Opinion | Michigan’s next governor must lead, not follow special interests

Tom Watkins is a former Michigan Schools Superintendent

In January 2019, Michigan will have a new governor.

The point of this column is not to praise or condemn Gov. Rick Snyder’s tenure – there was enough of that during his days as head of state. This column is about a larger problem: that of inaction beyond that of a single governor, legislative body, political party or ideology.

This is not a conservative, liberal, or progressive issue. Rather it is about a desire to actually SEE the problems facing the state and nation, address and work on them, not paper them over with political pablum. Solutions need to be found and implemented. If they don’t produce the desired outcome, we need to stop, back up, reassess the situation and find another solution. 

During the Great Depression nearly a century ago, FDR said: “Do something. If that does not work, do something else; but for God’s sake do something!”

Pretending to fix a hole in your roof doesn’t keep the rain out. As a society, we have failed to confront some of the major social, political, and economic problems of our time: Immigration, globalization, healthcare spending, global warming, federal budget deficits, stubborn poverty and the aging of society, among others. 

Issues that don’t fix themselves. 

Closer to home in Michigan, we have failing schools, crumbling infrastructure, dangerous roads, poisoned water, insurance rip-offs, failing criminal justice and mental health support systems, disinvestment in higher education, and disintegrating human service safety. Add to these: no mass transit system and a hodgepodge of inadequate programs to train and retrain workers who were disenfranchised by automation, technology and globalization. 

In short: there is no shortage of challenges facing the next governor and legislators who will be elected this November.

What’s needed in the next crop of leaders to occupy space under the Capitol dome? A  willingness to listen, lead and address problems for the people of Michigan, rather than pandering to narrow special interests in an attempt to score political points and thwart progress. 

Michigan – once a bellwether state for social and political progress in the nation – today is on a delayed maintenance and retrenchment program. Unless we address many of the critical issues outlined above, we will continue going down the tubes as political parties play games with our collective future.

Focus and Results

Nearly two decades have passed since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but the sign on the wall as you walk in the CIA’s Mission Center for Counterterrorism still reads, “Today is September 12, 2001.”  The sign represents the sense of urgency that the officers who work there still bring to the job of protecting the country, every day, from terrorism. 

We need this same sense of urgency to attack – on a non/bipartisan way – the numerous problems facing our state and nation.

Developing a Shared Vision

Where are the shared vision and common agenda for finding real solutions to the problems facing us as Americans? Why have we allowed political polarization to stymie us from addressing issues that we all agree need to be dealt with? Instead of being resilient and adaptive to a changing world, we instead seem frozen in place, putting ourselves in danger when we stagnate and the world around us changes. We are disinvesting in education, infrastructure and in our people while pretending to care about our standing in the world.

In his book “The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement,” Robert J. Samuelson wrote more than 20 years ago that Americans would solve their most pressing problems through either consensus or crisis. Leaders would debate the country’s controversial issues until we reached agreements that, though not fully satisfying to everyone, would enjoy grudging majority support. If consensus failed, we would wait for some crisis — ill-defined and disruptive — to force us to do what we don’t want to do. 

Samuelson points out our political leaders have preferred procrastination to action. They create agendas they know are anathema to their adversaries, prompting each side to vilify the other. Politics focuses increasingly on “keeping your base happy,” as opposed to governing.  He continues, “Political theater triumphs over policy. Nastiness and polarization increase.”

He concludes, “It’s hard to inflict present pain for uncertain future gain. Our political system makes us vulnerable to distant crises because we don’t try to anticipate and defuse them.”


I encourage bringing together the newly elected governor and legislative bodies early in their new term, stressing the collective value of collaborating across political divides as an essential tool to developing and implementing long-term plans able to meet the challenges confronting our state in this current age of disruption.

As Winston Churchill once remarked, "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they've tried everything else."  

Can we, will we, come together before it is too late to do the right thing in Michigan?

Let’s come together and act. Our inaction is destined to diminish our control over Michigan’s collective future.

There is a hole in our Michigan roof, it is up to us to fix it.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Ben W Washburn
Mon, 10/08/2018 - 12:32pm

I've not always been a fan of Tom Watkins (we were once close neighbors), but this time I can't fault one word of what he has said. Good going, Tom.

William Hammond
Mon, 10/08/2018 - 12:58pm

This article basically is a call for Bipartisanship or what we used to see in people like the late Sen. Phil Hart; Statesmanship. I agree with this sentiment and I truly want to see this happen. But what it doesn’t touch on is: HOW?

How do we get there? How do we move to a place where trust is present enough that we allow our leaders the luxury of working across the aisle.

I believe we need to do 2 things. First, end Gerrymandering! We have a chance to try that on our ballot this Nov. by voting for the proposal which puts redistricting in the hands of citizens, not politicians.

The second thing we have to do is to get money out of politics. Money guides what our national leaders do. They want to be re-elected so they chase that funding source and end up voting against our best interests. This doesn’t encourage statesmanship.

We need concrete ideas to move forward. Let’s keep encouraging all of our politicians to think creatively and to look for compromise!!

Michigan Observer
Mon, 10/08/2018 - 6:03pm

Mr. Hammond has commendable intentions, but his recommendations do not go to the heart of our difficulties. He says that we need to end gerrymandering and remove money from politics. But this country has always had gerrymandering , and generally functioned much better than it does today. And money has always been a part of our politics. Has anyone noticed an improvement in our political process since campaign finance laws were passed? In any case, money does not play a large part in our politics. In the 2008 federal, state and local elections, about $5.2 billion was spent on all the elections. Government spending in 2009 totaled about $5.1 trillion. So campaign spending was about one tenth of one percent of government spending. We spent more on toothpaste and hair care. And it seems that it is the most popular candidates who raise the most money. Candidates don't get votes because of the money they spent, they get the most money because of popular support.

If we have always had gerrymandering and money in politics, how can they account for the large recent change in the nature of our political process?

Mr. Hammond is quite right when he says of our national leaders that "They want to be re-elected .." But it is not the case that "Money guides what our national leaders do. " They get re-elected by reflecting the views of their constituents. Some people contend that electoral success is bought. But where do you go to buy an election? Does Walmart have an elections department? I didn't know.

Kathi Geukes
Wed, 10/10/2018 - 1:32pm

If you don't think "money guides our national intentions", then you could be mistaken for a Faux Noise watcher....because it certainly does and has for a very long time....and how has that worked out for the typical Michigander? Lousy schools, dwindling good jobs, lousy representation in Lansing and no future for younger generations. Yes Walmart has an election department.....it's called millions of dollars supporting the wrong people....it's time to put the elections back in the hands of the people.....not just the uber rich!!!!!

Ben W. Washburn
Mon, 10/15/2018 - 6:24pm

Michigan Observer:

Sadly, it does not take much more than that one-half of one percent to "buy" many of our politicians. It is not easy to get yourself re-elected in this climate. Unless you are doing something notorious, our news media no long covers any of the good things that you may be doing, and that again for economic reasons. The print news has seen it's main revenues ripped away by the internet, and the visual media always need something sensational to hold their viewership (and advertisers). And there's always someone (and often many) out there who are ready to challenge you for your "job". SO, it doesn't take a whole lot of financial re-election help to garner your support.

When I was on the Detroit School Board in the 1990's, which is a relatively low-profile public office, and which didn't compensate you more than $5,000 per year for plowing-in at least 800 hours of your time each year to board affairs, I had several colleagues who were more than willing to turn their heads the other way on the garbage collection contract, in return for just a $1,000 donation of phone banks by which their supporters could make calls on behalf of their re-election. And the Contractor walked away with more than $2 Million each year in excessive charges for its services. So, do the math. It is so hard for incumbent politicians to raise grassroots funds for their re-election, that they are more than willing to sell-out their unsuspecting constituents for chump change, especially when there is no one around anymore to expose them.

Paul Knudstrup
Mon, 10/08/2018 - 2:23pm

Well said, Tom Watkins! The citizens of our Michigan hunger for real progress toward solving the long-standing challenges with which we are confronted every day. Watkins' list of issues begging for resolution is comprehensive . . . it's also daunting to see all these major issues in a single opinion piece. The current crop of professional politicians seem primarily interested in running for their current office AND angling for what they'll run for after they're term-limited. Serving their constituents and the broader population of Michigan take a distant second (or tenth?) place to partisan political game-playing. The situation in Washington is even worse. I remain hopeful, yet highly skeptical. If you don't like what's happening (or NOT happening!) let's try voting for someone else.

Janet Wagner
Mon, 10/08/2018 - 3:44pm

A good first step towards listening to each other? Halting the highly gerrymandered voting districts in Michigan.

Since the last census in 2010, our legislators have been able to draw their own district lines behind closed doors. We can't fault them for wanting to keep themselves and their party in office, helping their special interest groups and turning deaf ears to the voters in the minority party in their districts. If the opposing party gets into office, they will share the same tactic in time for the 2020 census.

Now is the time to take away the politicians' rights to gerrymander and instead place redistricting in the hands of THE CITIZENS OF MICHIGAN.This will be on your ballots as "Proposal 2.". Please vote YES in November if you want a state that responds to all our voices. This is the most momentous vote you can take towards more nonpartisanship in Michigan politics.

Joe Nathan
Tue, 10/09/2018 - 2:58am

Thanks, Tom, for urging policy-makers to collaborate. This is a very challenging time in Michigan, and in America. Some of the best ideas come from the right, some come from the left. But progress requires listening to and learning from each other...and using the strongest strategies, regardless of their authors. Hope people will listen to you.

Greg Olszta
Tue, 10/09/2018 - 5:53am

Tom, do we still have a "shared vision" and collective voice? I am not so sure. Is disinvestment in public resources and education an oversight, or intentional? Is failure to educate the poor and people of color an accident? Is abysmal academic achievement the failure of teachers and schools, or an agenda to further privatize and commodify education? Is failure to provide for public transportation, clean and affordable water an oversight or part of the agenda to isolate and poison the poor? Is bipartisan collaboration still possible in MI, or anywhere in our nation? The past 10 days have been particularly bleak and polarizing in our nation and our state. Increasingly, many of us are coming to see bipartisan compromise an impossibility, in part, because our individual and collective views of the world are so vastly different. Is moral fusion still possible? The dominant, white supremacist culture and institutions have set some pretty firm lines in the sand. Last night the President of the United States demonized Democrats as follows, "Democrats have become too extreme and too dangerous to govern. Republicans believe in the rule of law, not the rule of the mob." Doesn't sound like there is any movement toward collective voice or common vision there. Clearly, the President now speaks for the GOP collectively. There is nary an opposing voice among them. And when there has been it has not been supported by a backbone, moral integrity, or the stamina to do the right thing.

Tue, 10/09/2018 - 9:02am

FDR said: “Do something. If that does not work, do something else; but for God’s sake do something!”

This a phrase that shouldn't be widely adopted in government because sometimes the answer is for the government to simply do nothing. Sadly, the author seems to (probably correctly) pen the quote as a given in today's society.

Dave H
Tue, 10/09/2018 - 10:02am

MI Observer: The campaign finance laws were changed to eliminate transparency and allow businesses (or other entities) to collect and spend unlimited amounts of money. Personally, I’d like to have the opportunity to see who the donors are behind these advertisements so I could make an informed choice on who to vote for, but more important I think to the process, we could identify and prevent the abuse of political power for financial gain and political advancement.

And based upon what I’ve seen on Bridge, I don’t how you can defend our gerrymandered districts or the process over the last two decades that created them.

Ken Beedle
Wed, 10/10/2018 - 8:21pm

Excellent, intelligent points that will hit a stone wall once the politicians sit down.

Mark C. Francis
Sat, 10/13/2018 - 4:07pm

I agree with your view Tom, just not sure how we can do this. The courts have sold out to lobbyist. We are being flooded with political commercials that are out and out lies, half truths and distortion. However, most people don't appear to have the ability to figure out what the real trues are.

Politicians seems to sell their souls to Big Business and special interest and have lost interest in the everyday person. I only hope that we keep reminding politicians that they actually work for the voters and that we hold them accountable when they sell out.

That's why I was hoping you would have run.