Partisan Buster: The Michigan Political Leadership Program Makes It Easier for State Lawmakers to Have Good Relationships with Others across the Aisle

Article excerpt

Beer's in the bathtub. Soft drinks are chilling. Homemade brownies, chocolate chip cookies from a bakery, Cheetos and potato chips tumble over the hotel suite's dining table.

The sofa's packed with people, knee to knee and nose to nose in the heady conversations of school board budgeting, bipartisan coalitions and the nitty-gritty of campaign fundraising.

A newly elected African American school board member is bumping elbows with a suburban city clerk intent on learning more about voter diversity.

Mid-floor in this tiny campus hotel room, a political consultant is holding court alongside a reporter who periodically exclaims "that's incredible" to an explanation of why all public colleges should be private.

These are members of the 2004 class of the Michigan Political Leadership Program (MPLP), a training program launched in 1992 to combat strictly partisan politics in a term-limited state.

"One of my proudest moments in life was creating MPLP," says Bob Mitchell, a legislative staffer, Democratic congressional candidate, consultant and now founder of Trans-Elect New Transmission Development Co. based in Reston, Va. He and a small group in Lansing, Mich., wrote a business plan and raised $750,000 to give life to MPLP.

From MPLP's ranks have emerged 100 past and present elected community leaders. Among them are school board members, 10 members of state government and now a speaker of the House of Representatives.

This Friday night, like Fridays once a month from February through October, the 2005 MPLP Fellows are coming together to dine, debate and learn more about themselves and each other.

Political affiliations along with conservative-liberal labels will be shed in common tales of winning and losing elections, their hopes and dreams for a better world, and the good food they've brought to share.

"I truly love that program," says John Helmholdt, a political fundraiser with roots in the Republican Party and a 2004 MPLP graduate. He's organized two political action committees of up-and-comers in Grand Rapids, his hometown. "They're starting to get in line to become part of this program."

Just after dinner tonight, members of the Class of 2005 are huddled in small groups in a Marriott Courtyard conference room in Grand Rapids.

The fellows are intent on tonight's assignment: They are to envision themselves as an incumbent member of the Michigan Legislature, running in a district that is entirely new territory.

The district is buffeted by the global economy, and voters are restless, the printed assignment cautions. "Recent polling shows that 65 percent of all registered voters think the state is on the wrong track. How do you get re-elected despite these challenges?"

The fellows must ask themselves why they're running, how they will launch campaigns, contact voters, raise money and keep track of every task. They're plotting media buys and filling in campaign calendars.

One group barely breaks concentration even as guests enter the room. The group is searching for a "hot topic" that will touch the voters in an exercise they hope to take with them into real-life, hands-on campaigns they likely will face outside this venue.

Later this night, Fellows designated as hosts will welcome colleagues to a flood of snacks and after-hours debate that will spill with them into nearby bars and restaurants well into the night.

Early Saturday, after bacon, scrambled eggs, cereal and sweet roils, they'll board a trolley to tour Grand Rapids, and witness housing, health care and entertainment development rising in the city's downtown.

Later, they'll be challenged by a "Budget Busters" exercise that will divide them into assigned political parties and ask them to bring the state's budget in balance against a vortex of declining revenue.

A SELECT GROUP

Each year since 1992, coincidentally when Michigan voters passed the most restrictive term limits in the nation, 24 political junkies and legislative hopefuls have been selected from across the state to take part--at no charge to themselves--in this unique multi-partisan learning environment. …