Battered by a decade of economic decline, Michiganders get a fresh start this fall. They will elect a brand new team of top leaders and fill every state House and Senate seat to grapple with a crippling budget deficit of up to $300 million.
The November election stands out on a number of fronts. It is only the second time since 1946 that all four top offices—governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state—will be on the ballot with no incumbents running. Reapportionment looms, and the controlling party after this election will decide how political boundaries are drawn. And there is deep dissatisfaction with the ability of state leaders to make headway on intractable problems.
"We're coming out of several years of pure gridlock in Lansing, and this is the next best opportunity to identify, through solid political debate and public discussion, future leaders who can help get us to a new era of prosperity," said John Bebow, executive director of the Center for Michigan in Ann Arbor, a nonpartisan self-described "think-and-do" tank.
To frame the debate, Great Debates 2010 was created. A coalition of 20 organizations, including Bebow's group and AARP Michigan, is sponsoring gubernatorial debates before and after the Aug. 3 primary as well as 50 legislative forums and other multiple-candidate debates before the Nov. 2 general election.
Bebow said the forums are designed to combat the highly partisan actions of political parties content to destroy people rather than talk about solutions.
Eric Schneidewind, AARP state president, said the organization's 1.5 million members recognize that solving Michigan's problems "will take sacrifice on all fronts ... and from all sectors of society."
"We're all going to be affected, and we all have to chip in," Schneidewind said.
The Great Debates will center on three themes: economic growth and how to make the state tax structure more competitive; talent and education, with an emphasis on building and retaining a world-class workforce; and government accountability, including identifying opportunities for reform.
Journalists will moderate the debates, which will be videotaped with no studio audience and aired on public television and radio as well as the nonpartisan voter education website MiVote.org.
Coalition members are hoping to jump-start new thinking about Michigan's pressing problems, including the loss of 900,000 jobs in a decade, a budget paralyzed by falling revenue and rising costs, and rising home foreclosures.
"As a state that is getting relatively poorer, smaller and less competitive, never have the stakes been so high," said Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan.
The current governor and lieutenant governor are Democrats; the attorney general and secretary of state are Republicans.
The House is controlled by Democrats and the Senate by Republicans. All offices are on the ballot.
For better leadership, Rothwell said, "we need to get engaged and not assume that the 'system' will take care of it or that our voice doesn't matter." He said partisan bickering that gets in the way of progress has to end.
Candidates who decline to participate do so at their own political peril, said Bill Martin, CEO of the 23,000-member Michigan Association of Realtors. "This is a golden opportunity to let the people of this great state know exactly who you are, what you stand for and what your vision for the future is," Martin said.
Dan Gilmartin, executive director and CEO of the Michigan Municipal League, said people need to move past sound bites and focus on complex problems such as rebuilding infrastructure, attracting and retaining talented citizens, and creating communities that people want to live in.
"We're already into a 21st century competition with other states, with other regions, with other cities," Gilmartin said. "They're outworking us on a lot of these things, and they're figuring it out faster than we are."
Former Gov. William Milliken, R, who faced similarly tough issues while in office from 1969 to 1983, said voters are fed up. "I think we may have reached the point where, with the public's total impatience with excessive partisanship, there may be a turn for the better. Let us hope so."
The Great Debates schedule is available online.
Kathleen O'Gorman is a freelance writer based in Royal Oak.