would be interested in going along with much of this - especially in an election year, and especially with her health-care plan. House Speaker Craig DeRoche (R., Novi) fairly sneered that "there will never be a government-provided solution that will be better than private-sector health care."

That may be true - but you can bet it won't strike a chord with the 550,000 who have no health care at all, and who now will be inclined to see Ms. Granholm as their champion.

Probably the speech's masterstroke was a call to create a new 401(k) savings plan for employees of small businesses without retirement programs. Basically, she appeared to be saying that the state would set up the administrative apparatus, without providing any matching money for contributions.

That would seem to be a popular and affordable program which ought to resonate with Republicans, who traditionally say that workers should take responsibility for more of their own retirement costs. It is hard to see how they could oppose such a plan without angering many core GOP supporters - small businessmen - or appearing to be opposing it on any other than political grounds.

The governor's speech, on the other hand, was bafflingly weak when it came to the massive troubles that have befallen the auto industry. General Motors last fall announced plant closings that will permanently lay off thousands of workers. Ford Motor Co. made a similar announcement Monday. Among the 30,000 workers whose jobs will vanish forever are more than 1,500 who work at Ford's massive factory in Wixom.

Ms. Granholm began her speech by saying, "I want to talk to the worker at Delphi, at GM, at Chrysler, and I want to talk to the worker at the Ford Wixom plant." Fine - but she never really did, except to say that she was convinced that the auto industry would be in much better shape in five years.

That prompted this quote from Dick DeVos, who is certain to be her Republican opponent this November: "People are concerned about tomorrow and next week, and not thinking about how the economy might transform itself in five years," he told a reporter for the Detroit Free Press.

That is certainly true. However, one also needs to ask - why wasn't Mr. DeVos more visible after the governor gave her speech Wednesday night? Why didn't he give his own speech?

Most likely, that didn't happen for two major reasons. The GOP candidate is still not fully up to speed on state issues; in an interview recently on Michigan Radio, he revealed he did not understand how much revenue the Single Business Tax supplied to state government.

And again, he is not a speaker in Jennifer Granholm's class. Her statewide address revealed an administration with vulnerabilities. But Republicans haven't yet shown that they are able to exploit her weaknesses.

Detroit footnote: One of the governor's lesser-noticed triumphs Wednesday night came when she publicly made up with Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. The governor had clearly wanted his opponent, Freman Hendrix, to be elected mayor last fall.

That didn't happen, and afterwards Mayor Kilpatrick grumbled that Detroiters didn't have a whole lot of use for the governor. That was significant, because without a big Detroit turnout, it is hard to imagine any Democrat being elected governor.

But the slight governor gave the enormous mayor a big hug when she entered the Capitol. During the speech, she said "the only thing coming between Detroit and Michigan should be a comma."

Afterwards, the mayor praised her and said he couldn't imagine Michigan without Jennifer Granholm as governor. Making up, it seems, isn't hard to do.



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