Enthusiastic and hapless

By Andy Balaskovitz

What killed the Republican Party in Ingham County?

This story was corrected on Oct. 10 to reflect that Americans for Prosperity is a nonprofit organization, not a Super PAC.

As of Friday morning, Jake Davison didn’t even know who Eugene Wanger was.

This was evident when Davison responded to an email in which I was trying to organize the two for a photo shoot to represent the old and the new guard of the Ingham County Republican Party. Davison had declared, naively, that he didn’t want his picture taken with someone whose relevance he doubted.

It was the liberal rag newspaper reporter who had to remind Davison of Wanger’s importance to Republican politics in this town: he was elected as a Republican delegate to the 1961-62 state constitutional convention at age 28; he was the guy who worked to write in language to the state Constitution banning capital punishment, which has held up to this day; and he was the last Republican to chair the Ingham County Board of Commissioners before it went Democratic for good in 1972. Wanger was both appointed and elected to terms on the board. He is 79. Upon learning all of this, Davison apologized and said he’d be happy to appear in a photo with Wanger.

Davison, who is 33, is a sort of up-and-comer in the local party and has a hand in half of this fall’s six countywide races. He’s running for Ingham County treasurer and managing campaigns for Timothy Grant and Kate Mortensen, who are both under 28 years old and are running for drain commissioner and register of deeds, respectively. He’s a Republican strategist with offices downtown in the same building as the Mitt Romney campaign. Davison grew up in Lapeer and has lived in Lansing or East Lansing for the past 14 or 15 years, he said. He co-hosts a weekly online podcast, “Politibomb,” with Democratic strategist Joe DiSano. Davison’s liberal co-host called him a “sharp guy. I don’t agree with his politics in the least, but his motives are pure.”

Despite the failed history lesson, Davison — who speaks with an unexpectedly high-pitched voice for a Newport smoker — identifies as more moderate than perhaps others within his party, particularly on social issues. You might call him downright progressive in some cases. He supports same-sex marriage and amending the state’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. That was reflected in a recent questionnaire by the Lansing Association for Human Rights, he said, even though his initial candidate rating came back as “mixed.” It probably had something to do with his pro-life, anti-abortion beliefs except in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the mother, he said.

“What gives?” Davison recalled asking Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope, former president of the LAHR board. For such progressive groups, “What they need is more Republicans and they need to reward, frankly, people who stick their neck out a little bit,” he said of himself. He remembered telling Swope recently: “There’s a new generation of Republicans who are coming up and taking over who are better on some of these issues than some of the previous generations.” Davison said his rating went from “mixed” to “positive” thereafter.

“As the party becomes less and less identified with that, it’s a big hurdle that gets out of the way,” Davison said. “Then it’s down to economics.”

It’s interesting to hear Davison talk about gay rights — he says it’s only a matter of time until the party “comes around on that issue” — against a backdrop of stone cold fiscal conservatism. Indeed, when he was 14 in Lapeer, “I was absolutely terrified about the Clinton administration’s attempt to take over health care.” Today, he dodges questions about the Affordable Care Act’s extending health care benefits to more people with: “It makes health care more expensive.”

His consulting firm, Advantage Associates, is “ideologically consistent,” he says: “We either help conservative Republicans or where conservative Republicans can’t win, we help the more middle-of-the-road Democrat.”

But outside of Davison’s self-proclaimed “new generation” of Republicanism, the local party still faces internal conflict: Will the party continue to distance itself from moderate, Bill Milliken-style conservative politics for the more uncompromising brand of Tea Party politics? With a 40 percent base in the county and about 30 percent within the city, are Republican candidates damned if they run as the far-right conservative and damned if they run as the moderate?

Democrats, who control all six countywide elected posts and 12 of 16 county Board of Commissioner seats — a reversal of 40 years ago — feel pretty comfortable these days that they’ll stay in power. Ingham County Republicans still hang around, even enthusiastically, feeling they make a difference in local policy — not just for the few out-county townships they control, but in the feeling that they’ll at least keep liberals on their toes — despite their inability to win elections.

What happened? Students and bingo

There’s nothing like boning up on Republican history from a couple of guys who have been entrenched in politics here since the 1960s: Mark Grebner — a progressive lefty — and Wanger — an old-guard, moderate Republican whose involvement within the party gradually faded after the 1970s. As they tell it, the red to blue shift started with the student vote and may have been exacerbated by bingo.

Republicans and Democrats remember a complete GOP dominance of county politics 40 years ago. Grebner said it had been that way since the early 1900s. As Wanger, longtime Republican fixture Alfreda Schmidt and Grebner recall, elections since ’72 went from being easily taken by Republicans; to competitive in Republican favor; to downright competitive; to competitive in Democratic favor; to today, when Republicans haven’t taken a countywide seat in the past three election cycles. What happened?

If money wins elections these days, the same was true in the early 1970s. The voting base was turning younger and more Democratic, but Wanger says Republicans failed to take advantage back then of what would prove to be a cash cow: fundraising with bingo, under the Traxler-McCauley-Law-Bowman Bingo Act of 1972.

“The county Democratic Party started up a bingo game. They were making money hand over fist,” Wanger said. “I kept saying to Republicans, ‘When are we?’ They would say, ‘Life is too short to run bingo games.’ That was the general attitude. … Democratic folks around town were willing to do the legwork necessary. That put the Republicans at a disadvantage financially like we weren’t before.”

At the same time, Wanger saw the party slower to “encourage young whippersnappers” to get into politics and said that major party donors sent their money to statewide and national races. “The result of all of this was: In the 1972 election, the Republican Party got its clock cleaned. The board switched from being a majority of Republicans to a majority of Democrats.” Wanger is a retired attorney who says he is less involved with local politics these days.

And then there’s the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that passed in 1971, which lowered the minimum voting age from 21 to 18. “That’s part of it, but not the whole piece,” Grebner said.

Grebner said it took four years after 1968 for the Democrats to take a majority of the Board of Commissioners, back when former Lansing Mayor David Hollister became the first Democrat to chair the board. By 1976, the board had a 17-4 Democratic majority, he said, which has remained roughly the same since. (The number of districts has dropped with redistricting over the years. Starting next year, the board will go from 16 to 14 districts — a point of pride for some Republicans, who argued for it to save a little money.) “And now the Republicans can’t take the Board of Commissioners. They simply can’t do it. If we tried to draw districts they could win, they still couldn’t do it,” said Grebner, of the East Lansing consulting firm Practical Political Consulting. Grebner has also served on the board for more than 30 years. He lost in the Democratic primary trying to unseat Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann. He’s not seeking another board term.

Alfreda Schmidt, 86, perhaps the best known Republican woman in Ingham County, remembers “the terrible experience” of President Nixon doing his “tricks,” which “changed the whole emphasis on who was holding office. I’ll never forget it: That’s when the wave of Democratic positions took over and have remained ever since.”

She described the countywide positions as being “handed over, handed over, handed over” from one Republican to the next before 1972, good old boys style. “That’s not good. That doesn’t bring fresh ideas.”

Yet Davison reminds me that Ingham County still has a roughly 40 percent base and, “Even in the city, three out of 10 people are Republicans. That’s a minority, but it’s a pretty damn big minority.”

And it’s no secret that the party’s strength is in the out-county townships like Wheatfield — places that in 2010 rejected millage proposals to fund sheriff patrols in those areas and that hold four seats on the Board of Commissioners.

Davison says that while the party can make a few gains around the margins, “There’s nothing you can do” about city voters with a 70 percent Democratic base.

As a “passive observer” since 1996, DiSano, a Democrat, called the Ingham County Republicans a “rather hapless bunch” who have “seen their relevance in Ingham County politics diminished considerably” over the last 20 years. He called a Republican running for countywide office a “futile gesture.”

Unsurprisingly, local Republican Party leaders say otherwise. They describe an “enthusiasm” growing within the party, largely from what they say is an increase in volunteerism in races. When your base is 40 percent, Ingham County Republican Party Chairman Norm Shinkle says, “It’s very difficult to get countywide elected officials, even though we have good candidates.”

Former Ingham GOP Chairwoman Linda Lee Tarver said it’s important for the party to put up candidates in as many races as possible. In November, all six countywide seats and all 14 Board of Commissioners races will be contested. “Even if we don’t win that seat, it is part of that activism,” she said. “You need to hold people accountable.”

Tea partying

If there is division within the party, it’s on the creeping influence of the Tea Party on local races.

Schmidt, for one, doesn’t see much benefit to the uncompromising style of conservatism. “I’m not a Tea Party person, and I don’t think I would ever be. I think they’re a little too demanding. I have tried to understand them and visit with them — and they just ignore me. I don’t join them. I’m not impressed by them.”

Wanger called the Tea Party “a reflection of the fact that people today are narrowing their political points of view. I have to say that I think people today are very much less well educated, particularly on public affairs, than they were 40, 50 years ago.” He added, though, that those who identify with the Tea Party are much more active in “doing the legwork” and organizing. “Is that beneficial? I can’t tell exactly. Obviously it’s gotten a lot of attention because it’s a good story.”

In Delhi Township, outgoing Supervisor Stuart Goodrich was badly beaten in the August primary by Jeff Hall, a candidate with past Tea Party experience but who denounces a formal affiliation today while still appreciating the group’s support. Goodrich is weary of what township leadership will become if Hall is elected in a few weeks.

Same goes for Grebner: He called the possibility of the Tea Party’s running Delhi Township a “tragedy.”

“Delhi has been such a nice unit of government. They don’t scream at each other, they cooperate with other units of government,” he said. “And so they shredded Stuart Goodrich in the Republican primary because Stuart got along too well with Democrats.”

But there’s more downplaying by candidates like Davison, who once worked communications for the statewide chapter of the Koch-brothers-backed nonprofit, Americans for Prosperity. In Delhi, he says Goodrich “wasn’t really much of a Republican. He was for this giant, unnecessary project,” involving a $5.1 million sludge dryer, which was essentially a renewable energy project that supporters — including the township director of public services — say would have reduced operating costs and that selling the processed sludge back to Michigan State University would have paid for the project in less than 20 years. Regardless, “You lose Republican primaries that way,” Davison said of Goodrich.

Moreover, Davison believes the rise of the Tea Party has as much to do with George W. Bush as it does with Barack Obama. “He was completely and utterly incompetent. He basically ruined our party for two cycles,” he said of Bush. “He fucked up so bad, he’s the reason we have Obamacare. Katrina, Iraq — just one bumbling incompetent move after other.”

Now we’re talking. The past and present chairs of the Ingham County Republican Party hold a more optimistic view of the Republican wing allergic to new taxes. “We have a lot more volunteers and enthusiasm on the grass-roots level this year than we typically do,” said Shinkle, who has chaired the Ingham County party off and on since 2002. “In Ingham County, the more Tea Party activity the better. Obviously their beliefs are important to be uncompromising. You don’t want to be wishy washy.”

Tarver, the former Ingham party chairwoman, agrees. Tarver said she is the first African American woman to chair the county party, bucking the trend of the stereotypical white male party. “I’m sort of an odd duck anyway. People look at the Tea Party being an odd duck, but I think they’re given a bad rap. The media wants to make them seem like racists, bigots and sexist weirdos, but they’re not. They are everyday individuals who go to work just like I do. And pay enough taxes to be pissed off to say, ‘Enough is enough.’”

Party of the dumb

Another theory set forth by Grebner is based on the evolution of the two parties.

“In general, say in 1920, the Democrats were the party of the dumb,” he said. “And the Republicans were the party of the thinker.”

Historically, he said, East Lansing was a very conservative town (it was dry until 1968) and not unlike other college towns where Republicans gravitated. “That would be the sort of thing that made a Republican town: That it was upstanding, thinking, it had good libraries, paid attention to culture — that’s what made a Republican town. On the other side, Democrats were sort of unwashed. It was the battle cry of ‘Rum, Romanism, Rebellion.’ This becomes muddled over time.”

By 1920, the parties generally started to shift, Grebner said. By the 1960s, “it was completely muddled. By the ‘80s, it’s pretty clear the parties had crossed. By the ‘90s, they had crossed quite a ways. And by the 2000s, if you ask which party would be willing to include the Earth is flat and the center of the universe in its platform, it’s pretty clear it wouldn’t be the Democratic Party.”

From Davison you get the sense that he at least has a long-term strategy for winning: get off the archaic platforms that have made the party the laughingstock of anyone who believes in just a little bit of social justice and stick to economics. Grebner agrees.

“It can’t go on forever,” Grebner said of the Democratic rule in Ingham County. “On the other hand, the more the Republican Party is the party of the burning witches and Noah’s Ark and the Flat Earth Society, they’re not gonna come back in Ingham. But at some point they gotta get over that. Then they’ll come back.”

That’s an angle that Davison understands. But perhaps a little sense of history could help the Republicans win elections here again. Back at the photo shoot on Monday, Davison stands next to Wanger, each holding political signs supporting a Romney (Wanger with George; Davison with Mitt). The photographer attempts to get the two of them to look at each other. Wanger obliges; Davison refuses several times with a brief, “No,” when asked. Was he being smug? Disrespectful? Did he not like the idea? Was he refusing to look back 40 years on his own party, before he was born, to a time when it actually won elections here? He didn’t say why when asked.

Wanger was slightly perplexed as he said to me quietly, “He didn’t look at me.” And then he rolled his eyes and exited.