Inside the state Capitol, in an annually repeated scene that often resembles a wedding reception, well-dressed political partiers eating prime rib provided by lobbyists prepared to politely watch Gov. Jennifer Granholm's final State of the State address on Feb. 3. Outside on the Capitol steps, in chilly 24-degree weather, it looked more like a rowdy college football tailgate. No prime rib outside, and not even any tea, but some hot chocolate, a lot of doughnuts and glow sticks energized 750 demonstrators, who shouted at the politicians inside — and sometimes at each other — throughout the evening.
While a little fewer than 100 counter-demonstrators from causes as varied as banning home foreclosures to increasing education funding succeeded early on in using bullhorns to delay the gathering (see "Blown Opportunities"), the rest of the attendees were there for the Tea Party-inspired "State of the Citizen" address, sponsored jointly by Common Sense in Government and the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance.
When the Tea Party began its official program and decided to unite its voices, they were easily able to drown out the bullhorn-assisted interlopers. Voicing one smaller-government message after another, they soon redirected their attention from the counter-demonstrators and toward the House of Representatives, where the governor was giving her speech.
CSG and MTA promoted the event as an invitation for the politicians inside, and perhaps the governor herself, to forget their annual update regarding the condition of state government and instead come out to hear what the people of Michigan had to say about the state of the state's people. Numerous speakers representing various typical residents were on the agenda. The organizers arranged for folding chairs to be set up for the state's politicians.
Not one of the politicians came out of the building during the speech.
Instead, prior to the speech, one of the front-row chairs was being used to hold the supplies brought by Lori Levi of Canton Township. A small-business owner, she was asked if she intended to occupy her lawmaker's seat.
"I sure do," she replied, motioning instead to the seat being occupied by her lawmaker inside the building. Then she produced a business card: Levi is running as an independent, Tea Party inspired, Republican candidate against her state lawmaker, Rep. Dian Slavens, D-Canton.
Former state Rep. Lorence Wenke, R-Richland, is another who made a point of standing with the Tea Party rather than with his former colleagues inside. Wenke even contributed financially, paying for the lights to illuminate what was at various times referred to as a "Light in the Political Darkness" rally.
"People are angry," noted Wenke, who is seeking the 20th district state Senate seat in Kalamazoo County.
When asked what he would change about Michigan, he said without hesitation that the health care and other benefits paid to public-sector employees are significantly outsized in comparison to those in the private sector. Reforming this "outrage" against the people who pay the bills has been a longstanding goal for Wenke since his days in the state House of Representatives.
In the year since he was term-limited out at the end of 2008, the political ball has begun to move downfield on this agenda. Both the Senate Majority Leader, Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, and the Democrat Speaker of the House, Andy Dillon, D-Redford, have proposed plans to attack the high cost of public-employee benefits. And last week, in anticipation of her State of the State speech, the governor even proposed a plan to reduce benefit costs by $300 million per year.
"We have got to fix that," said Wenke emphatically, standing out in the cold with the demonstrators, while Bishop, Dillon and Granholm prepared to sit together inside.
Mostly not politicians themselves, the vast majority of the demonstrators outside were a typical smattering of the grassroots Tea Party protesters that have been attending these events during the past year.
Marsha Henschke and her daughter Courtney from Grand Rapids were not deeply involved in political causes when they attended the April 15, 2009, rally in downtown Grand Rapids, one of several such events around the nation that day. Inspired by the thousands who turned out in West Michigan, they have remained engaged in the Tea Party movement and braved the winter weather to attend the State of the Citizen rally.
"Staunch libertarian" Tim Beck of Detroit is the president of Michigan Benefit Providers. While committed to keeping government smaller and promoting the fiscal message of the Tea Party movement, Beck notes that he has also put much of his time into getting government out of people's social lives. For example, he is one of the state's better-known medical marijuana advocates.
Brett VanderKamp, president and "chief imagination officer" of the New Holland Brewery, is a "Ron Paul" Republican. He turned a collegiate passion for homebrew into a career running a small-business craft brewery in Holland. When asked what he'd do if he could run the Legislature for a day, he said his top priority would be to eliminate the Michigan Business Tax.
Jason Gillman of Traverse City is the owner of Industrial Covert Unlimited, a company that sells video surveillance equipment. His near-daily commentary on Michigan's tax climate, politics, TEA Parties and more is known to many via his blog, Michigan Taxes Too Much.
Now an almost accidental veteran of organizing TEA Party events and town halls in his own community over the previous year, Gillman was in Lansing just as an attendee. When asked to predict the eventual crowd size several hours before the governor gave her speech, Gillman accurately forecast "several hundred, just short of a thousand."
Commenting on the politicians who stayed in the Capitol building during the speech, Leon Drolet of the MTA said this was "not unexpected."
"I had hoped that some would demonstrate that they'd be fighting with the citizens," Drolet said. "But it is far more important what they [the politicians] do next. Tonight, they heard us."
But Wendy Day of CSG thought the politicians in the Capitol had failed the citizens again.
"They are still serving the system and not the people," she said. "There was so much energy out here, and they lost an opportunity to hear that. People left inspired and encouraged."
A www.MichCapCon.com video of this event may be viewed with the earlier version of this article at www.MichCapCon.com/12054.