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Published: Friday, 7/25/2008

Candidates for Michigan Legislature failing the political courage test

ANN ARBOR - How much political courage do Michigan politicians have? Very little, and less all the time,

That's the conclusion reached by Project Vote Smart, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to creating better-informed voters. This year, as in every election cycle for more than a decade, candidates for office were sent a "Political Courage Test."

There is no partisan bias to it. "It is merely an academic study that asks all candidates one central question," said Richard Kimball, president of Project Vote Smart. "Are you willing to tell citizens your positions on the issues you will likely face on their behalf?"

That doesn't exactly sound like an unreasonable demand. True, every election and every candidate have a few touchy areas. But Project Vote Smart recognizes that. Candidates may skip up to 30 percent of the issue areas and still pass.

Plus, they are allowed to answer each question in their own words. Like Project Vote Smart itself, the test is meant to be entirely nonideological. So - what percentage of candidates answered?

When it comes to those running for the Michigan Legislature this year, the number responding was less than one in 10.

Two years ago, it was nearly four times as high. What's going on here? Sad, but simple: Consultants are telling their candidates not to fill out the political courage survey. Reason?

Actually, there are two major reasons: "It [would] limit the candidates' ability to control their campaign message, and it will expose them to opposition research," Mr. Kimball said.

Translation? If you take a position, no matter how honest, principled, and reasoned, the opposition can and will use it against you. In the age of constant hyper-news, the relentless Internet, and the omnipresent YouTube, advisers mostly don't want their candidates saying anything. They want them to smile and wave.

The consultants want the other candidate to say something so they can use that person's own honest words to tear them apart.

That's a trend that has been getting steadily worse, election cycle after election cycle, and is threatening to destroy our democracy. Ironically, Project Vote Smart, whose board members range from Newt Gingrich on the right to George McGovern on the left, was founded to try and counteract that trend.

Mr. Kimball, the organization's president, isn't happy. "If candidates are afraid of letting their opponents know where they stand on key issues, how can they possibly let the voters know how they will handle the job if they are hired [elected]?"

But when he said a version of that to one campaign consultant, the response was "It's not our job to educate - it's our job to win."

If that doesn't make you worry about democracy, I don't know what will. Most politicians today probably know that John F. Kennedy was the author of Profiles in Courage.

It is a book about U.S. senators who risked their careers by making unpopular decisions, choices they made because they were convinced it was the right thing to do.

It might be nice if some of today's candidates read it.

Postscript: Project Vote Smart also asked Michigan congressional candidates to respond to the courage questionnaire. The response rate was a little better: 38 percent. Most who did respond, however, were long-shot underdogs.

But these incumbents deserve credit for not dodging the opportunity: Republican U.S. Reps. Vernon Ehlers and Dave Camp, and Democrats Bart Stupak, Dale Kildee, and, interestingly, Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick, mother of the embattled mayor of Detroit.

Reform Michigan Now: Nobody is talking about it publicly - yet - but the Democrats are in considerable turmoil over the sweeping patchwork quilt of constitutional changes awaiting certification for the November ballot. Efforts were made to make it seem as though it was the work of a grass-roots nonpartisan group.

But it is now clear that the Michigan Democratic Party, specifically Mark Brewer, the state chair, was the moving force all along. The proposal has drawn heavy fire on both liberal and conservative editorial pages for its scattershot approach to reform and, especially, for its ham-handed attempt to remove GOP judges from the Michigan Supreme Court and Michigan Court of Appeals.

Whether Reform Michigan Now qualifies for the ballot or not, the bottom line is that it has led more and more of the state's leaders to conclude that a constitutional convention is a good idea. Michigan voters will be automatically asked two years from now if they want to call such a convention. Gov. Jennifer Granholm has now endorsed the idea, something that would have been unimaginable a year ago.

Correction: In last week's column on Mr. Stupak's efforts to curb oil price speculation, I called him "the man from Marquette." That city is indeed the largest in his district, but he actually makes his home in Menominee.



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