Michigan Politics 2.0

As Michigan is poised to elect a new governor in 2010 and to lose a substantial number of legislators thanks to term limits, the political landscape is perhaps more divided than ever. Consensus and collegiality can be hard to come by.

Enter the Michigan Political Leadership Program, a 10-month fellowship from the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. Led by Democrat Steve Tobocman and Republican Anne Mervenne, it gathers 24 promising would-be politicians from around the state, half Republican and half Democrat. The goal is to school them in leadership development, public policy analysis and process, effective governance, and practical politics. In other words, graduates are expected to know how to run a campaign – and how to lead once they get elected. Not only that, but the relationships formed during the fellowship are meant to foster that rarest of all things in politics – the courage to reach across the aisle for the good of the state before the good of their party.

The MPLP is holding its annual fundraising dinner honoring the 2009 class as well as its annual leadership breakfast in Grand Rapids on Thursday, Feb. 25.

Laurie Arora is a member of the 2009 fellowship class and a freshman councilperson in Grosse Pointe Park, as well as a political consultant and fundraiser. She says the program fostered relationships that have already broadened her horizons and taught her about political courage.

What inspired you to pursue the MPLP fellowship?

I found out about the program from a former fellow who is now a councilperson in Grosse Pointe Woods. I've been very interested in public policy and campaigning, and I had been encouraged to run for office by several people. I just learned so much about public policy development.

While I was in the program I ran for City Council in Grosse Pointe Park, and I won. I was the top vote getter. It was very helpful to be learning all of this while running for office. We have five fellows from this class running for state rep this year.

The political landscape statewide, and certainly nationally, has gotten uglier in the last year. What do you think is the cause of that and how can the bipartisan nature of the MPLP change it?

I'm not sure we came up with any definite solutions for that. It's part of political posturing –  taking care of the people who take care of you instead of putting the country's interests first.

Your time doing the fellowship coincided with economic calamities that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago, including the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler. How did that affect the discussions that went on between the fellows? Envisioning the state's economic future was part of one of the sessions; what did you come up with as a group?

In terms of discussing the current economic crisis, we were given a mandate that we need to come to consensus, and for that we need courageous leaders. That came from several of our presenters. We have social time also as part of the program. That's actually very helpful, since that's where trust is built.  Basically we focused on the courageous leadership, and unless we work together to find solutions the state is not going to move forward. People understand that.

[Courageous leadership means] working with the other party on a bipartisan effort and having that kind of political courage to cross the aisle to do what's best for the state. An example is Ed Gaffney. He's a Republican and broke with his party to vote for a tax enhancement that Democrats had introduced. I think he couldn't have done that if it wasn't his last term. He faced a lot of angry Republicans after that.

It helps being in the program because we develop a trust. We develop not only a working relationship, but we develop friendships with these people. Just the other day I had to do research on a bill for the city council. It was so nice to call one of my co-fellows –and I called not all Democrats, I called Republican friends too. I knew I could trust their answers.

I think there's political posturing because people want to have control of the House or the Senate and get their votes and move their agenda forward. I think what the program does is it teaches us to get beyond the R or D behind your name and work to solve the issues. During the program we learn to work with each other, we have exercises and we have to work together. It's mandatory to come to a consensus. It gets loud, but the arguments are always respectful. When you're told you have to come to a consensus, you do – it helps you work through the process. You're doing what's best for the state, not necessarily your party -- and they're not always the same.

We're at a critical point in our state and we have to put the state's interest first. The speakers who speak and the fellows are all given that mandate, and I think that will help in the long run. There's a new generation of leaders who know the status quo and business as usual does not work.

What did you see as potential solutions for the state's economic crisis? Entrepreneurship, the creative class and green jobs are ideas frequently bandied about. Did those enter the discussion, and in what way?

I think working regionally was one solution. We took a field trip one of the weekends in Grand Rapids, and we saw what they are able to do on a regional basis to make that area thrive. There's private money in the area and they have the Grand Valley Metro Council pulling regionalism together. We can take that kind of model and develop relationships between Detroit and the suburbs -- we can work together. I think it would go a long way toward helping the whole state. As far as specific initiatives, the program is more policy-based – to sort of set the climate to foster economic growth.

You're from Grosse Pointe, a well-off and fairly urban community with its proximity to Detroit. Did you find out anything you didn't know about other parts of Michigan? What concerns did you bring to the table, and how was that perspective changed (if at all) by discussions with other fellows?

Probably one of the more interesting parts of Michigan was hearing from people in the out-state and rural areas, and certainly the agricultural areas. I was unaware of how vast agribusiness is. If I were to ever serve in the legislature I can understand how I would need to prioritize policies for agribusiness. It was also good for out-state fellows to come to Detroit for a weekend. They took a tour of the city and saw our historical jewels and our cultural institutions, and that they also need legislative attention.

What you learn is that there are all these competing priorities and you can't just look at your own needs in a silo. You have to consider the whole state's needs, and where best to place those resources on what's working, and to continue to keep it working instead of [saying] "give me mine." It gives you that willingness to be open to other priorities.

How do you think the experience of this fellowship will impact Michigan's politics in the future? You've recently been elected to office in Grosse Pointe Park; how does your experience in the MPLP affect your work there?

Like I said, we have five fellows in the current 2009 class running for state representative. There you have five people who know each other and understand each others' priorities. They have a trust and if they were elected that would help translate [that trust] into developing better public policy, that will move the state forward instead of continuing the partisan bickering. I can't image why they wouldn’t be relying on each other for political courage.

For me, in Grosse Pointe Park I'm willing to talk to leaders and community groups in Detroit and I plan to continue to  do that. We have the Jefferson corridor that leads into Grosse Pointe Park. If we could help foster development in that area it only helps our area. We're right on the front lines, next to Detroit. I see it as a positive – we're 15 minutes from the best cultural institutions and the best sporting venues – to me that's all good. The more we can work with Detroit  and regionalism – I've seen it work firsthand out in the Grand Rapids area. Having that kind of open mind is critical.

Speaking of your recent election, you were the target of a mailing shortly before the election attempting to tie you to Detroit city councilman Ken Cockrel and accusing you of trying to bring Detroit-style government into the city. That's classic race-baiting, city versus suburb politics. Do you think programs like the MPLP, where you're meeting people from all across the state and with wildly different backgrounds, can help ameliorate those longtime battle lines?

My opposition was going around saying I was going to network with Detroit like it was a negative. I think the voters are very smart and they understand you cannot continue with that type of mentality and expect to survive. I'm grateful they saw through that. The better leadership we get in Detroit and throughout the region, who we are talking to as neighbors, it only helps the whole state.

I guess because during my campaign, since I was faced with these attacks – I was a Democrat running in what is considered Republican territory – and I unseated an incumbent, it was so nice to know that I was being encouraged and given campaign contributions by Republicans who were in the program. We can get along and I can't describe the comfort that gave me.

Amy Kuras is a Detroit freelance writer who loves working from home despite developing a possibly unhealthy attachment to her laptop and cell phone. Her previous article for Metromode was Making Time: Mentoring Programs That Attract Young Professionals.

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All Photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
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Laurie Arora at the Council Chambers on the 4th level of the Municipal Office Complex - Grosse Pointe Park

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