Michigan on the Rocks –Then and Now

DSCF3226In an era of political stalemates, with exhaustive in-fighting among an increasingly fractured Republican Party, who iron-fistedly rule the Michigan legislature, there remains a seemingly endless financial crisis. Michigan leaders continue to engage in an unfettered clash over fiscal discipline, education reform, challenges to the notion of home rule, all coupled with delayed and diminished funding of public institutions, most notably public schools and higher education, and the national media responds by comically inventing a cocktail dubbed “Michigan on the Rocks” as a joke about the state’s incompetent politicians…

…the year was 1959.

This oft-repeated GOP political log-jam (hey, that tree looks familiar!) finally ended in 1961 after a long process that included a petition drive for a constitutional amendment, deemed the “Gateway Amendment” (ironic name much?), which paved the way for the state to vote, with a simple majority instead of an absolute majority, to convene a constitutional convention — a Con-Con.

What is most striking about the time, other than its spooky familiarity, is the way many strange political bedfellows set-aside partisanshipCon-Con 1961 and coalesced around the Con-Con in a joint search for the soul of Michigan’s democracy.

The movement started with a union of the Michigan Jaycees and the League of Women Voters, along with 14 additional organizations — all ready for change. The movement picked-up steam with the support of Citizens for Michigan, a group composed of, the then automakers, George Romney and Robert McNamara, and UAW vice-president Leonard Woodcock. Their rallying cry was for “only citizens free from political affiliation and economic self-interest.” The campaign enjoyed strong media support, with the Detroit News running a “coupon” on its front page to be clipped and redeemed for a petition.

The Con-Con was approved by April of 1961, and a grumbling GOP legislature, which had been strongly opposed to the people taking charge in the face of their childish bickering, was forced to set aside a date for the election of delegates. The state sent 144 citizens to Lansing to fix what the Republicans had wrecked. Included among those delegates was Coleman Young, in his early 40’s, who had made a national name for himself when he appeared before the McCarthy Commission, and so publicly trounced the Senator with his sarcastic retorts.

The Con-Con reached agreements on all the tough issues:  taxes, judicial reform, election law, terms of office, and apportionment. Among their many accomplishments were the establishment of the first Civil Rights Commission, continued constitutional protection of home rule for Michigan’s townships, a ban on capital punishment, and a rejection of a McCarthy-era anti-subversion clause.

Another couple of items of interest that were rejected at the Con-Con were a Right-to-Work mandate and a school voucher scheme. Yes, these twin evils have been around for decades.

This was all accomplished by Michigan citizens, Republicans and Democrats, working together in an otherwise politically toxic environment — one that surely would look all too familiar to current residents of the state.

This past week, many have read with great interest the widely shared Bridge magazine article by Pat Shellenbarger about the Tea Party war on the Michigan Republican Party. The writer’s research and analysis was spot-on in capturing the current state of disarray in the GOP — the party is terribly fractured and becoming increasingly dysfunctional.

While the notion of political diversity has always been a mainstay mantra of the “big tent” party, and whether they actually practice it or not is debatable, yet it has become abundantly clear there is a new bully under the GOP tent creating another log-jam. The Tea Party, seemingly pure-as-the-driven-snow — as they would have you believe, with an ideology that is now dominating Republican politics and policy, is leaving Michigan’s citizenry to pay the awful price of their inertially ineffectual governance.

Acting on false nostalgia, they are trying to bring us back to a simpler time…say, 1959?

Democrats are left scratching their heads as to why the majority party continues to allow an otherwise insignificant minority of unorganized, recalcitrant vocal yokels to repeatedly steal their collective lunch. Granted, there certainly is a kind of perverse pleasure to be had in watching individual Republicans cower at the prospect of a primary challenge from the un-monied lunatic far-right. As Robert Reich recently pointed out, notably to his disappointment, some Dems are actually using this as a passive sit-back-and-wait political strategy — hoping the Republican Party will simply self-destruct. But, Dems do that at great peril to the state and themselves. Neither party can, or should, make eliminating the other an end-goal.

It falls on Republican moderates and progressives to reign in the Tea Party fringe. These folks, just like small children, most certainly must learn boundaries, both in politics and in the human equation. It is not necessary to convince them of anything other than that they simply won’t get away with any further selfish immature pranks in Lansing. That’s their only lesson — anything more is a waste of time.

They need not be allowed a voice at the table or a place in the tent until they grow up, and there’s little indication that will happen anytime soon.

And yes, eventually, history will repeat itself. So, the GOP can have a drink on us, because once again, Michigan will be buying. On the rocks?

Note: Democracy Tree has taken both pain and pleasure in bringing its readers stories about policies and legislation that exemplify Tea Party lunacy. Rest assured, I will continue to do so. Yet, another goal is to feature the occasional Republican who gets something right for a change and stands up against the Tea Party pressure.

Amy Kerr Hardin

 

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