Saturday, November 6, 2010

Twentieth Anniversary of John Engler Election

Lost among the transition plans by election winners and indefinite plans of losers is the anniversary that many still mark: the twentieth anniversary of the election of John Mathias Engler as Michigan Governor in 1990.

Late polls published Sunday before the election showed two-term Governor Jim Blanchard coasting to a third term against Senate Majority Leader Engler. However, Blanchard had repeatedly antagonized the late Detroit Mayor Coleman Young. Engler had established a working relationship with Young. It was early Wednesday morning before we discovered Young did not deliver his machine votes for Blanchard.

Hours later, I wrote an impassioned letter offering my services to the Governor-elect, whom I had known for five years. I was a supervisory policy specialist to members of the Senate Majority. In 1990, I was a strategist for candidates who won Senate seats and drove from Saginaw, where I worked from when polls opened until ballot security, to the Engler party at the Lansing Radisson. I expected to be asked to lead public policy.

I was summoned to Engler’s Senate office Thursday. Engler’s lieutenant asked me to head Correspondence. My poker face deserted me. Correspondence is blue-collar grinding stuff, unlike the white-collar policy world. Then Engler came in and said he wanted me to do this and then do something else. I accepted, despite my misgivings.

For the rest of the transition period, I wrote work diagrams, job descriptions and recruited talented young writers to help me. I thought we were ready when Engler was sworn in.

I was wrong. Blanchard left Engler a huge budget deficit so strong medicine was needed to cut spending except aid to education. That meant aid to arts institutions, welfare for able-bodied childless adults and under-utilized and over-staffed mental hospitals had to go. All had influential fans, many who thought that they were personally responsible for electing Engler.

The phone rang non-stop because receptionists did not know where to send people complaining about issues or that needed help. Angry letters poured in, sometimes with enclosures. A gift of plastic dog turds adorned my computer. I renamed the division “Constituent Services” because “Correspondence” confused callers.

My writers and I had to answer ringing phones before they went to voice mail, reflecting poorly on Engler. They did not have time to write in 40 hours per week so they started turning in 60. I started turning in 80 hours per week, including opening and routing mail, meetings of the senior staff and greeting those who arrived without an appointment. Piles of manuscripts required editing several times per day. We improvised stock paragraphs and letters.

Triage of ending welfare for childless single adults was imperfect. Some died and the blame was leveled at Engler. The Secretary who closed some mental hospitals was threatened with arrest. A protest tent city sprang up at the Capitol and Jesse Jackson spoke.

Eventually, early furor subsided, and we all did our jobs better. We looked forward to hard stuff. I could decide when I could not decide and would seek help from other staff directors or even Engler.

Engler was elected to two more terms, but I moved on to do policy and constituent relations at a Cabinet agency and then for a Michigan State Senator. Sometimes, Engler would send a constituent my way. Term limits enacted by voters forced him out in 2002.

Engler is now Chief Executive Officer of the National Association of Manufacturers. I am still close to my old employees and colleagues on his staff as Governor. Some will be summoned by newly-elected Republicans.

Some will perform jobs they never expected. True believers, they will be unable to reject them. For me, I hope to be summoned by new Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

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