What’s a nice place like Lapeer doing with a rep like Todd Courser?

I live in Lapeer County, a quiet community where parades feature mostly tractors (we have a lot of farmers, and they’re proud of their tractors) and fire trucks (because we’re proud of our volunteer fire departments, too). Friday night football games and school band concerts are big events here. We have soccer fields filled with kids. We’re a stereotypical Hometown USA.

Then our local paper, which usually features farm and school news, came out with an edition that almost burst into flames when I picked it up. Todd Courser, our elected state representative, has embarked on a trip to La-La Land. How did Hometown USA send this guy to Lansing? I’ll try to explain.

I’m a Democrat, so maybe you think I have no grounds to talk about a Republican official. My parents were Republicans. My mom said they first voted Republican when Franklin Roosevelt ran for his third term; they thought he wanted to be king. It also probably helped that Dwight Eisenhower was a general who helped bring my two brothers home from WWII, and he and my father shared the nickname Ike. And they really just didn’t quite trust that rich boy Jack Kennedy, so they voted for Richard Nixon. When he was elected, my dad took a picture of the TV screen showing his swearing-in.

In my 30’s I joined and became very involved with the League of Women Voters, then ran for office as a Democrat. I was sworn in as a state representative the same time as Kwame Kilpatrick. I survived a few political fires of my own. Now I’m a retired 72-year-old grandma who can look back and say, “Well, that was interesting” but I picked up some knowledge of our political process.

How and why did Courser, a self-proclaimed “gladiator” and co-author of a prime piece of demagoguery titled a “Contract for Liberty,” get elected? He’s a politician so ignorant of how to actually be effective in his position that he immediately set out to anger his own caucus. Now he seems to have grabbed a shovel and is vigorously digging himself deeper into craziness. How did this community sink to this level of representation? I believe there are three reasons.

Manipulation, expectation, frustration

First, Fox News and other ideologically tilted news media. These outlets are dedicated not to finding the truth, but flattering, or even influencing, viewers’ existing opinions. Fox in particular spreads a message that government is evil, especially government of and by those with liberal or even moderate views, whether Democrat or Republican.

This plays into the second factor: Americans love to hate their politicians. So people run for office but claim not to be politicians, particularly conservative candidates. Can you imagine your doctor telling you, as he’s about to remove your appendix, that he’s not really a doctor? Or letting your neighbor take a set of clippers and have a go at your hair?

What is more ludicrous than choosing people to run our government who don’t understand goverment? To get elected you have to get involved in the political process. By definition are a politician, and you have a responsibility to actually represent people in your district.

Finally, very few people vote and even fewer vote in primaries. So people who only recognize one amendment to the constitution and ignore rest can get elected – they only have to win a relatively small number of votes to win the primary, and in our gerrymandered districts whoever wins the primary is almost guaranteed to win the general election in November.

Why don’t people vote? Remember my dad taking that picture? By the time President Nixon resigned my parents were so disenchanted they never voted again. Some people don’t vote because they are disenchanted or don’t trust politicians. And unfortunately many who do vote depend on opinions from often biased media without taking the time to actually research the candidates.

In my League of Women Voters experience I found how difficult it is to get people to actually attend candidate forums for local candidates, and those local candidates often run for higher office. But in my experience I have found the proportion between good and bad politicians is about the same as in any other job. That’s why we have medical malpractice cases and bad haircuts.

People who want to manipulate the electorate understand the elective process very well. They have the ability to get their message out through the media they control, and they have the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money, thanks to the Supreme Court. Add it all up, and Lapeer County, quiet and generally moderate, has a state representative so extreme even his own very nice mother must not recognize him.

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Ken McFarlane
Fri, 08/14/2015 - 4:07pm
A very thoughtful consideration of how a candidate like Courser, with such an extreme position, gets elected. Now here's a test of the consequences of the changes in the political culture the author outlined. Let's see how Courser is defended and the author is attacked in this comment thread. Is the argument reasoned or personal?
L V Johnson
Fri, 08/21/2015 - 11:34am
It is reasoned, substantiated, analytical and accurate. It has anecdotal examples. NOW the question is how can the electorate wade through the hype and avoid electing future leaders who, due to the belief of THEIR OWN press, get the job and immediately prove how inadequate they are? It is incredible that a 'tea partier' (let 's make that 2) would go to Lansing and get involved in a sex scandal! You can't trust government? Government IS PEOPLE! Elected officials should always remember what they were elected FOR!
John Cee
Fri, 08/14/2015 - 4:54pm
We need to reform out voting system. We need to make voting a mandatory duty, with paid voting holiday legislated if we can't move the process to the weekends. We need to reform how voting districts are determined. They should be based on population and geographical elements only. The entire process should be publicly funded and run by a professional non-partisan commission. There should be a limited campaigning period with no private monies involved. Televised debates with time donated by TV, radio and internet sources would introduce candidates to the public. I am sure there are more reforms needed, but these would be a good start.
Fri, 08/14/2015 - 9:00pm
Radical idea: a state and federal tax deduction for voting, documentation mailed to you after the vote. I think you would see voting participation increase by a wide margin. :)
Mon, 08/17/2015 - 8:33am
Hey, I like that idea! People always respond to money! I think that would be a nice creative 'carrot' to encourage people to vote. But I also agree with all the suggestions mentioned above. We need to open up the voting process and make it easier to vote, not throw roadblocks in the way as the Repubs have been doing.
Mon, 08/17/2015 - 3:14pm
Add money to the mix and maybe those crying that they can't appear with photo identification will do a selfie.
L V Johnson
Fri, 08/21/2015 - 11:36am
Here here!
Thu, 10/08/2015 - 10:15am
Hello john Cee, you hit the nail on the head. I love your ideas, what would it take to pull that off?
Fri, 08/14/2015 - 6:04pm
Because of gerrymandering, generally only 16 state house seats and 2 state senate seats are competitive in the general election. All the rest are decided in the primary. If you live in an uncompetitive district, as nearly all of us do in Michigan, and you want your vote to count, you need to vote in the primary of the party that gerrymandering favors. If you really want to make a difference, run for office as candidate of the party that gerrymandering favors.
Le Roy G. Barnett
Sun, 08/16/2015 - 7:42am
No matter how you dice it, Courser got elected because a majority of the people who bothered to vote cast a ballot for him. At least these individuals cared enough to show up at the polls, even though they may now have buyer's remorse.
Sun, 08/16/2015 - 8:30am
I think an underlying issue is the smoldering rage against the all-encompassing involvement of the federal government in every activity and the lfact that most folks are too busy in their everyday lives to identify which level of government is the problem. Hence any election at any level is apt to be a vehicle to express their frustration. Were we to pay more attention to the 10 th amendment, we might find a more vibrant and responsible state government since more real power would vest there.
Sun, 08/16/2015 - 10:27am
Sigh. State's Rights theory is not going to help. These two Republican goofballs were elected by local citizens. Changing the way districts is decided and getting big money influence out of government (which can partially address gerrymandering) are key.
Sun, 08/16/2015 - 8:36am
I think many Citizens think of politics as entertainment, sit back and watch the circus (think Trump). But democracy is a participatory sport not a stage performance. What happens matters to our daily lives and we as citizens, the guardians of democracy must throughly educate ourselves on the issues and the candidates and cast our votes accordingly. From that perspective we get the representation we deserve, thoughtful elected officials who do their homework represent a thoughtful well informed electorate. Thomas Jefferson was very forthright in arguing that democracy can not succeed with an uniformed electorate.
Sun, 08/16/2015 - 9:22am
Thank you Rose (my grandmother's and niece's name) for such a thoughtful piece. Praising and electing politicians who hew to some pure ideological line rather than people committed to representing their constituents and yes, willing to compromise with the other party is a big problem in politics. It is not new to this era (e.g., McCarthyism) nor to this country (Fascism in Germany). Unfortunately, many Americans' reaction to this trend is to forego politics altogether which has the effect of relinquishing the floor to the ideological extremes. Michigan need constructive elected officials. Hey, maybe you should run again?!
Sun, 08/16/2015 - 10:34am
In Australia, there is a fine for not voting. I agree with John Cee, we need multiple election reforms. Voting by mail is terrific, for example. Eliminating gerrymandering with non-partisan districting has been accomplished in several states and is another key step to be taken..
kay courtney
Sun, 08/16/2015 - 12:35pm
My parents and my in-laws taught us that it's a sin to not vote. I am 81 years old and I can remember only 1 election I missed in my long life--and yes, Primaries too. If the people of Lapeer had all voted, maybe Michigan wouldn't be saddled with Courser.
Rose by any name
Sun, 08/16/2015 - 12:45pm
I really don't care about Courser, he's a non-entity and really has little to do with the day to day lives of most Michigan residents. I find it interesting that she only cites the opposition issues. I would be interested in her take on the following: 1) MSNBC 2) Hillary Clinton's E-mail server 3) The IRS Scandal, Lois Lerner's e-mails 4) Bill Clinton's affiliation with a convicted pedophile, Jeffery Epstein. 5) Bill Clinton flying on the convicted pedophile Jeffery Epstein's private island airplane to his private island. 6) The Clinton Family Foundation and the donations from foreign governments during Hillary's time as Sec State 7) The fact that the Clinton Foundation mostly gave money to the Clinton's However, she chose to jump on a partisan band wagon of no consequence instead of tackling a the major issues. Sorry Rose you failed.
Mon, 08/17/2015 - 4:15pm
Typical response from the right. The article is about the failings of an electoral system that clears the way for embarrassments like Courser to cruise into office. Having nothing interesting to say, let's talk about the story she didn't write.
Lynne M Haley, DDS
Sun, 08/16/2015 - 1:10pm
Thank you, Rose Bogardus, for your very understandable comment and analysis on the "Courser problem". I hope you are stepping into your local government classes in your high schools to do some of your clear headed explanations to those who are about to vote, (or maybe not) so that they will share your understanding of why it is important to become informed and vote. Maybe then we can keep the amoral simpletons from moving to higher office.
Sun, 08/16/2015 - 4:05pm
You really nailed the problem but unless we do something about the CAMPAIGN FINANCE LAWS we don't stand a chance. The League of Women Voters ran a presidential debate once (1988 I think). No one has agreed to let us run another because they wouldn't agree to our standard rules.
Sun, 08/16/2015 - 4:36pm
Ms. Bogardus, If you wonder about Rep. Courser, it appears he learned the lessons of the 90s taught by a President and First Lady. Personal gratifications above all else, lie [to the point of being disbarred] to hide it, blame others, and claim FOX was out to get them [oh, now it's you saying that]. Do you truly wonder why so few people vote, it’s the perception of partisan politicians? It’s a lack of trust, it’s a belief politician are more interested in election and re-election than being leaders. I am confused by your mention serving with former Rep Kwame Kilpatrick and your surviving ‘political fires’ since he didn’t survive his political fires . Were you offering him as a model or yourself as a model for politicians? I believe another reason people aren't voting is they have no good means to assess a candidate. As a Lansing insider, what criteria would you recommeded voters use and where can they find that information? Would you share with the readers what the legal expectations are for a State Legislator, as a starting point for such information?
Mon, 08/17/2015 - 2:36pm
A thoughtful analysis of some of the election issues that plague the state. Another factor that was not discussed was the very short term limits in place, which are also largely responsible for getting people who aren't good legislators into office by creating way more vacancies than were historically available. If you have a 50/50 mix of good/poor legislators, then theoretically, more of the bad ones would get unelected in the next cycle, and you'd keep the good ones in by re-electing them. The good ones build relationships an networks with other good legislators, and legislation can go beyond party demagoguery if people have been working with each other for decades and have built trust and respect for each other. Unfortunately, most political issues take years to understand fully and to solicit input from the many stakeholders in the state. Just around the time a House rep has become informed, they are term-limited out (regardless if they've been doing a good job), and someone with way less experience takes the spot, and needs 3-4 years to learn the ropes, just in time to term limit out (with a pension, mind you). We already had term limits (they're called elections), and just because someone has been in the same job for 20 years does not mean that they're ineffective (would you prefer the brain surgeon, accountant, or lawyer with 20 years of experience, or would you prefer the one who is on day one of the job?).
Mon, 08/17/2015 - 3:19pm
Jamie, How do you tell what is a 'bad' Legislator? What knowledge and skills do legislators learn while they are in office that they didn't have before being elected? Where could they get that expertise before running for office?
Mon, 08/17/2015 - 8:23pm
Knowledge of the issues that face the state. When you assume office, you have countless meetings with various stakeholders for a wide variety of issues from education to environmental, business, roads, infrastructure, tax structures, budgets, becoming familiar with an existing body of law and legal precedent,etc. Certainly, a good candidate would have familiarity with this prior to taking office, but advocates seek office holders more than candidates when trying to influence a body of law. The longer someone sits as a legislator, the more exposure to opinions they have had, as well as working relationships with other legislators (both from the same party and others) to build support around legislation that they want to bring forward. The current 4 year max is an insufficient time line to become abreast of the myriad issues within the state. Also, the institutional legacy is lost when the most senior member has been there for only 4 years; there is no one to say, "oh, we tried that 20 years ago, and here is what you might want to watch out for." The staffers who stay in Lansing have greater tenure than the legislator. Also, increasingly, lobbying groups (both local and national) are writing template legislation to be introduced in various states (for example, right to work, which was introduced in several states in the same year). In any profession with a large amount of complexity, it takes more than 4 years to master the details and to take on leadership positions, yet that is what we now require in MI. We then are surprised when people cannot perform well under such a tight timeline. I would define bad legislators as those who push ideological agendas and do not listen/consider/respond to the voices of their constituents. Those who pressure their staff to cover up their indiscretions and exhibit low integrity would be in the "bad" category as well. The point of elections is that citizens voice whether or not they are happy with their representation. This cycle repeats periodically, so if someone becomes ineffective, he or she can be voted out. People could do a dynamite job for several decades, building to greater positions of leadership. However, we currently cut them off at 4 years, which is, in my opinion, far too short of a tenure to reach excellence in a complex position.
Tue, 08/18/2015 - 5:07pm
Jamie, It seems that issues are ever changing, that an issue before an election could change later in the legislative process? The legislative process of committee hearings seems designed for legislators to ask questions of a wide variety of people knowledgeable on an issue and they make informed decision after such hearings. That would put more value on asking and listening then on knowing before the facts are in. With regard to longer gathering of opinions, aren’t you concerned that opinions can be like fruit and get moldy with time? It seems most issues are dynamic and change as people and events do with time. The idea of building support for legislation based on personal relationship is concerning to me, it suggests that such support is more about the legislators then the merits of the legislation. If that is happening then it seems more likely to deliver incomplete legislation that makes the legislators comfortable with each other rather than about resolving an issue. And we may be getting more ‘horse trading’ of parts of other laws that then only partially address the issues while keeping good relations between many legislators. One of the most common barriers to change is the phrase, ‘we have tried that before and it didn’t work.’ As you point out this is more common with people that have been a legislator 20 or 10 years. If you notice in business how many new ways to do things come from new companies and people new to their roles, they don’t have the fall back of ‘its been tried before.’ With technology, culture, economy changing it seems more important to being looking ahead than behind for ways to address issues? Think of the Detroit 3 auto companies and how they were so comfortable with the old ways, while one change CEO from outside the industry and prospered, the others had to go bankrupt and be forced to change. I don’t believe there could be a credible set of criteria for voters to evaluate legislators/candidates on. You have made some important and thoughtful points I have offer a different perspective on those points. I think if we had a discussion with our distinct perspectives on candidate evaluation we could develop criteria that voters could use to become better informed. I would like to have such a conversation and include other readers to work toward giving voter a new tool for considering a candidate. I wonder if a Bridge article could work for such an activity.
Mon, 08/17/2015 - 3:51pm
Jamie, When considering term limits in Michigan, then looking at the US House and Senate (no term limits), I am interested in hearing how you think term limits explain Michigan's legislative problems and if you think that the US congress is a monument to effectiveness that Mi should aspire to?
Tue, 08/18/2015 - 11:00am
My first reaction to this article was OMG! Its written by someone who is as biased to the left as she complains about the right. You're not going to solve any problems of division by such banter. Sure, Courser made a huge mistake, as we all have on occasion, so vote the guy out next time. Like we've never voted in a bad politicians (like a Nixon or a Clinton) before? Sorry, but the League of Women voters has been capture by the far left so as an Independent I no longer respect the organization as it once was and don't give the writer much credit for this article. Time is a wasting and our state and country have huge problems so I would prefer reading a more productive article on how to fix a problem.
Sue Wabeke
Wed, 08/19/2015 - 6:22pm
There is a place to find out about people running for election. It is the League of Women Voter's Vote 411. Look it up online. The only postings are those submitted by the candidates - in their own words - no editing. We need also to remember that if you discount the people running for school boards, and "small" offices you risk having them move to bigger jobs just on the fact that they have won an office. Local elections are important.