Susan J. Demas: Why Are Business Lobbyists Fighting Local Control for Schools?

When you get just about everything you want in life, you tend to focus on the little things.

You could argue that’s what business groups are doing right now in their full-court press against efforts to change Michigan’s decade-old law mandating that K-12 schools start after Labor Day.

Business groups have had a boffo run since Republicans swept into power in 2010. Gov. Rick Snyder and the GOP Legislature have worked their way down lobbyists’ wish lists, starting with the $2 billion corporate tax cut (mostly paid for by a $1.4 billion tax hike on individual ratepayers like you and me).

The most well-known victory came in 2012 when Republicans launched a lame-duck blitz to make Michigan — home of the UAW — a Right to Work state.

But it didn’t end there. They’ve won reforms (i.e. cuts) to myriad business regulations, the Personal Property Tax, unemployment benefits and workers’ compensation. And they beat back efforts to beef up roads and infrastructure spending by taxing businesses. Once again, the tax and fee hikes fell to individuals.

Don’t get me wrong. As an entrepreneur, I like efforts to improve the state’s business climate. But small business owners like me with LLCs haven’t benefited much from tax changes. And the state wiping away tax credits for my kids and charitable donations has definitely stung.

Anyway, it’s truly impressive how many victories business groups have scored in Michigan in such a short time. No doubt it will serve as a blueprint for what lobbyists across the country can achieve.

In fact, the only big-ticket business agenda item left is scrapping the state’s one-of-a-kind no-fault insurance system, which has been political poison for years. Doctors and car crash victims are tough opponents, so reform efforts have still repeatedly stalled.

So now it’s on to smaller fights like a rather innocuous legislation introduced by Sen. Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy) giving school districts flexibility to decide when their school year begins.

The bill is all about the conservative principle of local control. Why should the state mandate something like this with no compelling educational reason? It’s micromanaging at its finest.

On the other hand, there’s solid evidence that this bill represents good educational policy. Knollenberg argues that his bill would put Michigan on track with the rest of the country.

Back in 2011, the nonprofit Center for Michigan released an impressive report showing how hundreds of school districts fell below the typical 180-day school calendar other states have. We’re also getting lapped by other countries — whose students have higher test scores. The report noted that Korean students are in school an average of 225 days a year, while Japanese students spend 220 days in the classroom.

That, no doubt, helped prompt the Legislature to reinstate the 180-day standard for this school year.

But it’s a challenge for school districts to meet that requirement while starting after Labor Day. They currently have to apply for waiver to start in August. This legislation would eliminate red tape, which is also something conservatives usually support.

So what’s the problem? Why have business groups, led by the powerful Michigan Chamber of Commerce, poured $1.4 million into opposing this effort over the last five years, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network?

It comes down to a lot of hyperventilating that this will kill tourism in Michigan.

Now former Rep. Ed Gaffney (R-Grosse Pointe Farms), who sponsored the 2005 post-Labor Day start date law, said tourism wasn’t a factor for him. He just wanted “kids to be kids” and enjoy a longer break. But he acknowledges the bill only took off after business groups glommed onto it, claiming it would be a boon to tourism.

So let’s get real. If kids going back to school a few days early is enough to singlehandedly destroy the tourism industry, it’s probably pretty fragile to begin with. And last time I checked, economic conservatives believed that if industries can’t sustain themselves in the free market without a boost from the government, they don’t deserve to survive.

Coincidentally, the quasi-governmental Michigan Economic Development Corp. has dumped $261 million into the gauzy “Pure Michigan” tourism advertising campaign over the last decade. The free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy has pointed out the wastefulness and ineffectiveness of this program for years, but folks from both sides of the aisle seem enamored by the feel-good spots with soothing Tim Allen voiceovers. So nobody ever takes on this sacred cow, even though it’s a perfect example of government inefficiency and meddling.

Now my love of traveling is well-established; I write about my adventures frequently. But I love my kids getting a better education more.

So will Knollenberg’s bill single-handedly turn around Michigan’s educational system? No, and no one is claiming it will. But it’s a common-sense step in the right direction.

And it’s a real shame that supposedly conservative business groups are going after him for championing what’s a truly conservative piece of legislation.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: How Trump Is Slaying Political Apathy

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas

WASHINGTON, D.C. — If you’d like to see what the heart of the anti-Donald Trump “Resistance” looks like, wandering around the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial here is a good place to start.

I happened to be visiting on April 4, the day that James Earl Ray put a bullet in the civil rights hero’s head outside his Memphis hotel room. The memorial, which opened just five years ago, was easily the busiest site in the city that week.

The 30-foot granite likeness of King seems to watch over the Tidal Basin, which was still abloom with a few cherry blossoms. But perhaps the most impressive part of the monument is the quotes, some of which sadly don’t seem to have aged at all:

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Normally when I’m traveling, even in our nation’s capitol, I have to prod people to talk about politics. But not this time; conversations about President Trump, Syria, Russia and racism buzzed around me. What struck me was that there was some anger at Trump’s policies, but there was an awful lot of hope for the future.

And it wasn’t just in the belly of the beast. From highway rest stops in Ohio to trails in the blue mountains of Shenandoah, no one could keep their traps shut about the news of the day. It was like staggering around one of my fever dreams close to an election.

I started writing my column exactly a decade ago. This was after fighting for years with an endless stream of editors who told me that no one cares about politics anymore — and certainly no one cared what a twentysomething woman thought about things. Eventually, I think I just wore one of my bosses down.

I had been one of those annoying kids who was always interested in politics. It wasn’t that I was obsessed with the pageantry or the process — I didn’t beg my parents to stay up late to watch political conventions or election results. But I was deeply interested in what was happening in the world and who was being left behind. It was one of the many, many reasons why I was never popular.

So I tried to write my column for people who generally hated politics, those who I imagined had just stumbled upon my work on their merry way to the sports section. I would break down the state budget, give colorful character sketches of politicians and try to make people laugh with at least one good line.

But as newspapers continue to hemorrhage money, fewer and fewer of them are willing to invest in paying journalists, especially columnists. So in recent years, I’ve found myself writing more and more for publications that cater to political junkies.

The disgust with politics seemed to reach a fever pitch in 2016, as the old chestnut resurfaced (particularly popular with younger people) that there’s really no difference between the parties. Why even vote? Trump or Hillary Clinton — it was all the same. Both were corporate tools and Clinton might actually be worse, as Green Party nominee Jill Stein oh-so-helpfully crowed.

Apathy is a killer. So is cynicism. The worst actors in politics bank on both. But when I’ve tried to make this case to my politically inactive friends, their eyes tend to glaze over.

Trump’s first 100 days have been a rude awakening for many, from his Muslim ban to rollbacks on LGBT rights. There have been marches all across the country — not just during his pitifully attended inauguration. Republicans keep facing raucous town halls. And the GOP came dangerously close this week to losing a congressional seat in blood-red Kansas after Trump won there by 27 points.

Readers and old classmates are coming out of the woodwork, suddenly keyed up about what essential benefits will be covered in the GOP health plan and which Trump advisers covertly met with the Russians.

I think a lot of people are coming to grips with the price of trying to be above it all or not caring. You don’t have to care about politics, but it’s all around you.

It’s a little odd to now find that politics is suddenly cool. But it’s something I’ve been waiting for my entire life. And it’s exactly the jolt our democracy needs.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Run, Dr. Mona, Run

Why We Need People Like the Flint Whistleblower To Get Political

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is a bona fide hero.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that without her unflagging advocacy for her patients and the people of Flint, we could still be in the throes of deadly denial about the water crisis.

Many others sounded the alarm, from residents to pastors to politicians like U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), a likely 2018 candidate for governor.

But elected officials’ motives are always viewed with suspicion by the media and public. The default assumption nowadays is that politicians are always looking out for their career first and the people they serve second. Quite a few self-serving politicians — say, a president who can draw money from his myriad businesses at any point without disclosing it to the public — have certainly fed this stereotype.

So it’s not really a surprise that we’re much more comfortable with non-political figures, particularly Hanna-Attisha and Virginia Tech Professor Mark Edwards, serving as the proverbial “white hats” in this wretched story.

But when you have a public health crisis of this magnitude, you can’t avoid politics for long. After all, the state, and to a lesser degree, the federal governments are the reason why people were poisoned, according to Gov. Rick Snyder’s own task force. And the government ultimately has the responsibility to help those harmed and make damned sure this never happens again.

Last year, both Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, spent a lot of time in Flint before Michigan’s March primary. They even agreed to a last-minute presidential debate in the city.

None of the GOP hopefuls bothered to stop by and Donald Trump only visited the non-operational water plant there long after he secured the nomination. But that didn’t stop Republicans like Snyder and now-Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel from sniffing that Democrats were politicizing the tragedy.

I’m on record noting that everyone politicized the crisis and no one should care. At least it brought some much-needed attention and aid to the long-suffering city.

Hanna-Attisha first dipped her toe in political controversy when she couldn’t stop shaking her head “no” at a Snyder administration’s January 2016 press conference. The physician took issue with how then-Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyons minimized the damage caused by lead poisoning. A year later, Snyder smartly appointed Hanna-Attisha to serve on his Child Lead Exposure Elimination Commission.

There was certainly some private grousing among Republicans that the pediatrician was making Snyder look bad over Flint, but people were smart enough not to say so publicly.

But the grumbling has gotten progressively louder after Hanna-Attisha spoke this winter at the Michigan Progressive Summit, which is kind of like Lollapalooza for liberals. The Iraqi-born immigrant praised the 1936 Flint sit-down strike and slammed the Emergency Manager law for being “undemocratic.” She revealed she’s not a fan of the Electoral College and criticized gerrymandering.

She also wrote a powerful New York Times op-ed on Trump’s Muslim ban, noting that her family arrived in the United States in 1980 “full of hope, trading a future of war, fascism and oppression for one of peace, freedom and opportunity.” The doctor argued they would have been denied entry to the country if the ban had been in place, which is causing the “American dream to fade away.”

And Hanna-Attisha accompanied Kildee to Trump’s address before the joint session of Congress. She issued a joint statement with him afterward slamming the president for failing to mention Flint and vowing to cut the Environmental Protection Agency.

She’s told the media she’s not going to run for office. But this will probably all make her a political target anyway. The right-wing Independent Women’s Forum just published a mocking post on the “March for Science” this month in Washington, which appeared to question the physician’s qualifications to speak there.

Hanna-Attisha will likely soon be subject to admonishments from conservative and centrist opinion-makers that she’s sullying her cause by “getting political” or becoming an unwitting tool of the left. That’s naturally pretty insulting to someone with a medical degree.

And it also underscores a destructive, self-sabotaging force in politics today. Most people — even those who work in and around government — agree that politics is a filthy, filthy business. And so therefore, anyone who sullies their hands by speaking out or running for office is viewed as being somewhat tainted.

That’s, of course, a terrific (and perhaps a deeply cynical) way to drive good people away from politics.

Think about it. Why wouldn’t we want people making positive change in Flint or anywhere else to talk publicly about political problems or make the leap to being a candidate for office? That’s how this is supposed to work.

I understand why Hanna-Attisha may not want to run for anything. She would lose plenty of friends and discover she has enemies she never imagined. Her personal life would be put under a microscope and judged. And some of the same folks who fell over themselves praising her unselfish work in Flint would now finger-wag that she’s just a typical politician.

But we desperately need people like Hanna-Attisha in public service, now more than ever. And if our political culture drives people like her away, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s irrevocably broken.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Can Brian Calley Balance Family with Running for Governor?

Let’s take a ride in the Wayback Machine, back to the summer of 2013.

Former Rep. Barb Byrum (D-Onondaga), who was once silenced after uttering the word “vasectomy” during an abortion debate on the House floor (the horror), was now keeping a busy schedule as Ingham County clerk. She also was being mentioned as a possible 2014 running mate for Democrats’ presumed gubernatorial nominee, Mark Schauer.

That brings us to an episode that the satirical D.C. website Wonkette dubbed: “Michigan Lady Might Run For Office Even Though She Has Children, What Is Even Up With That?”

Yes, in an interview with subscription-only MIRS (full disclosure: I once worked there), Byrum was repeatedly asked about how being a mom might be a problem if she ran for LG:

“Reminded that being on the ticket means less family time with her 3-and 5-year-old children, one of whom enters kindergarten this fall, she noted, ‘I’ve been doing that running around the state.’

“The clerk and former House member has already attended Democratic Party functions in Kalamazoo, Manistee and Muskegon promoting election and redistricting reforms. She’s scheduled to speak to a group in Jackson County, Marquette County and, possibly, Monroe.

“But don’t the children want Mom at home? MIRS wondered.

“‘I think a 3-and 5-year old want daddy home. They want mommy home,’ Byrum said. She added that would be a factor in her decision-making process if it gets that far. ‘If I am asked it would be a conversation to have with family and supporters,’ she concluded.”

After the interview netted national mockery, as well as criticism from the media watchdog group Name It, Change It, MIRS pulled the passage and did a follow-up story. It seems that a female reporter there also noticed that there were some problems.

I, too, happen to be a Lady Reporter who occasionally stumbles across sexism and double standards in politics (you may retreat to your fainting couch now). In a column I wrote after the debacle, I noted that Lt. Gov. Brian Calley is never asked about the pressures he faces balancing work and a young family.

Calley, who’s now weighing a 2018 bid for governor, won a seat in the state House at age 29. His middle child was born two weeks after the election (“So that’s all she’s ever known,” the father of three told me last month). He’s spoken at length about her autism, and he’s long been a vocal advocate for insurance coverage for those on the spectrum. Calley has also been public about his youngest daughter’s heart surgeries. And his wife, former Ionia County Commission Chair Julie Calley, was just elected to his old House seat in November.

But go ahead and search stories on the LG, far and wide. I’ve yet to come across any that ask him about his work-life balance, which is a fairly standard question for women in politics (or any female who achieves professional acclaim). Even Hillary Clinton was asked how she could juggle running for president with being a grandmother, for God’s sake. That’s a question that was never hurled at Donald Trump or Mitt Romney.

This is just one of the subconscious biases (yes, I said it) that reporters carry with them, like presuming that any crime committed by someone who’s Muslim is terrorism.

Newsroom diversity is a hot-button topic after Trump’s victory last year, with some arguing that we need more conservative, working-class and military voices in the media. I have no issue with that, especially as someone who lived in poverty for years. (When I got my first journalism job in 2001, it paid $10 an hour — which was a huge raise after subsisting on multiple minimum wage jobs). I also think that women, African-Americans, LGBTs, Latinos and Asians in the newsroom bring vital perspectives to coverage, and there shouldn’t be a knee-jerk inclination to suddenly discount their voices.

Anyway, talk is cheap. So when I sat down with Brian Calley last month for an in-depth interview for my publication, Inside Michigan Politics, I asked him the question men are never asked:

“IMP: Given the fact that you do have three young kids — and you’ve talked extensively about your daughter, Reagan, having autism and your youngest daughter, Karagan, who had a heart condition — do you feel like you’re able to balance raising a family and possibly taking on the challenge of running for governor?

“Calley: Well, I think regardless of what happens in the — regardless of what happens and my future looks like, I feel that I have finally figured out how to balance life and make sure I take care of my top priorities, which are — my top responsibility, which is my family, while also doing a good job at being lieutenant governor. I wish I could go back 10 years ago and talk to myself and give myself a few hints about how to maintain that balance and how to establish the kind of schedule that allows me to be very effective at my job responsibilities without my family having to pay such a steep price for it. So it’s been a learning experience. But I am confident that whether I stay in public service in some way or I go into the private sector that maintaining that balance is something that I’ll be able to accomplish.”

Now, see, that wasn’t so hard. And to his credit, Calley took the question in stride, just like he did when I pressed him about how he’d rate Trump’s presidency or what he’d do differently than his boss, Gov. Rick Snyder, on the Flint water crisis.

I’m sure some critics would say I have an agenda. But then again, wouldn’t asking Byrum if her kids “want Mom at home” also be pushing an agenda (from 1955)?

To me, journalism is about starting a dialogue and making people think. It’s not always a comfortable process — which is precisely the point.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Badge of Honor: How Reporters Can Get over Being Hated and Just Do their Jobs

President Trump’s announcement that he would slash funding for public radio and TV stations in his budget is perhaps the least surprising thing to emerge from an administration that manages to shock the conscience on a daily basis.

This is a symbolic gesture to galvanize the right in the culture war that’s been brewing for a half-century. Time and time again, NPR and other stations have bent over backwards to incorporate conservative viewpoints, like with this recent report on charter schools that was roundly criticized by public school advocates. But no matter how assiduously fair our public media is, conservatives dismiss it as liberal — and increasingly, as the enemy.

But there would, of course, be real-world implications for these budget cuts, particularly for radio and TV stations in small markets — those that have been the hardest hit by layoffs and belt-tightening in local papers and broadcast affiliates.

The biggest losers will be citizens there who have fewer and fewer options to find out news about their communities. While there’s been a proliferation of flashy national political sites that recycle mainstream stories with a heap of propaganda or outright lies, they won’t tell you what’s going on in your local school district or township hall.

And Trump’s move was meant to send an unmistakable message to all media: “There are consequences for reporting things I don’t like, so be very, very careful.” Some charter members of the access journalism movement are already on board with the plan, like Mark Halperin, who sniffed this week on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that the press “should not be combatants trying to beat the people we’re covering.”

Some of us get into journalism to speak truth to power — no matter who that is. Others just want to buy a boat or get invited to tony Georgetown cocktail parties (or the more downscale Lansing equivalent at Troppo).

The Trump presidency is helping to make this distinction crystal clear.

I’m happy to wear my “enemy combatant” label as a badge of honor. It helps that I was never popular in high school — or ever. I lack the insatiable need to be loved by strangers, my colleagues or the people I cover.

That’s been my philosophy during my 15-year career in journalism, working as a reporter at a half-dozen mid-size newspapers in the Midwest, writing a syndicated column and doing analysis for trade political publications.

It hasn’t always been rainbows and sunshine. I’ve had bosses lecture me because a backbencher senator didn’t like me enough — not that he refused to talk to me, just that he didn’t like me. I’ve had an emergency editorial meeting called because a super-sensitive press flack didn’t like a column I wrote criticizing his boss’ campaign strategy.

It’s called working the refs. It’s something that politicians and other powerful figures have been doing since the first newspapers rolled off the printing press. But if journalists allow this kind of interference to impact our work, we’ll cede power that we’ll never get back.

For the last three years, I’ve run the ultimate insider publication, Inside Michigan Politics. And I haven’t changed a bit. I’m still holding leaders’ feet to the fire and figuring out what makes them tick.

And you know what? People still talk to me from across the political spectrum because I know my stuff. I’m tough, but fair.

Over the years, I’ve called out Republican Gov. Rick Snyder for a variety of actions, from caving on an anti-LGBT adoption law to signing Right to Work (after repeatedly insisting it wasn’t on his agenda). I’m quite certain that he and the rest of his administration aren’t exactly my biggest fans. But I just sat down for an in-depth interview with his lieutenant governor, Brian Calley, who in all likelihood will try and succeed him next year. It was a fascinating and candid conversation.

I had a similar dynamic with the previous Democratic administration of Jennifer Granholm, which some of my right-wing critics conveniently tend to forget.

But there’s no doubt that conservatives are more hyper-sensitive these days about media bias, real and often imagined. In my experience, liberals will whine incessantly about stories they don’t like. Conservatives will try to get you fired (and it can work!)

I’ve been writing political columns for 10 years. People know where I stand on issues. I’m upfront about everything instead of pretending that being a journalist has somehow neutered my opinions or made me a moral eunuch. If you don’t like it, fine. You don’t have to talk to me. But most people do.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had conservative Republicans tell me they prefer dealing with me over other reporters who pretend to be unbiased, but they know are definitely liberals.

The truth is that most conservatives assume every reporter is liberal nowadays, so let that set you free. They’re going to try to pick apart anything you write. Any story they don’t like is “fake news,” even when you get every fact correct. Some people just crave propaganda.

I know this is deeply unnerving for many of my colleagues. The temptation to scribble puff pieces to try to appease sources can be strong. Wanting to be liked is basic human nature.

Screw that. We’re here to hold leaders accountable. Your sources aren’t your friends. By and large, they’re trying to use you to get a message out. That’s what they’re supposed to do. And you’re supposed to get information out to the public.

So do your job. Be hated. Respect yourself.

And remember: The people you go home to at night are the only ones you have to worry about liking you.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Is Trump’s War on the Media a Sign of Weakness?

No one can say that President Trump’s war on the media was unexpected. And while the conservative base is euphoric, the bigger question is if the public will view it as a sign of weakness.

Just a month into the job, the new leader of the free world used his vast power to ban from briefings three well-established and well-respected news outlets: Politico, The New York Times and CNN.

Sure, that goes back on Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s December 2016 promise that the White House wouldn’t do so. (He famously said on a panel, “That’s what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship.”)

But Team Trump has made the calculation over and over again that charges of hypocrisy don’t stick when you stick to your guns. And anyone could see where this was going during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Trump jousted constantly with various news organizations — even going so far to eviscerate some reporters by name at rallies. That delighted his frenzied supporters, some of whom started deploying the Nazi slur “Luegenpresse.” Several journalists were assaulted at rallies, prompting some outlets to invest in private security.

The Republican also repeatedly declared that he wanted to change the entire First Amendment to because it has “too much protection” for free speech and to make it easier to sue reporters. After winning the election, his first tweets raged against protests against him as “unfair” and threatened those who burned the American flag with jail or loss of their citizenship.

Talk about taking extreme positions.

Trump has now announced he’s boycotting the White House Correspondent Dinner (i.e. “Nerd Prom”), which is meant to be another shot across the bow at the media. But, in fairness, if that symbol of beltway incestuousness dies, I won’t be shedding any tears.

Now it’s no secret that Trump’s media bashing is a winner with Republicans. Since the era of Richard Nixon, they’ve bitterly complained that the press is biased against them. At this point, this is taken as gospel — no evidence required.

It’s gotten so bad that many reporters I’ve talked to have, like me, had to routinely defend our profession to conservative friends and family who apparently want to hold us personally accountable for all the sins of the “crooked media.”

This animus (and paranoia) has given birth to a robust right-wing media like Breitbart and Fox News, which, not surprisingly, are enjoying unparalleled access to the new administration. Breitbart, which was previously run by Trump’s top adviser Steve Bannon, seems content to function as Pravda did in the bad old days of the Soviet Union (or perhaps more aptly, RT during the era of Trump chum Vladimir Putin).

During the campaign, various reporters commentators insisted that Trump was no worse for the media than Hillary Clinton, who went months without holding press conferences. That was a laughable argument then, as Trump clearly posed a unique threat to press freedom. And it’s been proven especially so since he took office.

Now the argument seems to have moved on to positing that Trump is no worse than President Barack Obama, who also wasn’t fond of press conferences and frequently complained about the media’s shallowness. There’s a slew of hot takes in right-wing media insisting that Obama is the real bad guy (I guess we can safely assume he’ll continue to play the role of bogeyman for the right for awhile).

But this is a tried and true tactic that Trump and his allies used throughout the campaign with Clinton. Whenever criticism came their way, like about Trump’s myriad business conflicts of interest, they stubbornly insisted that Clinton was the same or worse. That probably helped Trump hang onto just enough skeptical Republicans to eke out a win.

The real question is how Trump’s war on the media will play with the general public. Journalists have never been terribly popular figures, as we’re known for being nosy troublemakers.

Now we live in an era where everything takes on political meaning, from the movies you watch to what stores you frequent. So it’s no surprise that people’s views on journalism and specific outlets are colored by politics. And people of all political stripes have pretty strong views on the media.

So Trump may have picked a ripe target in going after the media. Even those who defend reporters tend to include caveats about what we do wrong. It may turn out to be a good political strategy, even if it’s a disaster for democracy.

But there’s one big problem in having a president who spends more time tweeting about reporters and news organizations he doesn’t like than about world affairs. It looks weak, thin-skinned and even erratic.

That’s a much bigger problem for America than any real or perceived media bias. And I think the public knows that.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Welcome to the Liberal Tea Party

Women's March on Washington, January 21, 2017

Women's March on Washington, January 21, 2017

Liberals are often parodied as effete, humorless, latte-sipping politically correct yuppies living in blue-state bubbles.

Variations of that stereotype popped up in a seemingly endless array of hot takes following Donald Trump’s shocking win last year. Politicos rushed to declare that left-wing smugness was the culprit, with many deciding that feckless Democrats were destined to wander in political desert for years to come.

So it seems to have come as quite a shock to just about everyone — the nascent President Trump administration, Republicans who control Congress and plenty of members of the beltway media — that liberals aren’t simply rolling over in 2017.

From the Women’s March in Washington (which dwarfed the attendance for Trump’s inauguration) to protests of his Muslim ban in airports across the country, progressives have proven they’re capable of organized displays of outrage — and even doing so effectively.

Many Republicans and pundits expected Democrats to follow their defeatist playbook after George W. Bush’s narrow, U.S. Supreme Court-decided 2000 victory. The Dems would privately sulk but would largely go along with the new president’s cabinet picks in the name of national unity. They’d work with him on issues that were popular in the polls, while liberal activists wouldn’t be heard from for years.

That wasn’t a bad bet to make. Democrats have been more prone to compromise than Republicans in recent years.

And the party clearly has big cracks cutting through it, as some Bernie Sanders loyalists sat out the general election or voted for third-party candidates over Hillary Clinton. Disaffected Sanders supporters likely exceeded Trump’s margin in the three states that put him over the top in the Electoral College: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

As a result, state Democratic parties are facing upheaval, although an insurgent movement petered out at Michigan’s state convention last weekend. But the Sanders-vs.-the-establishment dynamic is still playing out with the Democratic National Committee chair race.

So you could see why conservatives and analysts might think progressives would be too preoccupied with internecine warfare to fight Trump.

As it turns out, liberals can walk and chew gum at the same time. They haven’t forgotten that Clinton actually won almost 3 million more votes than Trump, even if pundits eager to blame out-of-touch lefty ideas for her loss have.

Every day, the new president does something to make progressives’ blood boil — and it’s fueling demonstrations, donations to liberal causes and interest in the Democratic Party.

Just consider the first month of Trump’s presidency. He’s tapped exceedingly controversial figures, like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a blockbuster GOP donor whose disdain for public schools is well-known to those of us in her native Michigan.

Even more troubling is the faith Trump instilled in now-resigned National Security Advisor Michael Flynn — who has a fondness for baseless conspiracy theories and may have jeopardized American interests with Russia.

Trump also threatened the U.S. judiciary (a co-equal branch of the government, courtesy of the Founding Fathers) after judges rebuffed his sloppy executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

These have been mobilizing events. Liberals regard Trump’s presidency as a national emergency.

Pundits looking for the progressive playbook in the Trump era needed only to go back to 2009. That was when the Tea Party became a driving force in the GOP, spurred by Barack Obama’s historic victory that would usher in the stimulus, Affordable Care Act and Wall Street regulation.

Conservatives packed the town halls of Democratic members of Congress and shouted them down. Now it’s turnabout fair play, with progressives jamming GOP members’ events.

Count me among those who expected the new leader of the free world to get off to a flying start, aided by GOP majorities in both the House and Senate. After all, that’s worked out pretty well for Gov. Rick Snyder, who’s been blessed with strong legislative majorities to rubber-stamp much of his agenda.

I thought House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) would already have his tax cut for the wealthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would have slayed Obamacare as promised.

But Trump’s Twitter tantrums and national security follies are throwing a wrench into the long-awaited implementation of an ambitious conservative agenda. And Republicans are clearly unnerved by angry liberal protests.

Now progressives won’t be able to block Trump and the GOP Congress on everything. There will be plenty of setbacks. But they’re certainly enjoying more early success than anyone ever imagined.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: What Would Michigan’s FOIA Reform Really Do?

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas

As a nosy reporter, I always want to know what politicians are up to.

That’s harder to uncover in Michigan than most states — 48, to be exact. Because unlike those states, we shield both the Legislature and the governor’s office from our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

So while you can unearth a wealth of information about your township clerk’s office or the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, you’re out of luck if you try to FOIA your state senator or Gov. Rick Snyder's office.

I think most people would like to know more about how their government operates. I think they’d like to know how the governor and legislators are spending their tax dollars and how they’re tackling problems, whether it’s the Flint water crisis or House members abusing their offices (i.e. former Reps. Cindy Gamrat and Todd Courser).

But don’t take it from me. Poll after poll shows that trust in government is at an all-time low.

That’s why I don’t buy Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof’s brusque rebuke to journalists: “You guys are the only people who care about this.”

Meekhof (R-West Olive) was appearing on a Michigan Press Association panel last month in Grand Rapids when he dismissed a question about reforming FOIA (full disclosure: I also spoke at the conference).

The good news is that such legislation exists. Reps. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) and Jeremy Moss (R-Southfield) introduced a bipartisan package last term, which passed the House. But Meekhof made sure it died in the Senate.

Now Moss has teamed up with Rep. Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) to reintroduce the bills this term (McBroom was term-limited in 2016). The press conference announcing the legislation was staged with great fanfare, and was attended by both new House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt), Minority Leader Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) and most members of the lower chamber.

Meekhof seems to relish his role as the bespectacled cartoon villain in this scenario, serving as a one-man wrecking crew against open government. (Although there are rumblings that he’ll eventually be willing to allow the legislation on the floor, so long as it doesn’t go into effect until 2019 — when he and the majority of senators will leave Lansing due to term limits).

But I wonder if some of the focus on Meekhof’s obstinence is inadvertently obscuring the fact that the package has serious flaws.

When it comes to the executive branch, the legislation is pretty straightforward. The governor’s and lieutenant governor’s office would be subject to FOIA with a few basic exceptions, such as materials related to pardons or special messages to the Legislature.

But if you read the many bills outlining the new process for getting information out of the Legislature, it’s hard not to conclude that it’s a bit of a mess. Instead of subjecting the House and Senate to FOIA with the same executive branch exemptions, the legislation creates a different law, the Legislative Open Records Act (LORA), complete with a new bureaucratic body.

There are more exceptions for the legislative branch, including advisory communications between public bodies and caucus records (i.e. internal Democratic and Republican communications), which sounds fairly broad. It looks as though the Legislature wants to play by its own special rules.

Another (likely intended) consequence is that as written, the law could put the governor at a tactical disadvantage in negotiating with the Legislature, as more of his/her records could be open to scrutiny.

Under the bills, the House and Senate would put LORA administrators in charge of approving records requests. If they’re at-will employees, that raises concerns about their willingness to disclose information that legislative leaders don’t want the public to see. And I’m concerned that citizens may not have recourse in the courts if their requests are denied.

Most disturbingly, the public wouldn’t have access to records related to ongoing internal or legislative investigations or litigation. That means that LORA would still keep details secret in another Courser-Gamrat debacle. Let’s not forget that the sex scandal, however delectable, was the least significant detail in that case. The Michigan House had to shell out $350,000 to two whistleblowers — meaning that taxpayers ended up footing the bill.

While Meekhof may not believe the public cares about government records, I’m fairly certain that people would like to know more about why hundreds of thousands of their tax dollars were spent in this tawdry episode.

Many of the package’s supporters see it as a good first step and want more transparency measures down the road. You can certainly make the case that something is better than nothing.

But that shouldn’t stop citizens, especially those of us in the media, from casting a critical eye at this FOIA package and digging into what it really will do. That’s our job, after all — and we shouldn’t forget that.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Michigan’s Unemployment System Fiasco Has Damaged Too Many Lives

Being fired was one of the low points of my life.

Sure, it taught me a lot about the media business and basic human nature. And it (quite unintentionally) paved the way for me to run two companies and have far more time with my children.

But as someone who gave their all and devoted upwards of 90 hours a week to work, being fired made me question everything --- who I was, what was important, what I really wanted to do with my life.

I’ve written about this before in columns and humorously in the FAQ in my website, which one dour former colleague begged me to take down (“It has too much about you being fired,” he warned). Honesty is something I’ve always promised my readers, however, which is why I’ve shared my personal experiences, like my miscarriage and being raped, when I’ve written about related policy matters.

So I admittedly have a rather visceral reaction to the fact that there are at least 20,000 cases in which Michiganders were falsely accused of unemployment fraud from October 2013 and August 2015. If I had claimed benefits, I could have been one of them.

The problem seems to have primarily stemmed from a new computer system, Michigan Integrated Data Automated System (MiDAS), which falsely flagged people for committing fraud and thus receiving payments they weren’t entitled to.

The falsely accused were then forced to pay back their benefits –– and were hit with interest and penalties that were often two to four times their original payment. Their wages and income tax refunds were garnished.

As a result, many who were already reeling from the loss of a job —— which is pretty traumatic, in and of itself —— say they lost their homes or had to file bankruptcy. It’s amazing how many lives can be damaged and how many families can be uprooted by a computer program error.

A judge just approved an agreement that halts most collections for those claiming benefits during that two-year period. And the state is looking into another 30,000 cases during that time for possible errors.

But for too many people, it will be too little too late. And it’s fair to ask, as some like U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Royal Oak) have done, why it took so long for the state to admit error and take action to help people.

I began hearing of problems with MiDAS back in early 2014 and discussed this with Tony Trupiano on his Detroit-based radio show. But the state repeatedly dragged its feet and only seemed to respond after TV news shined a light on the problem.

It’s hard not to see parallels with the Flint water crisis. For months, residents pleaded with government officials to no avail about their foul-smelling water that was sickening children. Only after doctors, scientists and reporters started raising hell did the state begin to respond. But that was after too many kids tested positive for lead and too many people died of Legionnaire’s disease.

The poor and unemployed have traditionally been forgotten members of society. As dozens of readers have pointed out to me over the years (often in curiously spelled screeds), these folks deserve what they get. They’re just too dumb or too lazy to succeed, so why should we care about them?

I don’t think Gov. Rick Snyder or his administration are that callous. But it does seem that the problems of the dispossessed consistently don’t rate as high as those of business owners. And there’s been an unhealthy level of skepticism leveled at many who are needlessly suffering.

The governor has less than two more years to leave a legacy. Doing more to help everyday people would be a good start.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Michigan Is the New Illinois in Voter Fraud Myths

I was born and raised in Cook County, Ill. So if you think you have an original joke to impart about dead people voting there, trust me, you probably don’t. I’ve heard them all.

Now elections in our country haven’t always been clean. Chicago, of course, was notorious last century for machine politics and its larger-than-life leaders, like the late Richard J. Daley, subject of the colorful bio simply titled “Boss.” To this day, Republicans bitterly maintain that John F. Kennedy stole just enough Windy City votes to become president in 1960 (conveniently ignoring that vote-counting in conservative downstate areas wasn’t exactly a pristine process).

But presidential elections in Illinois haven’t really been competitive since the 1980s. Democrats have won seven straight elections there.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton thumped Donald Trump by 17 points and almost 1 million votes, even improving on former Illinois U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s 2012 performance. If the Dems stole the state last year, they should teach a master class on theft.

Still, despite a profound lack of recent evidence, the Land of Lincoln remains, for many conservatives, the epitome of voter fraud. This makes some sense, since their crusade against tainted elections is mostly a faith-based proposition.

Consider that in the last election, the Washington Post only uncovered four voter-fraud cases in the entire country out of 135 million ballots cast.

Those inconvenient facts didn’t stop Republicans in the Michigan Legislature from trying to ram stricter voter ID bills through in the lame duck session, although it ultimately petered out. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if the legislation comes back this term.

Michigan is fast becoming the new Illinois. The myth of Michigan voter fraud is growing, with a number of conspiracy theories circulating well beyond our borders. That’s not surprising, as we were the closest state in the country in the 2016 presidential election, with Trump eking out just a 10,704-vote margin.

But because the correct candidate won, it’s kind of odd for some conservatives to keep grumbling about Clinton stealing the state. She didn’t. She lost.

That’s not to say there weren’t problems with Michigan’s election. Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who’s a Republican, launched an investigation last year after voter irregularities were uncovered during the state’s partial recount. Disturbingly, 87 optical scanners broke in Detroit, the Detroit News reported. And ballot box and recorded vote totals didn’t match in roughly 60 percent of the city’s precincts.

But Bureau of Elections Chief Chris Thomas, who probably enjoys the most sterling reputation of any public servant in the state, says there’s no evidence of “anything we’d call fraudulent” so far.

What’s needed is better training for election officials and new equipment. The state is thankfully set to get new voting equipment in time for the 2018 gubernatorial election. But Thomas believes that improved training is the key for smoother elections in Michigan.

Unfortunately, in our choose-your-own-facts era, this will fall on deaf ears. Those who want to believe dastardly Democrats are stealing elections in Detroit (however poorly in 2016) will continue to do so.

And too many Republican officials are willing to entertain their tin-foil hat theories because there’s a practical benefit in laws that typically make it harder for African-Americans and young people to vote. Those are key Democratic voting blocs, after all.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.