Friday, Oct 19, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Rough-and-tumble Michigan politics anything but simple


DETROIT - There's still a whiff of the old smoke-filled rooms in Michigan politics, and a couple key races in which convention delegates and party bosses, not primary voters, call the tune.

For a full demonstration, tune in this weekend, when Michigan Democrats hold their state convention in Detroit's Cobo Hall. Incumbent Gov. Jennifer Granholm was unopposed in this month's primary, and the convention is certain to ratify her choice of Lt. Gov. John Cherry for another term.

But the convention will also pick nominees for a host of other offices. These include candidates for the state Supreme Court and state board of education, plus the boards that run Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State.

Those offices normally draw little attention. But two other, far more important contests do - the nominations for secretary of state and attorney general. For nearly half a century, Democrats held both offices, virtually unchallenged. Now, they hold neither. This weekend, they hope to nominate candidates who can get them back. But few things in life or politics are simple.

Winning these races may be secondary, incredible as that sounds, to the party's need to balance the ticket and keep the perpetually squabbling Democratic factions on an even keel.

Four years ago, both seats were open. Democrats nominated a black lawyer and Granholm pal, Melvin Butch Hollowell, for secretary of state. Democrats have, in fact, nominated an African-American for that office since 1966. He lost in a landslide to Terri Lynn Land. (His career was later destroyed by a prostitute scandal.)

So what's the game plan this year? Hanging over everything is the governor's race, in which incumbent Democrat Granholm faces a strong challenge from wealthy businessman Dick DeVos. To win, the governor needs a large turnout in Detroit - and a mayor dedicated to turning out the vote.

But she has never been particularly popular in the city. Worse, relations have been frosty between Ms. Granholm and Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

The governor clearly wanted his opponent in last fall's mayoral election, Freman Hendrix, to win. Earlier this summer, one of the mayor's sometime cronies took out a newspaper ad in an African-American newspaper equating the governor with Adolf Hitler.

The governor needs to make the mayor happy. And the mayor has decided opinions about the races for attorney general and secretary of state. The front-runner for secretary of state is state Rep. Mary Waters, a term-limited African-American from Detroit. Logical choice? Wrong. Ms. Waters supported Freman Hendrix last fall. The mayor finds her unacceptable. Party leaders are casting about for another candidate, possibly Carmella Sabaugh, the Macomb County Clerk. Macomb is an important county, and Ms. Sabaugh is highly regarded.

This race matters less because privately even most Democrats regard the incumbent, Terri Lynn Land, as unbeatable.

That's not the case in the attorney general's race. M. Scott Bowen, a 41-year-old former judge from Grand Rapids, has worked hard for the nomination. He's raised a lot of money, and though he still has limited name recognition, is barely behind incumbent Mike Cox in the polls. He offers charisma and geographic balance.

But he is likely to be denied the nomination. Why? Because Mayor Kilpatrick would prefer Amos Williams, a Detroit trial attorney, former police officer, and Vietnam veteran. Mr. Williams has support in Detroit - but has raised little money and trails badly in the polls.

Frank Kelley, who served as attorney general for 37 years, says flatly Mr. Bowen is the only candidate who can win. Ms. Waters, who wants to be secretary of state, goes further.

She is accusing the mayor of supporting Mr. Williams because he really wants the Republican to win. "I'm a small fish in the pond. The real goal is to protect Mike Cox," she said.

Why? Payback, says she. The attorney general refused to pursue an investigation of a supposed wild party at the mayoral mansion, a party the mayor denies happened.

Mr. Kilpatrick said, through a spokesman, that those charges are "bogus and unfounded," and that Mr. Williams is electable and will be a fine attorney general.

In the end, it's up to the delegates - who can sometimes do surprising things. Eight years ago, Gov. John Engler thought he had sewn up the attorney general nomination for Scott Romney at the GOP convention - but he was upset by a less electable candidate. That led to the victory of a Democrat named Jennifer Granholm.

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