Michigan voters largely abstain in primary for governor

Fewer than 20 percent of Michigan voters turned out for the August 3 primary that selected the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor of the state, as well as candidates for Congress and the state legislature for the two big business parties. The turnout was even lower—an estimated 12 percent—in the city of Detroit.

The low turnout demonstrates the lack of confidence in both parties on the part of millions of working people in a state with the second highest unemployment rate in the nation, devastated by the collapse of the auto industry. The Democratic primary vote plunged from 1,040,000 in the last contested primary, in 2002, to only 526,000.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero won the Democratic nomination to succeed incumbent Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm. He was backed by the UAW union bureaucracy, which poured $2 million into television commercials on his behalf.

Bernero defeated the former speaker of the state house of representatives, Andy Dillon, who positioned himself as the more conservative candidate, presenting himself as a pro-business candidate, opposing abortion rights, and pointing to his record of demanding benefit cuts from public employees.

The Republican primary was won by a self-financing businessman, former Gateway Computer CEO Rick Snyder, who defeated Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra, state Attorney General Mike Cox, and two other candidates. Snyder positioned himself as a “pragmatist,” while Hoekstra and Cox effectively split the ultra-conservative and religious fundamentalist vote.

Snyder ran as a businessman independent of “career politicians,” and had the backing of Ford Chairman William Ford, and former governor William Milliken—out of office for 28 years—the last of a line of “moderate” Republican officeholders in the state. His main advantage was his own money, $6 million worth, which bought endless television commercials throughout the state. Snyder carried the Detroit metropolitan area by a large margin, but trailed his rivals in the more conservative western part of the state.

Twice as many voters participated in the Republican primary, which was much more hotly contested. The one-time favorite for the Democratic nomination, Lieutenant Governor John Cherry, abandoned his campaign early this year after polls showed him a certain loser to the Republicans, and his campaign fundraising collapsed.

Bernero initially trailed the better-known Dillon in the polls, but after Cherry’s withdrawal he inherited the support of the union bureaucracy, due to his fervent support of the Obama administration bailout of GM and Chrysler last year, when he engaged in regular shouting matches on Fox News against conservative pundits opposed to the deal.

While adopting a populist and demagogic posture, denouncing Dillon as a “corporate raider” for his work for private equity firms, Bernero was at pains to declare his opposition to tax cuts and his toughness in relation to public employee unions. “I’ve run a big city in tough times and got results,” he said during the campaign. “I’ve stood up to my unions.”

Bernero will reprise this demagogy against the multimillionaire Snyder in the fall campaign, declaring in his victory speech Tuesday night, “The election is all about one question. Whose side are you on?” He continued, “I will never stand for working people being thrown under the bus while Wall Street makes out like bandits.”

As the candidate of the UAW, however, Bernero is taking precisely the “other side” from the working class. The GM and Chrysler bailout that he hailed was predicated on a 50 percent pay cut for new hires at both auto companies, slashing the starting wage of auto workers to only $14 an hour.

Meanwhile, prefiguring his inevitable move to the right for the general election—and afterwards, should he win—Bernero declared that the state was the “home of the Reagan Democrat and the Obama Republican,” indicating he would appeal to both.

In an editorial published the day after the vote, the Detroit Free Press gave what amounted to marching orders from big business to Bernero. It warned the Democrat to demonstrate his ability to cut pensions and health benefits for public employees, saying, “Much of this state’s financial future rests on dealing intelligently with employee benefit costs, and Bernero must prove himself capable of dealing with the kind of restructuring necessary to move the state forward.”

One other result of Tuesday’s voting was the defeat of Congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a seven-term incumbent, in the 13th Congressional District, which includes the eastern, central and southwestern portions of the cities, as well as some of the downriver suburbs. Kilpatrick was defeated by state Senator Hansen Clarke for the Democratic nomination.

Clarke capitalized on the felony conviction of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, the congresswoman’s son, who was forced to resign his office last year. Only weeks before the primary vote, Kwame Kilpatrick was indicted on an additional 19 charges of bribe-taking and influence-peddling. Carolyn Kilpatrick’s husband Bernard, former deputy administrator of Wayne County and a longtime power in the Democratic Party, is also under a well-publicized corruption probe.

Kilpatrick was nearly defeated for renomination in 2008, after the mayoral scandals first erupted, but survived when two challengers split the vote and allowed her to retain her seat with only 39 percent of the vote. In 2010, there was only one challenger with significant support in the Democratic Party establishment, and Kilpatrick took 40 percent of the vote and lost despite outspending Clarke by three to one. She is the sixth sitting member of Congress to be defeated in a primary this year.

In a state legislative primary, incumbent Shanelle Jackson won the Democratic nomination for the 9th state house district, where D’Artagnan Collier, the candidate of the Socialist Equality Party, is already on the ballot. Jackson won 3,929 votes in the primary. Only 7,137 voted in the Democratic primary in the 9th district, which has a population of 61,000 adults of voting age.