When two of Michigan’s leading female politicians — one Democrat, one Republican — agree on the need for public policies driven by facts, it might have happened at an event sponsored by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. At least, it did at our annual Policy Dinner in September.
Every organization that’s lasted as long as the Research Council (102 years) has earned the right to celebrate itself from time to time. Our Policy Dinner is where we invite supporters and guests to have a drink and a meal, sit down with us for a while, and talk about the work we do.
When Eugene Gargaro Jr., chairman of the Board of Trustees, rose to present his eponymous award after dinner, he quipped “Once you have an award named after you, you never think you’ll actually get the chance to present it.”
This year, the Research Council honored former U.S. Rep. John Dingell with the Eugene A. Gargaro Jr. Public Service Award. Because of a health scare days before the dinner, the former Dean of the U.S. House of Representatives was unable to attend the event. The Research Council was pleased to have Mr. Dingell’s wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell, who succeeded him in Congress, accept the award in his place.
As its name implies, the Research Council honor recognizes those in the public and private sector whose work epitomizes leadership across the political spectrum, whose efforts are truly in the greater interest of the public. Honoring Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress, as the first event of the post-dinner program underscored that point.
In accepting on his behalf, Debbie Dingell set a bipartisan tone, underlying the need for solid information as the foundation for good policy. “Facts are facts,” she said.
“We shouldn’t choose sides, we should choose America. That’s (John’s) message tonight,” she concluded, to a standing ovation.
Rep. Dingell was then joined by Candice Miller, who served in Congress with John Dingell before retiring to run — successfully — for Macomb County Public Works Commissioner. After Dingell revealed that her husband called his Republican colleague “Candy,” to which Miller replied, “he’s the only one allowed to do that,” the two had a fast-moving conversation on political and policy matters, moderated by Kimberly Gill, co-anchor at WDIV-TV.
Gill kicked things off with an obvious question: Are public affairs more partisan today?
Yes, replied Miller, so much that “it’s almost surreal,” blaming social media for encouraging the worst sort of tribalism and insult. Dingell agreed, but cautioned Democrats from diving too deeply into the partisan trench. “You can’t just be anti-Trump,” Dingell said. “You have to be for something.”
With common ground thus established, they expanded it. What did they expect to happen on Election Day? Both agreed it would be a very good year for women and people of color. Miller added that while Michigan has high rates of voter registration, voter participation remains average, compared to other states.
Dingell went in a different direction. “I’m Debbie Downer,” she said. With 47 days still to go, there was plenty of time for the unexpected – probably “at least 10 October surprises.”
On Proposal 1, the legalization of recreational marijuana, both had misgivings, although only Miller issued a firm answer: She’s voting no, “even though I’m a child of the ‘60s,” the first generation of American young people to embrace the drug. Dingell, who has spoken often of her family’s struggles with addiction, didn’t appear to have made up her mind. “It’s very personal,” she said.
Should Proposal 1 pass, would either support mitigating or expunging records for marijuana-related offenses? Without specifically saying yes, both supported the idea of criminal-justice reform.
On Proposal 3, the so-called Promote the Vote reforms, they differed, with Miller supporting no-reason absentee voting, but balking at same-day registration. Dingell (who vowed at the beginning of the discussion “not to make any news”) supported “getting more people involved” in the electoral process, but didn’t go further. The right to straight-ticket voting, which Proposal 3 would put in the state constitution, will be a double-edged sword for both parties, Dingell said.
A question about Michigan’s teacher shortage found more agreement. Both thought teachers should be paid more, and respected more. The amount of student debt that prospective teachers have to assume, in hopes of entering a relatively low-wage field, doesn’t encourage more to try, Miller said.
The evening concluded with Research Council President Eric Lupher thanking the evening’s many sponsors and wishing John Dingell a speedy recovery.