The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce may not like to admit this, but their Mackinac Policy Conference’s official agenda is not the reason the vast majority of those who attend go to the island. Many who pay the steep registration fees of between $2,000 and $3,000 come for the incredible networking opportunities.
Mackinac in May is unique because for three days, you have virtually all the state’s top business and civic leaders and politicians in one building on an island without cars. They can’t easily run away; they have to talk to each other, and those beguiling possibilities attract hordes of media, too.
Yes, the conference spent a lot of money this year to bring in education and business experts like Jim Clifton and Joel Klein. But during their sessions, most of the businessmen seemed to be huddling with each other. And the media tend to focus its attention on politics, especially in an election year, and on the One Big Story of the day, in this case, Detroit.
This year’s conference was no exception. This has been something of a love fest for Gov. Rick Snyder, who is frankly adored by the vast majority of those here.
Though there is one protestor wearing a giant paper-mache Snyder head outside the hotel, inside, Snyder is viewed as a cross between a rock star and a conquering hero. His only competition in the charisma department came, perhaps surprisingly, from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.
Duggan simply blew everyone away with a mesmerizing, PowerPoint assisted soliloquy showing how the city is getting people to move into vacant homes, going after absentee slumlords and putting in thousands of new streetlights. He came across as candid, real, and generated more optimism about Detroit than I would have believed possible.
But there was also one real flop at the conference, and everybody knew it: former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. Land and her Democratic rival, Gary Peters, took turns addressing a crowd and answering questions. Peters was smooth, funny, warm, and projected knowledge, ability and strength, though some of his answers were a bit wonkish.
Land was absolutely dreadful. She came across like a high school student who had memorized a speech. You had the terrible sensation that if interrupted, she would have had to start all over from the beginning. She spoke in slogans, seemed incapable of providing specific answers, and seemed not to understand the current hot-button issue of “Internet neutrality,” which threatens to allow rich conglomerates to dominate cyberspace.
Worse, when surrounded by reporters and bombarded with questions afterwards, she clearly panicked. She was a frightened Sarah Palin in sensible shoes, and everybody knew it.
Afterwards, one journalist said, “Can you imagine if there is a debate and someone asks her where North Korea is?”
Terri Lynn Land was an effective and popular secretary of state, and the election is more than five months away. She may be a quick study. But she’s clearly not ready for prime time.
Michigan has been a state that often elects Republican governors and Democratic senators. So far, that looks like one tradition that may not be about to change.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan