BY JACK LESSENBERRY
---- — A while ago Mark Schauer, the Democratic Party’s all-but-certain nominee for governor of Michigan next year, went on a rescue mission with logistical problems.
His brother-in-law, a miner in the western Upper Peninsula, had a buddy who died, leaving a large German Shepherd. The future looked bleak for the dog. The former congressman, who lives in Battle Creek, looked at his wife Christine … “OK, let’s go see the dog.”
So they took off for the U.P. in their tiny Saturn sedan. When they got there, they decided to adopt him. Talk about a crowded car … especially since the Schauers also tend to take Sheila, their slightly arthritic Australian Shepherd, everywhere with them.
Somehow, they all made it back. Next year, the congressman wants to make it back to government, by becoming the first Michigander in half a century to defeat an incumbent governor running for a second term.
“Rick Snyder’s policies aren’t good for most people in Michigan,” he says. “That’s why I think we can win.”
True, as of today, the candidate is not a household word. Polls show most Michiganders have not yet heard of the often soft-spoken, 51-year-old former community organizer. But remarkably, as of today, many would vote for him anyway.
Since Republican Gov. Rick Snyder changed his mind and helped make Michigan a right-to-work state last December, his popularity has plummeted. A Public Policy Poll earlier this month showed him trailing Schauer, 42 percent to 38 percent.
The challenger knows it is early, and knows “we are going be heavily outspent.” He notes, however, that GOP candidate Dick DeVos outspent his Democratic opponent almost three-to-one eight years ago, and yet lost overwhelmingly.
“Multi-millions of dollars.” Schauer said, making a face, when asked how much it will take to beat the incumbent. “But I think 2014 is going to be a very blue year.” That would fly in the face of historic trends that show an incumbent president’s party usually does poorly in his second mid-term elections.
But that wasn’t true in 1998, the last time there was a two-term Democratic president, and he doesn’t think it will be true now, in part thanks to the historic gains Republicans made in 2010.
Schauer was, in fact, a casualty of that election, losing his seat in Congress to Tim Walberg, whom he had unseated two years before. GOP legislators then took his home turf of Battle Creek out of the district, making it far harder for the Democrat to regain the seat.
Now, however, he wants to make a comeback on a statewide scale. He believes he could be a more effective governor than either, Rick Snyder or Jennifer Granholm, because he has considerable legislative experience, eventually rising to Senate Minority Leader.
In fact, when asked what would be his first priority as governor in 2015, he says “to build a better working relationship with the Legislature.”
Schauer knows that for any Democrat, that has to be a priority. Democrats could conceivably win control of the state house of representatives next year. But though they are expected to make gains in the Michigan Senate, winning control of it would be close to impossible. “It is a long shot,” he concedes.
Last December, he was one of the most vocal critics of the way in which Republicans rammed right-to-work through in a single day, and Schauer ended up inhaling pepper spray when police tried to disperse demonstrators. But while he says repeal would be a “priority,” he has to be asked before finally mentioning it.
That may be because he knows getting a GOP Senate to repeal the bill also would be next to impossible. Instead, Schauer is all about education. He takes a dim view of what has been going on under the current administration. “I think their agenda is to corporatize education in this state,” so that private agencies can capture the billions Michigan spends on education every year.
“I don’t believe Rick Snyder and Republicans believe in public education the way the Democrats do,” he said.
Education was important in his life long before politics were. His father Robert was a high school science teacher in the GOP bastion of Howell; his mother Myra, a registered nurse. Their son graduated at the top of his class from both high school and Albion College. He went on to become an urban planner and community organizer, running a four-county agency when he was 25. He then served on the Battle Creek city commission, earning a master’s degree in political science at the same time, then served the maximum allowed of six years in the state house and eight in the senate, before winning a single term in Congress.
But in the end, how strong a gubernatorial candidate will he be?
Schauer has a pleasant, but not charismatic appearance. Though his voice is less nasal than the governor’s, he has no catchy slogans, and sounds more like a policy analyst than a politician used to speaking in sound bites.
Former Attorney General Frank Kelley thinks that may not be a problem, if national Democrats pour money into the race and make it a campaign about Snyder.
Schauer knows he has a long way to go. But if he gets there, he is confident that after four years, his Michigan would be a place where the citizens are happier, prosperous, better educated and better able to afford an education.
Now, all he has to do is persuade the voters to agree. That may not be easy. But then, neither was persuading two giant dogs who didn’t know each other to sit in a tiny back seat ... for 600 miles.