Power Touts New Agenda For Michigan

July 20, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Forty-four state House seats are up for grabs this year, but 2010 will host the most critical election for Michigan’s economy, government and education system, said former newspaper publisher Phil Power.

In 2006, Power founded the Center for Michigan, which he has dubbed a “think-and-do tank,” based in his hometown of Ann Arbor. Power, who four years ago sold his chain of suburban Detroit newspapers to Gannett Inc., is mustering his business connections as well as a network of “community conversations” in pursuit of three principles to transform the state: a talented and globally competitive work force; a vibrant economy and great quality of life; and an effective, efficient and accountable government.

As a nonprofit, The Center for Michigan can’t jump into partisan politics with endorsements or donations, Power said. But the organization is meeting with a bipartisan, caucus in Lansing, he said, and has hired three outreach coordinators, who are educating this year’s House candidates about the center’s “Michigan’s Defining Moment,” a strategy for reaching those three goals. Among the outreach coordinators is Annette Guilfoyle, former public information officer for the city of Grand Rapids.

“It is a public engagement campaign and the purpose is to ignite and fan a citizen’s movement on the idea that Michigan is in terrible trouble,” Power said.

“Part of the trouble is because of the economy. It’s also in trouble because the political and policy systems in the state are broken. What we need to do is mount a citizens’ movement to put pressure on the political system, on the policy system, and to bring sane people into a common ground agenda to transform Michigan, and to call for a new, competent, pragmatic, effective, practical civic and political leadership all over the state.”

The Center for Michigan maintains a Web site (www.thecenterformichigan.net). Power writes a column for it and Executive Director John Bebow, a former journalist, produces a weekly newsletter with a circulation of 4,000.

On the center’s seven-member board are Meijer Inc. President Mark Murray, Kalamazoo Valley Community College President Marilyn Schlack, and Paul Hillegonds, a former Holland legislator who now is a senior vice president at DTE Energy.

West Michigan leaders among The Center for Michigan’s 100 “Founding Champions” include Holland businessman Jim Brooks, Davenport University President Randolph Flechsig, Spectrum Health board chairman and publisher of The Grand Rapids Press Dan Gaydou, Bridge Street Partners principal Michael Jandernoa, Grand Rapids City Manager Kurt Kimball, The Right Place President & CEO Birgit Klohs, Southwest Michigan First CEO Ron Kitchens, former Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie, Meijer Inc. Co-Chairman Hank Meijer, West Michigan Strategic Alliance President Greg Northrup and Frey Foundation President Milt Rohwer.

Power said the goals and the center’s outline for reaching them arose from a series of “community conversations.”

“These are small groups gathering in living rooms and libraries and conference rooms, 10 to 20 people,” Power explained. “These conversations begin with a discussion of what kind of state do we want to have. The conversation pivots, and people begin to talk about OK, if this is our vision for Michigan, how do we get there?”

Some 200 such conversations involving 2,000 people exceeded his expectations, Power said. Four hundred to 500 more are planned by the end 2010. The center chose locations and participants to reflect the state’s geography and demographics, he said, noting that organized labor has been reluctant to participate.

In anticipation of elections in 2010, Power said his group is laying groundwork in the state capital. Between now and then, voters will consider 31 of 38 state Senate seats, 70 percent of state House seats, the governor, secretary of state and attorney general. The state Senate majority leader and the speaker of the House also will be replaced.

“We’ve tried to establish a bipartisan beachhead in Lansing, because eventually we are going to have to fix stuff in Lansing,” Power said.

The center has conducted six dinners with about 36 legislators “to sit down, off the record and confidentially, and talk about forming a little caucus to see if we can’t figure out how to transform the state. The legislators are just as frustrated with what’s going on as ordinary folks. They find themselves enmeshed in a political system in which their leadership tells them scoring political points is more important than governing in a long-range, thoughtful way.”

He said the center aims to create a large enough caucus to provide political cover for legislators who want change.

The center has published a booklet outlining its strategies for Michigan. It is available at Grand Rapids Public Library branches and also through the center’s Web site.

“We don’t care whether the people elected to the House are Republicans or Democrats,” Power said. “We do care that they have in mind this agenda. It would be even better if somebody wins the election and says, ‘I ran on this platform and it helped me win.’” 

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