July 13, 2010 at 10:07 am

Laura Berman

Dillon's abortion position will matter

In Ann Arbor last week, Andy Dillon touted the benefits of life science research at the University of Michigan, mentioning that his brother's life was saved by a stem cell transplant.

But the speaker of the House failed to mention that he was -- and remains -- personally opposed of embryonic stem cell research.

He publicly salutes its potential role in the state's economic future because of a 2008 state constitutional amendment establishing what he calls "settled law." That rhetorical dance -- and his opposition to legalized abortion -- makes Dillon an unconventional Democratic contender for governor.

"When was the last time a pro-life Democratic candidate won a statewide primary?" asks Rebekah Warren, a Democratic Ann Arbor state representative, who has yet to commit to either Dillon or Democratic rival Virg Bernero.

Pollsters say the choice/no choice issue is key to differentiating Democrats from Republicans -- and from each other. All of the Republicans describe themselves as anti-abortion, although businessman Rick Snyder supports embryonic stem cell research.

In the Aug. 3 Democratic primary, though, no one's sure how deeply this typically core issue will play in the "jobs, jobs, jobs" ambiance of the election.

About 70 percent of primary-voting Democrats favor abortion rights.

Bernero, the Lansing mayor whose views on abortion won him backing from Planned Parenthood, wants to capitalize on his status.

"I'm the only pro-choice, pro-stem-cell candidate in the race," he tells people on the campaign trail.

But some of the party's influential abortion-rights voters are supporting Dillon anyway, including state Sen. Gilda Jacobs, D-Huntington Woods.

They downplay the importance of the issue, suggesting that women's issues are less compelling than Michigan's economic plight.

"It's a little refreshing that he's honest about his position," says Deborah Gordon, a Bloomfield Hills lawyer who is hosting an event for Dillon this week. "He's smart, he's Catholic, he's pro-life, he lives in Redford. He's independent and I like that."

In the weeks ahead, Bernero will have to make clear to Democrats that Dillon's anti-abortion position matters, while Dillon tries to downplay it as "not a priority" as governor or similar to that of Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

There are distinctions to be made. Granholm pledged that as governor, she would veto restrictive measures and has. Has Dillon done the same?

"I have not," he said, in an interview last week. And he won't, he said.

As an anti-abortion governor, Dillon would have the power to appoint like-minded judges to vacant seats, and to embolden the state Legislature to adopt new restrictions without fear of a veto.

All of the Republican candidates are likely to do the same. Bernero's counting on his unique ability to offer voters a choice on the issue of choice -- in a year when once-fierce advocates are giving the volatile issue a pass.

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