Serious problems demand serious, experienced politicians

Like many others, I’ve been enthralled by the recent public television series on the Roosevelt family, Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor.

In reflection, especially at this fraught time in American political history, what’s striking to me is the plain lesson: What we really need are experienced, capable, non-ideological politicians, not self-proclaimed “non-politicians” or wealthy but inexperienced ideologues.

Both Teddy and FDR worked their way up the political system by long, testing apprenticeship in the trade: Both TR and Franklin came through local politics – the New York legislature and the governorship – and then in Washington as assistant secretaries of the Navy. When they both eventually came to great office, they knew the score, how to keep it and how to win at it.

I missed the Friday episode because I was driving back home from Grand Rapids, where I had spoken to a meeting of the Michigan Political Leadership Program. MPLP is a multi-partisan program that identifies mid-career Michiganders from all across the state and brings them together to study public policy and the ins and out of political leadership. A program of the MSU Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, it’s the only bipartisan public policy and leadership training program in Michigan, and one of the very few in the nation.

When I walked in, 24 men and women were sitting around a U-shaped space, listening intently while Rick DeVos, the founder of the vastly successful Grand Rapids Art Prize, modestly dodged questions about his family’s wealth and his own personal creativity and drive.

Managing the flow were program directors Anne M. Mervenne and Steve Tobocman, both consummate examples of what PLP is trying to teach.

Mervenne (full disclosure: she’s a member of the Center for Michigan’s Steering Committee) served for 12 years in the Engler administration, including a stint as chief of staff for First Lady Michelle Engler; she has also been elected an Ingham County commissioner. Democrat Tobocman served in the Michigan House of Representatives for three consecutive two-year terms, including being elected majority floor leader. Both are widely regarded by political insiders as among the most competent and creative political leaders in our state.

Since it was founded in 1992, more than 500 MPLP graduates have put the skills and relationships they formed in the program at the service of their communities and their state. This is not small-beer stuff: 15 MPLP graduates now serve in the Michigan Legislature. Previous graduates include Tim Greimel (minority leader, House of Representatives); Craig DeRoche (former Speaker of the House of Representatives); Mark Hackel (Macomb County Executive); Michael O’Hare (Saginaw County Commission chair); Tracey Schultz Kobylarz (Supervisor, Redford Township); and Anna Seibold (Mayor of East Grand Rapids).

MPLP class members – all have demanding day jobs – work hard on 10 jam-packed weekends each year. The curriculum includes units on understanding leadership (and its close but distinct cousin, government leadership); intergovernmental relations, urban policy, and social and economic development; perspectives in policy, fundraising and social media; and ethics in campaign and governance. The unit on effective governance, for example, includes topics as diverse as understanding institutional change, the role of policy advocates and Michigan citizens’ priority issues.

And the people who come to teach the curriculum are no slouches, either. Among them are Lynn Jondahl (former state rep and executive director of the Michigan Prospect for Renewed Citizenship); John Lindstrom (editor of Gongwer News Service); and Lansing wise man Richard McClellan.

The young people who participate in MPLP know full well that they, together, are going to be members of the cohort that will govern Michigan in the future. They are taking this responsibility seriously enough to devote a lot of time and effort to honing their skills and capacities as public servants. Together they are being groomed to be the kinds of capable, experienced politicians our state desperately needs. And to the degree that the Michigan Political Leadership Program is helping guide and challenge them, it’s one of the jewels of our state.

Now, as attentive readers (and watchers of the TV series) will ask, how come you’ve forgotten Eleanor Roosevelt? I have not.

She’s the exception that proves the rule that we need more experienced politicians.

She had no political experience, was shy and insecure. But through her proximity to FDR, she played an enormous role in making America the caring, socially responsive nation we have become.

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Comments

Charlene
Tue, 09/23/2014 - 11:38am
I've often thought that it would be impossible to achieve that which was achieved by both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt given today's political climate, but was surprised to find out how acrimonious the political climate was in their times as well. That initially gave me hope for the future...until I factored in the effect of the vast communications system currently available to U.S. citizens. Neither Theodore nor Franklin operated in such an environment; an environment that has apparently eliminated opportunity for compromise, and minimized the potential for election of reasonable political candidates from both parties. Now I'm depressed again.
David Palmer
Tue, 09/23/2014 - 2:28pm
Great post, thanks for sharing your experience! I was a member of the 2013 cohort and learned a lot. I am tremendously thankful for the opportunity and developed priceless friendships over the course of that year, which I expect to last my lifetime. I entered and left the cohort as an independent. Having no love for either major party, I examined the landscape of State House Districts, and I am not convinced it is possible to elect an independent or third party candidate in Michigan as long as we have straight-ticket "voting" available on the ballot. I say "voting" because checking a box for a party is not really voting, especially when all too often there are no votes cast for nonpartisan candidates and questions on the ballot. If I do run for State House again, in order to work for an opportunity to have a voice in Lansing for my district, I will have to run as a Democrat or a Republican. Please note these corrections to your post: 1. the program is multi-partisan, there are at least 3 independents in the 2014 cohort; 2. paragraph 8 should say 1992, not 1952.
Nancy Derringer
Tue, 09/23/2014 - 2:33pm
Thank you, David. I made the fixes.
Charles Richards
Tue, 09/23/2014 - 4:46pm
Mr. Power says, "What we really need are experienced, capable, non-ideological politicians, not self-proclaimed “non-politicians” or wealthy but inexperienced ideologues." Where did he get the impression that either Roosevelt was non-ideological? Teddy came out of retirement because he disagreed with the conservative policies of William Howard Taft. FDR certainly had an ideological agenda. I suspect that Mr. Power, regarding anyone whose policies he disagrees with as an ideologue, questions the very legitimacy of those whose viewpoint materially differs from his own. Surely, he does not regard Barack Obama as a non-ideologue? He says, "Both Teddy and FDR worked their way up the political system by long, testing apprenticeship in the trade:" Just how many presidents have we had who didn't have a similar apprenticeship?
steven
Tue, 09/23/2014 - 5:34pm
That program is a joke. Another way for a small group of elites to add another useless but nice looking thing to their resumes. When they start seeking out and bringing in non-politicians to learn and then become part of the legislature, then it will matter.
Dave Medema
Wed, 09/24/2014 - 9:51am
Steve, why didn't you include your last name and be more accountable for your insults?
John Q. Public
Wed, 09/24/2014 - 11:42pm
That's exactly why critical comments are anonymous most of the time--the need for people who disagree with the criticism to hold people "accountable", which is usually code for ostracism for voicing a minority opinion. I don't know if his criticism is totally valid, but the application for admission to the progrm definitely has an "Are you one of us?" flavor to it.
John Q. Public
Wed, 09/24/2014 - 11:43pm
That's exactly why critical comments are anonymous most of the time--the need for people who disagree with the criticism to hold people "accountable", which is usually code for ostracism for voicing a minority opinion. I don't know if his criticism is totally valid, but the application for admission to the program definitely has an "Are you one of us?" flavor to it.
Duane
Thu, 09/25/2014 - 12:27am
Dave, Can you help me understand how including a name to a comment changes the content or quality of the comment? I see the articles and comments about exchange of ideas not a judgement of who is offering them. I want to understand the thinking behind the comments not who said them. I try to listen to what is being said and the reaction to the ideas offered, I don't want to hear coments that maybe biased by stereotyping of who is saying them. Since there are too many cases of people being persecuted for the remarks they make, I can see how anonymity can facilitate a more open discussion. I have explained why I use only a first name to others on Bridge with your concerns. It does fit all that I have mentioned, I have provide full details of who I am to Bridge, and I void many extra key strokes (with my typing, and added risk of mistakes). Please explain to me how having a full name changes the comments made. For if you show me how it improves the quality of my comments I will include it.
Ish
Fri, 09/26/2014 - 8:36am
Couldn’t’ have said it better, steven!
Duane
Thu, 09/25/2014 - 12:05am
I am confused. It appears that Mr. Power is lauding a program that is designed to turn non ‘politicians’ into successful ‘politicians’. And yet, he says. “…what’s striking to me is the plain lesson: What we really need are experienced, capable, non-ideological politicians, not self-proclaimed “non-politicians” or wealthy but inexperienced ideologues.” This suggests a disdainful for ‘citizen’ (non-professional) ‘politicians’ and a desire for career ‘politicians’. It seems that he wouldn’t want elected officials like those who (wealthy ideologues) wrote our Constitution and captured their ideals in the documents our country is built on. Mr. Power seems to prefer the insulated view of the career politicians, I believe it is the diversity of views and experiences that homemakers, profession from outside the government, and others that offers a fresh approach. Career people tend to ascribe to the accepted ‘wisdom’ of their profession, the innovators seek out diversity of ideas. If the readers of Bridge were engaged in addressing a problem/issue facing the state I expect they would develop innovative approaches while professional ‘politicians’ keep promoting the programs that have yet to resolve long standing problems/issues. I would encourage Mr. Power to help the public and potential political candidates to understand what the roles and responsibilities and expectations are for the offices that need to be filled rather than try to narrow the pool candidates can be drawn from. I would encourage anyone willing to get involved in community service through elected office to participate in a program such as Mr. Power describes, they should not be deterred by Mr. Power’s criteria.
s.melvin
Sun, 09/28/2014 - 11:47am
Well , I am testing the waters....no expert in politic or there way of speech. I been to city council and called .e-mail all the politisan i could find on the internet . for help and assiste in Senior and Veteran iusses. Not getting help I signed my name to the ballot in Nov.2014
Wed, 10/08/2014 - 4:16pm
For the past five years or so, The Henry Ford (Museum) has participated in the MPLP by presenting a session on our campus that deals in a politically neutral, non-partisan fashion with the connections between innovation, the cultivation and promotion of talent, with community and economic development and policy making. I've had the privilege of presenting those sessions which have always been well received by the program's participants. Each year, often months after presenting the session here, I've received a card or letter from one or more participants thanking us for expanding their understanding of and sensitivity to these connections as important background and underpinning for their thinking about the development of public policy. As a citizen, I always prefer our policy makers to have open minds.