Last week I went to East Lansing, to see if Dick Cheney really does have horns and a tail. The vice president and first proconsul of our Great Patriotic Anti-Terrorism war was giving the commencement speech at Michigan State University; thanks to some fancy intelligence work, I had gotten myself invited to a private brunch beforehand.
Cheney arrived somewhat late, looking sleek, smug and happily poisonous, despite stumping along on a crutch. Damaged tendon, they said, though everyone in the room knew it really was the same principled demon who had thrown Dubya himself onto the carpet a few months ago after stuffing a pretzel down his throat.
The masters of war still aren’t paying attention. I forget what Cheney told the graduates, other than bragging about being a big success even though they threw him out of Yale. By that time I had lost interest in the big Dick and had become fascinated by my fellow brunch guests, the vast majority of whom were Republicans.
This year’s other Dick, Posthumus, their candidate for governor, was there, smiling airily and looking the faintest bit like a pop-up, sandy-haired Pee Wee Herman. The mood among the faithful was politely grim. I huddled with two MSU trustees, one of whom is up for election this year. Glancing nervously over his shoulder at Posthumus, who was busily working the one crowd he didn’t need to work, the trustee told me he was resigned to going down this fall. “I love this job,” he told me, “but that’s politics.” He feared if the courts restore people’s right to vote a straight ticket, he and other “downticket” GOP officeholders will be Posthumusly slaughtered.
With a twinge of sadness or gout, I fled for Detroit to see Dave Bonior, whose campaign for governor has, it seems, finally started to take off. I ended up meeting with both Bonior and State Sen. Alma Wheeler Smith, whom he chose a month ago to run with him as lieutenant governor.
That was a smart move. Wheeler Smith is one of the more interesting politicians in Lansing. Smart, witty and warm, though a bit reserved, she had been running a sadly underfunded campaign for governor herself before joining Bonior a month ago. She knows, far better than any of the other Democrats, how Lansing and the Legislature works.
What is also intriguing is that she is one of the state’s few ranking African-American candidates not enmeshed in the byzantine wars of Detroit politics. She grew up in Ann Arbor, where her father was both the first black faculty member at the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor’s first black mayor. But she’s no mere wine-and-cheese buppie. The family left South Carolina after her twin sister died of burns at age 2 — the tot couldn’t get emergency medical attention in that state’s rigidly segregated health system.
She’s a sista who has been there. Putting her on the ticket says a lot about Bonior. In the past, female lieutenant governors have been elderly figureheads. One senses this would be the state’s first true team approach to governing, and that these two people not only respect, but like each other — so much so that they can even talk about their few disagreements, such as abortion. Bonior is pretty much anti-abortion, except for rape and incest, though he accepts Roe vs. Wade as the settled law of the land.
The most striking thing about Bonior’s campaign is that it really is about issues, for God’s sake. “This is the only campaign that is about real change,” he says.
“This is about working families, the schools and the environment — what you might call a blue-green coalition,” he says. Years ago, it stopped being hip and cool to stand up for blue-collar factory workers, but Bonior never stopped.
“I call myself a Roosevelt Democrat. That includes all three Roosevelts — Franklin, who was for the workers, Eleanor, who was for human rights, and Teddy, for conservation and the environment.”
What Bonior also is for is cities. Almost alone, he has been courageously railing against another foul-smelling deal known as the Pinnacle, a new industrial park out by the airport which will be run by a board appointed by — surprise, surprise — the familiar porcine duet of John Engler and Ed McNamara.
“This is another lost opportunity for Detroit. We should be locating jobs where the people are who need them,” he said. Not only would he try and locate new jobs in cities; he has an intriguing proposal for a series of small, lightly capitalized community credit unions that would help revitalize neighborhoods.
Though often portrayed as an old-line, pro-labor/anti-NAFTA Democrat, Bonior is considerably more complex. He wants health care for all, more money for education and much more done about the environment. He’d push for mandatory brownfield cleanups and for reliable mass transit to get thousands of Detroiters without cars to where the jobs are. The conventional wisdom is that these views are too far “left” in the current era. Indeed, the polls show Bonior in a dead heat with Posthumus, while Jennifer Granholm and Jim Blanchard easily beat Posthumus, the man some call “Engler Lite.”
Bonior dismisses that as a temporary name-recognition problem. But, in fact, electing him might be harder. He is out there on a lot of issues, and he will lose some support from those more comfortable with the bland.
Yet for years, he’s been winning votes he wasn’t supposed to get. He represents a mostly Republican Macomb County congressional district, one which voted for George Bush in 2000. Those same voters gave Bonior 64 percent. I doubt that they agree with him on everything. But I have a sneaking hunch they like that he is so real, and that in this blow-dry world, one balding guy still gives a damn.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org