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Jack Lessenberry

COMMENTARY

Kildee in prime position to run for Michigan governor in 2018

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Lessenberry

The Blade
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FLINT, Mich. — Dan Kildee looks more like a powerful big-city mayor — or governor — than a second-term member of Congress. Tall, burly, and balding, with piercing blue eyes, he clearly loves not just politics, but also the art of governing.

And he’s got the traditional Irish love of a good story and a twist of irony. Talking about patronage appointments to political jobs, he said: “My favorite quote is what the first Mayor [Dick] Daley said: ‘Don’t send me nobody that nobody sent.’ ” Actually, that’s what a Daley-era ward committeeman in Chicago said to a young Abner Mikva, a future congressman and federal appeals court judge, when he volunteered to work in a long-ago campaign.

But in Flint, Mr. Kildee, who turned 57 last week, is anything but nobody — and the voters have been sending him to represent them since he won a seat on the Flint school board when he was just 18 years old.

A variety of other offices followed. Five years ago, it was no surprise when voters sent him to Congress to replace his uncle Dale Kildee, who retired after representing Flint since 1974. So powerful is the Kildee name — and so popular was his nephew in his own right — that nobody even challenged Dan Kildee in the Democratic primary.

The younger Kildee won by more than two to one, and increased that margin last year despite the GOP tide. Nobody doubts he’ll be easily re-elected next year. But will he run for governor three years from now?

“It’s something I’ll certainly consider,” he said last week in his Flint office, after painting a Habitat for Humanity house. Five years ago, he flirted with running, but backed out rather than face a contested primary in what would be a Republican year.

Mr. Kildee was still Genesee County treasurer then, not a usual perch to launch a bid for the state’s top job. But he was already known as the father of the Genesee County Land Bank, which has won national acclaim.

There is, clearly, part of him that would like to be governor. But you get the sense that his hesitation is not so much because of doubts he could win, but over how effective he could be. Whichever party wins Michigan’s governorship in 2018, the state Senate is virtually certain to remain Republican-controlled.

But Mr. Kildee doesn’t often shrink from a challenge — and prides himself on working across the aisle on issues. Though he is with the minority party and has little seniority, he still says, “I love it,” though he concedes “it can be frustrating.”

He’s spent all but two years of his adult life as an elected official. Shortly after he became Flint’s youngest-ever elected school board member, he founded the National Council of Young School Board Members — and got himself elected its president.

That was followed by stints as Genesee County commissioner and then a 13-year run as treasurer. Most county treasurers are more or less invisible. But Mr. Kildee won national attention after he founded a revolutionary land bank.

Flint was in economic free fall in the 1990s, with speculators buying up properties that were delinquent on their taxes. Mr. Kildee got the state to allow counties to take charge of all vacant land. The result has won widespread praise.

The Genesee County Land Bank has demolished thousands of blighted properties, rehabilitated others, and turned a dilapidated but iconic hotel into a successful luxury apartment building. The federal government and numerous other places, including Lucas County, have studied the land bank as a model.

The “bank that Kildee built” hasn’t been without its critics; some have complained it relies too much on demolitions and doesn’t do enough to maintain the properties it has.

But the congressman noted that Flint itself has been devastated, not just by what’s happened to older cities, but also by the fact that it was the ultimate General Motors company town.

“When I graduated from high school in 1976, GM had 79,000 employees in Flint — it’s about 10,000 today,” he said. Not surprisingly, the city has less than half its peak population.

You would expect him to be passionate about his home town. But Mr. Kildee also represents Saginaw and Bay City. And he is unusual these days in that he cares passionately about cities, and thinks the nation should too.

“We need a national urban policy, one that is informed about the unique needs of cities that are being left behind,” Mr. Kildee said.

“Federal policy towards cities [today] is based on two faulty assumptions,” he added. “... that all cities are growing at some rate, and that all land appreciates in value.” Those assumptions may have been true in the 1950s and ’60s, but not now.

Talking about making massive efforts to help cities hasn’t been wildly popular since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and may be less so than ever in the current Congress.

But Mr. Kildee thinks that cities are essential to the nation’s health — and that too much of the blame for their problems has been attributed to their own failings, such as corruption and bloated pension plans.

“Those can be serious issues, but they are really more symptoms of the greater problem,” he said.

But can a man who is passionately committed to what sounds like old-fashioned New Deal activism get elected governor of Michigan? Susan Demas, editor and publisher of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, isn’t sure. “Kildee is a tenacious campaigner and extremely media-savvy. He’s been boldly progressive,” she said, noting that could cost him votes.

“But Kildee may have made the correct calculation that the voters will respect him for taking strong stands and sticking to them,” the longtime Lansing reporter added.

That could make for a fascinating race, especially if he runs against the expected GOP nominee, state Attorney General Bill Schuette, who has positioned himself on the hard right.

Nobody knows, of course, where the nation will be in 2018. But if Dan Kildee doesn’t run, I’d be surprised.

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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