Bill Schuette

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.

Bill Schuette Yearns to be Back on Duty: Former Congressman, State Senator and Judge Vies to Be State’s Top Cop

Dome Magazine, 5/16/09

It was November 1989, and boyish Congressman Bill Schuette was supposed to be planning for the race of his life. Instead, the 34-year-old Michigander took a three-day detour to meet with freedom fighters and scoop up a piece of the Berlin Wall.

He’d been in a bull session with consultants about his quest to knock off two-term U.S. Sen. Carl Levin when he flipped on the news. Revolution was brewing in East Berlin and something told him that he had to be there.

“I was thinking about (Ronald) Reagan,” recalls Schuette. “I was part of that Reagan Revolution, you see. And he had said, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.’ And Gorbachev didn’t, but the Germans did.”

He didn’t end up winning that race in 1990. In fact, his 16-point loss was the only one of his career. But for the Midland Republican, the trip to Germany was the ultimate confirmation that a strong national defense combined with tax cuts and very limited government not only worked, but bred freedom around the world. It’s the same philosophy that guides Schuette 21 years later, as he smiles at the slab of stone adorning his downtown Lansing law office.

Now he’s gearing up for another election, this time for state attorney general in 2010. Now 55, Schuette still fits the part of the handsome, well-heeled politician ubiquitous in movies, with his wavy brown hair, placid blue eyes, easy grin and pithy taglines (“As a judge, I know the difference between the bad guys and the good guys.”).

Campaign mode is nothing new for Schuette, who’s won seats in Congress, the state Senate and the Michigan Court of Appeals. He looks to be facing two opponents in a party convention fight next summer: Sen. Bruce Patterson (R-Canton) — who can’t help but call him “quite a guy” — and Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester), whom Schuette has already dinged for allowing a tax increase under his watch. The Democratic side is murkier, but will likely include Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) and Richard Bernstein (of “Call Sam” Bernstein Law Firm fame). In the meantime, Schuette is practicing law with Warner, Norcross & Judd and traversing the state, completing an Upper Peninsula swing late last month.

“I’m not going to be outhustled on this,” he says as he flashes a determined smile. “I’ve always worked hard in every campaign I’ve run. It’s shoe leather and listening and connecting on values I think I and a lot of people in Michigan share.”

Schuette is vying to be “part of a new team that moves us in a new direction” in Michigan, whose poor economy is threatening to make the state a “sleepy little backwater where people from Chicago come to vacation.” He’s confident that history is on his party’s side and 2010 will be a “great” Republican year.

“(There’s) just this huge expansion of government with the Obama administration,” he shakes his head. “And I want our country to succeed, but the policies being advocated in Washington with nationalized health care, intrusion into our economy, I just think it’s wrong. And foreign policy, as well — (Obama’s) pattycake with Hugo Chavez. I just think that’s not what we should be doing. I think as these promises get more and more implemented, there will be a voter reaction to it the Republican way.”

‘Audacity of hope’

The way Bill Schuette tells it, he didn’t really lose in 1990.

He’d long chased Cynthia Grebe (“We went to the same bus stop, grade school, junior high, high school. And she ignored me for 20 years,” he bemoans). While on the stump in Grand Rapids, where Grebe was a television anchorwoman, he finally convinced her to have dinner. In less than six weeks, they both knew that was it.

“Within days of the election in 1990, I’d asked her to marry me. That was kind of my ‘audacity of hope,’” Schuette chuckles. “I had the audacity to ask my wife, this woman, Cynthia, to marry me, when I had lost the election, had no job and I was hoping she’d say yes.”

She did. It wasn’t long after that Schuette found gainful employment, this time as state agriculture director under Gov. John Engler, who had worked on his ’84 congressional campaign. The newlyweds settled in their hometown and soon had two children: Heidi, who was just rewarded for her 16th birthday with a silver Tonka Porsche Carrera from her dad, and Billy, 13, a star second baseman. Inspired by her husband’s job, Cynthia also conceived the idea of a charity, Michigan Harvest Gathering, which has since raised almost $7 million and more than seven million pounds of food. Schuette has been a chief fundraiser.

“Of all the various things, activities, responsibilities that I’ve done in government, the Michigan Harvest Gathering may be the most important and substantive,” he says.

The youngest of three children, Schuette was born in Midland, where his high-school-sweetheart parents had settled in 1941 for William Sr.’s job. He was in line to take over as CEO of Dow Chemical Company in 1959, but he died of a heart attack. When his namesake was in college at Georgetown University, his widow, Esther, married Dow Chairman Carl Gerstacker. Today, Bill Schuette helps oversee the family fortune on the boards of the Rollin M. Gerstacker and the Elsa U. Pardee foundations.

Schuette certainly inherited the clan’s business-savvy, but decided as a youngster to channel that into public service. (When he talks about his latest run, he does point out he’ll be “running a small business called ‘Bill Schuette for Attorney General.’”)

Dave Camp, who succeeded Schuette in Congress, grew up next door and recalls his best friend was “always interested in politics from day one.” When asked if he had always been a Republican, Schuette seems bemused. “Oh, yeah, absolutely,” he says, as if there is only one answer to that question.

He credits his time as a lawn boy for former Republican National Committeewoman Ranny Riecker as inspiring his first campaign. “I would rake leaves and cut the lawn and she and I would just talk politics,” he recalls. “And so she encouraged me to run for precinct delegate when I was 18. So I did.”

Soon afterward, Schuette joined the office of U.S. Rep. Elford Cederburg, followed by a stint on Gerald Ford’s 1976 reelection campaign, where he worked under Jim Baker. Three years later, while in law school at the University of San Francisco, Schuette answered a call from his old boss, who asked, “You want to work for a guy named George Bush?” He did, in both Florida and Michigan, knowing that he wanted to hit the campaign trail himself someday.

That time came in 1984, when Schuette ousted three-term U.S. Rep. Donald Albosta. The bachelor made a splash in Washington, toasted in Roll Call’s list of hunks on the Hill. (When asked if he ever reminds his wife of that, Schuette laughs, “All I know is Friday is garbage day. So I’m humble, that’s for sure.”)

Schuette’s strategy

Some politicians hate the stump, regarding the rubber-chicken circuit as a necessary evil. Not William Duncan Schuette, which is perhaps why he’s run for such a wide array of offices in the last quarter-century. He loves talking strategy and is particularly proud of his first campaign breakthrough, which he recounts in his effortless, homespun way.

“When you run for office, you hire all sorts of pollsters and media artists and people that are so smart,” Schuette says. “But no one came up with any decent way to deal with my name. And one Sunday afternoon, I went to my mother’s house. …And she said, ‘Bill, I have the idea.’ And she had a little piece of paper that had a shoe plus ‘T’ — and we took that idea and put that on billboards all across Michigan. So sometimes the best ideas come from home.”

Then there’s the “On Duty Bill Schuette” slogan, which he’s reviving for the AG campaign. The genesis of that might have come from Schuette’s student council secretary speech in fifth grade, when he vowed, “I’ll do my duty.” The handwritten lines are tucked inside his office drawer today as a reminder.

Known as a risk-taker emboldened by his family fortune, Schuette gave up his safe congressional spot, determined to wrest the U.S. Senate seat from Levin in ’90. Four years after that failed campaign, he was back on the horse, running for the state Senate at the urging of Engler and Gerstacker. This time, he won handily.

The staunch conservative ended up sparking a friendship with fellow Sen. Gary Peters, even though he said they “always had completely different, opposite philosophies.” The pair started the Senate Breakfast Group, a monthly, bipartisan, off-the-record gabfest that lives on today. Peters, now a freshman congressman from Bloomfield Township, recalls being “aggressive adversaries on the floor — we mixed it up,” but said bonding over their families led to a solid working relationship on economic development issues.

“He’s not bashful,” Peters says. “He stands up for something he cares very deeply about.”

Schuette spent eight years in the Senate before term limits kicked in. After flirting with an attorney general bid in 2002, he instead ran for the Appeals Court and won. In the spring of 2007 he starting mulling an AG run again with Cynthia (“We talked about this, discussed it, prayed upon it for about 10 months…and felt very peaceful with our decision.”). He recalls breaking the news to his kids over breakfast.

“One of them blurted out, ‘Daddy, how can you leave your job in the middle of a recession? Didn’t you watch The Today Show?’ True story. And then the other one said, ‘Are they going to say bad things about you just like they said about Governor Granholm?’ And I warned her and said, ‘Yeah, probably, when this is all over.’”

As Schuette was weighing his next move, he played a critical role in two ballot proposals last year. He ended up serving as chief judge on the three-judge Appeals Court panel that killed Reform Michigan Government Now!, a sweeping constitutional amendment hatched by the Michigan Democratic Party and unions that would have altered the redistricting process, cut the number of state-level judges and lowered pay for all three branches of government. Schuette doesn’t hold back his feelings about the measure, blasting it as the “Democrats’ Pearl Harbor — a sneak attack” and an attempt to “hijack the constitution.”

The judge ended up earning even more ire for heading up the No campaign for Proposal 1 that would legalize medical marijuana. He knew it was an uphill battle, but says philosophically, “I played a lot of baseball when I was a young guy, when I was a boy, and I never took a 3-2 pitch. You swing. Sometimes I hit home runs, sometimes you had a single, maybe even strike out.”

The proposal passed with more than two-thirds of the vote, but Schuette was named the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police Public Servant of the Year. That sparked speculation that he was just using the issue as a platform for his AG campaign, something he firmly denies. He also disclosed in a radio interview that he had used marijuana, which has inspired state Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer to lampoon him as “Bill ‘Bong’ Schuette.”

“Talk about rank hypocrisy,” Brewer declares. “On the Court of Appeals he wasn’t a fair or impartial judge at all. He served the right-wing agenda that put him there.”

Schuette bats away criticism, musing, “I think I came out just fine. A lot of that’s ancient history.”

Closing argument

Schuette is eager to make his case for attorney general, repeating it at the end of a recent interview as sort of closing argument. His No. 1 priority is being the chief law enforcement officer for the state, and he stresses his experience as a judge that no other candidate has. Other issues at the top of the list are fighting public corruption, protecting consumers, tackling cyber crime and cracking down on deadbeat parents.

He’s also hoping to work with a new Republican governor, though he hasn’t endorsed anyone yet (“I’m encouraging everybody,” he laughs), to beat back business-unfriendly bureaucracy in the state. “That’s a new element I want to work on,” Schuette says. He has high praise for current AG Mike Cox, who is running for governor, and says he wants to build on his success.

“You need to have a strong, tough, decisive attorney general, and I was a strong, tough, decisive judge,” Schuette says. “So I think I fit the bill, so to speak. …I’m prepared to lead on day one.”

That’s the same line used by Camp, his former chief of staff who often functions as his alter ego. “I’m doing what I can to help,” Camp says. “He has the right kind of experience.” Engler has also given Schuette his blessing, calling him “superbly prepared to be attorney general, to be a leader in this state.”

“That didn’t just make my day,” smiles Schuette. “It made my month. That might have even made my spring. And I think that sends a strong statement to grassroots Republicans across the state.”

Though he’s affable and a master of well-honed lines, that seems to belie a certain restlessness, as Schuette has hopscotched through every branch of government. But he doesn’t see it that way, insisting that “it’s all about the journey of service to Michigan. There’s no grand design.”

Nevertheless, it seems clear to many political observers that Schuette covets the governor’s mansion, something he quickly dismisses with: “I have no idea. I’m hoping to be Michigan’s next attorney general. That’s, that’s the focus. I can only see as far as 2010, November of 2010. Who knows?”

Camp is now serving his 10th term in Schuette’s old seat, rising to ranking member on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. But Schuette says he doesn’t have any “road not taken” moments, declaring that he is “so delighted” for his compatriot. The key, he says, is working to get Camp in the majority again so the country has the “correct policy” on fiscal matters.

Schuette is keenly aware that far more is at stake next year than his next job. He’s looking to spark a Republican resurgence, which he believes will happen if the party stays true to the principles of Reagan, cutting government and axing the Michigan Business Tax.

“Our messengers need to be the very best because I think the Democrats want to control all the statewide offices,” he says. “And they need to be able to carry a tune politically. And our messages need to be crisp and we need to be able to connect with people.”

Bill Schuette knows he fits the bill — and he’s already leading the charge.