The governor who poisoned Flint: The GOP’s Rick Snyder thought he might be president. Not so fast…

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas

By Susan J. Demas, 4/2/16

This article ran in Salon.

When Rick Snyder took the reins from Jennifer Granholm on Jan. 1, 2011, there was a certain smugness hanging in Michigan’s raw winter air.

The changing of the guard had been fairly pleasant –– the Republican and Democrat had even held a (mundane) joint press conference on economic development. That stood in sharp contrast to the bitterly partisan transition from Jim Blanchard to the man who defeated him in 1990, John Engler, and then from Engler to Granholm 12 years later.

As the state’s first female governor, Granholm had started her tenure in 2002 with some fanfare –– and had even been buzzed about as a presidential candidate (despite being born in Vancouver, Canada). But by the time her second term stumbled to a close, Granholm was badly bruised from leading the state for the better part of a decade-long recession and the near-collapse of the domestic auto industry. Michigan’s state government had shut down not once, but twice, on her watch. She wanted her legacy to be (finally) diversifying the state’s economy, as she cheered for green jobs, but everyone seemed to know it was too little, too late.

It was little secret that Granholm harbored national ambitions, but she’d bet on the wrong horse in the 2008 Democratic primary –– Hillary Clinton. After Barack Obama was elected, Granholm’s name was floated for Labor, Education and Energy secretary, as well as the Supreme Court. But the Michigan governor was doomed to always be the bridesmaid, something spiteful Republicans never let her forget.

So by the time Snyder’s inauguration rolled around, Granholm seemed somewhat chastened, knowing that her unpopularity had helped pad the Republican’s 19-point margin. The only small comfort was that the Democratic nominee wasn’t her hand-picked successor (Lt. Gov. John Cherry had gracefully bowed out in early 2010). The sacrificial lamb was Virg Bernero, who Fox News had anointed as “America’s Angriest Mayor” for his defense of the auto bailout, but his shouty schtick wore thin rather fast. In other words, he was nobody’s first choice.

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Ruling the House: Michigan Speakers Reveal What the Job Is Really Like

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas

Dome Magazine, 1/16/11

The job, if we’re being honest, is a meat grinder.

Sure, you’re lavished with an exquisite chandeliered office, a fancy title and a really big gavel. But you also have the headache of managing hundreds of staff, a couple dozen legislative committees, thousands of bills and 109 other lawmakers clamoring for both your attention and the media spotlight.

“Being speaker of the House of Representatives is one of the most challenging jobs in Lansing, if not the most challenging,” said House Clerk Gary Randall, who’s just entered his fifth decade in the institution. “I’m sure the governor or the Senate majority leader would take issue with that. But the speaker has 110 people to keep focused.”

“The Number One thing a speaker needs to know how to do is count votes, no matter if it’s becoming speaker or passing bills,” says Rick Johnson, a lobbyist with Dodak, Johnson & Associates. “…You don’t create a lot of friends, but you do create a lot of enemies.”

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Book Review: The Life and Times Of Michigan's 'Eternal General,' Frank Kelley

By Susan J. Demas, Inside Michigan Politics, 10/28/15

If there’s one thing people know about Frank J. Kelley, it’s that the man can spin a yarn. It’s what he was raised to do, as the scion of an Irish Catholic speakeasy proprietor ensconced in Detroit Democratic politics.

So Kelley’s autobiography, The People’s Lawyer (Wayne State University, 203 pp.), keeps a lively pace, hitting the highlights of his 90 years --- which, save for a brief stint in Arizona and recent winters relaxing in Florida, have all been spent in Michigan.

The longest-serving attorney general in U.S. history paints a lovely picture of his unusual Depression Era childhood (which included an honest-to-God Shetland pony) and of his idol, Frank E. Kelley. There are the requisite tales of meeting dignitaries like Golda Meir, Martin Luther King Jr. and, of course, John F. Kennedy, whom Kelley calls “my prince.” The book also provides valuable insights into how state government works behind the scenes.

All politicians want to be remembered --- and on their own terms --- so an autobiography is the perfect vehicle for that. But Kelley has a nobler motive for writing this book, as well: “Simply, to convey this message: a life of public service, a life lived in the service of your fellow man, is worth living.”

I suspect that’s why Jack Lessenberry, 63, was inspired to collaborate with him on this tome. Lessenberry’s résumé is impressive in its own right, as the head of Wayne State’s journalism faculty, a national Emmy winner for his Jack Kevorkian reporting, and a gravelly-voiced commentator on Michigan Radio. He’s probably best known as the Detroit Metro Times’ hard-boiled liberal columnist, acerbically unleashing his anguish that our political system is broken. But he’s never given up on advocating solutions.

Just as Kelley has mentored and inspired scores of lawyers, Lessenberry has done that for journalists, myself included. Obviously, the pair share a similar worldview and innate ability to take over a room --- they’re particularly popular with progressive women of a certain age. And their mutual admiration for the Kennedy clan isn’t a secret. Kelley was a contemporary of JFK --- in his book, the president is subject to the kind of glowing praise Kelley usually lavishes on his father --- while Lessenberry’s political awakening owes quite a bit to Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated when he was just 16.

Their similarities don’t end there. Although a generation separates Kelley and Lessenberry, they’re both high-striving, firstborn sons from big, Detroit-area families who saw education as their ticket to making a difference. Both skipped a grade in school, grappled with the social awkwardness that ensued, and eventually earned advanced degrees. And both even found love later in life with librarians, befitting of such well-read men.

Lessenberry, no doubt, would like the focus kept firmly on Kelley --- it is his book, after all. True writers, as a rule, never want to be the subject of another’s ruminations. But as a columnist, Lessenberry has put himself out there for years, in bits and pieces. And as a gifted scribe and fascinating intellectual, his contribution to the book is deeply felt, whether it’s a familiar turn of phrase (“Taxes, as Oliver Wendell Holmes said, are the price we pay for a civilized society”) or his skill in keeping a story on track.

It’s impossible to read this book, the culmination of Kelley’s long life, without thinking of the tragedy that befell him shortly after its publication: His wife, Nancy, 23 years his junior, passed away rather suddenly. The last words Kelley’s father ever spoke to him were: “Worry is a waste of time because the things you worry about the most in life never happen. Enjoy your life, Frank.”

They hang over the autobiography with some irony.

Kelley doesn’t begin his story with his most arresting anecdote, which he saves for the lead of Chapter 18: “On the morning of the Tet Offensive, when the Viet Cong invaded the U.S. embassy compound in Saigon and all hell was breaking loose, I met with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office.” It’s a wise choice, since, as it turns out, Kelley was at the White House for a rather mundane reason, as part of the National Association of Attorneys General annual conference.

Instead, he fittingly starts with his appointment as attorney general, the office he redefined in Michigan. Kelley recounts a fateful meeting with RFK at outset of his AG career, in which he’s told: “I want you to use your bully pulpit. Reach out against injustice whenever you see it and protect the public.” This mantra, along with his admission that he’s tried to “always be a man my father would have been proud of,” defines Kelley’s life.

At first blush, Kelley was an unlikely fit for the the job. After reading Bellamy Partridge’s Country Lawyer, he took its words to heart. He decided to move his young family from Detroit to Alpena, a pastoral Lake Huron hamlet (Kelley earned his skeptical father’s blessing only as he suffered a fatal heart attack.) Frank Jr. became just the tenth attorney in town --- and soon got a firsthand lesson in bipartisanship when Republicans recruited him to be the city’s attorney.

It wasn’t the most auspicious launching pad for a political career (Kelley confesses he yearned to “fulfill his [father’s] frustrated ambitions”), but he had unknowingly laid the groundwork in 1951. After passing the bar, he had a chance meeting with another attorney named John Swainson, who had both his legs blown off in World War II. Just ten years later, Swainson would change Kelley’s life --- the new governor tapped him as attorney general just as he turned 37. (Fittingly, after Swainson’s career had collapsed years later under a cloud of scandal, Kelley returned the favor by convincing Henry Ford II to hire him.)

Of course, Kelley didn’t end up Michigan’s top lawyer by pure accident. As the son of the ultimate Democratic insider, he proved a skilled lobbyist, wooing key labor figures and deploying his wife’s charm in a key interview.

Over the next 37 years, he served with five governors (Kelley stresses that he “never served under a single one”), whom he colorfully describes as “brawlers and gentlemen; a war hero, one who tried to become president; and one who was an authentically tragic figure.”

Swainson was a trusted friend responsible for introducing Kelley to JFK, who was “simply, the most charismatic person I’d ever met.” But the young governor soon lost his 1962 re-election to American Motors CEO George Romney. There’s a healthy amount of bipartisan nostalgia for the reformist Romney years, but Kelley offers some real talk about the Republican: “A completely different creature, a corporate executive who was used to behaving as a captain of industry” who had an “uncanny gift for sales promotion and self-promotion --- and not necessarily in that order.”

It’s hard not to see certain parallels with current Gov. Rick Snyder, a former Gateway CEO, especially when Kelley observes: “The newspapers loved Romney. Nearly all the owners and publishers were Republicans, and they were angry and frustrated that Democrats had held the governor’s office for so long.”

And Kelley does bring us into present day with an astute observation about Mitt Romney: “I have always wondered whether George Romney’s impetuous ego and tongue were the main reasons his son seemed so carefully packaged and scripted during his two runs for the White House.”

George Romney, a titan of industry, and Kelley, who saw his job as “fighting for the little guy,” clashed early on (“I am not going to take any crap from you or your lawyers,” Kelley recalls the governor thundering.) But they managed to achieve détente with the “Treaty of Lansing,” a framework for how their offices could work together.

Kelley served longest with Bill Milliken, “one of the most progressive and far-seeing Republicans I’ve ever known,” whom he affectionately calls a “patrician aristocrat.” They shared power during environmental disasters and civil rights unrest, never letting politics distract from the job at hand. Kelley recalls being “deeply moved” when Milliken told him recently that he was “one of the five or ten most important people in his life.”

Milliken, of course, was succeeded by Jim Blanchard, a Kelley protégé. A partisan to his core, Kelley revelled in a Democrat finally taking back the governor’s mansion for the first time in twenty years. Kelley served as a father-figure to Blanchard, steering him through the rough patch after his income tax hike, which eventually cost the Dems control of the state Senate in 1983 (a condition that persists to this day.)

Kelley’s introduction of the man who would become the final governor he served with, John Engler, is rather cutting, referring to him as “a farm boy who had been elected to the legislature while still a student at Michigan State University.” But he concedes Engler was a “master of the governmental process” and “knew how to get and use power better than any governor in my time.” The two men grew to have a healthy professional respect for one another.

The Democrat didn’t always envision himself becoming the “Eternal General” (Kelley is wise enough to know that any politician making such grandiose plans will typically be upended by voters.) He did run for higher office once in 1972 --- taking on Republican U.S. Sen. Robert Griffin.

Kelley blames President Richard Nixon himself for the “only election I ever lost,” whipping up media furor against him over cross-district busing. Not surprisingly, Kelley’s description of him isn’t kind (“He looked like some woeful stand-in, sent out to check the microphones until the real president arrived.”) The longtime AG convinces himself that everything worked out in the end, revealing that Adlai Stevenson confided that even he “found the Senate a bore.”

As for why he never ran for governor (as most AGs eagerly do nowadays), Kelley doesn’t say, but he does provide this telling observation: “Here’s a dirty little secret about politics and government that you won’t learn in political science textbooks: governors are important figures … [but] much of the time they don’t have all that much to do.”

In 1999, Kelley made the surprise decision not to seek the final AG term he was allotted under Michigan’s new term limits law. “My late father told me that a good public man or woman leaves before they have to go,” he announced at an emotional press conference.

He doesn’t devote much time to his post-government career, although he bluntly reveals he “wanted to make some honest money.” As most folks know, he founded the Kelley Cawthorne firm in Lansing with Republican former lawmaker Dennis Cawthorne (Kelley sounds a bit precious in writing, “To my mild discomfort, we had to register as lobbyists.”)

The former AG was elated when Engler appointed him to the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, joining his partner, who recently penned Rock Fever on the isle’s storied history (see Vol. XV, No. 9.) And Kelley was delighted by the success of another mentee, Jennifer Granholm, first succeeding him as AG and later winning two terms as governor (Kelley can’t help but include her exclaiming, “I owe it to you, Frank.”)

Kelley’s self-awareness is a welcome addition to the book (“Nobody ever said Frank J. Kelley didn’t have an ego --- just ask either of my wives or any of my three kids,” he writes near the end.) That explains his inclusion of an appendix cataloguing his 10 AG elections, noting the 16,212,786 votes he garnered in his lifetime, averaging 61.2%. And Kelley doesn’t leave out the one of his favorite aphorisms: “Vote like you’re a Democrat, live like you’re a Republican.”

While Kelley relishes reliving his professional accomplishments in great detail --- establishing the Consumer Protection Division, helping win the multi-billion-dollar tobacco settlement, and arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court --- he glosses over personal troubles like his divorce, declaring “the details are not important.” Kelley obliquely writes that his ‘72 U.S. Senate loss “produced self-doubt and a personal crisis that affected my marriage and eventually led to the end of it.” Interestingly, he does later mention the alleged affairs of two governors, Engler and Blanchard.

But it’s no coincidence that an aside about Ford II (one of Lessenberry’s favorites) finds its way into the book, even though it’s a bit of a non sequitur (“Ford himself had a hard time with media scrutiny of his private life and two divorces, something he eventually countered with the brilliant slogan, ‘Never complain; never explain.’”) The reader is supposed to accept this premise, tacitly agreeing that delving into public figures’ personal lives is tacky and destructive.

Now self-protection is a completely human impulse --- as is the desire to shield one’s family from pain. Unfortunately, such omissions in an otherwise richly complicated autobiography rob the reader of important insights. All of us are imperfect and could relate to Kelley’s personal trials and tribulations.

Perhaps the book’s greatest contribution is vibrantly illustrating how Michigan government has functioned and changed in recent history. Since Kelley stepped down before the full effect of term limits kicked in, that part of Michigan politics is missing --- but it’s been written about, at length, by Lessenberry and others.

Unlike other statesmen, Kelley isn’t overly sentimental about bipartisanship, but he does see it as a lost art today: “You have to make up your mind to work with people from different parties and very different philosophies. When you fail to do that, you get the kind of paralysis we’ve seen in Congress during President [Barack] Obama’s administration.”

It’s also refreshing that the book isn’t aimed solely at political junkies; Kelley peppers the text with helpful reminders like, “This was back when state officers served only two-year terms.”

In the end, Kelley hopes his story will inspire others to once again see government service as a worthy calling, quoting JFK: “One person can make a difference and everyone should try.” There’s no irony, not a drop of cynicism when Kelley declares: “I know that I tried.”

He then turns the focus from himself and back to the reader, gently entreating: “It’s your turn.”

Rick Snyder: The Nerd Shall Inherit the State?

Dome Magazine, 6/16/10

The truth is, Rick Snyder wasn’t really called a nerd in high school.

The man who captured national attention for declaring himself to be “One Tough Nerd” in a gubernatorial ad first airing on Super Bowl Sunday wasn’t a misfit at Lakeview High School (“I didn’t have a pocket protector or anything,” Snyder says, adding that he played sax in the band).

His G.P.A. and test scores weren’t sky high, although he can no longer remember what they were.

“I was not the highest high school student,” the silver-haired Battle Creeker admits with a smile. “It was a teenager thing. Basically, I was described as bored and occasionally sarcastic.”

But Snyder was a young man with a plan. When he was 14 he asked his mother about enrolling in an Introduction to Business class at Kellogg Community College. Helen Snyder, who went by “Pody,” told him to hold off because their middle-class family only had one car. So Rick came back when he was getting his driver’s license.

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Brian Calley and the Reinvention of the Role of Lieutenant Governor

Dome Magazine, 5/16/11

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley didn’t have to cast the deciding vote last week on the biggest tax overhaul in Michigan in a generation.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville had the 20th vote in his back pocket if he needed it, although several freshmen had told the Monroe Republican they weren’t wild about backing the pension tax and freezing the income tax at 4.35 percent for another year.

But the newly minted LG wanted to be on record for the centerpiece of Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan — and he got his wish, which earned him the lead of most news stories. But before voting in his capacity as Senate president, Calley took the highly unusual step of “asking for the chamber’s indulgence” to make a statement.

Now, the second-youngest lieutenant governor in Michigan history is not an imposing figure — no taller than five-six with a banker’s haircut, and porcelain skin and slightly rosy cheeks somewhat reminiscent of a marionette. But standing on the Senate dais that afternoon, Calley displayed a powerful and almost serene confidence.

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Re-drawing Michigan: How Redistricting Predetermines Many Election Results and Often Leaves Voters without Competitive Choices at the Polls

February, 2011: A 25-page research report for the Center for Michigan.

In the past decade, voters decided 664 races for seats in the Michigan Legislature. The majority of those races were never in question. Millions of votes didn’t really matter. Districts for many state representatives and senators are not competitive. Many seats are engineered for partisan advantage. 

A consequence is the practical disenfranchisement of many voters. As a result, average voters face an uncomfortable question: are our elections truly representative? If voters want true competition and choice at the ballot box, they can’t wait until Election Day. 

Their time for input is now, when the maps are being drawn. Every 10 years, new Census data is used to draw the district boundaries for state and federal elected officials. In Michigan, the state legislature drives this process. 

To inform the 2011 Michigan redistricting process that is just getting underway, the Center for Michigan used state elections data to analyze the results of 664 state legislative races since boundaries were last redrawn in 2001. 

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Double Down: Andy Dillon gambles on big government reforms –– is he willing to bet the house and run for governor?


They had to be the oddest of couples — Andy Dillon, the contemplative, straight-as-an-arrow scion of a Wayne County judge, and Jerry Rubin, the shaggy, larger-than-life member of the Chicago Seven.

But there they were, “running tables” together in New York City nightclubs in 1985. The 23-year-old Notre Dame grad was working as a financial analyst for W.R. Grace when he happened to be invited to Rubin’s house for a party. He hit it off with the founder of the Yippie movement, almost a quarter-century his senior, and the two began a “brief business venture,” as Dillon now describes it. After a few months, he quit, since he had already committed to work as an aide in Washington for then-U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, the Ivy League Democrat from New Jersey.

“But I made more money than I did at W.R. Grace,” the now-Democratic speaker of the Michigan House reveals with a chuckle. “I didn’t know the whole story until it had taken off.”

The whole story, of course, is how Rubin, along with other ’60s radicals like Abbie Hoffman and Michigan’s Tom Hayden, were arrested after the bloody Democratic National Convention riots in 1968. After a theatrical trial (during which Rubin gave the judge a Nazi salute and shouted, “Heil, Hitler!”) he was acquitted of all charges. Rubin had since become a successful entrepreneur, but he maintained that outlaw persona.

“That’s not on my résumé,” Dillon adds, shooting a grin at Dan Farough, his media coordinator, during an interview this month. “There. That’s something no one knows about me.”

Farough’s face blanched slightly. “And now everyone will know in the pages of [Dome],” he murmurs with halting joviality, while moving to quickly wrap things up.

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Mike Bishop Was Born to Run

Dome Magazine, 3/16/09

In 2004, a letter from a precocious child put Mike Bishop’s life into focus.

The son of former state Senator Donald Bishop was a busy senator himself, the self-described “techie of the caucus,” serving on the Judiciary and Banking and Financial Institutions committees in his first term. Before that, the Rochester Republican had spent two terms in the House and had been an assistant majority floor leader. Life with his young family was a balancing act, and yet Bishop still managed to squeeze in time as a senior attorney with Simon, Galasso & Franz and as president of Freedom Realty.

But the workaholic — who’s been known to sneak in workouts at 3 a.m. — somehow found time to slit open an envelope from Roy Kaiser, his former principal at St. John Lutheran School in Rochester.

Bishop suddenly remembered an old eighth grade assignment — writing a letter to himself as an adult, which the principal promised to mail back in 10 years. It ended up taking more than 20, but Dr. Kaiser was a man of his word.

The first lines were a doozy: “Dear Senator: How’s the wife and kids? I know you live nearby.”
Staring yourself in the face can be an odd thing.

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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.

Mike Cox: Street Fighter Stirs Up Contest for State CEO

Dome Magazine, 5/16/10

As World War I engulfed Europe, another battle was brewing in Britain. On Easter Monday, 1916, the Irish Republican Brotherhood stormed through several buildings in Dublin.

After more than a century of British rule, Irish nationals rebelled against fighting another war for the empire and clamored for their independence. And while the British army quashed the weeklong Easter Uprising, as Yeats wrote, a “terrible beauty [was] born.” The Brotherhood begat the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which won the ensuing bloody war of independence in 1922, although the British held onto Northern Ireland.

The Easter Uprising claimed 434 souls and authorities rounded up more than 3,500 suspects, including a young Anthony McGuane from County Clare. The IRB member would be arrested again later on in the conflict, serving a total of four years in prison.

Ninety-four years later, McGuane’s grandson is a veteran of a more civilized form of politics. But Mike Cox — Michigan’s first Republican attorney general in 48 years — would be the first to tell you some of that Irish Brotherhood brawling spirit courses through his veins.

That’s the reason why many believe he’ll be the state’s next governor.

Read more.