End of an Era for the Master of Voter Lists
|By Walt Sorg|
This story was corrected on Dec. 19 to say that Hal Fildey was a former Lansing State Journal executive editor, not publisher.
The man who crafted what has become an iconic political slogan — “No Worse Than the Rest” — is a study in contradictions. He’s controversial and outspoken while at the same time a champion for crafting electoral consensus and pragmatic solutions. His political career began with a successful political war against the county’s sheriff. Thirty-six years later, it is ending after an unsuccessful political battle with the county’s drain commissioner. But he has changed the way candidates run for office.
He is Mark Grebner. For nearly four decades, he has been a core part of government and politics in Ingham County. In three weeks, Grebner, 60, will leave the Ingham County Board of Commissioners after a career spanning 36 years.
He’s been compared with Ben Franklin. The physical resemblance is obvious. Less so are the shared passions for solving problems, whether it’s how to make sure poor families still have access to Ingham County parks or how to reelect the president.
Catching up with Grebner can be a challenge. He operates in his own time zone, generally arriving at his office (by bicycle) in mid-afternoon, working well into the night and going to bed when first-shift GM workers are having breakfast.
The son of a K-12 schools superintendent, Grebner migrated from Kankakee, Ill., in 1970 to attend Michigan State University as an Alumni Distinguished Scholar. He initially majored in public policy in James Madison College, shifting to urban policy. He graduated 11 years later. In the process, he may have been the only James Madison student to ever to take calculus, statistics and chemical physics as elective courses.
As an undergraduate, he infuriated many on campus by surveying students and then publishing “Grading the Profs,” which he sold for 95 cents a copy. (He later published a similar booklet while in law school at the University of Michigan.)
An internship with the political arm of the UAW led to an assignment working on the campaign of an East Lansing minister, Lynn Jondahl, who was running for the state House of Representatives. Grebner’s introduction to politics established the foundation for his intertwined business and political careers.
“His interest was in the political process,” Jondahl recalled. “He was: ‘Give me a problem and then let’s sit down and solve it.’’’
Grebner quickly learned that he wasn’t especially suited for the structure and discipline of a campaign staff.
“I assumed the whole campaign world was like the Jondahl campaign: 100 volunteers, maybe 15 established committees, a system where everything had to go through three, four, five committees,” Grebner said in an interview last week. He loved Jondahl, but not the campaign structure.
“I hated meetings, and I discovered I couldn’t work in a campaign. That’s why I became a political consultant. I could tell candidates, ‘This is what I recommend. Do it or don’t,’ and then walk away.”
Frustrated with the endless Jondahl campaign meetings, Grebner decided to bypass the decision-by-consensus process and unilaterally wrote his first campaign brochure. It was designed to introduce Jondahl to MSU students who, thanks to the 18-year-old vote, were the key to victory. Instead of mimicking the campaign’s 16-page booklet (the only campaign brochure ever labeled ‘literature’), he came up with a three-panel brochure with the headings: “What Lynn Jondahl Has Done,” “What Lynn Jondahl is Doing” and “What Lynn Jondahl Wants to Do.”
“Ten years later they were still using the piece,” Grebner chuckled.
The experience also set the pattern for his entire life. Longtime friend (and 1980s-era girlfriend) Aubrey Marron notes that Grebner has never worked for an employer. “It was all him doing what he wanted and selling it to other people. I think he’d have a hard time having a boss.”
So the honors college student morphed into a campaign consultant, initially charging candidates $5 an hour. Practical Political Consulting, like so many student start-ups, began in his bedroom. A year later he doubled his hourly rate, and did so again in 1974. That was also the year he decided to run for the Ingham County Board of Commissioners. He lost in the primary by 18 votes. Two years later he was easily elected.
The next four years were filled with controversy.
Disgust with corruption and dishonesty
Marron says Grebner’s politics are driven by disgust with corruption and dishonesty. In the 1970s, the Ingham County Republican establishment still had political control of the county and it was rife with corruption (some of it criminal). Led by Sheriff Kenneth Preadmore and Circuit Judge Ray Hotchkiss, the ruling clique included Prosecutor Ray Scodeller, LCC President Phil Gannon, Lansing State Journal executive editor Hal Fildey and local broadcasting pioneer Hal Gross. Grebner focused on taking down what he viewed as a “corrupt good ole boy network.”
“Preadmore was genuinely corrupt,” Grebner said. “He was caught stealing money from the county and extorted the board. Preadmore went after me and then expanded to the other three Democrats on the finance committee. He then expanded it further to include virtually the entire board, including commissioners Dave Hollister, Debbie Stabenow and Bill Sederburg.”
Preadmore finally took his case against Grebner, alleging 27 criminal counts, to newly elected Prosecutor Peter Houk. No charges were filed. The prosecutor’s investigator determined that Grebner hadn’t been embezzling county money, but actually had been underpaid to the tune of about $320. The case file now sits in Grebner’s desk, compliments of Preadmore’s successor, Democrat Allan Davis. Grebner calls his successful campaign against Preadmore “the most important accomplishment” of his life.
Back to school, back to the board
Grebner, exhausted by both the investigation and his 11 years as an MSU undergraduate, left the board in 1981 to attend U.M. Law School, returning to the board in 1985. He rejoined the county commission the same day Republican Randy Schafer was sworn in for his first term. A nearly three-decade collaboration had begun due, in part, to the recommendation of one of the other commissioners who had fought with Preadmore, Democrat Tom Mitchell.
“I had a lot of respect for Tom Mitchell,” Schafer said. “He told me a lot about Mark. I knew from the beginning there’s a lot of substance there.”
The Ingham County Board of Commissioners has been a breeding ground for future state legislators. Board alumni include Stabenow, Hollister, Diane Byrum, Lynne Martinez, Fred Stackable, William Sederburg, Laura Baird and Andy Schor. Grebner never had the itch to follow in their footsteps, preferring the relatively low-visibility job of county commissioner because it was a place where he could (and did) get things done.
He wrote and then fought to enact the county’s ethics policies. “It isn’t the 10 Commandments, just something designed to keep the board from doing things that will cause problems.” He took the lead in creating a combined 9-1-1 dispatch system, and devised the financing system for a unified county public transit system.
The bike-riding commissioner’s lifelong dedication to alternative transportation also led to a place on CATA’s Board of Directors, where he will continue to serve in 2013.
Each project was crafted with Grebner’s disdain for “feuding, posturing and useless meetings.” His method of operation modeled Nike’s mantra: “Just Do It.” He pushed through a countywide 9-1-1 millage without first getting local governments to agree on a collaboration. The millage wasn’t even levied in the first year as turf wars continued. Ultimately, Grebner’s solution won out. The new county 9-1-1 dispatch center opened earlier this year with the active participation of the entire county.
The man with the lists
While serving on the county commission, Grebner built his political consulting business, gradually expanding Practical Political Consulting out of his bedroom and into a series of offices in downtown East Lansing. He moved so often in the early years that his business address was a post office box at the MSU Union.
Computers were still pretty much a novelty in the 1970s. In the beginning, Grebner’s all-valuable voter data was preserved on punch cards. He would use a Red Flyer wagon to haul boxes of cards to the MSU computer center, renting time to massage his data and print out the lists that quickly became a standard tool of political campaigns. In 2000, The New York Times called the lists “the hottest of hot commodities in hot races.”
“He was among the first to keep exploring and exploiting the possibilities of technology,” Jondahl said. “He became the go-to person for all of us in regard to (efficient use of campaign data), both because he could do it and because he understood the importance of it.”
Unlike virtually all other political suppliers, Grebner decided to offer credit to candidates.
Grebner saw it as a simple marketing decision. Campaigns used his data to raise money; they were more likely to buy from him if they didn’t have to pay until the checks started coming in.
Of course, that has left PPC holding the bag for some long-forgotten campaigns. A framed NSF check for $3,000 from the Gary Hart presidential campaign greets visitors to the company’s offices above Pinball Pete’s. Hart’s check was written the day before a sex scandal involving the candidate and Donna Rice effectively ended his 1988 campaign.
Over the years, Grebner has become a national force in political strategy. A tactic he pioneered was a critical part of the Obama campaign’s get-out-the-vote strategy. Research Grebner conducted nearly a decade ago in tandem with two Yale political science professors was at the heart of the concept of “social pressure” to improve voter turnout. Described in the book, “The Victory Lab,” the tactic involves using direct mail to pressure likely supporters into voting: “... they sent voters a copy of their own public vote histories, along with their neighbors’, and a threat to deliver an updated set after the election. It was marvelously effective, increasing turnout among those who received it by 20 percent.”
Grebner also worked with researchers and East Lansing native Nate Silver (who had predicted an Obama victory over Romney as far back as June) to expose a polling firm that was selling fraudulent research to the power liberal blog “The Daily Kos.”
Grebner continues to work on campaigns, although he has sold Practical Political Consulting to fellow Commissioner Penelope Tsernoglou and Alan Fox, while continuing as a PPC employee. While he insists he “enjoys the rock-band farewell tour” of his departure, Grebner insists that he isn’t retiring, but just being practical.
“We have a pension system that is really screwed up. I will make nearly as much from my pension as I would if I stayed on the board. Effectively, I’d be working for a net of a dollar or two an hour.”
In other words, he’s very open to double-dipping. “I could be back on the board of commissioners, I could take some other job. I don’t have a plan to do so, but you never know.”
One possibility is another run for drain commissioner in four years. Grebner continues to be highly critical of 20-year incumbent Pat Lindemann and doesn’t rule out a 2016 campaign, especially if Lindemann does not retire.
There’s no love lost between the two longtime county officials. But even Lindemann concedes that Grebner has been “a stabilizing factor over the years. In general, I think his influence has been positive.”
Grebner readily admits — as he did during this summer’s campaign — that winning the drain commissioner job would significantly increase his county pension. While his primary motivation is the belief that he can do a far better job managing the powerful office, his candor about personal financial considerations typifies Grebner’s unswerving willingness to speak his mind regardless of the consequences.
He may also work for fundamental political reform in Michigan. He advocates an end to partisan redistricting (gerrymandering), enactment of “any reason” absentee voting and full disclosure of all campaign spending, including that of unions and business associations.
One certainty: Grebner will continue to be one of the area’s most controversial and interesting political voices.
“I’ve seen Mark take on everyone imaginable,” said fellow Commissioner Schafer. “He’s not afraid to get into the ring with anyone, he’s not a game player. You always know where he stands.”
“His legacy was to be out there breaking new ground: how voters vote and why they vote the way they do,” said his first “client,” Lynn Jondahl. “We wandered into the process wanting to run for office and not knowing how. Mark’s legacy was to help us fill in the blanks.”
“Personally, I think of him as mildly outrageous,” said Jondahl. “To me, that is the best kind of person.”
No worse than the rest.