“Our challenge, today, is to look forward, to find the courage to make the changes our own time demands. So, I ask you tonight to help build Michigan’s future with me. Because the choice we face is stark: Will we let Michigan’s economy languish, or will we work together to create the good jobs our state needs? Will we stand still, or will we move forward?” – Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Feb. 9, 2005

Angela Cesere

After defeating Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus in 2002, Granholm assumed the state’s top job just as the fundamental problems with Michigan’s economy were becoming evident. By the time her 2005 State of the State address rolled around, those problems were gaping holes – swallowing tens of thousands of high-wage, low-skill jobs. This year, as Granholm finishes preparations for her 2006 State of the State (Jan. 25, 7 p.m.), these holes threaten her own security. Granholm was once a rising star in the Democratic Party, and her GOP challengers have locked onto her – they can smell blood in the water.

That’s because she hasn’t done anything memorable.
I’m not saying she’s been ineffective. For three years, Granholm has skillfully navigated the state through successive fiscal crises. She’s grappled with the legacy of John Engler’s enjoy-the-good-times tax cuts without reversing them, and she’s managed to make Michigan one of the most efficiently governed states in the nation. Some accountant at the Ross school probably wants to give her an award.

But, beyond balancing the state’s checkbook, Granholm hasn’t accomplished any of her signature plans. Let there be no doubt -she has plenty of economic vision. She wants to double the number of college graduates in the state. She wants to make Michigan a high-tech hub. She wants to make Alpena a cool city (Talk about chutzpah!). She’s commissioned commissions, read Richard Florida and even been caught carrying around Tom Friedman’s latest. She’s a smart woman — there’s no doubt she has ideas.

I’d even venture to say they’re good ideas. She isn’t talking tax cuts – she’s talking about education. She realizes that increased support for infrastructure and K-16 education – not lower taxes – will draw stable high-tech, high-wage jobs to Michigan. While she’s working with the Legislature to completely replace the troubled Single Business Tax, she’s made investment and education the centerpiece of her economic vision.

But these ideas haven’t moved too far from the drawing board. Instead of spending political capital and taking the risks needed to push these ideas into action, she has . balanced the budget.
Sure, she’s also done other little things – last February, she claimed her administration had undertaken 24 of the 27 initiatives it created to grow the state’s economy. But if Granholm were to leave office this November, she’d be remembered simply as that Canadian beauty queen who became governor.

Of course, Granholm’s defenders will argue that her hands were tied. A hostile Legislature prevented her from taking bold action. Republicans wouldn’t support her ideas; she can’t twist their arms. All true — a liberal Democrat will undoubtedly face tough opposition from a conservative Legislature.

But there’s a difference between unsuccessfully fighting insurmountable opposition and actively avoiding it. Granholm’s governing philosophy has been to keep as many people as happy as possible. She’s fought fights over small issues – but hasn’t battled to enact the sweeping changes needed to make her vision of Michigan a reality. Despite enacting those 24 initiatives, Michigan’s economic situation is stagnant; the forces of globalization are pushing hard on this state. Small, incremental changes aren’t enough to ensure future prosperity.

Granholm has repeatedly mentioned that she wants to double the number of Michigan’s college graduates. But instead of fighting to increase funding for higher education (a likely step in the right direction), she’s accepted deep, successive cuts. She supports the idea of a Life Sciences Corridor, but won’t fight the Legislature to relax restrictions on stem-cell research. She’ll ask the Legislature “to find the courage to make the changes our own time demands,” but she hasn’t found the courage to publicly push her expensive, and thus controversial, economic growth initiatives (think “Governator”).

Governors are more than mere administrators. They offer leadership; they set a direction for the state. Michigan, which allows governors to serve three four-year terms, gives its top executive plenty of time to formulate and enact sweeping visions. Granholm must step beyond being a budget director and become a true governor. She has the brains, she has the ideas. Now she needs the guts.

Momin can be reached at smomin@umich.edu

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