By Carol Weissert, associate professor of political science, Michigan State University (Submitted Nov. 1999)
There is little interest in Michigan in the presidential election thus far, in spite of the very active role that our governor, John Engler, is playing in the Bush campaign.
Engler, in his third and final term in office is an extremely important political and policy presence in the state. In his tenth year in office, he continues to reshape the face of Michigan's bureaucracy and the way that services are carried out. He has not only led the state on policies such as welfare reform and education funding, but has initiated major changes in civil service, legislative review of administrative rules, state control over local governments, and bureaucratic responsibility over issues ranging from environmental policy to job training.
One knowledgeable observer told me that in the past 10 years, Michigan has become "less like Minnesota and more like Indiana," meaning that the state has moved away from a strong governmental presence to one where privatization and an emphasis on the market are paramount.
Presidential Politics. Gov. Engler is very active in the George W. Bush presidential campaign. He is highly visible in his support, working the talk-show circuit and providing political assistance through membership in his national campaign committee. Engler heads Bush's effort in Michigan. The Bush campaign has raised well over $1 million in the state. The Michigan Bush Leadership team includes five of the six state GoP congressmen, 96 percent of the Republican State Senators and 83 percent of Republican State Representatives.
Bush is popular in Michigan. A statewide poll conducted in early October found that 51 percent said they would vote for Bush -- an increase of 3 percent from August. Some 39 percent supported Democrat Al Gore -- down 4 points from August. (Bradley was not included in the either poll). Republican Senator Spencer Abraham supported his former boss Dan Quayle until he withdrew from the race. Abraham now supports Bush.
The state's Democrats are supporting Gore, but Bradley is making some moves on the state, with a large fundraiser set on Nov. 9th at the home of Dave Bing, a former Detroit Piston player. Debbie Dingell, wife of U. S. Rep. John Dingell is the Michigan Coordinator for Gore.
Senatorial elections. First-term senator Spencer Abraham will likely have tough competition from Debbie Stabenow, congresswoman from the Lansing area. This race will be an important one for the state and will likely be close.
In 1994, Abraham won a highly-contested primary over Ronna Romney, divorced daughter-in-law of George Romney and then won with 52 percent of the vote over Democratic Congressman Bob Carr. This was Abraham's first elected office, and he has had mixed reviews over the six years. Debbie Stabenow has a longer political career, beginning in the county commission and working her way up through the state house and senate. She ran in one statewide race for governor in 1994 but lost in the primary. Stabenow defeated an incumbent congressman, Dick Chrysler, in 1996, and has proven to be a popular and seemingly indefatigable campaigner in and out of elections. She has had her eye on the senate seat for some time.
This race will no doubt attract large sums of money and will be the primary focus of political attention in media -- possibly overshadowing the presidential race in the state.
Ballot measures. There is one key potential ballot measure on the 2000 ballot. It is an initiative which would amend the Michigan constitution to provide state education vouchers to private and parochial schools. (There is currently a constitutional ban on using public tax dollars to pay for vouchers or other subsidies for nonpublic schools.) The measure would provide educational vouchers of up to $3,100 to students in "failing" school districts (those where less than two-thirds of the students graduate). Voters or school boards in other districts could choose to launch a voucher program as well.. The initiative is the product of a group called "Kids First! Yes!", which was founded by Dick DeVos, president of Amway. DeVos's wife, Betsey, is the chair of the Michigan Republican Party. Also supporting the measure are the Michigan Catholic Conference and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
Politically, it is interesting that the primary money-raiser for the party, Governor John Engler, is not in favor of the initiative. He has said publicly the measure cannot pass. A poll showed that the public does support the measure 47-43 percent with 10 percent undecided. One reason he may be concerned is that the measure might bring out Catholics-who will likely vote for Democrats as well. Given the closeness of the State House (Republicans control by only 58-52), and the importance of the 2000 election (given that this legislature will redraw the districts for U.S. Congress and the State House), the governor may be doing more than simply reading the polls for this measure.