Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 2, 2010

Op-Ed: Who'd make the better Governor?

By PHIL POWER
Syndicated columnist

---- — We're about to enter the frenzied homestretch of what is certain to be a bitterly contested political contest, right down to Election day.

From now till Nov. 2, we'll hear all kinds of claims, counter-claims and counter-counter claims, some true, some partly true, some false, and some which threaten the apocalypse.

Thoughtful citizens who try and sort all these out might find cutting to the chase quicker if they focus on the real condition of our state now — and where we are likely to be in the foreseeable future:

-- Fact No. 1: Michigan is smaller than we used to be. Both proportionally — and in terms of actual numbers. Lots of people — sadly including a disproportionate number of better educated youth — have moved away, many saying, "There's nothing here for me." According to ace demographer Kurt Metzger, who runs the Detroit Area Community Information System, Michigan's population peaked at an estimated 10,090,554 in 2005, and then dropped to 9,969,727 for 2009. Official census figures will likely be even lower.

-- Fact No. 2: We're poorer than we used to be. At $47,950 per family median income, we're 26th in the nation, a sharp decline from 13th just 10 years ago. Our loss of relatively good paying manufacturing jobs is the big factor.

-- Fact No. 3: We've got less clout in Washington than we once did. Our sole member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick, D-Detroit, was defeated in the August primary election. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Holland, who had served 18 years in the House and was the ranking minority member of the Intelligence Committee, gave up his seat to run for governor. And Reps. Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, and Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, also decided to retire after almost two decades. All four seats will be filled by people just starting out on the seniority ladder.

-- Fact No. 4: We may well have fewer seats in Congress representing Michigan. As a result of population shifts, we're likely to lose a seat in the House of Representatives next year. That will give us only 14 congressmen. Back in the 1970s, we had five more.

So how do we cope?

As anybody who has ever competed in anything knows, when you've got less than the other guy, you've got to sharpen your focus, hone your strategy and bring on your "A game." When it comes to state government, that's what a governor and a Legislature are supposed to do. But in Michigan, that's precisely what they haven't been able to do for nearly a decade.

Part of the problem has had to do with poor relationships between Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the key legislative leaders. It's pretty hard to hammer out a coherent strategy to compete with other states when you don't get along well with each other.

Partly it has to do with the fierce (and in many cases pointless) partisanship between Democrats and Republicans. With the Ds holding the governorship and the House of Representatives and the Rs the state Senate, there's plenty of opportunity for partisan squabbling to get in the way of developing a common strategy.

And that's what has happened. Gridlock, I'm afraid, is far more usual in Lansing than bipartisan agreement to get things done.

One big part of the problem has to do with the increasing power of single interest groups in Washington and in Lansing. These groups have lots of money to throw around on behalf of their particular agendas, which often have little to do with the common good.

There are lots of these groups — and the result of the collective influence of this myriad of special interests has been to pulverize policy debate into countless tiny splinters of parochial preference.

Practically speaking, this means Lansing policy makers are obliged to construct, case by case, working majorities sufficient to advance each tiny particular micro-point.

Predictably, they often fail — or the policies are mutated almost out of recognition. The net effect is policies formed piecemeal by expedient log rolling rather than through a clear, coherent strategy based on what makes sense. For Michigan, a weakened state in desperate need of strategic competitive focus, this is a big problem.

For contrast, consider the story of a dinner conversation between the great financial genius William Buffett and Bill Gates Sr., the father of the Microsoft founder. What factor did they feel was the single most important thing in their success? Focus, according to "The Snowball, Warren Buffett and the Business of Life," by Alice Schroeder. "It is unclear how many people at the table understood 'focus'" as Buffett lived that word," writes Schroeder.

"This kind of innate focus couldn't be emulated. It meant the intensity that is the price of excellence."

So when Virg Bernero or Rick Snyder's troops come knocking on your door looking for votes, you might ask them just how they propose to bring strategic focus to decision-making in Lansing.

How they answer should indicate a great deal about which would make the better governor.

Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By e-mail at: ppower@thecenterformichigan.net.