Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm has had a great run. From an obscure legal position in Wayne County government, Granholm took off like a rocket, becoming Michigan’s first woman attorney general in 1998 and its first woman governor in 2002. Were it not for the fact that Granholm was born in Canada, she just might have been John Kerry’s running mate in 2004, and certainly would be mentioned as a real contender to be the first woman president of the United States. Granholm has star power–but she may be the most overrated politician in America.
Since becoming governor, Granholm can claim no major policy victories. Confronted with a Republican-controlled legislature, Granholm has been prevented from raising taxes to fund the liberal social experiments that would excite her base. The Republicans in Lansing have done a pretty good job of forcing Granholm to balance the state’s finances by cutting spending. Tired of breaking her campaign promises to Michigan’s spending lobby, Granholm made a political bet this year that could come back to haunt her during her reelection campaign in 2006.
Michigan is one of the biggest gambling states in the nation. There are several tribal casinos in northern Michigan. The state relies heavily on a multi-headed state lottery system, and Detroit, the state’s major urban center, has three Las Vegas-style casinos. Granholm wanted to solve her budget woes by bringing even more casinos to Michigan. Her ploy was to allow nine horseracing tracks in Michigan to operate slot machines. (Slot machines are the golden goose of the gambling industry, producing upwards of 70 percent of casino profits.) Allowing the horse tracks to run slots would have essentially turned them into mini-casinos, or racinos, as they were dubbed in Michigan.
Granholm’s plan to fund her liberal agenda with racino profits met the strong opposition of the deep-pocketed Indian and Detroit casino operators, who did not want any more competition in Michigan’s gambling industry. The existing casino powers funded a $20 million ballot campaign to block Granholm’s casino-expansion agenda, under the guise of requiring Michigan voters to approve the new racinos by a statewide vote. Not to be outdone, Granholm decided to fight the casinos, thinking her popularity and “star power” would convince Michigan voters that they should turn their state into the Las Vegas of the Midwest. Granholm appeared in slick TV ads imploring voters to save Michigan’s schools by voting against the anti-gambling initiative.
This showed remarkable hypocrisy on Granholm’s part, along with a heavy dose of political stupidity. Granholm, like most Democrats, is not pro-education. She’s pro-teachers’ unions. Early in her tenure as governor, she rejected an offer from a philanthropist to donate $200 million to open 15 new charter schools in Detroit, a city with some of the nation’s worst schools. Granholm didn’t dare cross the state’s powerful teachers’ unions or the recklessly incompetent Detroit City Council, who attacked the philanthropist as a white suburbanite who didn’t understand Detroit. Instead of standing up to the anti-reform forces in her party and doing the right thing for the tens of thousands of Detroit kids who are trapped in a failed school system, she told the philanthropist and his $200 million to go pound salt.
Michigan is a culturally conservative state. There are strong pro-life strains that run through every major region. There is a large blue-collar ethnic population that abhors liberal agenda items like gay marriage. These cultural conservatives were mobilized to turn out in 2004 because of another ballot initiative to protect the traditional definition of marriage. Granholm should have known she’d be swimming upstream. But she figured her “walk-on-water” political skills could overcome any anti-gambling sentiments in Michigan’s electorate. She was wrong: On Election Day, 58 percent of Michigan voters rejected Granholm’s casino-expansion agenda, handing the governor her first political defeat.
In Michigan political circles, the conventional wisdom is that Granholm will be unbeatable in 2006. This is wrong. Michigan is a very resilient state for Republicans in non-presidential years because African-American turnout in Detroit is always lower. Turnout in Detroit makes or breaks Democratic campaigns in Michigan, and Granholm could have a serious problem there in 2006–especially because there is no love lost between Granholm and Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Granholm strained their relationship further by promoting the racino-expansion agenda, which Kilpatrick viewed as anti-Detroit because Granholm’s new out-state casinos would have cut into the revenue Detroit gets from the existing casinos in the city.
Kilpatrick has made several mistakes since being elected mayor in 2001. His immaturity is a problem, and the scandals over patronage handouts to Kilpatrick’s cronies–along with raucous parties at the mayor’s mansion–ensure that Kilpatrick will receive a strong primary challenge from Freeman Hendrix, the right-hand man of former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer.
A nasty primary in Detroit will create political wounds that will be hard to heal before the 2006 gubernatorial election. Granholm will officially stay neutral in the mayoral primary, but behind the scenes her people, especially her money friends, will get pulled in the direction of supporting Hendrix, who will be viewed in Michigan Democratic circles as the more adult choice. If Kilpatrick beats back the Hendrix challenge, which he very well could, he will be in a position to pay Granholm back big-time in 2006 by doing little to turn out the vote in Detroit. If Hendrix wins, Kilpatrick’s machine–which rests in Detroit’s powerful black churches–is likely to be angered to the point of inaction. Either way, Granholm loses from the political bloodshed in Detroit.
Students of Michigan politics will recall that a low Detroit turnout in 1990–created by the hostility between then-Detroit Mayor Coleman Young and Democratic Governor Jim Blanchard–swept John Engler to a narrow victory that ushered in twelve years of Republican control of the governorship in Michigan. Granholm could face a similar dynamic in 2006. She is beatable, and there are scores of Republicans in the Wolverine state who could take her out.
–Trent Wisecup heads up the Detroit office of DC Navigators, a Washington-based public-affairs firm. He has worked in Michigan politics for more than a decade as a former advisor to Congressman Joe Knollenberg and former U.S. Senator Spence Abraham.