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Halftime score

After setbacks of last November, Granholm is repositioning

Photos by Rebecca Cook
With Kilpatrick, Labor Day 2002.
At rally for John Kerry, 2004.
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Published 2/16/2005

Say what you will about Jennifer M. Granholm — and she’s being discussed plenty in Michigan and across the country — but Michigan’s Democratic governor knows how to inspire her friends and give her opponents a good case of nervous flutters.

Last week, it was the state House chamber in Lansing, where Granholm theatrically delivered a State of the State address that called for an ambitious program of public investment and borrowing to put 100,000 people to work. Taking a page from the GOP handbook, she argued that the project could be accomplished without raising taxes.

In tone, style and reach-for-the-stars urgency, Granholm’s State of the State felt a lot like her appearance last Nov. 1, when she stepped into the bright lights at Joe Louis Arena, joining Al Sharpton, Stevie Wonder and John Kerry for one of the last big campaign rallies of the 2004 presidential race. As usual, when she stood before a crowd, Granholm looked radiant and comfortable. And why not? Before her were thousands of cheering Detroit residents, a sampling of her liberal southeast Michigan base, one of the most consistent Democratic strongholds in the country. They were the very same voters who had swept Granholm to victory in 2002, and for a decade had delivered the state for Bill Clinton and Al Gore too.

The plain truth was that on Nov. 1, 2004, few elected leaders in America were on a roll quite like Michigan’s glamorous governor. In her appearances with Kerry on the campaign trail, Granholm had turned the state’s stunning job losses – more than 300,000 jobs disappeared since 2000 – into a problem for George Bush. Her own public opinion ratings consistently topped 65 percent. Kerry was counting on Granholm to deliver him Michigan and the presidency. The electoral math that would put Kerry in the White House could also make it much, much easier for Granholm to ask for and get the billions of dollars in federal grants, loans and other assistance she needed to accelerate her novel job development strategy.

Granholm’s remarks at Joe Louis Arena reflected that sense of triumph. “To all Republicans, independents and undecided voters, if you are sick of deficits as far as the eye can see, you need to vote for a change in direction,” she said to a surge of cheers. “If you are tired of partisanship over patriotism, you need to vote for a change in direction. We’re on the cusp, on the brink, of enormous change in this country.”

Shifting grounds

To be sure, Nov. 2 changed America and Michigan, but not nearly in the way that Granholm hoped. She, indeed, did put Michigan in Kerry’s column, but the margin of victory indicated Democrats were losing ground. Kerry won just 15 of the state’s 83 counties, seven less than Al Gore did in 2000, and 10 less than Granholm herself won in 2002. Kerry’s winning margin — 165,000 votes — was 52,000 less than Gore’s 2000 margin.

Granholm’s work on behalf of state Democrats also helped the party gain five seats in the state House. But Republicans still have a 58-52 state House majority, and they went on to elect a young Oakland County ideologue, Craig DeRoche, who has made his top priority attacking the governor and accelerating the suburban sprawl that Granholm says is sucking the life out of Detroit and its inner suburbs.

The other results from Granholm’s Election Day were even more distracting. A ballot initiative to establish a constitutional ban on gay marriage, which she aggressively opposed, passed easily. Even Wayne County, her base, overwhelmingly approved the ban.

A second ballot initiative, to allow voters to restrict the number of casinos in Detroit and elsewhere, also passed by a huge margin statewide and in the city. The winning margin was particularly telling for Granholm because she had joined Republican Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who’s not seen as any friend to Detroit, in opposing the initiative. The two said that it would hurt the state lottery, which provides more than $600 million annually to public schools. Granholm’s supporters in predominantly African-American Detroit rejected the authenticity of that argument by a 200,000-vote margin.

And a third ballot measure, Proposal E, which would have allowed Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to choose the leader of the city’s public schools, also went down by a 2-to-1 margin. City voters decided they wanted to take back the schools from state oversight and elect their own school board. Granholm had not taken a public position on the issue, saying she didn’t get involved in “local issues.” Say what? In political terms for a Democrat in Michigan that’s a big ouch. Mayor Kilpatrick said as much in October, when he told a WJR News interviewer that he was “upset” that “the governor was hiding on this issue.”

Added up, Michigan’s first-term governor took a shellacking on state and local issues in her base. Just a day after Granholm seemed to be at the peak of her powers, the election results indicated that she was out of step with her core supporters in Detroit. And things would get no better in the months after the election. Auto sales were down in January. Jobs continued to leave the state. The unemployment rate, more than 7 percent, was the highest in the nation. And Detroit, according to a blistering article in The New York Times in early February, was sinking beneath a tsunami of red ink and middle-class flight. Opinion polls showed her approval rating had fallen to the mid-50s statewide, and mid-40s in Detroit.

The cumulative result was that the governor who delivered the State of the State last week was more buffeted by her own lofty idealism and political mistakes than at any time in her political career, which began with a successful 1998 campaign for attorney general. The hanging rope that Granholm had readied for George Bush was being retied by state Republicans to be draped around her neck.

The question, of course, is just how vulnerable Granholm is at the start of her third year in office, which is also the unofficial start of the re-election campaign. Mildred Gaddis, the respected political analyst and host of Inside Detroit on WCHB AM-1200, said in an interview that Granholm’s positions on the school board vote and gambling weren’t appreciated by her African-American constituents.

Gaddis said Granholm’s failure to take a stance on Proposal E “concerned the people of Detroit greatly.”

She added: “I was also shocked about her position on the gaming proposal. They used the children and the schools in their advertising in a way that was misleading. I was very vocal against that and believe she made a bad move on that proposal as well.

“But I don’t believe the governor is in trouble in Detroit. People will go to the polls. They will not stay home. When they see the alternative they will forgive her for her mistakes. The numbers will be there.”

Steve Mitchell, president of Mitchell Research and Communications and the pollster for The Detroit News, doesn’t agree. He told reporters the day after the election, “This governor has taken a very serious blow. If there were no candidates looking at Jennifer Granholm a month ago, they ought to look at her now because the whole landscape has changed.”

Style and substance

Two years is a long time in American politics. But it was the damage from one day, November 2, which Granholm will be very busy repairing if she hopes to win in 2006. Her State of the State address was a start. It focused on investments to produce jobs, a clear political bid to seize on a single issue that voters in Detroit can easily grasp. And her demand that Republican lawmakers “move with me” to act quickly on her jobs program was delivered more emphatically than usual. Granholm seems intent on not allowing the GOP to define her as weak, even if that means occasionally baring her fangs.

“I can deal with the acrimony,” she said in an interview. “I can dish it out if I need to. It’s just not my natural preference. My natural preference is to work in a bipartisan fashion and to see how much you can achieve despite the challenges.

“Don’t mistake niceness for weakness. There’s a certain line that you can’t go over, especially when you are talking about issues as fundamental as the authority to protect the citizens of Michigan. There’s only so far you can go before you say enough is enough. I encourage bipartisanship but when you get to the extremes there is, sometimes, just the need where you have to stand up.

“If you are going to be progressive, which I like to think of myself as, then you have to make progress. And that sometimes depends on breaking a few legs.”

In almost every way Jennifer Granholm represents something new and fresh in progressive politics. In an era defined by deficits, polemical disagreement and an unyielding rightward shift in the electorate, Granholm has embraced a classic Democratic activist agenda, one that views government as a social good. But Granholm also is guided by the need to help Michigan’s businesses, and its citizens, find a way to prosper in the transformative global economy that is shifting manufacturing jobs overseas. Granholm, moreover, is conducting her work while directly confronting all of the name-calling — liberal, tax-and-spend, big-government, and now “lacking in moral values” — that conservatives use so effectively against Democrats.

Granholm has negotiated all that treacherous terrain with uncanny skill. In 2002, she beat former three-term Republican Gov. John Engler’s hand-picked successor, Richard Posthumus, by nearly 128,000 votes; her victory was made possible by a 209,000 vote margin in Wayne County.

Once in office she acted on her various campaign promises. She defended Michigan’s land and water, and began to build more economic activity around them. For instance, as governor, Granholm brokered purchases of rare coastal dunes in Benzie County and huge expanses of forests in the Upper Peninsula, and helped establish a new riverfront state park in Detroit.

Granholm assured voters she would act to curb the state’s sprawling development, which was damaging the quality of life in the cities and suburbs. One of her first acts as governor was to work with Republican leaders to create the bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, appointing three Detroit leaders to the 26-member panel. In August 2003, the group issued a report with 160 recommendations to slow sprawl, rebuild cities, improve transportation, protect farmland and strengthen the state’s quality of life and increase its economic performance.

Granholm and the Legislature have enacted 27 bills in response, and Granholm has issued a host of executive orders. The governor is using the report to prove that a Democrat can efficiently invest taxpayer money. Her transportation policy, for instance, focuses on fixing Michigan’s cracked highways before building new ones. Thus, the administration halted new construction on 17 new highway projects, many of them in suburban Detroit, and put the $250 million that would have been spent for new highways into repairing existing highways in and out of the city. The legislative deal that led to that decision also enabled the governor to direct $50 million to the Detroit Medical Center.

Her jobs strategy also looks different than most. Granholm insists that Michigan needs to increase the number of jobs — especially the high-paying, high-tech jobs that young people covet — by improving public education, by making it possible for more people to earn college degrees and by making Michigan’s communities cleaner, greener and more culturally alive. In January, she announced a new tax strategy designed to promote her program. It proposes to lower taxes for manufacturers and raises them for insurance companies, all of which is meant to improve the state’s business climate. Her State of the State address called for establishing a $2 billion bond fund to promote research, product development and jobs in renewable energy, manufacturing technology and homeland security.

The accumulation of Granholm’s more thoughtful decisions is leading to what’s now a discernible destination. Granholm is actively laying out a new statewide growth strategy. The state budget deficit and her ability to bridge the political divide in Lansing has helped her convince the Republicans to join her in making timely and smart decisions, one by one, that encourage Michigan to use its homegrown intelligence, capital, universities and natural resources to improve the quality of life, train workers and build a vibrant entrepreneurial economy from within.

In sum, Granholm’s governing approach does more than accept the threads of the fiscal and political realities of the moment. It embraces them, draws energy from the urgency of billion-dollar budget deficits, and is intended to weave all of it together into a new conceptual framework for adding to the state’s prosperity.

The question is whether Granholm’s goals are too intellectual, too opaque for people to really grasp. Until her jobs-first State of the State this month, she ran that risk. Betsy Devos, the Grand Rapids billionaire who stepped down this month as the state Republican Party chairwoman, consistently scoffed at Granholm’s vision, calling it incremental — all style over substance, she says — and unlikely to produce lasting results.

Until the State of the State address, even some of Granholm’s close allies weren’t sure that all the individual pieces added up to a coherent whole. “What is the thing that she is really identified with?” asks Bill Rustem, a political consultant in Lansing who supports Granholm. “For Governor Milliken, it was the environment. For Engler, it was changing how schools were financed. We don’t yet know what that one ‘thing’ is with Governor Granholm.”

Coming of age

Jennifer Mulhern Granholm will be 46 years old this month. She was born in Vancouver in 1959, the younger of two children. Her father, Victor Ivar Granholm, is a banking executive. Her mother, Shirley, taught her only daughter that she could be whatever she dreamed. Her brother, Robert, is 2-1/2 years older, a Mennonite minister and an archconservative supporter of President George W. Bush. “My brother and I disagree politically,” she says. “He’s very, very conservative. Let’s just say he and I are both passionate about our candidates.”

In 1963, when she was 4, the Granholms moved to Anaheim, the largest city in southern California’s Orange County, the same place that Walt Disney chose to build Disneyland. Over the next 13 years, the Granholms moved five times, finally arriving in San Carlos, Calif., near San Francisco, where her father gained the presidency of an Asian bank. Gov. Granholm remembers coming of age in the mid-’70s as kind of a series of short stops, switching from one house to another, one place to another, continually finding her way from one group of friends to another.

Until she arrived in Michigan, she’d never really had a place she could call home. “I moved a lot when I was growing up,” Granholm says. “In terms of feeling rooted, feeling there is a home for me, this is far and away the most rooted I’ve been and the greatest place to call home.”

As a teenager, Granholm wasn’t a top student, though she was bright and not at all reticent. Her classmates at San Carlos High School voted her the “foxiest” student. They also recognized some of the personable instincts that helped make Granholm such an appealing political leader. For one, she had depth. Two, she likes to listen. And most importantly for a new kid on the block, especially a teenage girl of exceptional beauty, she was approachable.

Granholm’s capacity to influence those around her was formally tapped for the first time in 1977, her senior year of high school. African-American students bused from nearby Palo Alto felt unwelcome in the largely white San Carlos school. Hard feelings erupted in arguments, a couple of fights, and finally a pitched battle between white and black students at the school. The school’s administrators asked Granholm and nine other white students to join an equal number of black students at a weekend retreat to learn from one another.

“The administration wanted to get on top of that so they appointed a group of people to come away from the school to do a retreat on racial reconciliation,” Granholm says. “They asked us to help heal the school. It was the first time I’d really been involved in something like that and to see how other people lived. I grew up in suburban areas. It was an awakening for me to see the other side. It was eye-opening.”

It was also the start of an inclusive, consensus-oriented approach to considering problems and reaching solutions that Granholm has based her entire legal and political career on perfecting. Bring in people from all sides who care. Sit them around a table with Granholm as the focal point, and talk about the problem and what to do.

After high school Granholm headed back to southern California where she enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, the same acting school in Pasadena that produced Grace Kelly, Lauren Bacall, Jason Robards and Robert Redford. The training would become evident in the effortless way Granholm holds an audience, shoulders straight, eyes seeking familiar faces, her breathing measured and deep. Her ability to be present without seeming to try produces such a striking visual paradigm, it’s as though she’s soaking up bright light even when none is on her.

Despite the training, she would be unable to land steady roles as an actress. She says the highlights of her Hollywood career include a one-time national television appearance as a contestant on The Dating Game, a single date with John Schneider, who played Bo Duke on The Dukes of Hazzard, and an unsatisfying stint as a guide at Universal Studios. “The most famous actor I ever saw there, like 45,000 times, was Bruce — the mechanical shark from Jaws,” she told the 2003 graduates of Michigan State University.

In 1980, the same year she enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley — where she later graduated Phi Beta Kappa — Granholm also became a U.S. citizen. In 1984, she began her legal training at Harvard Law School, where she edited the Harvard Civil Rights/Civil Liberties Law Review, tacked leftward in her politics and graduated in 1987.

Political personalities

By far, the most important turning point in Granholm’s life in the 1980s occurred on April Fool’s Day in 1985 at Newark Airport, where she met her husband, Dan Mulhern, then a Harvard law student, who’d grown up in Inkster outside Detroit.

“People’s Express. You remember that airline?” she asks. “I was coming back from California. He was coming back from Michigan. It was spring break in my first year in law school. I was sitting on the ground eating potato chips. He was standing over me talking loudly about Harvard Law School. He had seen me at school and he had strategically placed himself there, although if he was here right now he would say something different.

“Anyway, he was trying to get my attention. So we started talking. But, you know, I just wasn’t interested. He sat next to me on the plane. He offered to carry my luggage getting off the plane. I didn’t let him. I can carry my own luggage.

“He pursued this endeavor for a month or so. But I was, at the time, really not interested. He would put pressed flowers and leaves in my mail box and write me poems. He just wore me down. We began to date the beginning of May, and we were engaged a month later at the beginning of June. We got married a year later.”

Mulhern and his new bride settled in Detroit. When people talked about them, they almost always remarked about how close the couple was, and that it was Dan who would surely be a politician. Mulhern, now the state’s “first gentleman,” is a leadership-training consultant who perfected his skills at fund-raising as development director at the University of Detroit Mercy High School, his alma mater.

Mulhern learned the policymaking and constituency-building ropes on Democratic U.S. Rep. Sander Levin’s staff. He also worked for a time for Ed McNamara, the former Wayne County executive who ran one of southeast Michigan’s Democratic machines. Mulhern is well-known, liked and respected in the councils of influence all over the Detroit region for his intelligence and political savvy, which their friends say has figured prominently in helping to set Granholm’s goals and the steps to achieve them.

Granholm, meanwhile, decided to pursue a public service legal career. She clerked for Damon Keith, one of the most revered federal judges in the country. She spent time in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Detroit, prosecuting federal environmental crimes. In 1994, McNamara hired Granholm to lead the Wayne County Corporation Counsel, the second-largest government legal group in the state behind the attorney general’s office. She and Muhern lived for a time in the Rosedale Park section of Detroit, in a brick-and-stone home on a leafy street. Later, they moved to Northville, where they raised their daughters, Cecelia and Kate, and a son, Jack, who was born in 1997.

While she was pregnant with Jack, Granholm experienced another of those life-changing moments. She was in Chicago, serving as a Michigan delegate to the Democratic National Convention, when two prominent state Democratic leaders asked her to dinner.

Granholm describes the meal as a serendipitous event. Others familiar with the story say the conversation and its goal were planned. In any case, the talk turned to Democratic state Attorney General Frank Kelley, who’d served since 1961. When Kelley retired, who would replace him? Granholm says she immediately turned to one of her colleagues — a lawyer — and said he should run. But the two men quickly pointed the idea her way.

“They began this full-court press and it just wasn’t something that I thought about at all until he flipped the tables on me,” she says. “He made the case. I was running the largest county legal office in the state. I talked about it with Dan. He was instrumental in encouraging me. He thought it was the thing to do.

“Oh my gosh,” she says, “it was a crazy thing to do at that point. I was pregnant with our third child. But it kind of festered. The next year, Jack was about 10 months old when Frank Kelley announced he was retiring. Dan was saying, ‘You got to do this.’ I said, ‘We have a 10-month-old. Are you crazy? There’s no way.’

“But he was intent. ‘C’mon,’ he said. ‘I got the kids. You’ve got to do it. It’s going to be great. You’re always telling the girls that they can be anything they want.’”

Test case for polite politics

For more than two years now, Granholm has cultivated a calm political persona to convey the clear sense that she will not become engrossed by the unnecessary anxieties and preposterous name-calling that serves as political discourse these days. Granholm’s style, natural as it appears, is specifically meant to promote confidence, collegiality and assurance. Until Election Day 2004 it worked so well.

In Michigan and in Washington, leaders of both parties are closely studying Granholm and her administration. Republicans deride the governor in private as trading on her “looks and sex appeal” to hide what they assert is a lack of real fiber and a flimsy record, especially on job growth. They chide her pleasantness, saying it’s a poor substitute for the toughness, the willingness to make the hard calls that has become a hallmark of successful GOP candidates. Nevertheless, Republicans still worry they have no candidate capable of beating Granholm in 2006. Three logical GOP nominees — Attorney General Mike Cox, Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land and Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema — have publicly said they won’t run.

Democrats, on the other hand, are wowed by Granholm. They’re convinced that she represents something new and promising — a model for how a progressive leader can govern effectively in a conservative era. The New York Times calls her “one of the smartest and most engaging politicians in a while,” and anointed Granholm one of seven “Democrats to keep an eye on.” The other six include John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean and newly-elected Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

But the process of politics is a battle of ideology as much as it is methodology. Good positions are essential. So are technique and stagecraft. All three are needed to win two terms as governor of Michigan. Nov. 2 displayed telling cracks in the foundation of Granholm’s approach that Republicans are busy trying to open wider. Granholm’s mission until Election Day 2006 is to do what she can to make the necessary repairs.

Keith Schneider, a journalist and editor, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. He’s a two-time winner of the George Polk Award, one of the most distinguished prizes in American journalism.

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