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Wednesday, March 6,2013

Setting the field

by Walt Sorg
It is a perpetual campaign — not just for president, but for state offices as well. Just three months after the 2012 general election, campaigning is well underway for 2014.

At the state level, the Republican ticket is set: Gov. Rick Snyder, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, Attorney General Bill Schuette and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson will all run for reelection. For Democrats, the decision by Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, D-Lansing, against running for governor has left that race wide open.

While most of the chattering set is focused on which Democrat will emerge to challenge Snyder, there’s quieter talk about the other statewide offices. Discussions on the attorney general and secretary of state races include a couple of well-known local names.

The first stirrings for next year’s AG race has come from Mark Totten, an affiliate professor of law at Michigan State University. Totten and a handful of volunteers fanned out at the recent state Democratic Convention, handing out a slick brochure attacking Schuette’s performance on issues ranging from public corruption to workers’ rights. Totten has also set up a website, www.AGforUs.com, which focuses on the reasons Schuette should not be reelected.

Totten’s volunteers said the brochure is not the warm-up for a Totten campaign. According to state records, Totten has not created a campaign committee. But it sure looks like a campaign.

Also highly visible at the convention was newly elected University of Michigan Regent Mark Bernstein. Bernstein, a part of the 1-800-CALL-SAM family law firm (and whose broher, Richard, ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for attorney general in 2010), would bring good name identification to a campaign thanks to the firm’s unending television advertising.

The wild card for attorney general is Whitmer. She was unwilling to commit to the 18-month marathon needed to run for governor, but she may well decide to enter the three-month sprint for attorney general. Whitmer says she has not ruled out the race. She would be the party favorite if she said “yes.”

The battle for the Dems’ secretary of state nomination may turn into a three-woman affair. Jocelyn Benson, the 2010 nominee, is believed ready for a second run. Benson, an election law expert, is acting dean of Wayne State University’s Law School. She is maintaining her political visibility through efforts to reform Michigan’s election laws, beginning with a much-needed reform of how legislative and congressional districts are drawn.

Also in the pre-campaign chatter are a pair of former state representatives who shared a national spotlight for the use of words “vagina” and “vasectomy” during House debate last session, resulting in a two-day speaking ban issued by Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger. Both of them are their respective county’s chief elections officer.

Lisa Brown has made a habit of winning in traditionally Republican areas. She succeeded a Republican in the Legislature, and last year defeated an incumbent Republican to become clerk of Oakland County, Michigan’s second-largest county. Brown is an attorney with degrees from MSU and Detroit College of Law (now the MSU Law School).

Former Onondaga state Rep. Barb Byrum is doing nothing to quiet talk of a possible candidacy. Last year she was easily elected Ingham County clerk after six years in the House. Byrum’s emerged as a spokesperson for women’s issues as a result of the “V-words” kerfuffle last year. Working against her? Byrum bucked the trend among local elected officials by loudly supporting the losing reelection bid of former Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer. Byrum also graduated from the MSU Law School, but she has not passed the state bar exam. She also owns a Charlotte hardware store and is a Mary Kay distributor.

Local maneuvering is under way in what promises to be a difficult Democratic primary to succeed the term-limited Whitmer in the state Senate. Former Rep. Joan Bauer and Ingham County Register of Deeds Curtis Hertel may face off in the primary for the heavily Democratic seat.

Hertel and Bauer are friends who talk regularly. Both are well liked and respected by party leaders. There is little to differentiate them on issues. The contest would likely come down to style and intangibles.

Experience and expertise: Both candidates have significant credentials. In the House, Bauer championed K-12 and higher education as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, focusing on damage control in the Republican-dominated committee. She also brings knowledge of local government and healthcare to the table as a former Lansing City Councilwoman and former executive with Ingham Regional Hospital (now McLaren Greater Lansing).

Hertel’s resume includes a stint as a staffer for House Democrats and eight years on the Ingham County Board of Commissioners. Recently reelected to a second term as register of deeds, he has gained statewide recognition for his successful work on foreclosures and mortgage fraud. Hertel is from one of Michigan’s most successful political families: his father was speaker of the Michigan house; one uncle was a state senator; another a U.S. congressman.

Style: Bauer is considered one of the most likable people in local politics. In any other business, that would be considered a good thing. In politics, not so much.

Hertel’s battles with the big banks over mortgages has demonstrated a toughness that many Democrats feel is needed in the Senate — especially with the departure of Whitmer, who has been an outspoken counterpoint to the governor and GOP in the Senate.

Gender/Age: Whitmer’s departure leaves the Senate with three women senators out of 38 total members. In a race with no significant policy differences between candidates, this could be the decider for some voters. And the 29-year age gap between the two candidates, while never mentioned, could come into play.

(Political columnist Walt Sorg can be reached at sorg@lansingcitypulse.com)

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