A poolside speech proved to be a test of election faith

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Bill Schuette, Michigan’s term-limited attorney general, isn’t one to shy away from a tough fight, vigorously defending the gay marriage ban that state voters approved by a 59 percent margin a decade ago.

It has been an unpopular stance in light of today’s political climate and the prevailing judicial mood, but that hasn’t deterred Schuette from advancing his belief that “government works best when the rights of voters are respected.”

A Midland native, Schuette also has been in the news of late with his work to combat the scourge of human trafficking in Michigan. He will speak on the topic at a program in Troy on April 28, titled “Not in My Backyard: Conquering Human Trafficking in Michigan.”

Some political observers believe Schuette is setting the stage for a gubernatorial bid in 2018, when incumbent Rick Snyder will be prevented from seeking re-election because of term limits.
If so, the former Michigan Court of Appeals judge may well recall a test of his political moxie before he dips his toe into the election waters again. It was a test first passed by the elder George Bush, who was elected president in 1988.

The test “administrator” was Heinz Prechter, the late sunroof pioneer and a key supporter of Republican hopefuls on a state and national scale. He figured if Bush could measure up to the challenge, so could a then-U.S. Congressman Bill Schuette.

Bush, in his bid for the presidency in 1988 walked a very fine political line when he was the center of attention at a campaign soiree hosted by Prechter at his spectacular Grosse Ile estate. The party was held poolside at the Prechter compound on the banks of the Detroit River and Bush impressed the well-heeled GOP faithful by delivering his campaign speech while perched precariously on the diving board.

Two years later, it would be the proverbial hard act to follow for Schuette, who as a three-term Congressman from Midland was campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat against Democratic incumbent Carl Levin. Understandably, he felt more than a bit squeamish about walking the political plank at the Prechter pool that night in front of a slew of would-be donors, but walk he did.

“All I could think about was losing my balance and ending up in the drink,” Schuette admitted to me during an interview some eight years ago. “It was probably as nervous as I’ve ever been in giving a speech. It also was one of my shortest speeches, which I’m sure everybody was particularly thankful for that evening.”

Fortunately, he remained dry – before, during, and after the campaign talk. Unfortunately for Schuette, it was a victory of sorts that didn’t carry over to election day. Voters swept Levin into a third term in office by a double-digit margin, ending Schuette’s hopes of returning the U.S. Senate seat into Republican hands.

It was one of his few political setbacks in a public service career that has spanned more than three decades and has touched all three branches of government. When we first met, Schuette was a state appellate judge, a six-year post he won in the 2002 election for the 4th District.

But it was in his earlier political life, as director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture during the Engler administration, that Schuette may have left his most enduring legacy – the Michigan Harvest Gatheirng, a food and fund drive that has aided thousands of needy state residents over the past 24 years.

He credits his wife, Cynthia, a former television newscaster from Grand Rapids, with being the brains behind the program that has raised nearly $10 million and provided more than 9 million pounds of food for Michigan families.

“It was the summer of 1991 and I had been appointed head of the Department of Agriculture by Governor (John) Engler earlier in the year,” Schuette told me during an interview in late 2007. “Like now, times were tough in Michigan and unemployment rates were very high as well. There were a lot of families who were hurting and my wife said we needed to do something to help people in the state. As such, the Michigan Harvest Gathering was born.”

The initiative formed a “nice triangle,” according to Schuette, bringing together the private, public, and nonprofit sectors to “help Michigan families who are in need of emergency food.” The Food Bank Council of Michigan has served as the umbrella organization for the Harvest Gathering program, channeling funds and food to local agencies, “such as food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, etc. in all 83 Michigan counties.”

Schuette has been understandably proud of the Harvest Gathering’s reach and said “it is the most worthwhile and satisfying project that I’ve ever been involved in” on a charitable level, especially since “each dollar donated or food item contributed” reaches those in need. Whatever his next career move, the success of the program will speak loudly of his desire to keep the state’s best interests at heart.

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