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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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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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.

Joe Schwarz’s Year of Living Dangerously

Dome Magazine, 3/16/10

The year was 1965 and all hell was breaking loose in Jakarta. On September 30, six senior Army generals were rounded up and executed in an attempted communist coup in the poverty-ravaged nation. The ensuing battle for Indonesia’s heart and soul over the next few years would eventually claim a half-million lives and give rise to a new president.

This was the new normal for a 28-year-old doctor-turned-assistant naval attaché from Battle Creek, Michigan. Nearly 45 years later, Joe Schwarz still can’t talk about what he did to help stop the country from collapsing, although he is a fan of the Mel Gibson film about that era, The Year of Living Dangerously (When watching it with his daughter, Brennan, years ago, he told her, “That was your mother and me.”)

“A lot of other people — Americans, the British, Australians — wanted to help the good guy,” he simply says, “and in this case, it was [General] Suharto and the loyal Indonesian military.”

Schwarz would soon come face-to-face with the man who was preparing to take over as Indonesia’s new leader. As the violence was winding down in 1966, he was summoned for a new mission: teaching English to Suharto. Schwarz remembers following him around a big white table in the entranceway of his house, drilling him on basic phrases like “good morning” (“Just the simplest ways to ingratiate yourself in English, because he didn’t speak a word,” he says).

“I was chosen, not because I was the world’s greatest English teacher, but because I was the most inoffensive American — very junior person who couldn’t offend anybody,” Schwarz adds.

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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.

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The Doctor Makes It Clear He’s Definitely In

Dome Magazine, 2/16/09

Sen. Tom George could become the first Michigan governor not to have an undergraduate diploma to hang on his wall since Luren Dickenson in 1939. But the Kalamazoo Republican would still need a place in his office for his stethoscope and scrubs.

Yes, if elected in 2010, George, 52, would be the first physician to occupy the governor’s mansion.

How this happened is a little twist of fate. The year was 1978 and George couldn’t wait to go to medical school. So the University of Michigan junior didn’t.

“I read the catalogue for (U of M’s) medical school. It said you needed 90 undergraduate credits — it didn’t say you needed a degree,” he says. “So I applied.” “It used to be common at the turn of the century,” he adds.

He realized saving an extra year of tuition and expenses would help, as George was the oldest of seven in his tight-knit Roman Catholic family from Flint (“I’m from the city. Unlike Michael Moore, who says he’s from the city, but he’s really from Mt. Morris or something,” he grins.)

So four years later, George walked away with an M.D., but still credits shy of that B.S. in zoology. Last year, the anesthesiologist started thinking about going back for his bachelor’s degree and even made some calls to U of M, but it looks like his quest to be the Wolverine State’s next CEO has intervened.

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