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Published: Friday, 7/1/2011

COMMENTARY

Mich. governor's campaign for new bridge stalls

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

LANSING -- Nobody can deny that Rick Snyder has had near-astounding success in his first six months in office. Michigan's freshman governor, who took office without a day of experience in government, got virtually his entire agenda through the Legislature.

He even got his Republican colleagues to pass a new tax on pensions, roughly the equivalent of getting a convention of vegans to agree to serve standing rib roast at their annual banquet.

Yet he has failed so far to win lawmakers over on one key item: supporting a new bridge, what he now calls the New International Trade Crossing, over the Detroit River.

Canada wants the bridge, so much so it is willing to put up Michigan's share of the costs. Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler strongly favor the bridge, as do most chambers of commerce and business interests in the Detroit area. Republicans such as Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson want the bridge.

The U.S. government clearly wants a new bridge. It agreed to allow Michigan to count the $550 million Canada has offered to cover as matching money for federal highway funds.

Washington is saying, in other words: Build the bridge, and Michigan will get $2 billion to use to fix and improve roads.

But the Michigan Senate isn't sold. The governor agreed to put a decision off until the fall, a clear sign that he didn't have a majority.

According to some accounts, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R., Monroe) is the only member of his party in the Senate on record as supporting the governor. Why the hesitation?

Granted, Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel Moroun has been spreading boatloads of campaign cash, and running nonstop television commercials that might charitably be described as taking liberties with the truth. But there's more to it than that.

If the governor wants some clues about why his campaign is stalled, he might talk to state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, one of the GOP's rising stars, who easily won a competitive district last year.

Ms. Schuitmaker is a charismatic 43-year-old who comes across as both driven and pleasantly ambitious. An attorney in practice with her father and husband before she was elected to the Legislature, she still lives in the family farmhouse in the town of Lawton, west of Kalamazoo, where she grew up.

Although she has solid conservative credentials, she isn't afraid to break with the majority on some issues.

She leads the subcommittee for appropriations for higher education, and wasn't happy about the size of the cuts colleges and universities took in the new state budget. She is more interested in public health than most others in her party. Unlike most Republicans, she voted against repealing the law that requires motorcyclists to wear helmets.

But on the bridge, she isn't sold.

"I'm not convinced that the need is there," she said, adding that she is against taxpayer dollars funding the bridge, which is seen as a public-private partnership.

Reminded that the governor has vowed that no taxpayer money would be used, she said: "He says that, yes, but I hear arguments from the other side talking about 'community benefits'." She worries that this means tax dollars would be spent for nearby neighborhoods, though no one has proposed that.

Nor has she ever visited the largely dilapidated Delray community in southwest Detroit, where the bridge would empty out on the U.S. side.

Far more telling, however, is what Ms. Schuitmaker said she recently told her local chamber of commerce.

"I have yet to hear one business in my district call and tell me this bridge is crucial for international trade," Ms. Schuitmaker said. "While it may make sense for business on the eastern side of the state, in my district, well … ."

The major automakers say a new bridge is essential. But the auto industry has little presence in Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties, where metropolitan Detroit and its problems and concerns often seem a somewhat frightening world away.

Like many other legislators, Ms. Schuitmaker has accepted a few small political contributions from one inhabitant of that world, Mr. Moroun. He donated $1,000 to her Senate race last year.

She also has been pressured to oppose the bridge by Americans for Prosperity, which she laughingly indicated she knew was a front for the Ambassador Bridge owner.

Still, she says: "I'm reserving judgment; I'm keeping an open mind."

Governor Snyder strongly believes a new bridge is essential to the prosperity of the entire state. But it is clear that, so far, he has failed to persuade many of his colleagues. If he is to win approval for the bridge, he needs to do a much better job of convincing the Legislature that this is so.

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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