Whatever else you can say about Todd Courser, the first-term, very conservative state representative from Lapeer, you can’t say he didn’t hit the ground running.
Within days after taking his oath of office in Lansing, Courser had enthusiastically launched a crusade of sorts on, in no particular order, his allotment of office furniture, his seating assignment on the floor and the incumbent governor’s second-term ambitions.
Let’s start with the office furniture – it didn’t fit with Courser’s vision of an open, cubicle-free layout. When his staff dragged a few items into the hall, according to a MIRS story, House staff dragged it back in and told him that was against the rules.
Ten days later, he posted a lament on his website, more than 2,000 words’ worth, complaining about the seat he was assigned in the House of Representatives; noting that the process violated stated procedure for seat assignments. “I think it goes to the heart of the integrity of this particular process and the whole of the processes of state government that we are asked to administer,” he wrote. “I think it is appropriate to take great issue with the fact that the first thing we were all asked to do as new representatives was to break a law and act in some sort of play for the public.”
In between, Courser issued a “Liberty Response” to the governor’s State of the State address, co-signed with fellow freshman and tea party favorite Rep. Cindy Gamrat. It starts and ends with deep expressions of faith, giving thanks to “God and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for our salvation and His abounding and generous gifts, blessings and His grace, and mercy on our state and nation. It is important to acknowledge that it is only by His power and might that our state and nation remain.”
It goes on for 1,200 or so more words, mixing populism with an explicit rebuke of what he portrays as Gov. Rick Snyder’s vision for “ever growing government,” attacking the governor’s support for Proposal 1 to fix the state’s roads, and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which Courser calls “the bar at which corporations feed their never ending desire for more entitlements.”
All this before February 1.
It was the kind of brash entrance likely to thrill the freshman’s army of give-’em-hell supporters. As for more establishment members of his own ruling party, let’s just say he was not a candidate for that Republican-of-the-month parking space.
“What’s that Bible verse in that song?” asks Joe Munem, a conservative libertarian political consultant in Macomb County. “‘A time to reap and a time to sow.’ For a guy who’s so caught up in religion, he should listen to that. He should be sowing right now.”
Or, as Munem puts it in less Biblical language: “You don’t just walk into a place and say, ‘You all suck, and I’m going to show you the way.’”
Tea party crashers
Courser has two ideological allies in Lansing with whom he is often linked: Gamrat, of Plainwell, and Gary Glenn, of Midland, and all three have drawn attention to themselves in the first months of the term. Glenn used social media to call out an editor at the Midland Daily News after a story about the editor’s promotion revealed he was married to a man; Glenn proclaimed an “agenda alert,” later apologizing for what he called a “snap judgment.” And when Gamrat, who also uses social media often, complained on Facebook about priorities in the party’s budget workshop, it led to her ouster from the caucus by House Speaker Kevin Cotter.
It’s hard to say which, if any of the three, trouble mainstream Republicans more. It’s also hard to say they much care.
If Courser sees this as a time for sowing, it’s to sow the promises he made during his campaign, to “advance the cause of liberty, fiscally and socially.” He has no intention of becoming “furniture,” what he calls “the people who get elected and do nothing but eat free food.” If people like Munem, who speaks for at least some Republicans who do not wish to have their names publicly attached to their words, want him to eat a little, if only to fill his mouth so he can’t talk so much, that’s not his problem.
“I’m a systems disrupter,” he said. “I have an email list of 30,000 people, 400 media outlets. When I say something, it makes them aware of stuff.”
Courser talks about God the way others talk about a trusted friend or mentor. He is never shy about invoking the deity’s name, or asking others to call on God on Courser’s behalf. Just last week he posted on his Facebook:
“I humbly ask for your prayers for all the things I am carrying and walking thru; prayers for wisdom, discernment, endurance, fortitude, courage, mercy and love. It is always a heavy load; I rarely notice the weight of it all, only that it is all always with me and never leaves me now and I am never far from the next battle to be fought; always thinking thru every next move of the enemies of liberty. This would be a very easy job to just ride along and not stand firm, or to just cut deals and stand aside as liberty is lost, but if you stand firm and are willing to stand alone thru each hell storm, then it is totally and completely exhausting on every level.”
And this may be what most irritates people like Munem, other Republicans and, needless to say, Democrats: This rock-solid belief that he, Todd Courser, is carrying the heavy load of opposing “the enemies of liberty,” i.e., anyone who opposes him.
A big family, also happy
It’s a beautiful day for a birthday party, and Elijah Courser’s 13th is in full swing. There’s a cake on the table with his name on it, a big celebration, but this gathering at his grandparents’ house outside Lapeer happens every Sunday after church, birthday or no birthday. His uncles and aunts and cousins and parents and a few extra souls are all in attendance, and when the candles are lit and “Happy Birthday” starts up, it sounds like a small choir.
The Coursers take family seriously, and have a generous definition of the term. When Elijah’s father was growing up in this house, he never knew who he might come downstairs in the morning to find sleeping on the living-room floor. His parents took in stray people the way others take in stray kittens. Some stayed a day, a couple stayed more than a year. Most came through their church, Lapeer Assembly of God, and all the pastor had to do was ask Todd’s mother, Georgeann. She could always set another place at her table.
When you ask Georgeann how many grandchildren she and her husband Dan have, her face gets a little vexed. By the conventional measure, they have 15. But she also counts the children of Todd’s cousin Angie, who lived with them off and on throughout her childhood. And there are others she considers practically family. She introduces people she met five minutes ago as “my friend.”
So with the Courser family’s warmth and generosity and willingness to help literal strangers sketched out, let it be known how Georgeann feels about, say, welfare.
“I don’t like them spending my money like that,” she says flatly. Which kind of gives you an idea where the lines are drawn, and how Todd Courser came to be the kind of politician he is. Acts of charity are the province of faith, not government. As he wrote in his Liberty response, “It is not the proper role of government to be the family, the church, or society; we make a mistake when we replace God with government.”
He tells people he came from a Democratic family, but that was left behind after the Carter Administration. The Coursers were – are – textbook Reagan Democrats, first identified not far from Lapeer – socially conservative, working-class people who traditionally voted Democratic but abruptly switched their allegiance in the 1980 election and never looked back. Certainly the Coursers haven’t.
Todd and his siblings went to public schools, but today his children, and all of their cousins, are homeschooled. (Among Courser’s committee assignments: Education.) The teaching is mostly handled by Courser’s wife Fon, although with their father working three days a week in Lansing, the workload at his tax-law practice has had to shift a little. Fon, an accountant, sometimes comes into the office with their four children, and they finish their schoolwork there.
Their father’s new job has put the expected strain on family life, but a seat in the halls of power is one Courser has been seeking for some time.
As Courser tells it, he had been brooding on the wreckage of the 2009 financial crisis, his clients going out of business or leaving the state, and he felt “someone had to step up and provide the leadership the state was missing.” So he told Fon, “I think I’m running for something.”
She asked him what he was running for. “I’m not sure yet,” he replied.
He made his first bid for a seat in the state House, then the Senate, then tried for one on the state Board of Education, losing every time. He didn’t end up on a wider stage until he took a swing at incumbent state Republican party chairman Bobby Schostak in 2013 and gave him the scare of his political life; Schostak prevailed by 32 votes, but Courser remembers the contest as one where the governor came in and worked the room on behalf of the incumbent, which he takes as proof of his constituency’s growing influence.
He also relishes the image he says he has among Democrats, as a “barbarian warlord” they can trot out and use for fundraising. To be sure, Courser is a favorite target of some Democratic bloggers, but one of his most frequent critics says he overestimates himself.
Chris Savage’s Eclectablog, for one, takes regular shots at Courser, but Savage says his target is so far off on the fringe that he’s less a threat to Democrats than Republicans, who, he says, are “freaking out” over Courser and his gift for drawing the spotlight.
Courser, Gamrat and Glenn “are an embarrassment to the party,” he said. “But they still have to get laws passed, and they are being, in large part, isolated by the more mainstream Republicans.”
(The isolation could well increase. Just yesterday, Courser posted, on his website and Facebook, a 3,300-word defense of Gamrat, referring to "the forces of tyranny" that are "attempting to silence a huge voice for liberty," i.e. Gamrat, and calling on Speaker Cotter to reinstate her. He chides Cotter repeatedly and implies the Speaker – the leader of his own party's caucus – lied about Gamrat to justify her ejection.)
The newcomers’ early moves, particularly Gamrat’s caucus ejection, have brought publicity to the trio, but that’s the last thing they should be going for at this stage in their service, said Leon Drolet, a libertarian former House GOP representative from Macomb County who now runs the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance. Drolet knows Courser only by what he reads in the news and hears through friends, but said he’s mystified by what he’s done so far.
“You only have so much political capital you can burn,” he said. “You can only push your colleagues on so many issues before you reach a limit. For him to choose to expend it on (furniture and his seat on the floor), that leaves less for advancing ideas.”
Drolet and Munem both point to a recently term-limited legislator that they say Courser should be looking to as a role model: Tom McMillin. The Oakland County tea-party favorite is also religious and conservative, but his time in Lansing was marked not by complaints over seats and social issues, but on taxes and budgets, “battles important to Republican primary voters,” Drolet said. “The trick in Lansing is not just being principled, but principled and effective. You can be either, but few can be both. The key is making good choices and managing relationships.”
Could Courser still mend fences? “Anything is possible,” said Munem. “Do I think he is going to do it? No.”
‘Shut up and listen’
Courser, for his part, sees his priorities as clear, and laid them out early in a “Contract for Liberty,” co-signed by Gamrat and covering familiar topics on the right: stopping abortion, gun rights, health care, freedom from “regulatory tyranny” and “economic intrusion,” taxation and privacy.
He understands that he’s seen as difficult, but “I really feel like the conscience of the party. I’m a maverick, but I have to be a statesman.”
He points to his friendship with Detroit Democrat Harvey Santana as proof he doesn’t let ideology get in the way of personal relationships. (Ironically, Santana is on the outs with his own party, after he accepted a position as minority vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee, against the recommendation of minority leader Tim Greimel.)
Santana said the two share a relationship based on their common faith, as well as their similar reputations.
“In general conversations with people, he’s been written off as a right-wing nut job from outer space that no one can get along with,” said Santana. “It’s an unfair characterization.”
Santana invited Courser on a tour of Detroit churches early in the term, and the Republican accepted.
“Lansing is a place where people from very different places get together under the dome to debate policy. There are a lot of strange bedfellows, (but) I welcome that,” Santana said. “Politics in general is so polluted with hard and fast opinions. It’s as though we can’t build relationships, only stereotypes.”
Back home on Georgeann and Dan’s 19 acres, it’s hard to see the prickly Napoleon some in Lansing describe. Politics is barely mentioned by the adults during the birthday party; the focus is on one another, on the children and dogs running in and out, and on the family stories about how cousin Angie always got stuck milking the farm’s single cow while Todd got away with throwing a few bales of hay.
Outside, while the children play gaga ball, Courser describes his “Huckleberry Finn childhood,” when he would mount his horse, ride into the hundreds of acres of state-owned land adjacent to the farm, and not come out until supper.
When he did, there might be a new dog running around, or a new houseguest. His mother, who never locked the door, would be finding it in her heart to let another wandering carny get back on his feet with the Coursers. But this boy who grew up in a house so trusting became a man unwilling to extend that trust to government.
Like his parents, Courser said, “the American people are infinitely compassionate,” but he said he will not stand for them to be taken advantage of by politicians who will use it to restrict freedom by dictating health insurance for everyone, for instance, or using public money to pick winners and losers through entities like the MEDC. He means to stand in opposition to anyone who tries, and in favor of “more liberty, more freedom, less taxes, less regulation.”
It’s pretty much Republican boilerplate, and therein lies the problem, said Munem.
“I don’t share 100 percent of his views, but I don’t find them, by and large, outside the mainstream of the party,” Munem said. “But his style is what the adversaries are latching on to and saying, ‘Look at this nut job.’ It’s a pity.
“It’s good when you start a new job, to just shut up and listen. He’s incapable of that.”