Michigan’s Makeover

Governor Jennifer Granholm Champions Smart Growth

Well before she ran as a centrist Democrat and was elected handily to become the first woman to govern Michigan, Jennifer Granholm understood that joining urban Democrats with suburban Republican swing voters was her formula for victory. What ideas in the nation’s eighth-largest state could put black and ethnic voters on the same political page as white suburbanites?

As a wife and mother of three who lived in congested suburban Oakland County outside Detroit, Granholm knew a lot about traffic and sprawl. As a former federal environmental crimes prosecutor in Detroit, she knew about urban distress and environmental mismanagement. And as both attorney general from 1998 to 2002 and the most senior elected Democrat in state government, Granholm was an eyewitness to the right wing’s ruthless program of rewarding generous industrial donors with tax cuts, subsidies and regulatory favoritism.

By delaying road projects and embracing smart-growth principles, Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan is taking a stand against runaway state development and sprawl.©MLUI/Pat Owen

Granholm gambled that voters would respond to a campaign that rejected the idea that Michigan’s economic competitiveness is based on taxpayer-funded handouts to business. Rather, she said, durable prosperity depended on building the economy from within by curbing ruinous sprawl and traffic, reviving troubled cities, enforcing environmental law and safeguarding Michigan’s natural heritage.

The message worked. And during her first year in office, the 44-year-old governor has put on an impressive display of progressive green statesmanship, with the exception of two missteps on water policy.

Steven Chester, the new director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, has revived the state’s environmental enforcement office and is filing lawsuits against polluters, including a clean water action against a factory dairy farm in southern Michigan for polluting nearby streams and another against a prominent developer in northern Michigan for unlawfully filling wetlands.

Gloria Jeff, who directs the Michigan Department of Transportation, helped Granholm negotiate an agreement with Republican lawmakers that delayed 17 expensive and unnecessary highway projects and invested the savings in repairing existing roads, especially in cities.

The Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the state’s four million-acre public domain, revived the dormant state Natural River Act, which protects Michigan’s wildest and most beautiful waterways from overdevelopment. In September, the Pine and Upper Manistee rivers in northern Michigan were formally designated as Natural Rivers, the first such designations since 1988.

The one unexpected and increasingly troubling facet of Granholm’s first year is a surprising weakness in securing the Great Lakes, a central feature of her campaign. Earlier this year, she signed a Republican property rights bill that allows some homeowners on the Lake Michigan and Lake Huron shoreline to bulldoze beaches to clear weeds caused by low water levels. And in mid-December she shut out a citizens group from a private high-level meeting between her aides and Nestle and then announced the administration was siding with the world’s largest food company in a prominent legal dispute over pumping spring water for commercial sale. During the 2002 campaign Granholm had stood with that very same citizens group during a news conference in the rotunda of the state Capitol to criticize her predecessor for permitting what she called a "diversion" of Great Lakes water.

Where Granholm has inarguably been best, though, is her focus on slowing sprawl and rebuilding Detroit and the state’s other struggling cities. One of her first acts as governor was to ask Republican leaders of the state House and Senate to help appoint a bipartisan land-use council to recommend steps Michigan should take to change damaging business-friendly development patterns. Granholm is putting seven of its recommendations into effect through executive orders, including a directive to establish new state offices in city and town centers.

"This critical issue isn’t the product of just another "ism"—conservationism, liberalism or Republicanism," Granholm says. "It’s the product of this fundamental question of whether or not we want to save the splendor of our state for our grandchildren’s generation and beyond."

Jennifer Granholm quite literally burst onto the political stage in Michigan in 1998, when she came out of Wayne County’s legal office and won the attorney general’s office. Born in Vancouver, British Columbia and raised in southern California, Granholm initially aimed her career at Hollywood. Granholm took acting lessons, gave tours at movie studios, and once appeared as a contestant on the Dating Game.

Recognizing that she was unlikely to become a movie star, Granholm went on to college at the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard Law School, where she met her future husband, Michigan native Dan Mulhern. The central idea of her first term, Granholm says, is to turn Michigan into what she calls a "magnet state," a place that offers the sort of economic opportunity, civic diversity, and natural beauty that will keep her children in Michigan, encourage entrepreneurs, and attract bright young minds. "Thanks to the new governor we are seeing the making of a conservation-oriented land stewardship policy," says Dave Dempsey, an author and policy advisor at the Michigan Environmental Council.

Michigan is not the only state that is using environmental and civic objectives to improve the economy. Mitt Romney, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, appointed Doug Foy, the former head of the Conservation Law Foundation, to help lead his economic development team. Republican California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made former Santa Monica Baykeeper and hydrogen advocate Terry Tamminen head of the state’s EPA. Republican Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina signed a law to encourage construction of new schools in existing neighborhoods and not out in the countryside. New Jersey’s Democratic Governor James E. McGreevey is committed to achieving what he calls "smart-growth goals," a politically popular strategy under sharp challenge from his state’s homebuilders.

In Michigan, the new pursuit of a cleaner, greener state is earning Granholm public approval ratings that consistently top 60 percent. That number worries Betsy DeVos, the billionaire right-wing chairwoman of the state Republican party, who frequently attacks the governor for "not leading." Republican moderates have a different view: "The governor listens," says Republican State Senate Pro-Tem Patricia Birkholz. "She’s willing to work with you. And she’s very smart. There are things that we will never agree on, but we also have a lot in common, especially on the environment and land use."

Michigan can always revert back to the dismal legacy of her conservative Republican predecessor, three-term Governor John Engler. His 12-year tax cutting, agency-slashing, natural resource-exploiting approach to economic development produced a mess: a nearly $3 billion state budget deficit, the highest unemployment rate in a decade and widespread environmental damage.