Michigan’s surprising 2013 could be a sign for 2014

Jack Lessenberry
Jack Lessenberry

DETROIT — What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, there still were people who thought Detroit might be able to avoid having an emergency manager, and bankruptcy was still an abstraction.

Nobody had heard of Kevyn Orr. Former Detroit Medical Center boss Mike Duggan had moved into the city to run for mayor, but few thought he had much chance.

Statewide, there was widespread shock over Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature ramming through right-to-work legislation in a single day. Unions leaders, already stunned by voters’ emphatic refusal to protect collective bargaining in the Michigan Constitution, vowed to repeal the hated law.

Today, there is remarkably little conversation about right to work, and virtually no talk of repealing it.

So where will Detroit — and Michigan — be a year from now?

Nobody knows. What is clear is that the political landscape today is considerably different from a year ago — especially in Michigan‘s largest city. Nearly all-black Detroit turned to Mr. Duggan, the first white mayor elected in 44 years.

The city, however, is in bankruptcy court and is governed by Mr. Orr, the emergency manager — though he seems to have worked out a unique power-sharing agreement with Mayor-elect Duggan.

As 2014 dawns in Detroit, everyone is focused on key issues: How much will the bankruptcy cost the city? How long will the process take? Will the Detroit Institute of Arts’ treasures be sold? How much will retiree pensions be cut?

Will Mr. Orr leave or be removed at the end of September, the date after which City Council can fire him? If he does leave and the fiscal crisis isn’t resolved, might the governor name Mayor Duggan as his replacement as emergency manager?

Most important, how does the city flourish — or even stay solvent — once the bankruptcy process is over?

Statewide, politics never are far from the surface, and 2014 is an election year. Most of the attention is on the governor’s race, where Mr. Snyder plainly is running for re-election.

Democrats months ago settled on a candidate to replace him: former state Sen. and one-term U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, from Battle Creek. Ironically, that’s Mr. Snyder’s hometown, though the 52-year-old Democrat wasn’t born there, and never knew the 55-year-old governor when they were youngsters.

Though there is vast anger at the governor in many circles, defeating him in November is likely to be an uphill battle. Polls show a potentially close race now, but even Democrats acknowledge that they are apt to be heavily outspent.

Mr. Schauer is a likable former community organizer with no hint of scandal. But he is neither a compelling speaker nor a charismatic personality. Neither is Governor Snyder, whose voice has been compared to that of Kermit the Frog of TV’s Sesame Street.

“Schauer can beat Snyder if he makes it a referendum on the governor and gets a lot of out-of-state money for TV,” said Frank Kelley, a longtime state attorney general who is often seen as the godfather of the modern Michigan Democratic Party.

Whether that will happen is an open question. Republicans control both houses of the Legislature.

The margin is closer (59-50) in the state House, which Democrats have vowed to win back next year. But that seems unlikely, given that they were unable to do so when President Obama was running up an almost half-million-vote statewide margin in 2012.

Democrats are widely expected to gain two or three seats in the state Senate, where Republicans have a 26-12 advantage. But even they don’t see any chance of winning control next year. So far, neither Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson nor Attorney General Bill Schuette seems in serious danger.

Perhaps the Democrats’ best shot at a statewide victory is the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by retiring Carl Levin. Here too, both parties’ all but certain nominees seemed set a year before the primary.

Democrat U.S. Rep. Gary Peters of suburban Detroit is thought to have an edge over Republican Terri Lynn Land, a former secretary of state. Ms. Land was perceived as a moderate when she was in office (2003-2011) and was popular statewide. Ms. Land has moved sharply to the Tea Party right, which may not help in the general election.

As Detroit’s example shows, what seems likely in January can often radically change by the time December rolls around.

This much, however, is for sure: In Michigan, 2014 will be an election year when many voters feel there is more at stake than usual. And Detroit is navigating uncharted waters.

Where the city and the state will be — financially, structurally, psychologically — a year from now, nobody can yet say.

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.

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