Civility 101: Michigan Political Leadership Program Puts Politeness Back Into Politics

By Dawson Bell

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The original inspiration for the Michigan Political Leadership Program (MPLP) at Michigan State University (MSU) came from Robert Mitchell, an official with former Gov. Jim Blanchard’s administration, who was deeply concerned about increasing partisanship in the legislative process.

During his 22 years of public service, Mitchell felt candidates should be trained on how to properly serve in government before running for office. The answer was to create a program so applicants could develop cross-party relationships, hone their skills for getting elected, and learn how to effectively govern in a bipartisan spirit. MPLP’s founders feared doing nothing would lead the state down a darker path.

Today, as the constantly changing cast of characters in Lansing seems to become more rancorously partisan, state politics are at a low ebb of ugliness.

The program aims to relieve — at least on a limited scale — some of the rancor. On that score, it appears to be working. Graduates (there have been more than 600) attest to the value of having spent monthly weekends with classmates of very different backgrounds and political proclivities.

Kenneth Cockrel Jr., an MPLP alum and 16- year Detroit city councilman and interim mayor who now heads Habitat for Humanity Detroit, calls his experience “invaluable.” The lifelong Democrat said that is due in part because of his interaction with colleagues he otherwise would have never met. More than 20 years on, Cockrel said he counts MPLP classmates, such as former Republican House Speaker Craig DeRoche and Aaron Payment, the elected chair of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, as good friends.

Anne Mervenne, the Republican co-director of MPLP, said she regularly hears about — and derives deep satisfaction from — former MPLP participants who are working with each other to solve problems.

“Personal relationships translate into cooperation,” she said. “We’re not trying to get people to agree with each other. We’re trying to get them to understand each other.”

U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell (D-MI 12) has served on the program’s advisory board for more than a decade. She calls the program “more relevant than ever.”

“If you don’t have relationships (with political opponents), it’s easy to demonize them,” she said. “When you have relationships, you learn to listen. And when you listen to each other … you sometimes find solutions.”

Each class of 24 fellows is carefully selected to achieve political, gender, racial

and geographic balance, said MSU trustee Dianne Byrum, a former co-director of MPLP and former Democratic lawmaker.

“It creates opportunities for dialogue. But by itself, it certainly can’t solve the issue of (restoring) civil discourse. It’s no panacea. This program can’t overcome all the other forces (undermining civility,” she said.

There is an “art” to effective legislating, said Mervenne’s Democratic counterpart, Steve Tobocman, a former House majority leader who now serves as director of Global Detroit. MPLP helps master the art, he said, including how to work effectively with political opponents. But much of the climate of vitriol comes not from elected officials, but their constituents, he added, who for various reasons are alienated and disenchanted with the current state of American democracy.

“There are lots of things that can be done,” Tobocman said. “(MPLP) is one, but we didn’t get here overnight, and we’re not going to fix it overnight.”

Dawson Bell is a metro Detroit freelance writer.

Welcome to Detroit

Business Attraction welcomes Midwest German American Chamber to Detroit
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The Detroit Regional Chamber’s Business Attraction team officially welcomed the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest (GACC Midwest) as it opened a new office in Detroit in early September. The Business Attraction team worked closely with GACC Midwest in bringing them to Detroit as they pursued an additional office in the region in response to strong investment and increased interest by German-American companies, particularly in the automotive industry.

“We’re thrilled to welcome our friends at GACC Midwest to Detroit,” said Maureen Krauss, the Detroit Regional Chamber’s vice president of economic development-business attraction. “The Detroit region has everything global companies need to grow and expand. With the synergies between the economies of Germany and Michigan, particularly in the auto industry, this partnership will increase business and investment by German companies in our region.”

The new office will be located within the Chamber’s facilities at One Woodward, and will provide services to companies that are in the process of expanding their transatlantic trade and investment in Michigan and the region. The Detroiter caught up with Simone Pohl, president and CEO of GACC Midwest, to discuss the opening of the new office.

Why did you select Detroit for your new office?
The state has long been a target for German investment – more than 360 German companies already have operations in the state – and German companies are highly interested in doing business here, especially with the resurgent U.S. automotive industry. There is increasing investment by German-American companies in the Michigan area, and we have received an increasing number of inquiries from German companies interested in the U.S. and Midwest in general, and also in Michigan.

All the recent news, for example, Michigan topping the list of states that are creating the most manufacturing jobs according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just reinforces that we are doing the right thing to expand now and expand here. We are thrilled to become even more active in Michigan. Sharing the new office space with the Detroit Regional Chamber is a great opportunity, as there are a number of synergies between our respective missions. We look forward to fostering growth in Michigan and the entire region.

How will your office in Detroit be utilized?
The primary role of the new office will be to provide services to companies that are in the process of expanding their transatlantic trade and investment in Michigan and the region. This includes market research, business partner identification, providing virtual offices in early stages of market entry, site selection for production facilities, and other services that have been traditionally supported from our
headquarters in Chicago.

What type of industries in Germany are expressing interest in doing business here in Michigan and the U.S.?
We see a lot of inquiries from companies from all industries. As our German American Business Outlook 2013 identified, German companies are very optimistic when it comes to investing further. We receive many inquiries in the areas that are traditionally strong in the Midwest, such as machinery and automation, automotive, and food companies as well as food processing technology. Many of our inquiries and projects in Michigan are auto-related; however, we have the privilege of working with companies in a wide range of industries. For example, we’re proud to have worked with Hark Orchids on their search for their new orchid-propagation facility in Kalamazoo.

What perception do investors and site selectors in Germany have of Detroit?
There’s still a lot of work to be done, but the good news is that companies involved in automotive engineering, research and development often already know about the region’s importance and its recovery over the past years. The headlines in the U.S. are slowly starting to catch up with all the great things happening in Southeast Michigan, and now we’re working on the German headlines as well.

Did Detroit’s bankruptcy impact your view of the opportunities here in Michigan and the Midwest?
We are really looking at the big picture and all the great things happening in Michigan and throughout the Midwest. The entire region has really seen a resurgence in the past few years – four of the top five states creating new manufacturing jobs are located in the region. That really speaks to the strength of our region and makes it even more attractive for German companies that traditionally invest in regions with strong manufacturing fundamentals. In short, our assumption is that the outcome will be a more dynamic, vibrant region, which attracts even more international companies.

For more information on the German American Chamber of Commerce Midwest Detroit office, contact Dieter Lehnert 313.596.0399.