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.