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

By Dawson Bell

Page 26

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.