Civility 101: Michigan Political Leadership Program Puts Politeness Back Into Politics

By Dawson Bell

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The original inspiration for the Michigan Political Leadership Program (MPLP) at Michigan State University (MSU) came from Robert Mitchell, an official with former Gov. Jim Blanchard’s administration, who was deeply concerned about increasing partisanship in the legislative process.

During his 22 years of public service, Mitchell felt candidates should be trained on how to properly serve in government before running for office. The answer was to create a program so applicants could develop cross-party relationships, hone their skills for getting elected, and learn how to effectively govern in a bipartisan spirit. MPLP’s founders feared doing nothing would lead the state down a darker path.

Today, as the constantly changing cast of characters in Lansing seems to become more rancorously partisan, state politics are at a low ebb of ugliness.

The program aims to relieve — at least on a limited scale — some of the rancor. On that score, it appears to be working. Graduates (there have been more than 600) attest to the value of having spent monthly weekends with classmates of very different backgrounds and political proclivities.

Kenneth Cockrel Jr., an MPLP alum and 16- year Detroit city councilman and interim mayor who now heads Habitat for Humanity Detroit, calls his experience “invaluable.” The lifelong Democrat said that is due in part because of his interaction with colleagues he otherwise would have never met. More than 20 years on, Cockrel said he counts MPLP classmates, such as former Republican House Speaker Craig DeRoche and Aaron Payment, the elected chair of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, as good friends.

Anne Mervenne, the Republican co-director of MPLP, said she regularly hears about — and derives deep satisfaction from — former MPLP participants who are working with each other to solve problems.

“Personal relationships translate into cooperation,” she said. “We’re not trying to get people to agree with each other. We’re trying to get them to understand each other.”

U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell (D-MI 12) has served on the program’s advisory board for more than a decade. She calls the program “more relevant than ever.”

“If you don’t have relationships (with political opponents), it’s easy to demonize them,” she said. “When you have relationships, you learn to listen. And when you listen to each other … you sometimes find solutions.”

Each class of 24 fellows is carefully selected to achieve political, gender, racial

and geographic balance, said MSU trustee Dianne Byrum, a former co-director of MPLP and former Democratic lawmaker.

“It creates opportunities for dialogue. But by itself, it certainly can’t solve the issue of (restoring) civil discourse. It’s no panacea. This program can’t overcome all the other forces (undermining civility,” she said.

There is an “art” to effective legislating, said Mervenne’s Democratic counterpart, Steve Tobocman, a former House majority leader who now serves as director of Global Detroit. MPLP helps master the art, he said, including how to work effectively with political opponents. But much of the climate of vitriol comes not from elected officials, but their constituents, he added, who for various reasons are alienated and disenchanted with the current state of American democracy.

“There are lots of things that can be done,” Tobocman said. “(MPLP) is one, but we didn’t get here overnight, and we’re not going to fix it overnight.”

Dawson Bell is a metro Detroit freelance writer.

From Adversaries to Allies: Lessons and Warnings from Michigan’s Brief Era of Bipartisan House Control 

By Rick Pluta

Sharp words and stark differences are nothing new in American politics, but in recent years it seems like the anger’s amped up.

There was a period when Michigan politicians were forced to adopt a cooperative spirit. Republicans and Democrats in the state House of Representatives had to give up their quest for dominance and work together on an equal footing.

Voters statewide in 1992 surprised the nation by voting for the Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in 20 years, and by sending an equal number of Republicans and Democrats — 55 and 55 — to the state House.

“We were forced to come together,” said Paul Hillegonds, CEO of the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, who served as the Republican co-speaker during the session.

The 1993-94 “shared power” session was very productive, including a landmark overhaul of the state’s school funding system. That period is looked back upon as an idyllic moment in Michigan political history, but it would not last. Still, there are lessons from that time that may be applicable to resolving some of today’s conflicts.

Participants in the “shared power” session say relationships were key to making the arrangement work. The state’s term limits amendment still had not kicked in, so House members typically had long histories of working together in the prior years of Democratic control.

“I think the culture was created because there were relationships,” said Kirk Profit, a Democrat who served as the co-chair of the House tax committee and has remained in Lansing as a lobbyist. “Each committee chair had been there a while and had to become an expert on their issue. The same is true for the minority vice chair, even if they didn’t have the same juice,” Profit added.

Profit said committee chairs and ranking members typically served eight to 10 years before getting a gavel. House members are now limited to six years, so that authority is wielded by a greener generation that does not have the advantage of building that expertise.

The arrangement also occurred before smartphones, text messaging, email and social media.

“I don’t know if shared power would work today given how we communicate,” Hillegonds said.

Daniel Loepp, president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, served as chief of staff to the late Curtis Hertel Sr., who was the Democratic co-speaker during the 1993-94 session. Loepp wrote a book about his experience, “Sharing the Balance of Power.” He agrees with Hillegonds.

“It’s a 24/7 news cycle. People are responding in nanoseconds,” he said. “The world has changed so much.”

Loepp said those dynamics do not lend themselves well to solving knotty issues the “shared power” Legislature tackled, such as school funding.

At the time, schools relied on local property taxes for their operating funds. The result was spiraling millage rates, growing disparities between wealthy and poor districts, and widespread voter dissatisfaction.

A political maneuver gone awry resulted in the Legislature and then-Gov. John Engler scrapping the school funding system without a replacement plan in place. A shifting, bipartisan group of state lawmakers took up the task for crafting a replacement. They worked all the way to Christmas Eve of 1993 and the result was Proposal A, adopted the following March by voters. It stabilized property taxes, partially dealt with the funding disparities, and remains a popular example of bipartisan cooperation.

Hillegonds said that effort would have failed if both sides were locked into caucus positions.

“Curtis and I had to let go, and give our caucus members room to problem-solve,” he said.

“If you think about it, it’s amazing that it happened, but everybody was in the mindset of ‘you have to come up with something,’” Loepp said. “I think people back then who were serving had a sense of what a special situation it was. I think human nature puts you on your best behavior.”

It would be difficult to recreate all the conditions that made “shared power” a success. Not only has technology changed, so has Michigan politics. Before “shared power,” it was presumed the state House would be run by a Democratic majority. Since the 1993-94 session, the House majority has shifted five times, with every election now a fierce battle for control.

“Bipartisan compromise becomes problematic for a party that’s seeking to win back power,” said Frances Lee, a University of Maryland political science professor.

Lee studies partisan conflict in Congress and state legislatures, including Michigan. She said Michigan is currently among the most partisan in the country, and the constant battle for control is a contributing factor.

“If a party that’s not controlling Congress, or any legislature, wants to win back power, it needs to make an argument to do so,” she said. “It needs to say that the people in power are not doing a good job. Well, if you work productively with the opposing party … that’s very problematic for making the argument that they’re doing a bad job.”

But Loepp and Hillegonds say there are lessons from the “shared power” session that can be applied today, both inside and outside the House Chamber.

“Quit sending emails and texts and go talk to somebody,” Loepp said. “Not that emails and texts aren’t useful. They are. But, especially on sophisticated, complicated things, it helps to cut through the clouds.”

Hillegonds said in the era of term limits, leaders need to include relationship-building that crosses party lines into their planning.

“Any reform idea should be coupled with the question, ‘Does it build relationships or not?’” he said.

And he adds that lawmakers should slow down and get to know one another before they start making policy.

“I would tell committee chairs, ‘Don’t move any bills for three months. Go on the road with your committee. Build relationships and and learn,'” Hillegonds said.

Rick Pluta is the state capitol bureau chief for the Michigan Public Radio Network.

Dan Ammann and Julia Steyn Leverage General Motors’ Legacy of Innovation to Lead in a Bold New Technological Era

General Motors Reimagining Personal Mobility

By Daniel Lai

Imagine a world with no cars parked on the sides of streets, minimal traffic congestion, and picking up a friend from the airport is as simple as ordering an autonomous ride from the safety and comfort of your sofa. That reality is not so far off, automakers say.

Catalyzed by the influx of new technology, Michigan’s OEMs are working feverishly on innovative ways to stay ahead of the mobility game, especially as the face of consumers gets younger and preferences shift away from vehicle ownership in favor of convenience.

Recognizing these changing trends, General Motors Co. exploded out of the gate with a flurry of product and partnership announcements this past year. The strategy was led by GM President Dan Ammann, a former Morgan Stanley investment banker who cut his teeth on Wall Street. That experience coupled with a keen forward-thinking prowess has proven to be a golden ticket for the automaker.

In January, GM announced a $500 million investment in San Francisco-based Lyft to put an integrated network of on-demand autonomous vehicles on the roads in the United States. The partnership leverages GM’s deep knowledge of autonomous technology and Lyft’s capabilities in providing a broad range of ride-sharing services. Three months later, GM and Lyft launched a short-term rental program called Express Drive, which provides vehicles to Lyft drivers for a weekly rate. The service rolled out in Chicago, Baltimore, Boston and Washington, D.C.

GM’s increased focus on personal mobility solutions signals a new culture and bold leadership shift to position Michigan’s automotive industry as a formidable leader in autonomous technology research and development.

“We want to make sure that we’re in position that when (customers) think about mobility, they think about us every single step of the way. We are investing very heavily to define the future of personal mobility in the areas of connectivity, car- and ride-sharing, autonomous driving, alternative propulsion, and of course, all of the new technologies that are required to underpin those developments,” Ammann said during keynote remarks at the 2016 Mackinac Policy Conference.

“That’s really important because as we look at consumer behavior, we see a very clear trend where customers are willing to wait for the right vehicles, for the right level of connectivity before they make their purchase decision, we’re seeing increasing evidence of that every day,” Ammann added.

In addition to the Lyft partnership, GM announced a collaboration with MobileEye to crowd-source advanced mapping data for self-driving cars, introduced the Chevrolet Bolt, the first long-range, consumer-friendly electric vehicle, and unveiled its personal mobility brand, Maven.

Currently in 13 markets throughout the United States, the car-sharing service provides access to highly personalized, on-demand vehicles. Maven customers use its app to search for and reserve a vehicle by location or car type and unlock the vehicle with their smartphone.

“With more than 25 million customers around the world projected to use some form of shared mobility by 2020, Maven is a key element of our strategy to changing ownership models in the automotive industry,” Ammann said.

The Maven team is made up of professionals from Google, Zipcar and Sidecar and led by former Alcoa vice president, Julia Steyn. The Detroiter recently sat down with Steyn to talk about Maven, the future of car-sharing, and GM and Detroit’s next steps in the new mobility era.

How would you describe a Maven user?

It is actually really interesting how Maven customers are very different from the traditional way how we sell cars. First of all, it is very simple because in traditional car sales, it is a one-time transaction and you really market a product. With Maven, we want as much repeat use and as often of a repeat use as possible. We are marketing an overall service and the experience to the customers. Just based on the numbers, Maven customers’ average age is 30 and the average income is above $80,000. We’re talking to the customers that we would not have had in the GM brand family. That’s where Maven is so additive to our traditional brands.

What makes Maven unique in the exploding next-generation mobility scene?

We are, as Maven, building on GM’s competitive strength. That comes first and foremost with the breadth of our portfolio. We have anything from Corvettes and the luxury vehicles and Escalades on one end, to the trucks. We are very fortunate that we can tailor the portfolio to our customers regionally.

Secondly, we obviously have the ability with the connection to the vehicle. We have been doing this with OnStar for a long time to create this very on-demand service. It is not only the app, it is the whole experience … how you interact through the phone and the app, and the same phone opens the vehicle and you kind of bring your whole digital life through what we have put through OnStar in the vehicle as well as the dedicated concierges who can curate anything from safety and finding directions to booking your restaurant or booking your hotel. They are specifically trained to interact with Maven customers.

We are also positioning vehicles where the demand is. Through our two services, Maven Home and Maven City, we track very closely whether these spots are the right ones. We understand where our Maven users are going and how to really tailor the services toward that. I believe that we are quite unique in elevating the whole car-sharing experience to a very different level.

Maven sits at the intersection of “traditional” automotive companies and next-generation mobility and technology firms. In your viewpoint, are traditional OEMs and suppliers ready for this transformation that is upon us?

It is happening as we speak. You kind of have to follow where the customer wants to go with that. I firmly believe that a company like GM has so many assets that are so crucial to the new space. First of all, looking traditionally at our scale, which we are able to do, we can finance the cars. We can obviously build the cars. We understand how to deal with insurance. We actually have been in the forefront of consumer marketing for over a hundred years. It comes in sort of a variety of innovation that has to happen, but the base is there, we are just doing it in a different way.

Technology is the table stakes right now. What is fascinating to me, what is happening in the industry right now in automotive, is a really big convergence of the technology that is just software and app creation with real assets. The consumers need both. They are not just consuming an app, they are consuming a service. They want something that is relevant to their lifestyle. That is why it is so important for us to take the Maven brand to be relevant to that lifestyle. We have customers who have taken Maven (vehicles) almost a hundred times in different geographical areas, so we want to be relevant. Where do they want to go? What do they want to see?

It is almost re-teaching this next generation how to interact with a vehicle in a fun way. The reality is, whether OEMs are ready for it or not, we are ready and we are very aggressively pursuing this strategy.

Major cities across the globe are competing to own next-generation mobility. Assess Detroit’s strengths and weaknesses in this competition.

I’m actually very excited about Detroit. It is clearly a story of revival and renaissance in a very young and modern way. If you look back at where Detroit has been, when you look a hundred years ago, it really was the industrial Silicon Valley. It is coming back. I actually strongly believe that it is important for Maven to ground itself in where we are, and Detroit just has this amazing energy not to give up and be really out there in trying new things. At some level, the city itself doesn’t have much to lose.

I think GM is also a bit like that. I’ve been with the company for close to five years and when I came it was the story of restructuring and survival. Now we are looking at a very different dialogue. I’m very thrilled. Frankly from a talent standpoint, our Maven team comes from all over the world. We speak 20-plus languages and between our team, we have more than 40 startups under our belts, so it is a very entrepreneurial team. Detroit has been an attractive place to come and work. We never lost a single candidate because we were in Detroit. People love the city.

The automotive industry has traditionally had a perception problem. The mobility industry offers technology to solve global issues. What can we do to change the old perceptions with millennials to attract more talent?

I think that Detroit is very much on the way there. I see the revival of some art, the revival of the food culture, and more companies that we have on the cutting edge, whether it is automotive or other industries. Real estate is dramatically changing Detroit and what has been happening; we are very linked with this. I think giving Detroit more credit is good. It needs to continue to be marketed as a destination — as a destination for travel and leisure, as a destination for new companies and new ideas. Nobody should be shy about putting a stake in the ground in that.

How important is it for the startup ecosystem to be in Detroit and around these automotive companies, and what can we do to foster that?

Personally, it has been a very fascinating experience for me to open and start a startup within a 100-year-old company. From the outside it might appear as a very daunting task. In reality, on every level of the corporation we have received tremendous support because I think it permeates not just the senior leadership team but also everybody who sees the industry that we are in the cusp of tremendous changes. People are excited to explore opportunities. In fact, most of the folks who supported our Maven startup did it not as part of their main job, but as something that they really wanted to put their fingerprint on.

I think getting the culture back, you have to move fast. You have to be able to experiment. You have to take ownership of what that looks like in a real commercial way. We at Maven are not about running experiments. We are running a new commercial business, and we are learning tremendous amounts through this and building very new capabilities for the company. I don’t know what can be more exciting. I think it is true for anybody who is going to start something new in Detroit.

What is next for Maven and General Motors?

This year our big push was to really launch a brand and get the exposure and the on the ground operation. We are very much happy with how the year went and how quickly we accomplished that. Next year we are going to be focused on growing our customer base and really deepening the relationships that we have developed throughout the country. A lot of exciting opportunities, a lot of exciting ways to grow.

What do you love most about Detroit and Michigan?

I definitely will not say the weather. I just like the attitude and the grit of the city and the energy and the vibe. I have seen that in New York, but many, many years ago when Brooklyn was hustling and bustling. Now I live downtown in Detroit and even in the past five years I have seen the amazing change in the restaurant scene and a change in who my neighbors have become; it is so cool. I just want to contribute to the growth of the city. I think anything from the art scene to the fashion scene, all of that is so honest and so raw and so sincere that you just have to be amazed in what happens next, so I’m watching.

Daniel Lai is a communications specialist and copywriter at the Detroit Regional Chamber. 

An Experience of a Lifetime

By: Tammy Carnrike

Chamber COO Tammy Carnrike participated in the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference (JCOC), a program sponsored by the Secretary of Defense for civilian public opinion leaders interested in growing their knowledge of the military and national defense issues. JCOC is the oldest existing Department of Defense outreach program having been held more than 81 times since its inception in 1948. Tammy spent five days in the Western U.S. visiting each branch of the U.S. military and learning about the readiness of the armed forces and our nation’s defense policies.

There’s a moment when a realization hits you. It’s more than an insight or an epiphany. It’s the moment where the reality of a situation not only changes your perception – it shatters it. You feel it all the way through your body and your worldview changes forever.

That moment came for me this July, in the mountains of the pacific northwest, as I stood in a Stryker tank, looking through the roof hatch as five other U.S. Army tanks patrolled near mine, churning the ground, and grinding their way through a simulated combat zone as soldiers completed drills nearby. Sweating in full combat gear under the summer sun, a heavy metal helmet sitting awkwardly on my head, the roar of tank drowning out everything but my own thoughts – it hit me.

I had no idea the level of commitment, discipline and endurance it takes to be a member of the armed forces and defend our country. I had no idea how indebted we truly are to our brave men and women in uniform.

I made this realization while participating in the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference (JCOC) this summer. Along with 39 other business and community leaders from around the country, I spent five days in the Western U.S. visiting each branch of the U.S. military and learning about the readiness of the armed forces and our nation’s defense policies. Each stop taught me something new about the military and heroes who belong to each branch.

Some lessons where technical. For instance, the Navy has the ability to rescue submarine passengers, anywhere in the world, within 72 hours. That’s right, 72 hours, and this unit can rescue individuals in a submarine as deep as 2,000 feet.

Other lessons were kinetic like firing an M4 rifle issued by the Army, twitching as a Marine Corp drill sergeant screams in your face, jumping in and out of a fox hole while completing a Marine Corps bayonet course and rappelling down a 65 foot building.

Some were awe-inspiring. Watching a mid-air refueling exercise from the cockpit of a C-17 above Missouri. Closing out an 18.5-hour day watching fighter jets take off for air to air combat in the dark of night at the Red Flag Nevada Test and Training Range located on 2.9 million acres and 15,800 square miles of airspace.

Others were more procedural, such as realizing the level of innovation and entrepreneurialism that the Navy demonstrates in order to provide the quality of life for their personnel. With shrinking federal appropriation   budgets, it requires creativity and innovative business thinking to be successful in providing the assets to support a quality base living experience.

Some are emotional. I will never forget my Marine Corps recruit experience and the look in the eyes of these young men as they showed their pride in being a Marine and their devotion to our country.

As our tour came to an end, I realized how much I’d learned. Budget constraints are a challenge at all levels of the military. Taking care of military families and veterans is a priority for all branches of the military. Collaboration is key in all sectors of the military to leverage resources and core competencies to find the quickest, most effective response to extraordinarily dangerous and complex situations.

After much reflection, based on what I heard and experienced, I wonder if our country needs a new defense strategy at this very important crossroads.

I heard from many of the branches of the impact that budget constraints limit investment in new equipment and upgrades while competing countries have the resources and are able to provide state-of- the-art planes and equipment to their military. Problems with exit strategies for military personnel ultimately result in stress on local and state economies, adding to the existing high population of unemployed veterans. And finally, with such large reductions in force, can we as a nation be confident we are backed by the properly trained and capable military we have come to expect should a crisis occur requiring the talent and strength of our military forces?

My experience with the JCOC was a life-changing one that I will continue to reflect and build upon. I want to thank my friends at TACOM in Warren for nominating me for the JCOC experience. While this column cannot even come close to conveying the true impact this experience had on me, I want to close with a scene from my last day.

We landed back at Andrews Air Force Base late Friday evening to visit the 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon. As we departed the plane and walked to our waiting bus, we could see another C-17 on the tarmac behind us. The cargo bay was down, rather than the usual passenger departure steps. Out the back of the plane they were carrying stretchers of wounded soldiers arriving home from Germany and being loaded onto a medic bus. What a surreal ending to this week long experience of getting to know our military services and the brave men and women who make personal sacrifices to protect our country.

More from Tammy’s JCOC Experience:


Navy’s Innovation, Entrepreneurialism Stands Out

Getting to Know the Marines and Looking for My Advil