Monday, April 21, 2014

The case for dissolving Detroit


Detroit is on track to emerge from federal bankruptcy proceedings later this year, but the ability of those in city hall to competently oversee municipal governance is questionable at best.

Mayor Mike Duggan’s intentions are without a doubt good, though the past failures of city hall should give pause to those na├»ve enough to think Duggan has a magic wand he can wave to solve the herculean challenges facing Michigan’s first city.

Detroit’s political class has done nothing to make Michiganians end their skepticism and adopt a glass half-full orientation. After all, Duggan predecessors Dave Bing, Kwame Kilpatrick and Dennis Archer were all touted as transformative change-agents.

In the end, all failed to bring back Detroit from ruin.

One recent development of concern is the Duggan mayoralty assuming responsibility for blight eradication — arguably the most important portfolio outside the police and fire departments — from the Detroit Blight Authority, the non-profit, public-private partnership established by Bill Pulte.

City hall failed for decades to put an end to blight — an epidemic that has resulted in too many neighborhoods resembling Mogadishu and other war-torn cities of the third world. Yet Pulte’s Blight Authority did a lot more than the city ever did.

The same can be said for most of the other positive signs happening around Detroit. It’s innovators and entrepreneurs, as well as state-appointed leaders, who are getting things done, not Duggan or disgraced politicians like George Cushingberry.

Sure, there have been laudable reforms to come out of the bankruptcy process, but in reality this is nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic.

The time has come to admit the city’s ruin is a direct result of its structure and system of government. The fundamental transformation so desperately needed in Detroit can only come if the slate is wiped clean and the city starts anew.

This will require radical reforms that do away with the established order in very much the same way as Margaret Thatcher abolished London’s dysfunctional government back in 1986.

Possibilities range from merging the city and Wayne County into a new metropolitan government to decentralizing today’s Detroit into smaller, more accountable and more manageable governments, based upon historical townships or villages long ago lost to history.

Much of this could be carried out by either federal Judge Steven Rhodes, overseeing Detroit’s post-bankruptcy restructuring, or state-appointed emergency financial manager Kevyn Orr.

Both Rhodes and Orr are in the unique position of having broad authority that doesn’t require petty political considerations, unlike those in Lansing who are under the influence of taxpayer-funded lobbyists wanting to preserve the status quo.

Michiganians from Ironwood to Temperance, Michiana to Port Austin and everywhere in between are too vested in a new Detroit to give the keys back those who ruined it.

— Dennis Lennox

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Obama, Europe must contain Russia

The following is from today's edition of The Morning Sun.

It’s been seven weeks since this columnist was in Kiev at the height of the Maidan Revolution, when everyday Ukrainians were gunned down by the now-deposed regime of Viktor Yanukovych for simply demanding the basic freedoms and liberties taken for granted by Americans on a daily basis.

Since then the situation in Ukraine, as well as across the broader region, has worsened as a result of unchecked Russian aggression.

Sure, President Barack Obama and allies in European capitals have imposed some economic sanctions against the oligarchs who serve as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s patrons. While sanctions have had some effect on the Russian economy, they have not stopped the threat of the Kremlin moving beyond the occupied Ukrainian territory of Crimea.

This was evident during a briefing last week by NATO officials in Brussels, the same city where the European Union is also headquartered.

Yet the NATO alarms over the Russian military presence on the border with eastern Ukraine was all talk and essentially nothing more than a bluff because the 28-country military alliance lacks the political fortitude and, frankly, military capability to take real action.

Heck, even Obama has publicly conceded the United States won’t go to war over Russia’s blatant violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, which is eerily reminiscent of Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia just before World War II.

As a result, Putin is slowly, but surely, rebuilding the Russian empire unmolested.

Nothing short of real, substantive action by Obama, NATO and the EU can stop the man who dreams of Peter the Great and Joseph Stalin.

There’s only one problem with such a scenario, though.

While the United States maintains global military supremacy its defense capabilities are increasingly strained.

Not only is the Navy the smallest since the Great War a hundred years ago, but Obama is reducing the Army to its pre-World War II size.

As bad as that may sound the real situation is actually far worse across the countries of NATO and the EU.

One of the few exceptions is Estonia, a former Soviet state on the Baltic that manages to carry a big stick despite its relatively small size.

Putin is unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future, to encroach upon Estonia or other former Soviet vassals-turned-NATO members, but Ukraine holds neither NATO nor EU membership. The same is true for Moldova, parts of which are already occupied by the Russian military.

This comes at the same time as Putin has increased Russia’s defense spending by 14 percent this year alone, according to the eminent analysts of Jane’s.

Nothing should be taken off the table when it comes to containing Russia.

Not only must the United States provide economic assistance, including a formalized trade relationship, with Ukraine, but boots on the ground before next month’s presidential election would help stabilize a tumultuous situation.

Obama should also use the traditional American dominance of NATO by ensuring any EU-demanded concessions in a pending free trade agreement are contingent upon defense spending increases in real dollars (or, rather, euros).

This is the very minimum that must be done.mil

Anything short of this will not put an end to Putin’s imperial ambitions.

— Dennis Lennox

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Mark Schauer seeks political salvation in Lisa Brown

The following is from today's edition of The Morning Sun.

The decision by Mark Schauer to name his running mate well before receiving his party’s formal nomination may not be unprecedented, but it does highlight the weakness of the Democrat facing incumbent Republican Governor Rick Snyder.

There is no question Schauer has struggled to gain traction outside of the Democratic partisans who would never vote Republican in the first place.

True, Michigan hasn’t fully recovered from the tumult of Jennifer Granholm’s governorship, but the state is finally moving forward. Just look at today’s unemployment rate of 7.5 percent compared with the 13.5 percent rate during Granholm’s final year in the governor’s mansion.

Against this reality Schauer’s selection of Lisa Brown, who served two terms in the Legislature’s lower house from West Bloomfield, as the presumptive Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor was little more than an electoral Hail Mary.

While votes for the top of the ticket are seldom based on who is picked for an often politically insignificant office, the second name on the ballot can go a long way toward inspiring a party’s foot soldiers to fight it out in the trenches. This could result in higher turnout in an off-year election, which is precisely what Democrats need if Schauer is to overcome the steep odds this November.

Brown, a celebrity for those on the left, rose to fame after majority Republicans in the state House censured her for using the word “vagina” during a heated abortion debate. The bone-headed move by bald, fat, old, white men in the GOP played right into the hands of Democrats, who were successfully pushing a narrative that Mitt Romney’s Republicans were waging a war on women.

Brown then rode the re-election coattails of President Barack Obama to defeat the incumbent Republican clerk of Oakland County, arguably the most important and politically most powerful county in Michigan writ large.

She found herself back in the news last month after causing a full-blown constitutional crisis by willfully ignoring the state attorney general’s legal directives, which traditionally carry the full force and weight of law, by performing gay marriages during the brief period before a federal appeals court stayed a lower ruling striking down the state’s traditional definition of marriage.

Perhaps more interesting will be how Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley handles his newfound opponent, as unlike Brown he has to continue appeasing fringe elements where neo-Confederates Dave Agema and Todd Courser yield more influence than Snyder. (Just look at Calley’s recent intervention in support of muting the people’s voice by making the Legislature part-time.)

If Democrats have a chance it is only because of the dynamic on the Republican side preventing Calley from joining Snyder at the general election-oriented hustings.

It will also help that Brown lives in the voter-rich Detroit suburbs, where elections are more likely to be decided by those who frequent Whole Foods and Starbucks as opposed to Big Boy and Cracker Barrel.

Even with Schauer’s expected loss, this campaign will only raise Brown’s profile at a time when Democrats swarm the GOP’s last two redoubts in Oakland County: Sheriff Mike Bouchard and L. Brooks Patterson, the all-powerful county executive.

— Dennis Lennox

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Camp's retirement stirs up political landscape

The following is from yesterday's edition of The Morning Sun.

The decision by Midland’s Dave Camp not to seek re-election to Congress has made politicos scramble to see if they could make a viable run in the geographically large district.
With the seat’s strong Republican base, it’s pretty unthinkable that Democrats could pick up the seat of the retiring chairman of the powerful House Ways & Means Committee.
That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be interesting, especially if Democrats run Saginaw County Sheriff Bill Federspiel or someone in the mold of the Reagan Democrats who populate parts of this middle-class district: Socially conservative — think pro-life, pro-gun and Roman Catholic — and economically center-left.
The leading Republican hopeful is state Senator John Moolenaar, a Midland Republican whose legislative seat covers just under 20 percent of the congressional district.
Moolenaar, whose constitution is practically a clone of Camp’s low-key personality and sensible temperament, will have to forgo re-election to the Legislature’s upper house to run for Congress.
Term-limited Jim Stamas, the House majority floor leader, also of Midland, has called senior Republican leaders across Moolenaar’s Senate district, which goes all the way up to Alpena, to let them know he’s running, according to multiple sources within the GOP.
He could face a challenge for the Senate from second-term state lawmaker Pete Pettalia, who is thought to want a promotion but whose base near Alpena makes it difficult to win what has almost always been a Midland-based senatorial district.
A run by Pettalia would also complicate the Republican majority in the House, as he has no heir apparent in an area where Democrats who reject their party’s liberal orthodoxy on social issues have regularly won elections. One well-placed local source told this columnist local businessman Jon Benson might run, but he’s an unknown political commodity.
Closer to home, the maneuvering could also include Mt. Pleasant’s Kevin Cotter, who represents all of Isabella County and parts of Midland County in the House.
Cotter had announced his candidacy for speaker, presuming the GOP keeps majority. Yet the youngish Republican could mount a serious challenge to Moolenaar’s candidacy, if he’s up for the task.
Other legislators, including state Senators Judy Emmons and Darwin Booher, have publicly toyed with the idea of running for Congress, if Camp retired.
Emmons, being the only woman has a gender advantage in a primary contest against other men, but neither she nor Booher have a big enough population base to overcome the dominance of the Midland political and donor machine that is getting behind Moolenaar.
And then there’s Gary Glenn, the American Family Association of Michigan president who has announced his candidacy for the House seat of Stamas. Glenn has previously said he would run for Congress if the situation were what it is now.
While the GOP establishment looks down on him, Glenn has a deep base of support amongst social conservative voters. He also has the political ability to get the 1,000-plus signatures to make the ballot before the April 22 filing deadline.
It’s this condensed timetable that will force almost all hopefuls to declare their intentions by week’s end, if they want to realistically get the requisite signatures and raise enough seed money to hit the hustings.
— Dennis Lennox

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

GOP learning lessons, but not fast enough

The following is from today's edition of The Morning Sun.
It has been a little over a year since Republicans released the Growth and Opportunity Project, a major self-examination in the wake of Mitt Romney losing the presidential election to Barack Obama.
The GOP took the first step in recovery and admitted it had a problem. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus should be commended for taking real action over the past year to address the party’s major challenges in areas such as technology.
It’s not that the party hasn’t had the right technology. In fact, President George W. Bush actually led the way back in 2004, when his successful use of micro-targeting locked up his re-election against Democratic challenger John Kerry, the then-Massachusetts senator who is now secretary of state under Obama.
Since then, however, Democrats made use of the latest, greatest political technology all while Republicans seemed to think a tweet on Twitter, a fan page on Facebook or even a couple staff-taken photos on Instagram would be enough to win an election.
This was largely because the Democratic Party has a natural advantage with the social scientists in academia as well as the practitioners who make a living out of their expertise in persuasion, technology and other research-heavy fields. Another good example is the emerging field of behavioral economics, where most of the leading voices are unabashed liberals.
Priebus recognizes this. He’s been working to increase the GOP presence in Silicon Valley, which is one of those places that should be Republican. Yet it isn’t, in part, because many in the middle — the ones who actually decide elections — view the Republican Party not just as the party of “no,” but as the party of anti-intellectualism.
This was certainly the case when ex-Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum lowered himself to class-warfare during the 2012 GOP presidential nomination contest by calling Obama a “snob” for emphasizing the importance of higher education.
While the party is finally getting its technology in order, it also has to address its serious messaging woes all while never forgetting that grassroots, precinct-by-precinct, county-by-county and district-by-district organizing can never be replaced by technology.
There have been positive signs, including the concerted push against those who seem more interested in provoking intra-party warfare than beating the other side.
Yet lost in all this are the fresh voices and new faces that should be leading the party, not sitting on the backbenches.
Whether it’s nationally with Aaron Schock, Kristi Noem or Martha Roby — all young Republican members of Congress — or here in Michigan with second-term state lawmakers Andrea LaFontaine and Frank Foster, the party desperately needs a new generation of leaders.
Republicans shouldn’t have to deal with the likes of Ralph Hall, the 90-year-old Texas congressman who refuses to give way to someone younger.
The GOP’s improved technology will certainly help this year, but a true national governing majority will elude the party until the old farts step aside for those who look and talk like the America of the second decade of the 21st century.
— Dennis Lennox