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Published: Friday, 7/27/2012

Michigan politics growing nastier with no end in sight

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

DETROIT -- General Robert E. Lee brushed aside suggestions that he carry on a guerrilla campaign after the South lost the Civil War. That wasn't what gentlemen did when they were beaten fair and square.

Richard Nixon turned aside suggestions that he contest his loss in the cliffhanger 1960 presidential election. That would have risked dividing the country, he wrote in his memoir, Six Crises.

Both men lived in eras when it was seen as virtuous to accept defeat gracefully. They would have been out of place in today's Michigan.

Unhappy with the Legislature's passage of a strong emergency manager law, forces opposed to it collected more than enough signatures to place a proposed repeal on the November ballot. Under that law, the state can appoint an official to assume the powers of a fiscally distressed city's elected leaders without having to answer to voters.

Gov. Rick Snyder and others who favor the law didn't want an attempt at its repeal to happen. For one thing, polls show it is likely that the public would vote to repeal the law. For another, if the repeal does get on the ballot, the law will be suspended until after the vote.

The Board of State Canvassers deadlocked along party lines about whether the proposal should qualify for the ballot. People who oppose the repeal claimed supporters of the referendum didn't use the right size of type on their petitions. They lost in the Michigan Court of Appeals, which said the type was substantially fine, and that the issue should go on the ballot.

Advocates of the act next went to the Michigan Supreme Court, which is still weighing the issue.

"You never saw this kind of contentiousness before, 10 or 15 years ago," said Bill Ballenger, editor and publisher of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics.

"It used to be that the board of canvassers just magisterially placed proposals on the ballot if they qualified," said the 71-year-old Mr. Ballenger, a keen observer of Michigan politics and government since he served in the Legislature in the 1970s. "Now, it's, 'We don't give a damn. If we don't like the proposal, we won't vote to certify, regardless.'"

He indicated that increasing polarization of the parties is part of the problem. "We actually had one case this year where a member of the board of canvassers was involved in the drive to get something on the ballot -- and she voted to put it on," he added.

That was the "Protect Our Jobs" proposal that aims to put collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. In this case, the member with dubious ethics was Democrat Julie Matuzak.

She was unwilling to admit a conflict of interest and refrain from voting.

It's far from the only examples of partisanship over ethics. This month, it was learned that state Rep. Roy Schmidt and Speaker of the House Jase Bolger conspired to try to rig Mr. Schmidt's re-election by getting a phony Democrat who doesn't even live in the district to file to run against him. They even offered the would-be candidate cash to do it.

But they got caught. The Kent County prosecutor, a fellow Republican, denounced their unethical behavior, and seemed to regret his finding that this was, incredibly, not illegal.

Years ago, this probably would have meant that both men would have resigned in disgrace. But not today. Mr. Bolger says he's not resigning as Speaker, and Republicans have rallied to his defense. Even more incredibly, Mr. Schmidt is still running for re-election, though he's had to admit blatantly lying to voters.

"I've been engaged in public debates on social issues for over 20 years, and the polarization is worse than ever," said John Corvino, chairman of the philosophy department at Wayne State University. He thinks this is "partly a sign of people's general insecurity, economic and otherwise. It's the old trick of making yourself feel taller by cutting off your enemy's head."

The professor added: "Instead of winning debates on the merits, we 'win' by making sure everybody else loses."

More nastiness is likely this year. The Michigan Secretary of State's office is checking signatures on six other ballot proposals. They don't expect to have the process done until August, at which point "whichever side is unhappy with the decision is bound to file suit and drag this into court," Mr. Ballenger said. If there are more ballot access suits, the pressure will be extreme.

The state needs to have the ballot complete soon after Labor Day, partly so absentee ballots can be mailed to members of the Armed Forces serving abroad. Many of the proposals are so divisive that a fall of nasty and bitter campaigning is virtually assured.

Mr. Corvino believes average citizens are weary of what has been called the politics of personal destruction. "I think people are hungry for a better way," he said.

Is there anyone who can offer it to them anytime soon?

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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