By Paul Rozycki
After a fairly mild winter, spring has been rather cool, gray, and rainy. However, what’s been true for the weather may not be true for this summer’s political outlook. More than a few political issues offer the prospect of being very hot.
On the national level
On the national scene, President Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, growing rumors of a possible Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign, and the apparent release of classified information to Russian diplomats, have led to demands for special prosecutors, congressional investigations, and even impeachment threats–all in the first four months of the Trump administration. We will see if President Trump’s visits to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Rome changed the picture now that he’s back. Even after shaking hands with the leaders of three of the world’s major religions, all those investigations and committees are still waiting for him.
Governor’s race in Michigan
On the state level, the election for governor is still a year and a half away and candidates are lining up in both parties to replace the term-limited Rick Snyder. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee’s decision to forgo the governor’s race and remain in the U.S. House seems to leave field open to ex-state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer. However, with Kildee out of the gubernatorial contest, trial attorneys Geoffrey Fieger and Mark Bernstein might emerge as serious competitors. In addition, businessman Shri Thanedar, Detroit Health Director Abdul El-Sayed, Xerox executive Bill Cobbs, and Kentiel White, health care worker, are also in the running for the Democratic nomination.
For the Republicans, two names are leading the pack. Attorney General Bill Schuette has long been considered the most likely nominee. Even without a formal declaration, he has been running for governor for much of his career. Lt. Gov. Brian Calley might give him a challenge. But Calley’s ties to Gov. Snyder might be a formidable barrier while the Flint water crisis remains a major issue. Dr. Jim Hines has also formally announced his candidacy. Among others who are also mentioned as possible Republican candidates are Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, former U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, and state Sen. Colbeck.
While most analysts give Whitmer and Schuette the inside track to the nomination, it’s worth remembering that recent years have been very good for outside challengers. The victories of Barack Obama in 2008, Rick Snyder in 2010, and Donald Trump in 2016, have shown that voters are more than willing to turn from the obvious frontrunners and pick an unlikely nominee.
Hot water for Flint?
But the hottest part of the political summer may be reserved for voters in Flint.
At the moment, it seems that Mayor Karen Weaver’s decision to stay with the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) is likely to be the next step in resolving the Flint water crisis. But making that decision stick won’t be easy. Several members of the city council, after reviewing the contract with GLWA, have expressed serious doubts about the wisdom of staying with Detroit water, instead of managing our own system via the Karegnondi Pipeline. A meeting to explain and discuss the issue last month turned into a shouting match, resulting in several arrests. Whatever the final decision, it won’t be stress-free and it could get very hot.
One of the highlights of Mayor Weaver’s administration has been the ‘Fast Start’ program where some 8000 homes are expected to have their lead pipes replaced in the next three years. One problem has emerged. About 22% of the homes scheduled for new pipes already have copper pipes and don’t need replacement. The city records are so old and inaccurate that contractors can’t be sure where they need to replace the old lead and galvanized pipes and where they don’t.
Recent lawsuits have raised questions about the mayor’s payments to several major advisors and many have criticized her attempts to replace Flint’s current Republic trash service with the scandal tainted Rizzo service.
Recall against Mayor Weaver
All of that has led to a recall campaign against the mayor. Begun by activists and critics Arthur Woodson and Alex Harris, it seemed that after several unsuccessful attempts to win approval for petitions, the campaign would end up going nowhere. However, Woodson’s most recent petition drive has been accepted and, at the moment, it looks like he might have a decent chance of getting the required 5800 signatures.
If that happens, as a result of changes in state law, we will see a very different recall campaign for mayor.
In the past, recalls were usually two-stage affairs. Voters would first vote yes or no on whether to recall an official. Then, if they were recalled, an election would follow, and the recalled official could not run.
Because of the frequency of recalls in Michigan, the state law changed in 2012, limiting the time frame for recalls, and requiring a single election for recalls, rather than a several step process. (Prior to that time, Michigan had at least 457 recall elections between 2000 and 2011, the highest in the nation.) If the recall petition against Mayor Weaver gathers enough signatures of registered voters within 60 days, a single election will follow. The incumbent would be on the ballot, as well as anyone else who chose to run. Qualifying for the ballot would require about 900 signatures on a petition. It could be a very long list of candidates and the candidate with the most votes, not necessarily a majority, would win. If there were ten candidates, someone with 11% of the vote might be elected. If there were 20 candidates a 6% vote might win the election. You get the idea. There’s a chance that whoever wins might not have anything close to a majority. (In a 2003 California gubernatorial recall election there were 135 candidates on the ballot.)
The city council is also up for election this year, with a primary in August and the general election in November. Even without the recall, with competition in every ward, the Flint city council races will generate their own share of friction for the next several months. It’s not yet clear whether a council member could run for both a seat on the council and the mayoral election at the same time.
In any case, the recall has the potential to be more of a dusty cattle stampede than an election.
It could be a very hot summer.
EVM political columnist Paul Rozycki can be reached at email@example.com.