2008-05-15 / Columns

Michigan Politics

Obama Will Have Fences To Mend in Michigan
By George Weeks

If, as expected, Senator Barack Obama is the Democratic presidential nominee, he could have explaining to do in Michigan on a few fronts, including snubbing its primary and bashing its auto industry.

There was quite a fuss among assorted establishment Democrats, and in some media quarters, when Obama refused to have his name on the ballot for the January 15 primary that was held earlier than allowed by party rules that were aptly denounced by Senator Carl Levin for giving Iowa and New Hampshire a "stranglehold" on the process.

In deference to the rules that also were defied by Florida, Senator Hillary Clinton declined to campaign for the primary but wisely stayed on the ballot and won over "uncommitted" and low tier candidates.

Ex-Governor Jim Blanchard, early Michigan pointman for Clinton, and Governor Jennifer Granholm, an eventual supporter, praised Clinton for seeking convention delegates in a state that has not been carried by a Republican since George H.W. Bush outpolled Mike Dukakis by about 290,000 votes in 1988.

Blanchard notes that Clinton's "non-campaign campaign" in Michigan has included visits for fundraising. The Obama campaign's first official events in Michigan in months came Saturday with voter registration drives in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Flint, and Grand Rapids.

Gordon Trowbridge of the Detroit News Washington bureau said: "Obama himself has not appeared in Michigan since July, and the campaign has had no official presence in the state - a result of the dispute over Michigan's January primary. The campaign has scheduled fundraising stops in Florida - which also has been under a campaigning boycott - on May 21 and 22, but so far there are no Michigan visits on Obama's schedule."

During early efforts by Levin and other state party leaders to reach a compromise on seating Michigan, the Obama camp repeatedly rejected offerings.

That fuss will fade once the nomination and negotiations over seating of the Michigan delegation are settled.

Obama got a Michigan boost last week when he was endorsed by ex-Congressman David Bonior of Mount Clemens, who has strong labor ties and was manager of ex-Senator John Edwards' now-abandoned presidential campaign.

(Representative Bart Stupak (D-Menominee), who had endorsed Edwards and was critical of the Michigan primary, indicated after Bonior's move that he will not make an endorsement until the Michigan delegate issue is resolved.)

Among questions that Obama would face here are repeated unfriendly comments about the auto industry. In appearances elsewhere, he touts his environmental credentials by noting that in a speech last year to the Detroit Economic Club he was critical of the industry on fuel economy.

He told an Indianapolis radio station recently that a 1970s Ford Granada he drove was "maybe the worst car that Detroit ever built."

There also have been rumblings about Obama's position on whether he would end the federal oversight of the Teamsters Union, which supports his campaign.

He told the Wall Street Journal that the Justice Department oversight has "run its course." But he drew criticism from Clinton when he later said he wasn't making a "blanket commitment."

He should.

Take it from Representative Pete Hoekstra (R-Holland), whose knowledge about the issue is second to none on Capitol Hill.

He said it is long past the time for the Justice Department "to pull out of the Teamsters," who have been under oversight since the Independent Review Board was appointed in 1989 to monitor the union's progress in distancing itself from organized crime.

He told me Friday after his appearances in Traverse City and Frankfort that the federal government "has no right to stick its claws into the private affairs" of a union that has "done a credible job" of internal oversight during the reign of President James P. Hoffa.

Hoekstra had a lead role in the issue as chairman of the oversight subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee at the time the flawed election of Ron Carey as president of the union was thrown out and Hoffa won in a subsequent election.

I also asked Hoekstra about his criticism, most recently aired on CNN, of the Bush administration for its months-long delay in briefing all members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence about Israel's 2007 airstrike against a facility in northern Syria "that press reports have linked to nuclear programs by North Korea, Iran, or other rogue states."

The way President George W. Bush handled the issue is fodder for critics who say, "he uses intelligence to manipulate public policy," said Hoekstra, who had been briefed but was sworn to secrecy.

In a word, Hoekstra said Bush's "unprecedented veil of secrecy around the Israeli airstrike" was "dumb." That's a serious rap on a Republican president by a Republican congressman.

George Weeks retired in 2006 after 22 years as political columnist for The Detroit News. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.

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