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Published: Thursday, 9/16/2010

Michigan gubernatorial race is lackluster - so far

DETROIT - For the past week, the governor's race in Michigan has been dominated by debates about debates.

First, Republican nominee Rick Snyder, who has a wide lead in the polls, announced that negotiations had broken down and that there would be no debates with his Democratic opponent, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero. Then Mr. Bernero unexpectedly showed up at a Snyder town-hall meeting in the Detroit suburb of Westland. Mr. Snyder invited his rival to the stage, where they jointly answered questions from a mainly GOP audience.

But so far, the front-runner has refused to commit to formal, televised debates of the sort voters since the 1960s have come to expect. That's not surprising. He has little to gain.

Mr. Snyder, a venture capitalist from Ann Arbor who has never before run for office, is able to be all things to all people. His perspectives on many topics are so little known that people with widely differing views are able to believe he is on their side.

Mr. Bernero is intense, passionate, loud to proclaim himself on the side of labor and the little guy, but also a largely unknown quantity to most voters.

"Debates are more needed in this race than in most contests," said Phil Power, president of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Michigan, a think-and-do tank he founded in 2005.

What's not clear is how much the voters agree, and whether Mr. Snyder will pay a price if he appears to be afraid to debate his challenger. Mr. Bernero has called his rival a "wimp" for not debating. However, if one-on-one contests don't happen, it won't be the first time.

"There isn't necessarily this great tradition," Mr. Snyder told a Detroit radio station. "Governor (John) Engler and Geoffrey Fieger didn't have any debates, I don't believe."

Well, no, they didn't. But that was scarcely business as usual. That 1998 race was possibly the most bizarre campaign for governor in Michigan history. Michelle Engler, the governor's wife, normally stayed out of politics, but vigorously opposed her husband appearing with his Democratic opponent.

Why? The Englers had triplet daughters. Geoffrey Fieger proclaimed that he would not believe that John Engler was their father "unless their diapers were taken off in public and they were revealed to have corkscrew tails."

That was far from the most over-the-top thing the flamboyant lawyer said during the campaign. He repeatedly charged that the governor was a "moron" who had been conceived in one of Michigan State University's agricultural extension stations.

Possibly because of such remarks, there seemed to be no great public protest about Mr. Engler's refusal to debate. Then too, both men were far better known than either of this year's candidates.

Mr. Engler had been governor for eight years. While Mr. Fieger had never run for office before, he was nationally known as the attorney who had brilliantly and brashly kept Jack Kevorkian, the assisted-suicide doctor, out of prison.

During his legal battles, Mr. Fieger came to despise Governor Engler, who fought to make assisted suicide illegal. Mr. Fieger mistakenly thought success with juries would translate into success with voters.

I covered the Kevorkian trials for the New York Times. Once, the lawyer asked me whether I thought he should run for governor.

"You would hate being governor," I told him. "Will you beg state senators for votes on local road access bills?"

"Hell, no," he said.

"Will you discuss Michigan Cherry Week with the ladies of Grand Traverse County?" I asked. His answer was unprintable."That's what governors do," I told him.

But he ran anyway, and the Democratic Party establishment was shocked when he won the nomination, though it shouldn't have been. Their favored candidate was Larry Owen, a nice but colorless lawyer whose last electoral victory was for a seat on the East Lansing City Council two decades before.

Doug Ross, a former cabinet official and state senator, ran as the thinking man's candidate. Naturally, he finished last.

Mr. Fieger, whose law practice had made him very rich, spent millions on TV ads and blew his primary competition away. The general election was a different story.

The Fieger campaign had a coherent platform that today sounds almost like a Republican document. He wanted to cut sales and property taxes and repeal the single-business tax.

But nobody paid much attention. In the end, Mr. Engler won 62 percent of the vote. Mr. Fieger disappeared for days. Later, he angrily attacked me for writing that he was sulking.

"Well, you never conceded defeat," I said.

His reponse: "Why should I concede anything to that fat nincompoop?"

I noted he had lost by 740,000 votes, and the convention was that the loser calls the winner to concede.

"I'd never call that fat moron," he said, in language that was more colorful.

"But you weren't sulking?"

"No!" he snarled. OK, then.

This campaign has more than six weeks to go, but it's hard to imagine topping that.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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