Traverse City Record-Eagle

July 29, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: Process needs fix


---- — General Robert E. Lee brushed aside suggestions that he carry on a guerrilla campaign after the South lost the Civil War. That wasn't what gentlemen did when they were beaten, fair and square. Richard Nixon turned aside suggestions that he contest his loss in the cliffhanger 1960 presidential election. That would have risked dividing the country, he wrote. Both men lived in eras where it was seen as virtuous to accept defeat gracefully.

They would have been out of place in today's Michigan.

Unhappy with the Legislature's passage of a strong Emergency Manager law, forces opposed to it collected more than enough signatures to place a proposed repeal on the ballot.

That's exactly what Gov. Rick Snyder and others in favor of the emergency manager law didn't want. For one thing, polls show it is very likely that the public will vote to repeal the law.

For another, if the repeal does finally get placed on the ballot, the law will be immediately suspended till after the vote.

The Board of State Canvassers deadlocked along party lines as to whether the proposal should qualify for the November ballot. Those against claimed the referendum didn't use quite the right type size on their petitions.

They lost in the Michigan Court of Appeals, which said the type was substantially fine, and said it should go on the ballot. But those trying to save the act next went to the Michigan Supreme Court, which as of last week was still deciding whether to decide.

"You never saw this kind of contentiousness before 10 or 15 years ago," said Bill Ballenger, the editor and publisher of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. "It used to be that the board of canvassers just magisterially placed proposals on the ballot if they qualified. Now, it's, 'We don't give a damn. If we don't like the proposal, we won't vote to certify, regardless,'" said Ballenger, an observer of politics and government in the state since he served in the Legislature in the 1970s.

He indicated that increasing polarization of the parties was part of the problem. "We actually had one case this year where a member of the Board of Canvassers was involved in the drive to get something on the ballot — and she voted to put it on," he added.

That was the so-called "Protect Our Jobs" proposal to put collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. In this case, the member with dubious ethics was Democrat Julie Matuzak.

But Republican Jeff Timmer has financial ties to a firm fighting the Emergency Manager repeal. And neither board member was willing to admit a conflict of interest and refrain from voting.

However, they are far from the only examples of partisanship over ethics. Earlier this month, it was learned that State Rep. Roy Schmidt, R-Grand Rapids, and Speaker of the House Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, conspired to try to rig Schmidt's re-election by getting a phony Democrat who doesn't even live in the district to file to run against him. They even offered him cash to do it.

But they got caught, and the Kent County prosecutor, a fellow Republican, denounced their unethical behavior, and seemed to regret his finding that this was, incredibly, not illegal.

Years ago, this probably would have meant both men would have resigned in disgrace. But not today. Bolger says he's not resigning as Speaker, and Republicans have rallied to his defense. Even more incredibly, Schmidt is still running for re-election, though he's had to admit blatantly lying to the voters.

"I've been engaged in public debates on social issues for over 20 years, and the polarization is worse than ever," said John Corvino, who is chair of the Department of Philosophy at Wayne State University. He thinks this is "partly a sign of people's general insecurity, economic and otherwise. It's the old trick of making yourself feel taller by cutting off your enemy's head.

"Instead of winning debates on the merits, we 'win' by making sure everybody else loses," the professor said.

To be sure, some many public servants don't seem very inclined to put the public's interests first. Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Livonia, suddenly quit his seat in Congress without any notice. Legally, the state is obligated to hold a special election to fill the few weeks remaining in his term.

The biggest problem was that a primary election, now set for Sept. 5, was required — a special election that will cost various cities, most of them already cash-poor, at least $650,000.

What is especially ridiculous is that whoever wins will be in the seat for less than two months, most of which time Congress is expected to be in recess. Election officials announced the costly primary could be avoided, if only one candidate from each party filed. But five Republicans promptly jumped into the meaningless race anyway. Even apart from candidate races, much more nastiness is likely this year. The Michigan Secretary of State's office is now checking signatures on six more ballot proposals.

They don't expect to have the process done till August, at which point "whichever side is unhappy with the decision is bound to file suit and drag this into court," Ballenger said. If there are indeed more ballot access suits, the pressure will be extreme.

The state needs to have the ballot complete soon after Labor Day, partly so absentees can be mailed to members of the armed forces serving abroad. Many of the proposals are so divisive that a fall of nasty and bitter campaigning is virtually assured.

Philosopher John Corvino believes average citizens are weary of what have been called the politics of personal destruction.

"I think people are hungry for a better way," he said. But is there anyone who can offer it to them, any time soon?

Jack Lessenberry teaches journalism at Wayne State University.