I Love a Campaign: A Peek Inside AG Bill Schuette's Blithe Re-Election Bid

By Susan J. Demas, Inside Michigan Politics, 5/27/14

With the advent of the 24/7 news cycle and social media, political campaigns have become joyless, choreographed bores.

Now every flub, every stumble, every freeze-frame photo of a politician scarfing down unfortunately shaped fair food can be endlessly relived on Twitter or MSNBC. And that can be enough to torpedo even seasoned candidates.

So most politicians have retreated to the cocoon of well-rehearsed lines, invitation-only town halls and private, big-dollar fundraisers.

But Attorney General Bill Schuette is from the old-school campaign style of kissing babies and shaking hands at small-town parades. When he announced his re-election bid in March, he crisscrossed the state, gobbling up every morsel of earned media.

And he appears to love every minute of it.

At local GOP Lincoln Day dinners, Schuette doesn't rush in at the last minute for his speech and promptly do a disappearing act afterward. He's there early, chatting up local precinct delegates, party officials and networking college students about what's important to them. After the procession of speeches, Schuette makes the rounds by pouring coffee for guests at every table, like a genteel host of a swell, Mad Men-era dinner party.

“Every cup of coffee counts,” Schuette smiles.

That was a lesson he learned during his first congressional campaign in 1984 when he was a mainstay on the rubber-chicken circuit, and went on to oust incumbent U.S. Rep. Donald Albosta (D-St. Charles) by just 1,400 votes. Schuette vowed to himself that he would never “be a bump on a log at the head table” if he were ever lucky enough to be invited to that hallowed domain.

And he isn't. Some politicians radiate charisma. Bill Clinton is one of them. Kwame Kilpatrick is another. Bill Schuette is a member of that select group --- he's the center of attention in most rooms he enters. Now he probably wouldn't like being in the company of two flawed Democrats. But as a Republican Party activist since his teens, Schuette can certainly recognize the power of possessing that kind of raw, political talent.

Schuette also actively courts the media and eschews browbeating reporters for so-called liberal bias, unlike many Republicans today, while impressively maintaining his Tea Party cred. He's staked out a place as a true conservative in Michigan (contrasting nicely with Gov. Rick Snyder, who's never enamored Tea Partiers). Deftly eading the anti-establishment mood, Schuette won, albeit narrowly, his 2010 GOP convention fight by pinning Gov. Jennifer Granholm-era tax hikes on his rival, then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester).

Still, Schuette underperformed the GOP ticket during a stellar year and has led the unpopular anti-gay marriage fight, convincing many Democrats he's beatable this year. His fundraising prowess and relentless politicking will make him a hard target, however.

The AG's media-friendliness and high profile are another asset, but that doesn't mean he's unscripted. Schuette, after all, learned politics at GOP National Committeewoman Ranny Rieckers's knee (Vol. XIV, No. 29). His well-oiled AG and campaign operations, populated with the incomparable Rusty Hills, a former John Engler acolyte, and amiable former AG Mike Cox veteran John Sellek, are known to email reporters additional background for questions they've asked two minutes earlier --- while Schuette is still holding court at the same press conference.

And like many politicians, Schuette comes armed with his standby soundbites (“I'm a voice for victims; “My job is to defend the Constitution;” “It's part of my record”). But Schuette's gift is weaving those platitudes into long, folksy anecdotes, never losing sight of the point he's trying to buttress. Although he's the scion of a Dow Chemical powerhouse (and stepson of another), William Duncan Schuette usually comes off as a pretty regular guy.

So naturally, there's been talk of a 2018 Schuette gubernatorial bid for decades (especially after he announced he was running for the job known as “aspiring governor”). IMP talked to Schuette last month about this election and the next (this was also before Democratic attorney Godfrey Dillard threw his hat in the AG ring). Schuette also talked about his difference with Snyder, his victory in the U.S. Supreme Court affirmative action case and a bit about college basketball.

The following are excerpts from IMP's exclusive interview. The remainder will run in a future issue.

IMP: Mark Totten has been the only Democrat running for AG, but Democrats have been known to push aside frontrunners at their conventions,often to ensure that women and minorities are represented on the ticket. How will you alter your campaign if it doesn't turn out to be Mark Totten that you're running against?

Schuette: You know, every election is a job interview. You get to state your case and I'm going to take my case directly to the citizens of Michigan as a voice for victims, as a voice for the Constitution and as a voice for Michigan. I'm going to talk about my responsibilities as a voice for victims, voice for the Constitution and voice for Michigan. And whoever the Democrats may put up against me, I don't worry about that. I can control three things: my record, which is strong; my organization, which is the best around, and I say that out of giving them credit, not being rude to others; and thirdly, fundraising. And those are the winning ingredients for a campaign.

And we're going to win and I'm going to get re-elected, but I take nothing for granted. I like campaigning; I like mixing it up, talking about issues and so I'm going to work hard on that. But you have to earn it every day. What struck me was watching the March Madness and all of that, and I think I have this right. And it was after Michigan State, unfortunately, lost to UConn. And one of the players was being interviewed about Shabazz Napier. And this Napier guy was actually the point guard, the quarterback on the basketball court … for UConn. And the player said about Shabazz Napier, 'That guy had the will to win.'

… And I have the will to win. And I don't take anything for granted; I work real hard. But I've got the will to win. And we've got a great team that has that same attitude, as well.

So I'm looking forward to the campaign, but you've got to earn it. And I'm respectful that voters are the employers and I work for the citizens of Michigan. So whatever candidate might emerge from the Democratic decision-making, I'm not worried about that. I'm just going to talk about my record for victims, the Constitution and Michigan.

IMP: Do you think your recent victory with the U.S. Supreme Court on affirmative action will help your campaign?

Schuette: Well, you know, it's all part of the record. That was a monumental decision. And as I said, it was a victory for the Constitution. The decision by the United States Supreme Court was also a victory for Michigan, the citizens of Michigan. Because we enshrined in our Constitution this basic concept that it's wrong to treat people differently based on the color of your skin, your gender, your ethnicity, your national origin. And that's embedded, emblazoned in our Constitution by the voters who overwhelmingly supported that [in 2006]. But it was also a victory for the rule of law. So those are three outcomes of [the] decision.

That decision is part of my record. I'm defending the Constitution --- you know, I took an oath. And I don't take oaths lightly. On January 1, 2011 --- and I say this at a lot of my speeches --- … I took an oath to preserve and protect and defend the Constitution over there on the [Capitol] steps. My wife and my children were there. … That's what I'm going to do.

And I don't half defend it --- I totally defend it and the laws, whether it's the admissions clause, the pension clause, sticking up for cops and firefighters and the Natural Resource Trust Fund provision that I wrote an opinion on saying, 'Hands off. It's not a private piggy bank for folks,' or the marriage clause. Defending the Constitution is not optional as attorney general --- it's mandatory. It's not a discretionary task. It's part of the job.

And so the outcome of the Supreme Court I think was a tremendous victory for the Constitution and it's part of the record. I was hopeful the Supreme Court would make that decision, but as a judge on the Court of Appeals, I never prejudge what justices do. I support my defense; I think it's a positive thing for me. But more importantly, I think it's a positive for the state, the Constitution. This isn't about me; it's about defending the Constitution and the provisions in it.

IMP: There's a natural tension between governors and attorneys general because you have different jobs. Governors often want support for their policies, while it's your job to uphold the law. There have at least appeared to be differences between you and Gov. Snyder over issues like the Detroit pensions, next steps on the same-sex marriage case. Are there are differences or is that a perception?

Schuette: You know, there is a really good relationship and I really like the guy. We have a really good governor. And about 95% of time, we're in agreement, which is about the same percentage as the best man at my wedding --- so I think that's pretty good. But we're not clones of each other, nor should we be. And I don't think people expect us to be. The governor and I have operated differently and that's OK. He's more [Bill] Milliken, less [John] Engler. And again, that's all right.

He's a smart guy and [my wife] Cynthia and I enjoy him and [First Lady] Sue [Snyder]. We just saw him last week; he was in Midland. Cynthia and I enjoy being with the governor. And this is the first time --- people might forget … --- in 63 years that there's been a Republican governor and Republican attorney general. So this is a highway, a path not traveled before.

And I think when there was split political parties in each of those responsibilities, the differences were ignored because that's [Frank] Kelley, that's [Jennifer] Granholm, that's [Mike] Cox, that's Engler, what have you. But I think when you're in the same party, sometimes those small number of issues where you have a different point of view get overblown.

But we kind of have a no-fire clause. It's called the Constitution. And so we work very well together. Sometimes there are differences of opinion. I respect his; he respects mine. The pension issue, again, that's part of my job to defend the pension clause in the Michigan Constitution. That's my job as attorney general. So I've done the other clauses, as well --- marriage, admissions, the Natural Resources Trust Fund. So he understands my responsibilities, just like [Detroit Emergency Financial Manager] Kevyn Orr does. Kevyn's a sharp guy, bright attorney; he understands my constitutional responsibilities. So we work all those things through.

IMP: It's widely presumed that you're going to run for governor in 2018. And I know that most public officials don't want to talk about their future plans. But you've been a former congressman, judge, state senator –-- you've obviously thought about this, right?

Schuette: Well, I've thought a lot about my responsibilities as attorney general, that's for sure. And I'm going to work really hard to make sure I'm elected to a second term and I'm confident that will occur. I don't take that for granted. I'm not bombastic and as I've said that before --- I tell my team we've got to win every day. We won yesterday; we're going to win today; we've got to win tomorrow. The future will take care of itself. There's no grand design; there's no secret plan. I'm going to do my job --- hopefully, do it well and the future will take care of itself?

IMP: Does running Michigan interest you?

Schuette: You know, my calling has always been service. And that's what it's always going to be.