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Lt. Gov. Brian Calley: The statesman and the shrimp

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You've got to hand it to Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who many of us thought was a youthful-looking non-entity. He has now come up with a plan to do something I doubted was possible.

He's found a way to make our truly awful system of state government worse — and is pledging to work hard to see that we pass a constitutional amendment to do just that.

But first — think for a moment. What picture pops into your mind when you think of our lieutenant governor?

Blank screen? If that's your reaction, don't feel bad. You are one of millions. Indeed, odds are that Calley could walk into any shopping mall in the state and not be recognized.

That's not necessarily all that bad, when your job consists of being the mostly invisible understudy to the guy who history may remember as The Man Who Poisoned Flint.

But for the 40-year-old Calley, who looks vaguely like a perpetually smirking high school senior, this is a problem.

You see, he evidently wants to be Michigan's next governor. Though he was briefly a commercial loan officer for a bank in the teeming metropolis of Ionia, he was elected to the state legislature at 29, and has been in government since.

He can claim one major accomplishment: He was a driving force in requiring insurance companies to cover autism. Not surprisingly, Calley's own daughter is autistic. (Clearly, those who support transgender rights ought to work to elect Republicans whose kids are transitioning. Problem solved.)

And like many other Republicans who spend their careers bashing government, Calley appears to want to stay in it, and moving up to governor would be the next rung on the ladder.

But he has a problem. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has been running hard for years. Both men are said to have trust funds, but Schuette, who is old enough to be Calley's father, is richer and has more name recognition.

Though Schuette wasted millions on a ridiculous and failed effort to stop same-sex adoption and marriage, it helped him nail down support from the hard religious right.

So Calley needed a gimmick to distinguish himself, and he finally unveiled it at the Mackinac Policy Conference, an annual affair put on by the Detroit Regional Chamber.

What he wants to do is to fight to make the legislature part-time, able to meet only 9o days a year. "It's time to slash their salaries and ensure cuts to their benefits," he blustered.

Surrounded by a corps of young "volunteers" wearing blue and white T-shirts saying "Clean It Up," a slogan they happily chanted, Calley inadvertently revealed the now-normal GOP contempt for public education. "We will save tax dollars by paying them the same as teachers," he seemed to sneer.

Unfortunately, anybody who knows anything about Lansing knows Calley's Folly would only make things worse.

Maybe much worse. Thirty years ago, Michigan had one of the better state governments in the country. The chambers were closely divided, and bipartisan compromise was the rule of the day. Some legislators put principle over party, and common sense wasn't considered treason.

Then came term limits, which really took effect in the 1990s, and extreme gerrymandering that got worse every cycle.

The result of gerrymandering is a legislature that is a collection of one-party districts in which most races are really decided in the primaries. Extremists or the noisiest demagogues tend to win in both parties, especially among Republicans.

Term limits mean that nobody really stays long enough to learn how to do their jobs or build relationships with other members. Lobbyists and special interests have become much more powerful — because they are hovering there forever.

That's bad enough — but Calley's idea would make things worse. It's hard enough getting good candidates now.

But if his "clean it up" amendment passes, it would amount to a further massive weakening of the legislature itself, and of the quality of the people who would serve in it.

Right now, lawmakers are paid enough — $71,685 a year — to live on, though many have other jobs. Cut their pay to, say, $30,000 a year, and the only people who will be able to serve are the retired, the rich, or those who work for special interests.

No normal job allows people to take off 90 days or so a year to go make laws in Lansing, especially when you can't tell exactly when those days are going to be.

The practical result would be more power to the governor and a radically diminished legislature, which could be what Calley has in mind. But that is not at all healthy.

Unfortunately, sometimes there is power in a bad idea whose time has come; as in, term limits. If special interests like the Koch brothers throw some money behind a petition drive, Calley's Folly could conceivably get on the ballot.

What's more, given that Joe and Jane Sixpack love to hate government, the chance to whack their salaries might prove irresistible — much more so than Calley's candidacy.

Incidentally, there is a certain potential irony in all of this.

Should his part-time legislature amendment become law and should Calley, as expected, fail to become governor, he might be in trouble at home. After he got to be lieutenant governor, he conveniently installed his wife, Julie Calley, in his old state legislative seat. (Nepotism? Who, us?)

If this passes and he loses, he'll be out of a job, and will have succeeded in having his wife's pay cut by more than half.

The mayor's amazing moment

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is, first and foremost, a politician, and one running for reelection this year. He made a 45-minute speech at the Mackinac Policy Conference that outlined his vision for the "One City. For All of Us" Detroit he is seeking to build.

That, as he presented it, will be a Detroit that looks more like a European city, with few strip malls, but with jobs and city services within easy commuting distance of people's homes.

Some of his claims about what he has accomplished were clearly debatable; what he said about progress in the neighborhoods did smack of normal political exaggeration. Motor City Muckraker Steve Neavling went on a rant attacking the speech and Duggan on many different grounds, some serious (his ties to the Ilitches and Dan Gilbert) and some just plain silly (yes, we all knew that he used to live in Livonia, including everyone who voted for him).

But that wasn't why the speech took my breath away. The first 15 minutes were the most riveting and most concise explanation of how white racism, much of it federal government policy, destroyed Detroit, with an assist from shortsighted city officials who threw up housing without any plan for the future.

Speaking without a text, and with only power point slides, Duggan did better in a quarter of an hour than it took the historian Thomas Sugrue more than 400 pages to do in his great study The Origins of the Urban Crisis.

The mayor didn't justify or sugar-coat any of it. The nearly all-white and mostly Republican businessmen at the Mackinac Policy Conference packed every seat in that hotel's auditorium, with dozens more standing, and they gave him a standing ovation.

I never, ever, tell anyone to go watch YouTube videos, but everyone in Michigan needs to see this, if they want to have any hope of understanding how the Detroit of today came to be.


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