By Melissa Preddy
Less than six weeks away from learning which of them will become Michigan’s first new executive in eight years, gubernatorial candidates Virg Bernero and Rick Snyder are traversing the state, assuring voters they’ve got what it takes to get Michigan back to work.
The candidates are exchanging jabs about topics ranging from taxes to abortion to state worker pay and their debate schedule.
All of those issues are weighty, and some of them are key to making Michigan a competitive business environment again. But when it comes to keeping Michigan a desirable place to live and work, candidates are just as sketchy on their plans as they were some months ago before the August primaries.
Quality of life issues raised by voters in the Michigan’s Defining Moment: 10,000 Voices report include safeguarding our environment, promoting transportation options, funding arts and culture, keeping our cities healthy and continuing the momentum of Michigan’s tourism campaign.
Snyder and Bernero gave a nod to most of these issues in their platform papers, though details were notably lacking. Since then, the plans – and funding – for tactics like restoring the full Pure Michigan campaign, battling Asian carp in the Great Lakes and retaining the state’s youthful workforce haven’t been fleshed out.
Activists and advocates from quality of life niches are – somewhat surprisingly – taking it easy on the candidates.
While still vigorously lobbying for their respective causes, advocates say they understand the need to focus on a few key messages in the home stretch of the campaign, and they are content to wait on the sidelines and work with the eventual leader.
“These issues are not always seen by politicians as first-tier issues,” said Hugh McDiarmid Jr., communications director with the Michigan Environmental Council. “Which is disappointing but not unusual.”
Mike Latvis is director of public policy for ArtServe, the statewide non-profit group that works to raise awareness of Michigan’s 20,000-plus arts-related businesses and their contribution to the economy.
“The main issue is fixing Michigan in the broadest sense,” Latvis said. “We don’t view the current focus as ‘we don’t support your issue.’
But we would love arts to be part of the strategy.”
The subtext in many such conversations: It could be a lot worse. Of the primary candidates, Bernero and Snyder had attempted to address quality of life issues in their platform papers to a greater degree than most of their primary rivals. They also were among three of the then-seven gubernatorial candidates who showed up for a May environmental forum in Mount Pleasant, sponsored by the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, the Detroit Free Press and Michigan Public Radio. Though the forum received little coverage, the candidates’ effort wasn’t lost on activists.
Bernero already has a number of “green” credentials from mayoral efforts in Lansing. And Snyder impressed attendees with his depth of environmental knowledge, McDiarmid said. “He clearly does more than memorize talking points.”
Indeed, the Michigan League of Conservation Voters made a dual pre-primary endorsement of Snyder and Bernero – the first time it had endorsed a Republican candidate, according to Executive Director Lisa Wozniak.
Quality of Life, Economy Intertwined
Still, while advocates who find something to like in each candidate’s toolkit are willing to bide their time, none of these issues can be entirely peeled away from the eventual governor’s main task of luring business investment to Michigan, keeping desirable workers here, loosening real estate gridlock and maintaining agriculture and tourism, the two powerhouse industries that are buoying the state as manufacturing stumbles.
“Obviously a state surrounded by water can’t be economically sound if we forget about the environment,” said Snyder spokesman Bill Nowling. “And you can’t talk about reinventing Michigan without addressing quality of life. Rick takes a balanced approach – none of these things work independently; they’re all interconnected. But clearly we have to address the pressing issues first – our tax structure and the budget deficit.”
Bernero’s camp made the jobs-lifestyle-environment connection, too.
“Many of the best and the brightest leave Michigan after graduation,” Bernero said in an e-mailed statement. “My administration will work to create an environment and culture to provide incentives that will increase our ability to retain the talent that our phenomenal universities create every year. I’ve already done this in Lansing — we transformed our downtown with a focus on entertainment, and Lansing was recently named one of Kiplinger’s top 10 Best Places for Young People to Live.”
Indeed, the financial publication lauded Lansing’s low cost of living, higher education, downtown renewal and “rising technology sector” as big draws for the under-35 worker many communities are trying to retain.
Rory Neuner is a liveable communities expert and state network manager for the Safe Routes to School State Network Project.
Neuner, a Michigan native who returned to Lansing in 2008, noted Bernero’s history of successful vibrant-city and pro-environment initiatives. She pointed to the Stadium District – a branding effort that lured a Cool Cities grant and private investment to create a walkable mixed-use neighborhood in 11 square blocks near Oldsmobile Park, the city’s minor-league baseball field.
Also, she said, the mayor convened a task force to work on issues of walking and biking. Out of that came the state’s first Complete Streets ordinance, which requires that road planners consider all potential users – buses, bicycles, disabled persons, pedestrians, etc. – rather than just motor vehicles.
It’s no coincidence that following Lansing’s efforts, state lawmakers last month passed a Michigan-wide Complete Streets package that requires planners to make similar provisions throughout Michigan.
“Lansing was the first municipality in Michigan to pass an ordinance and that wouldn’t have happened without the mayor’s task force,” Neuner said. “He lit the match that started the fire.”
Bernero’s office also says that the candidate’s efforts have created or retained 6,000 jobs in Lansing during his tenure – another facet to his mission of keeping the community alive despite tough times for some of its largest employers.
Snyder too has an affinity for walkable downtowns, Nowling said, noting that the candidate’s campaign office and private offices are located amid Ann Arbor’s historic business district.
Snyder’s 10-point plan for Michigan includes a “central cities” paper that suggests tax credits for young professionals, curbing sprawl, light rail projects and a Pittsburgh-style revitalization effort for Detroit.
“There are 50,000 Michigan-degreed professionals working in Chicago,” Nowling added. “Imagine if they were starting businesses and otherwise growing the economy here in Michigan instead.”
The Snyder plan also includes support for arts and cultural programs that boost the appeal of Michigan communities to desirable workers and growing families – and generate $2 billion in annual revenue, the campaign says. It advocates public-private arts programs and promotions but no specific details.
Bernero’s platform doesn’t address arts funding or mass transit proposals, though he does note in his education platform that music and arts classes – cut under budget pressures – are “critical” to student development.
He told the Grand Rapids Press editorial board in August that he would not seek a gas tax increase but would tap federal funds and seek a waiver of state matching funds in order to focus on roads in Michigan cities.
Tourism Ad Campaign Supported
Each candidate says he supports the Pure Michigan tourism marketing campaign, which earlier this month confirmed it has no budget for a fall advertising blitz.
Bernero says he wants to expand Pure Michigan to feature hunting, fishing and outdoor activities.
Snyder has taken to decrying the Pure Michigan budget cuts – the campaign lost nearly $25 million in state funding this year, according to Travel Michigan – in his local appearances, Nowling said. He says that as a “pragmatic businessman,” Snyder appreciates that Pure Michigan pays for itself by returning more money to state coffers than it costs.
But neither candidate offers specifics for funding a beefed-up Pure Michigan budget or other tourism initiatives.
That’s OK with some travel industry officials, for now.
“I think everybody understands. Everyone is coming up to (the candidates) with hands out, and they have to prioritize,” said Mike Norton, spokesman for the Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau.
But Norton too underscores the function tourism serves, not just in providing immediate jobs and revenue but in driving long-term economic gains by exposing entrepreneurs, corporate executives and prospective residents to the state.
“It’s great if you have a governor who can be an advocate for tourism,” he said. “And one who acknowledges that tourism is a bridge that can help us get to a better place.”
Specifics Lacking on Environment
One major citizen worry reflected in the Michigan’s Defining Moment: 10,000 Voices report is concern for the state’s environment and natural resources. And it’s the quality of life issue that each candidate is steeped the most in – not surprising since leveraging Michigan’s natural assets and “green” industry potential is seen as one way to cure the state’s economic malaise.
Each candidate’s position papers reflect natural resources proposals, from combating Asian carp and other invasive species to Bernero’s aim to eliminate the use of coal by transitioning to green energy sources. Bernero has called for money to clean up industrial sites; Snyder wants to address environmental protection funding issues by creating public-private partnerships, involving the state’s colleges and universities in conservation efforts and developing protocols to quickly intervene when ecological problems crop up.
No specific plans have emerged.
“Both gentlemen are doing their utmost to remain noncommittal on the details, as candidates generally do,” said Wozniak, of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “They’ve used very broad brush strokes, and we’re very interested in getting more details.”
Still, the league has called the primary results a “win-win” for Michigan and for the first time has let stand the pre-primary dual endorsement of both Bernero and Snyder. Snyder also has the endorsement of the state Republicans for Environmental Protection.
“We felt very good about the dual endorsement,” she said. “We decided at that point it better serves us to track where they are going and to make that information public and to encourage both of them to be as strong on the issues as they possibly can.”
The league maintains a spreadsheet on its site with synopses of each candidate’s position on a variety of environmental matters ranging from wetlands protection (both support it, no specifics) to nuclear power (Snyder for, Bernero against) to state parks funding (Snyder for, no mention by Bernero.)
“Each of these areas is intimately connected to the Michigan economy and to why people want to live here,” Wosniak said. “We could benefit hugely by making smart decisions about the consumption of energy, if our leaders choose to really lead.”
Both candidates are espousing “green jobs” as part of Michigan’s future, capitalizing on momentum generated by the forthcoming launch of the Chevrolet Volt, to be built in General Motor Co.’s Detroit-Hamtramck plant, and the emerging battery-manufacturing industry.
And Neuner, the Complete Streets advocate, points out that Bernero long has espoused green initiatives at the municipal level. For example, she said, “the city of Lansing has a Go Green! coordinator in the mayor’s office. While that is not entirely unique nationwide, it is unique in Michigan – to have a standalone person paid to work on green and sustainability issues. They’ve done some good things.”
Bernero also in 2007 signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, committing the City of Lansing to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 7 percent by 2012.
Time will tell if Michigan’s next governor can integrate all of these quality of life issues – and more — into a comprehensive plan for the state’s renewal. Advocates, meanwhile, are willing to give the new executive a little breathing room – to an extent.
“After November we’ll be working to continue to educate the governor and the Legislature,” Latvis said. “I don’t fear they won’t support us, but a lot of things are on the back burner at the moment. We’re looking forward to working with a new administration to bring arts to the front burner.”
Wosniak expressed similar sentiments about eco-concerns.
“We do tend to have our issues sidelined, but they are higher on the totem pole than they have ever been before,” she said.