Benton Harbor, Michigan, is like many Rust Belt cities
that have lost all of their manufacturing plants. Half the residents
live below the poverty line, and the town of 10,000 has lost population since the last census. Across Lake Michigan from Chicago, Benton Harbor is half of a "twin cities" combo with neighboring St. Joseph, Michigan. The "twins" couldn't look more different, however. Benton Harbor is 92 percent African American and impoverished; St. Joseph is 90 percent white and affluent.
While the nation's attention was on the war against public unions in Wisconsin, newly elected Michigan Republican governor Rick Snyder has chosen Benton Harbor as the test case for his "financial martial law" bill. Snyder proposed that any municipality deemed to be economically unfit be taken over by a state-appointed "emergency manager" with the power to dissolve contracts and replace or dismiss locally elected officials. The notion is laughably unconstitutional on its face, but the Michigan state legislature passed the bill anyway, and the governor already has designated his first "manager," who has taken over the township. The decision-making power of the city council has been suspended. Elected officials are allowed to hold meetings, only they are no longer allowed to govern. The state legislature cocked and loaded the gun, and the governor pulled the trigger. He killed democracy in Benton Harbor.
Snyder is part of a cabal of new Republican governors, including Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio, and Rick Scott in Florida, who are waging war on the working class. Emboldened by a congressional majority and backed by the Tea Party, the governors entered political office with a greater desire to impose a political philosophy than to serve the people, and this bait and switch has caused their approval ratings to plummet. Yet they continue to serve their corporate masters and pass legislation punishing the poor. In the name of deficit reduction, Snyder has proposed deep cuts in school funding and favors eliminating the state's $600 per child tax credit. At the same time, he has called for tax cuts of $1.73 billion for business. In hapless Benton Harbor, meanwhile, the Whirlpool corporate headquarters still provides executive positions for a few. With no powerful voices to oppose it, the public lakefront has been privatized as part of a luxury golf development, backed by Whirlpool. Since the Michigan jobless rate stands at 10.7 percent, I'm certain they'll need some caddies.
Snyder's previous job was founder and CEO of an Ann Arbor venture capital fund, which made him very wealthy. His choice for Benton Harbor's "emergency manager" was Joseph Harris, formerly chief financial officer for Detroit, a dubious distinction. Harris' decree, stripping power from elected officials in favor of his fiat, was reminiscent of an old commissar sending a politburo apparatchik to tend to a provincial problem.
The township takeover has caused sufficient uproar for the ACLU to file several Freedom of Information Act requests over the legality of the act and the governor's alleged collusion with lobbyists. The Michigan ACLU stated that 100 local governments were in a state of "fiscal watch," which has not slowed "manager" Joe Harris, who has added the Detroit school district to the state's list of distressed assets, enabling the governor to appoint an additional manager with the power to void any and all union contracts. This is the antithesis of the smaller, less intrusive government favored by real conservatives.
Although Snyder has stated his focus will be on budget issues, the state legislature has joined with new Republican super-majorities elsewhere in an effort to restrict women's reproductive rights. Michigan legislators have proposed 17 bills since January concerning abortion or public funding for organizations like Planned Parenthood. This perfectly mirrors the federal government. While creating all those new jobs (not), the Republican House of Representatives has still managed to introduce an astounding 916 bills over a woman's right to control her own uterus. Those bills are going nowhere, but the Michigan statehouse has a two-thirds majority of radical Republicans, giving them the power to put any issue of their choosing on the ballot.
The National Organization for Women has mobilized, as well as a group called Michigan Citizens United, which has started a Facebook page in their efforts to collect the sufficient number of signatures to petition for a recall of the governor. Snyder responded by adding the cities of Pontiac and Ecorse to the list of distressed places in need of an "emergency manager."
Ordinarily, I would enjoy watching the Republican Party self-immolate. Hell, I'd even bring the marshmallows. But this overreach by a handful of ideological power zombies is not just a danger to working people or distressed municipalities, it's corrosively un-American.
The GOP-majority Tennessee General Assembly just passed a bill prohibiting the use of the words "gay" and "homosexual" in elementary schools, but if the new governor should send his man to Memphis to dissolve our elected city government, I might have to be up in the capitol building in Nashville creating a ruckus. In Michigan, the people voted for a CEO-led government, and they got a centralized body to make decisions for the state, a totalitarian figurehead for a leader, corporate lobbyists, anti-union propaganda, and political coercion from a radical majority. Back in the 1930s, they used to have a name for that kind of governing: fascism. Our parents and grandparents fought a war against it. Remember?
Randy Haspel writes the blog "Born-Again Hippies," where a version of this column first appeared.