State Senator Patrick Colbeck is running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Michigan. I know Colbeck because he’s sponsoring campus free speech legislation based on the model bill I coauthored and published through Arizona’s Goldwater Institute.
As part of his gubernatorial campaign, Colbeck has written a fascinating and highly accessible political autobiography, Wrestling Gators: An Outsider’s Guide to Draining the Swamp. It’s not a typical campaign biography because Colbeck is not a typical politician. Colbeck is literally a rocket scientist, an aerospace engineer with no political background drawn into electoral office unexpectedly by the Tea Party wave of 2010. Colbeck has consistently refused to play by the rules of the Republican political establishment in Michigan, and he’s been punished for it. What makes Wrestling Gators notable is that it tells the behind-the-scenes story of these battles. The book is important for documenting the struggle between the Republican Party establishment and the base at the state level, and for laying bare the seamy underside of the state legislative process.
Colbeck tells the story of his Tea Party activism and entry into politics at a time when Michigan’s economy and population had for some time been hollowing out. His tale is part of the political shift that culminated in Trump’s surprise Michigan victory. It’s also a story in which Colbeck’s Christian faith plays an important role.
Feeling called by his faith to run for office and without any funds or the means to raise them, Colbeck liquidated his personal savings and retirement accounts (paying the 10 percent penalty for early withdrawal) and auctioned off many possessions—including a Star Trek uniform from his geeky engineering days designing the International Space Station, and pieces of the Berlin Wall he’d collected in East Germany in 1990 (where he was delivering a paper at a conference on astronautics). This is not your typical approach to campaign finance, and helps explain Colbeck’s later clashes with Republican leadership.
Colbeck’s engineering background and penchant for study have turned him into something of a policy wonk. But when he first entered politics he was a complete novice. He had his small government principles, and little else. Although Colbeck had been a union member, he’d never even heard of the term “right-to-work.” It wasn’t until he knocked on the door and asked for the vote of a UAW member who actually favored right-to-work that he learned about the issue. Subsequently Colbeck became a leader in the successful drive to make Michigan a right-to-work state. It’s characteristic of Colbeck that he immediately favored the idea on principled free association grounds, then made himself an expert on the economic implications of the change.
What infuriated Republican leadership in the Michigan legislature was Colbeck’s insistence on carrying forward conservative positions on key issues where the leadership had moved left—particularly Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and adoption of the Common Core. Colbeck not only opposed Medicaid expansion against the wishes of leadership, but moved to suggest and promote positive alternatives. This threatened to seriously undercut leadership’s position. As a result of that and similar moves, Senator Colbeck was barred by leadership on several occasions from even entering the State House chamber to press his position with other legislators. He was also barred from committee chairmanships. Colbeck has even been stripped of committee assignments as punishment for his refusal to back off of conservative stands when leadership was ready to cave. Branded the Ted Cruz of Michigan at a time when Cruz was playing a similar role nationally, Colbeck wore that label with pride.
This feuding has freed Colbeck up to say more than the public usually hears about legislative sausage-making at the state level. In the middle chapters of Wrestling Gators, he gives a short course in “how government really works.” There we learn that donors often dictate key legislative committee assignments and which bills get brought up for a vote. Given donor influence—and despite Republican control of the legislature and governorship—bills aligned with the Republican platform often go nowhere while bills opposed to it often move. Colbeck sees money in politics as a serious problem and sympathizes with everyone—right and left—who shares that concern. Yet he doesn’t think campaign finance laws are a solution. “Getting money out of politics” would only favor incumbents of both parties, he says. It would also favor the political left, he adds, since the left already gets its message out for free via biased media and the schools.
Using his own example and that of others, Colbeck shows how leadership on both sides of the aisle wields its power to keep independent legislators from bucking entrenched interest groups and donors. In doing so, he elaborates on a theme taken up by another recent book, Deconstructing the Administrative State: The Fight for Liberty, by Emmett McGroarty, Jane Robbins, and Erin Tuttle (I discuss that book here). Among other things, Deconstructing the Administrative State touches on business’s role in expanding the administrative state at the federal, state, and local levels, often through control of legislative leadership on both sides of the aisle. The influence of the business wing of the party has everything to do with the tensions between the Republican establishment and the base, which have by no means disappeared during the Trump years, even if they’re a bit less salient. Colbeck’s Wrestling Gators is a ground-level account of what McGroarty, Robbins, and Tuttle are talking about. So Wrestling Gators will be of interest to anyone curious about the internal battles and shifting direction of Republican politics in an era and in a state where these have gained national significance.
Not having followed the twists and turns of the Michigan gubernatorial campaign, and without having studied the records of his Republican opponents, I can’t venture a formal endorsement in this race. But I know Pat Colbeck well, having seen him in action on numerous visits to Michigan where I have spoken and testified on campus free speech. I can personally vouch for several things.
Yes, Pat Colbeck is that rare legislator who works chiefly from principle and fights the good fight, even where success seems unlikely and powerful figures within his own party stand opposed. But I’ve also seen Pat accept and work for compromise when that was compatible with his broad goals. And I’ve seen how many junior legislators—particularly in the House—look to Colbeck for advice and mentorship. His independence and courage have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated by colleagues. I’ve also seen Colbeck’s considerable analytical and strategic skills at work, drawn from his background in aerospace engineering and business consulting. And Pat’s faith is no pose. It is deeply held and informs his work, above all in lending him the courage to challenge the powers-that-be when the odds seem impossible, or to stand against the media vilification any genuinely conservative politician is nowadays subject to. In short, in my view the people of Michigan are lucky to have Patrick Colbeck as a public servant, in whatever capacity that may be.