DETROIT — A while ago, Mark Schauer, the Michigan Democratic Party’s all-but-certain nominee for governor of state next year, went on a rescue mission with logistical problems.
His brother-in-law, a miner in the western Upper Peninsula, had a buddy who died, leaving a large German shepherd. The future looked bleak for the dog.
The former congressman, who lives in Battle Creek, looked at his wife, Christine.
“OK,” she said. “Let’s go see the dog.”
So they took off for the UP in their tiny Saturn sedan. When the Schauers got there, they decided to adopt the dog. Talk about a crowded car — especially because the Schauers also tend to take Sheila, their slightly arthritic Australian shepherd, everywhere with them. Somehow, they all made it back to Battle Creek.
Next year, Mr. Schauer wants to make it back to government, by becoming the first Michiganian in half a century to defeat an incumbent governor running for a second term.
“Rick Snyder’s policies aren’t good for most people in Michigan,” he says. “That’s why I think we can win.”
It is true that, as of today, the potential gubernatorial candidate is not a household word. Polls show most Michiganians have not yet heard of the often soft-spoken, 51-year-old former community organizer. But remarkably, as of today, many would vote for him anyway.
Since Republican Gov. Rick Snyder changed his mind and helped make Michigan a right-to-work state last December, his popularity has plummeted. A Public Policy Poll this month showed Mr. Schauer leading Mr. Snyder, 42 percent to 38 percent.
The challenger knows it is early and knows “we are going be heavily outspent.” He notes, however, that GOP candidate Dick DeVos outspent his Democratic opponent, incumbent Gov. Jennifer Granholm, almost three to one in 2006, and yet lost overwhelmingly.
Asked how much it would take to beat Mr. Snyder, Mr. Schauer, making a face, said: “Multimillions of dollars. But I think 2014 is going to be a very blue year.” That would fly in the face of historic trends that show an incumbent president’s party usually does poorly in his second midterm elections.
But that wasn’t true in 1998, the last time there was a two-term Democratic president. Mr. Schauer doesn’t think it will be true now, in part thanks to gains Republicans made in 2010.
Mr. Schauer was a casualty of that election, losing his seat in the U.S. House to Republican Tim Walberg, whom he had unseated two years before. GOP lawmakers then took his home turf of Battle Creek out of the congressional district, making it far harder for Mr. Schauer to regain the seat.
Now, Mr. Schauer wants to make a comeback in the state. He believes he could be a more effective governor than Mr. Snyder or Ms. Granholm because he has considerable legislative experience. He was a member of the Michigan Senate, where he rose to be Minority Leader, and the Michigan House.
Asked what would be his first priority as governor in 2015, he says: “To build a better working relationship with the Legislature.”
Mr. Schauer knows that for any Democrat, that has to be a priority. Democrats could win control of the state House next year. But though they are expected to make gains in the Michigan Senate, winning control of that body would be close to impossible.
Mr. Schauer is all about education. He takes a dim view of what has been going on under the current administration. “I don’t believe Rick Snyder and Republicans believe in public education the way the Democrats do,” he said.
Education was important in his life long before politics were. His father, Robert, was a high school science teacher in the GOP bastion of Howell. His mother, Myra, was a registered nurse.
Mr. Schauer graduated at the top of his class from both high school and Albion College. He went on to become an urban planner and community organizer, running a four-county agency by the time he was 25.
He served on the Battle Creek city commission, earning a master’s degree in political science at the same time. He then served the maximum-allowed six years in the state House and eight in the state Senate before winning a single term in Congress.
How strong a gubernatorial candidate will he be? Mr. Schauer has a pleasant, but not charismatic, appearance. Though his voice is less nasal than Governor Snyder’s, he has no catchy slogans. Mr. Schauer sounds more like a policy analyst than a politician who is used to speaking in sound bites.
Former Attorney General Frank Kelley thinks that may not be a problem if national Democrats pour money into the race and make it a campaign about Mr. Snyder.
Mr. Schauer knows he has a long way to go. But if he becomes Michigan’s next governor, he is confident that after four years, his Michigan would be a place where residents are happier, prosperous, better educated, and better able to afford an education.
All he has to do is convince voters to agree. That may not be easy. But then, neither was persuading two giant dogs that didn’t know each other to sit in a tiny back seat for 600 miles.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org