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Wednesday, January 13,2010

What's inside the head of Andy Dillon?

by Kyle Melinn

Lt. Gov. John Cherry’s cannonlike voice boomed through Cobo Hall’s Riverview Ballroom:


"Now is the moment for Democrats to lead. The challenges are too big. We didn’t create this mess, but we’re sure as hell going to clean it up."


Time: 5:13 p.m. Date: Feb. 21, 2009. Event:


Michigan Democratic Party convention.


Cherry was the featured speaker. He was trying to make an impact, trying to stem the flow of Democratic delegates scurrying toward the exits.


A snowstorm was coming. Shoot, it was already there. You could see it out the room’s floor-to-ceiling window. The snow was blowing diagonally. Nobody wanted to be trapped in that mess, even if it meant missing the stump speech from the party’s likely next gubernatorial nominee.


"Why? Because the American people voted for change. Because the American people put Democrats in charge. They put their faith in us. They expect results, and that’s what we’re going to give them."


The room was packed 45 minutes ago. It was now half full. Michigan House Speaker Andy Dillon stood along the side near the side doors, his eyes fixed at the stage. He wasn’t going anywhere.


It’s not like the Redford Township Democrat didn’t have somewhere else to be. He was hosting the after-convention reception at the former Pontchartrain Hotel. Instead, he stood four-square against the side doors, wearing a slight scowl on his face that read, "Do Not Disturb."


What’s inside the head of Andy Dillon? "This guy is going to lead our party?" "This guy doesn’t have it?" "I wish I had a crack at the main stage?"


We’ll never know. The tall, slender, 48-year-old Notre Dame grad with the slicked-back, slightly graying hair wasn’t the keynote speaker. It wasn’t his red T-shirts the die-hard Democrats were wearing. It wasn’t his campaign fliers scattered on the chairs and the floor.


Andy Dillon wasn’t running for governor. No yet, at least. He said he needed time to broach the subject with his wife, Carol, and their four kids. He had the House of Representatives to run. Ask again after the summer, he told me. He’d have more to say then.


The Dillon For Governor watch was on.


Is Dillon running for governor?


The questions didn’t stop, though.


"Speaker Dillon, are you running for governor?"


An interview. A radio talk show appearance. Conversations in the hall. Seemingly any communication between Dillon and another human being in Lansing wasn’t complete without that one question being asked.


The rest of winter 2009 went by. The entire spring, summer, fall, too. Dillon offered no answer. There were always more important things to be done in Lansing.


Next year’s budget wasn’t done. Dillon popped his public employee health insurance pooling plan. More sweeping reforms were on deck. And after that was done, the Legislature needed to get cracking on some type of overall of its tax system.


The former GE Capital vice president, who had a knack for turning around struggling companies, appeared genuinely torn. There was no shortage of people pushing him to the start line.


The moderate pragmatist (though deeply conservative on some social issues) had a strong following among Blue Dog Democrats. Business groups like Detroit Renaissance liked being approached by Dillon, the former president of Detroit Steel Co.


Dillon’s creative ideas to state government’s big problems excited Lansing insiders bored to tears of the same-old same-old.


Also, don’t forget, Dillon was the highest ranking Democrat in Michigan to publicly endorse Barack Obama in the 2008 primary when it was still a race. Those Washington ties haven’t been forgotten.


On some days, a person would leave a Dillon conversation convinced the old U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley staffer was in the 2010 governor’s race. Other days, the same person would walk away with a completely different opinion.


The question wasn’t "Can he do the job?" The real questions, for him, always seemed more personal.


"It’s a big commitment," Dillon said in a Dec. 2 radio interview with City Pulse. "It would take me away from the family for long stretches of time. I have four kids at home, and that’s the primary thing. I’m confident I have the right vision for the state. The question is whether it’s the right thing for my family and me."


At 7 a.m., Jan. 7, two days after Cherry dropped out of the race, Dillon took the broken record off the spindle and put this on the turntable:


"Hi. I’m Andy Dillon," he says in his video intro on his campaign Web page, www.andydillon.com. "Today, I’m filing papers to explore a run for governor ... ."


Filing a campaign committee allows Dillon, like Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and Cherry before him, to raise money that could be used for a gubernatorial campaign without obligating him to actually running.


Without Cherry in the race, the universal assumption among political observers is that Dillon and Bernero are the favorites unless someone else, possibly a political outsider with strong business ties, like University of Michigan Regent Denise Ilitch of the Little Caesars family or Pistons great Joe Dumars, gets into the race. Or, it’s possible someone else, like former Genesee County Treasurer Dan Kildee or U.S. Rep Bart Stupak, D- Menominee, could catch fire.


Only state Rep Alma Wheeler Smith and state Sen. Hansen Clark are officially in the race. Smith has failed to gain much traction despite months of effort. Former MSU football coach George Perles’ flirtations with the post are not being taken seriously.


For his part, Dillon made it perfectly clear in his video that he’s still perfectly unclear about whether he’s actually going to follow through with a run.


"I’m still not persuaded that this man’s heart is into running," said Kathy Barks Hoffman, the Associated Press’ Lansing bureau chief, on WKAR-TV’s “Off The Record,” moments after watching the Dillon video once again. "I think he doesn’t like having to deal with the media. He has four children. I don’t think he wants to be on the road 16 hours a day."


Democratic political consultant Joe DiSano of Mainstreet Strategies said he thinks Dillon will run, but his indecision is an interesting insight into his psyche. It’s as if he wants to be nominated by acclamation instead of "lowering himself to actually ask for votes."


"Dillon has been poking around this for almost two years," DiSano said. "You either have the fire in the belly to lead or not. Plant your flag in the ground and declare you have the fire to lead Michigan into the future or get out of the way for someone who does. His whole Dithering Dillon act is wearing thin."


Nearly 11 months later and the key question remains: "Speaker Dillon, are you running for governor?"


What kind of Democrat are you?


On the Friday before Labor Day, reporters listened to a frustrated AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney go off on Dillon’s proposed public employee health insurance program. Under the plan, a new state entity selects around five health care plans that state government entities and its employees could choose among.


Gaffney accused Dillon of using the "myth" that public employees enjoy overly generous benefits as a platform from which to run for governor.


"That’s what a smart politician does," Gaffney told MIRS. "He makes himself famous" by attaching himself to an issue.


Asked directly if he was questioning Dillon’s Democratic credentials given that preserving labor unions’ right to collectively bargain is a cornerstone of the party’s platform, Gaffney said, "He ran as a Democrat."


It wasn’t the first time Dillon’s Democratic credentials were challenged; it wouldn’t be the last.


The UAW, AFL-CIO and the Michigan Education Association — the special interest cornerstones of the state Democratic Party went as far as to hold onto their pocketbooks this fall when the Dillon-led House Democrats passed the hat around. Instead of seemingly endorsing Dillon’s right of center view, they opted to save their money for individual candidates.


Between his health care plan and rolling over on the Senate Republicans’ all-cuts Fiscal Year 2010 budget, Lansing liberals see Dillon, who once ran for office as a Republican, as a Joe Lieberman look-alike than a like-minded Democrat.


He did oppose the 2006 anti-affirmative action ballot proposal known as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative ("I think that went way too far").


He also stood shoulder-to-shoulder with trade unions in opposing the governor’s new environmental review of new coal-fired power plant air permits on the basis that it would kill jobs.


"He’s always taking into consideration working-class people and what they have to go through to make a living," said Patrick "Shorty" Gleason, president of the Greater Detroit Building and Construction Trades Council.


But the lifelong Catholic doesn’t support a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. He opposes embryonic stem cell research. Dillon does support extending legal rights to partners in committed same-sex relationships, but he still believes marriage is between a man and a woman.


DiSano said these stances would kill him in a Democratic primary.


"Dillon is saying nothing that makes any sense to Democratic voters up and down the Interstate 75 corridor," DiSano said. "Dillon has no appeal to voters in Detroit, Flint, Pontiac or Saginaw. Those are the voters you need in a Democratic primary. These are voters who show up in every primary election, not the latte-slurping, Starbucks Democrats that Dillon’s middle-of-the-road pablum appeals to."


Yet, Dillon isn’t even in among the top 10 conservative members in his own caucus, according to a conservative-liberal ranking put together by MIRS that had him at 15th.


Dillion passed new revenue increases out of the House to balance the FY 2010 budget. The Republican-led Senate simply didn’t do anything with its proposals, he said.


"I believe there is a role for government," Dillon said. "I think the biggest distinction between the two parties right now is that the leadership, at least on the Republican side, may be more libertarian than the traditional (former Gov. Bill) Milliken-type Republican."


Let’s not forget the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance unsuccessfully tried to recall Dillon for letting the House hike the income tax from 3.9 to 4.35 percent in 2007.


Dillon hasn’t given up on creating a more sustainable state taxing system. He’s first trying to get the sign-off from the Business Leaders of Michigan, the K-12 schools, the hospitals and local units of government. Without a squadron of aerial support to provide cover, Dillon’s is concerned Republicans will shoot any meaningful tax reform proposal out of the sky.


And that’s with the reforms he’s hoping comes with the added revenues.


’I’ve never stopped trying’


Dillon is a pragmatist before a partisan. Why else would he fail to mention he’s a Democrat on his campaign Web site?


That’s OK, said Dillon supporter Kelly Rossman-McKinney, CEO of The Rossman Group public relations firm in Lansing. The polling she’s seen shows that 54 percent are willing to vote for a viable independent candidate, even though Dillon has ruled out a gubernatorial run as an independent.


Voters want statesmanship, not partisanship, Rossman-McKinney said. She said she believes Dillon can deliver.


"I’ve had a lot of animated discussions with hard-core Democrats over the weekend," Rossman-McKinney said. "They think (Lansing Mayor) Virg Bernero will lock up a lot of union vote, but who is most likely to beat out a Republican in a general election? Andy Dillon."


Dillon’s independent streak is well documented. When running to succeed former Rep. Dan Paletko in 2004, the Democratic Party establishment lined up behind favored candidate Tom Dowdy. Dillon still won by 406 votes.


The obscure freshman quickly endeared himself to Gov. Jennifer Granholm, though, when he crafted a way to make happen the governor’s flagship State of the State proposal to dump up $1 billion into budding start-up companies without a tax increase or gutting the state budget.


Without any seniority and despite representing the then-politically competitive 17th House District seat, Dillon teamed up with a senior Republican to get passed legislation to borrow against a stream of future tobacco settlement money.


The seemingly Herculean feat didn’t go unnoticed among his Democratic Caucus colleagues, either. When the Democrats surprisingly won a majority in the 2006 elections, some Dems supported Andy Meisner, a young, firebrand liberal, for caucus leader. Traditional organized labor and liberals within the party like Kalamazoo billionaire Jon Stryker, who dumped $5 million of his own money into anti-Republican television ads that election, liked Meisner.


But pragmatic Democratic House members, combined with key Detroit lawmakers led by veteran Rep. George Cushingberry, teamed up with Dillon. Their take was simple: They needed a "grown-up" in the chair to actually pass substantive policy.


According to some caucus members, Dillon captured the leadership post by one vote.


As speaker, Dillon’s innovative plans have been met with a stiff wind. Weeks into his tenure as speaker, Dillon proposed increasing taxes on electrical utility providers in exchange for giving them their monopoly status back. His caucus wanted a graduated income tax on the ballot and considered eliminating townships. Neither idea saw much life.


To show off the new caucus’ creative thinking, then-Rep. Matt Gillard pulled out his iPhone at a press conference to demonstrate how schoolchildren will learn in the future. The next thing Dillon knew, the press was reporting that the House Democrats wanted to give iPhones to every child in the state. The PR disaster made the national news.


Dillon went public with his desires to try to keep Comerica’s headquarters in Detroit. The bank still jettisoned to Texas. The brinkmanship over the $1.8 billon hole in the state budget resulted in a four-hour government shutdown.


His frustration with Lansing was obvious. An exasperated Dillon let slip in a live radio interview that he wasn’t sure that he even wanted to run for his third House term in 2008. Yet, Dillon marched on, keeping close counsel with a seemingly shrinking inner circle that, at times, appeared to be limited to the perimeter of his own skull.


"I’ve demonstrated that I’m committed to policy and doing what’s right even if that’s something that meets resistance," he noted last month.


And now this slightly aloof corporate bailout expert may run for governor. Or maybe he won’t.


Since the Web announcement of his exploratory committee, Dillon has avoided the media, which isn’t unusual for him. Often his own press people don’t know that he’s called Frank Beckmann on WJR or chatted with Tim Skubick on the House floor.


The only public insight into his thought pattern on running for governor was left on his Web site, which has received more than 65,000 hits since Jan. 7.


"Over the next few weeks, I’ll be talking to people across our state, listening to your concerns and your ideas for the future."


We, the public are now the ones standing along the proverbial side door, watching from afar, wondering what to make out of this potential candidate’s stump speech.


We’re left to decide for ourselves if the enigmatic Dillon is running for governor. If so, will he run as a Democrat?


What’s inside the head of Andy Dillon?


"During my time in public office, I’ve sought new answers to tough problems, and looked for innovative solutions to get us past the tired fights that block our progress. I haven’t always succeeded, but I’ve never quit trying."

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