Friday, June 17, 2016

End injustice in forgotten U.S. territories

The following was published in today's edition of The Detroit News.

Barack Obama’s path to the White House was forged by his renowned speech before the 2004 Democratic National Convention, but his administration hasn’t lived up to the spirit of the lofty rhetoric.

“We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America,” Obama said at the time.

That is certainly the case in American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands, where military enlistment rates are among the country’s highest per capita.

Unfortunately, the steadfast loyalty of the Americans in the territories isn’t reciprocated.

This might be a result of the Insular Cases, a series of federal Supreme Court rulings dating to when the United States acquired foreign territories in the wake of the Spanish-American War.

Simply put, the Insular Cases have created unequal and distinct classes of Americans: Those who are born or live in the states and those who live in the territories.

This is based on the same legal doctrine as Plessy v. Ferguson, which enshrined racial segregation into law.

Yet the Insular Cases protect a fundamental injustice far worse than separate but equal. In the territories, Americans — white, yellow, brown and black — are separate and unequal.

One would think if anyone would champion their cause it would be Obama. After all, this president defied the law of the land on gay marriage because he deemed it constitutionally indefensible.

However, the Justice and Interior departments under the country’s first African-American president invoke the Insular Cases, which speak of “savage,” “uncivilized” and “alien races” to justify the separate and unequal status of Americans in the territories.

Besides being unable to vote for president in the general election and lacking a full, voting member of the House of Representatives — to say nothing of having no senator — these Americans are denied many of the basic constitutional rights and protections enjoyed by those living in the states.

The worst example of this fundamental injustice is birthright citizenship.

Given to the children of illegal immigrants and even visiting foreign tourists born in the states as a matter of constitutional law, birthright citizenship is denied to America’s sons and daughters born in the territories. Congress has, at least, extended citizenship by law to four of the territories, though the statute could always be repealed.

As wrong as that is, it gets worse.

American Samoa is the one territory where Americans aren’t even citizens. They are U.S. nationals, a third-class status that requires them to immigrate if they move to the mainland, despite living under the stars and stripes, carrying U.S. passports and proudly defending the rights and liberties denied to them as separate and unequal Americans.

It looked as if this fundamental injustice might finally end, as one of the country’s foremost constitutional lawyers, former Solicitor General Ted Olson, took up the cause.

Yet the High Court punted on the case brought by American Samoans, leaving it up to Congress and the president to address the issue legislatively.

The first step in ending this fundamental injustice could come this summer.

Republicans writing the party’s platform at the national convention would be wise to follow the example of Lincoln and the other founders of the GOP by righting the wrongs wrought by the Insular Cases.

— Dennis Lennox

Friday, May 27, 2016

Mackinac is an opportunity for our embattled governor

The following was published in today's edition of The Detroit News.

It’s that time of the year when the governing class leaves Lansing for three days of glad-handing the moneyed business interests of Metro Detroit.

The official backdrop is the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference, where nostalgia-seeking guests willing to pay several hundred dollars a night consume the semblance of historical authenticity. Think the World Economic Forum in Davos, but for Michiganians with fudge and horses.

But the confab does serve a valuable purpose, especially for those trying to raise their political profile.

It was here in 2005 Dick DeVos launched his Republican gubernatorial campaign against the incumbent Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm. Despite presiding over what became known as Michigan’s “Lost Decade”—the single-state recession in which so many millennials left for a brighter future elsewhere—Granholm maintained her support among Detroit’s crony capitalist business interests.

Mackinac has also hosted many a colorful discussion between Kwame Kilpatrick and Dennis Archer, both of whom were initially seen as reformers during their mayoralty, and now ex-Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano and Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson. More recently, it’s been Mark Hackel, the Macomb County executive, using the island to grow his clout.

And then there are the controversies every couple of years. There were the stalled budget disputes between Granholm and Republicans in the Legislature, the epic prelude to Detroit’s city hall bankruptcy and, now, the mess that is the city’s public schools.

Generally forgotten, however, are the one or two radical ideas proposed just about every year.

Back in 2010 it was former Speaker of the U.S. House Newt Gingrich, who proposed a tax-free city aimed at spawning economic growth not seen since Detroit was the world’s richest city in 1950.

With this being Governor Rick Snyder’s last Mackinac gathering before he is relegated to the sidelines as a political lame duck, now is the time for the governor to shepherd through a radical idea.

Snyder, who is very much at home among the conference’s business interests, has yet to make good on his promises of six years ago to fundamentally change the way government in Michigan operates.

Sure, there have been meaningful reforms to how state government taxes and regulates, but the self-styled nerd has largely ignored Michigan’s outdated system of government.

Despite Census projections indicating a continued population decline, government remains out-of-touch with the realities of Michigan two decades into the 21st century.

A good example is Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, who recently embarked upon a statewide tour aimed at increasing the “revenue,” which is government speak for new taxes, collected by local government.

Not only do the state’s 83 counties, 276 cities, 257 villages and 1,240 townships claim to never have enough money, but they actively use taxpayer-funded special interests to lobby against any and all meaningful changes to the state’s bloated, archaic and otherwise rotten system of government.

Instead of seeking more taxpayer dollars to preserve his bailiwick, Evans should put the interests of his constituents first and admit that Wayne County serves no meaningful purpose.

Most taxpayers wouldn’t notice if Wayne County government was abolished, as frontline public services are typically provided by cities and townships. The same is true in other counties, the lines of which haven’t been redrawn since 1891.

What little unique authority a county does exercise on its own could be absorbed by either a special authority or through an interlocal agreement of cities and townships.

Of course, this is just one possibility. There are so many other radical ideas that Snyder should consider before his legacy is defined only by his handling of the numerous crises that have plagued his governorship.

—Dennis Lennox

Friday, May 20, 2016

Mission Point, Mackinac Island’s other hotel

The following was published today on Medium.

Anyone who grew up in Michigan knows Mackinac Island to be a special place.

Located in the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet and the impressive Mackinac Bridge has connected the state’s Upper and Lower peninsulas since 1957, the island has been on the map since the days of empire, when French explorers, traders and missionaries first charted these waters.

The British soon followed, though their settlement of Mackinac Island may have never happened had the threat of an American attack against the largely indefensible old French fort on the mainland during the second half of the American Revolution not forced the construction of Fort Mackinac atop the island’s limestone bluffs.

Despite the war formally ending in 1783, the British occupied these parts of the newly independent United States until 1796. In fact, American control wasn’t cemented until after the War of 1812 — the British occupied the island for most of the largely forgotten conflict — though by the end of the 19th century tourists came to dominate island life.

It was during Mackinac Island’s transition from a strategic military fortification to an attractive destination for wealthy tourists from Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland that the iconic Grand Hotel was established.

While the Grand Hotel arguably defines Mackinac Island as much as Fort Mackinac or the island’s unique, car-free way of life, it isn’t the only big hotel welcoming visitors.

Located on the grounds of a former private college on the island’s sunrise side is Mission Point Resort, which is both upscale and relaxed.

You’re more likely to see gentlemen wearing madras shorts and a polo shirt with a popped collar than the jacket and necktie required at the Grand Hotel. Plus, rates (rooms start at $145) are considerably more affordable, making it ideal for families.

Owner Dennert Ware, who, together with his wife Suzanne, bought the hotel in 2014, has embarked upon a multi-year renovation after previous owners allowed the hotel to become tired.

Rooms are being redone, a new spa is planned, the Adirondack-style hotel lobby was refreshed and creative new packages featuring memorable experiences are being offered to guests.

One such experience, created by managing director Bradley McCallum, allows guests to watch the sunrise over Lake Huron while enjoying a breakfast picnic of locally caught whitefish benedict and homemade croissants with Michigan peach jam. (Just imagine how popular that picture will be on Instagram and Facebook!)

If you go

The annual Lilac Festival, which this year is planned for June 3–12, and the Independence Day holiday may be the most popular times to visit, but Mackinac Island is best experienced during shoulder season from late May through the second week of June and again in September after Labor Day.

If peak season is the only time you can visit then consider a Tuesday or Wednesday, when day trip visitors are fewer in number.

How to get there

By car from Detroit it takes a little over four hours to reach Mackinaw City, the main point of embarkation for ferries from the mainland.

Summer airfares from Chicago and New York to nearby Pellston Regional Airport, via a connection in Detroit, were around $370, according to a search on Google Flights. Flights from Chicago to Chippewa County International Airport, located outside Sault Ste. Marie, again via Detroit, were about $321 through September, according to the same search.

—  Dennis Lennox

Friday, May 6, 2016

Only Trump is trying something different

The following was published in today's edition of The Detroit News.

There are a lot of analogies to explain how Donald Trump will win the Republican nomination. Perhaps the best is that Trump mounted a Wall Street-style hostile takeover — marshaling the proxy votes of long-ignored shareholders to beat the chairman of the board, in this case the Republican establishment.

Republican grandees in Washington and the voices in the New York-based chattering class, the so-called #NeverTrump movement, have nobody to blame but themselves.

The reality is Trump won because his message resonated with what Spiro Agnew called the silent majority: The vast majority of Americans who don’t read the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, let alone the tribal magazines of the conservative industrial complex.

The 15 candidates felled by Trump lost because their mostly traditional, doctrinaire message didn’t sway the party base. If you took the datelines out of news reports on the also-rans or closed your eyes and only listened to the words of their stump speeches you could have been in 2012, 2008 or 1996.

While the GOP hasn’t won a national governing majority in six of the last seven presidential elections, the party’s candidates have failed to craft a new message that has genuine appeal.

Only Trump is trying something different.

Now there are real questions over whether Trump’s coalition is good enough as the demographics of America have changed so much in recent years that the white male vote alone is no longer enough to produce the landslide wins of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan as well as George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Still, at least Trump is trying to broaden Republican appeal to the large swaths of the country that look around and no longer see a great country.

Most Americans, on the right and left, no longer believe the system — controlled by the establishment of both parties — works for them.

The gap between the rich and everyone else is the widest in a century. The good-paying jobs of working-class and middle-class Americans are disappearing.

Schools are dysfunctional. Infrastructure is crumbling. Borders, language, and culture seem to mean nothing as big business chases the almighty dollar.

Whether Trump can, as he says, make America great again is unknown but it’s hard not to see him doing to presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton what he did to his defeated GOP foes.

— Dennis Lennox

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The religious liberty front in the culture war

The following was published in today's edition of The Detroit News.

Whether it was Indiana a few years ago or recent legislation in Georgia and Mississippi, secular progressives have decried as state-sanctioned discrimination any efforts to codify the right of religious Americans not to violate the tenets of their faith.

One expects as much from the usual suspects on the left. What has been a surprise is the outcry from business, which claims religious liberty legislation makes it difficult to hire the best workers.

This claim is dubious at best, as the freedom of religion clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution only applies to government, not corporations. Then there’s the absurd hypocrisy of companies like Disney, which makes movies in countries where homosexuality is a criminal offense.

Regardless, neither side is right.

Let’s face it. Conservatives have done a poor job at the politics of religious liberty in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized gay marriage across the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and four of the five U.S. territories.

There aren’t many who actually argue clergymen should be compelled to perform the rites of a religious ceremony that goes against either their sincerely held beliefs or the doctrines of their religious sect.

However, the issue of gay marriage is much more complex.

With a number of professed Christian sects blessing or otherwise solemnizing gay marriage, it’s difficult for religious objectors to argue their position is the one, true Christian stance. It also doesn’t help when those who champion the traditional definition of marriage seem to turn a blind eye to remarrying heterosexual divorcees.

But this debate goes far beyond gay marriage. The real question is: just where does religious liberty end?

For example, could a Muslim driver’s education instructor refuse female pupils, citing Wahhabbist clerics in Saudi Arabia? Then there’s the parish hall of a Christian church that is also rented out for secular uses. Could the congregation be compelled to rent its space to undesirable tenets?

There have even been cases on college campuses of overtly religious student groups being told they couldn’t deny membership to non-adherents of their faith.

In other countries — some touted so often by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and others on the left — Christian women have been prohibited from wearing a cross around their neck and Muslim women have been told they can’t wear headscarves in public.

These are all real issues with no easy answers.

As more states adopt religious liberty legislation, it’s inevitable that the courts will be forced to wade in the murky waters of deciding exactly what constitutes a sincerely held belief or religious doctrine.

— Dennis Lennox