Michigan’s Eloquent Man on the Right
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s speaking to our better angels.
There’s this moment, listening to Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley speak, when the makeshift shuffle of chairs and community center fluorescence fade from the foreground. It’s the hint at the Barack Obama of 2004 and the Ronald Reagan of the Challenger disaster — the rhetorical ascent that grants conservatism its aspirational best and forgives its acrimonious worst. It almost makes you forget that Calley is millstoned to an unpopular governor.
“Think about your area of struggle,” says the 39-year-old. The community banker has kind, creasing eyes. “And then imagine a world where your area of struggle is the first thing people know about you.” He notes that, in politics, bios are often flattering, as is his: a laundry list of accomplishments trailing him from Michigan State to Harvard (left unmentioned is his own political blemish: the lead poisoning of drinking water in Flint, which left some Michiganders with a bad taste regarding his two-time running mate, Gov. Rick Snyder, and their administration). In his speech, he also tells the story of a child who didn’t speak till age 4 and needed special education services. The child is him; he’s speaking to a roomful of disabled children and their parents. It’s a prime spot for Calley to articulate a personal narrative that transcends politics: While spearheading autism insurance reform as a state representative in 2009, Calley discovered his own daughter had the mental condition. Now his speeches, already expressive, are all about potential and strength, drawing on the power of America and its individuals.
For the Jack Kemp–inspired Republican, making all of that possible requires lowering taxes, decreasing government disincentives to work, investing in high-skill technical job training and advocating for the disadvantaged. “It’s not about sustaining people where they are at, but helping them be successfully independent,” he says. And as Wolverine State politicos buzz about Calley possibly running for governor in 2018, it’s also his pitch to voters: Think of the good times, not the bad. “He’s well-liked, hardworking and a man of his word,” Michigan GOP Chairman Ron Weiser says. His supporters focus on those positives, plus the balanced budget (a $575 million surplus last year), the almost half a million jobs added and the unemployment rate that’s plummeted since he and Snyder took the reins in Michigan in 2010. His critics say those jobs came thanks to the federal auto bailout, and the surplus from austerity measures that taxed public pensions while reducing tax credits for the working poor.
I would certainly never run from the record of our administration.
Lt. Gov. Brian Calley
Policy aside, the politics of humanitarianism are well played. During the Flint water crisis, the Portland, Michigan, native opened a new office and spent much of his time there for over six months, handing out water himself and conducting house visits with union plumbers to check pipes for lead leaks. Snyder, on the other hand, faces the possibility of legal charges as his favorability ratings sunk last year to the third-lowest of any governor. (His ratings are improving, and a Snyder spokesman noted that he is “steadfastly committed” to Flint’s recovery, recommending an additional $50 million to the $250 million already directed to the city). “I would certainly never run from the record of our administration,” Calley tells OZY. “I look at it as the wrong question: Who an individual is tied to, as much as what is the agenda for the future they will bring for the people they serve?”
With Midwestern humility, Calley says he wants to win “by capturing people’s imaginations, rather than playing to their fears.” It earns him unlikely allies. More than perhaps any other Republican, he “has support in the Muslim community,” says Arab-American News publisher Osama Siblani, adding that Calley is a familiar face at Saturday political brunches in Dearborn. Calley “has a heart of gold,” says U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, adding that during the Flint crisis, he “really got that people didn’t have cars, that they didn’t have a way to get water.”
Mild-toned and soft-spoken, 5-foot-6 with wispy hair, the nation’s youngest lieutenant governor seems almost porcelain, a harmless father of three who plays piano at his local Baptist church on Sundays. As a commercial loan lender at Irvin Union Bank and Fifth Third Bank, Calley had to serve people while also expecting accountability, a mindset infiltrating his politics today, says John Llewellyn, a friend and vice president at the Michigan Bankers Association. And Calley has undergone a transformation, says his wife, Julie, a Sunday-school teacher and a state representative herself, whose agenda includes advocating for skilled-trade training programs. An introvert when she met him in high school, her husband now “walks into any speech without a single note,” she says, “and can talk in a very articulate and thoughtful manner.”
Meanwhile, other gubernatorial candidates are sharpening their knives. With the primary a year away, former state Rep. Gretchen Whitmer, the early Democratic front-runner, has announced, while ex–Detroit health commissioner Abdul El-Sayed has also entered the fray, saying the economic picture painted by Calley isn’t so rosy: “You can look at unemployment, and then you can look at economic participation, and they tell two very different stories.” On the Republican side, Calley’s toughest competition is expected to come from Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is mulling a run and has made waves while levying charges against emergency managers and city officials in Flint. Representative Dingell says she and Whitmer like Calley personally, but Schuette’s “probably the tougher candidate to beat.”
Schuette is seen as a brawler, rumored to be considering Flint-related criminal charges against Snyder, which would further magnify his brass-knuckle profile. It’s part of a larger perception, especially after Donald Trump won the presidency last November, that politics is seeing a resurgence in rough-and-tumble tactics. But when asked if he will need to toughen up, Calley once again calls on his better angels: “What I would rather do is show people you can win without being a jerk.”