Governor Jennifer Granholm Champions Smart Growth
by Keith Schneider
The Environmental Magazine
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
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