July 23, 2010 at 1:00 am

2010 Gubernatorial Candidate: Pete Hoekstra

Hoekstra talks up bipartisan skills

Gubernatorial candidate Pete Hoekstra
Gubernatorial candidate Pete Hoekstra: An interview with the Republican candidate for governor

In applying to be Michigan's next governor, Pete Hoekstra has changed car oil in Sturgis, scooped ice cream in Byron Center, sold lettuce at the Hillsdale farmers' market and helped rebuild a sewer line in Detroit.

The Republican congressman and former businessman is more than halfway through his pledge to do 100 jobs across the state to show he'd be a governor who listens and understands.

"He wasn't messing around," says John Mikulenas, owner of Tuffy Auto Service Center in Sturgis. "He got right in and did an oil change and a tune-up. And he listened to my concerns. I felt he really wanted to get the pulse of what's going on in Michigan."

Hoekstra -- pronounced Hook-stra -- impressed Mikulenas as anything but a cookie-cutter politician, and may get his vote in the Aug. 3 primary.

The "100 jobs" idea is vintage Hoekstra: Since his first successful run for Congress in 1992, the former marketing vice president at Herman Miller has used savvy salesmanship to get voters to see what he has to offer.

"Having experience in the political and the business worlds pretty much uniquely qualifies me for the job," says Hoekstra, 56, a top contender in most polls.

If elected governor, he vows to create a business-friendly climate by cutting taxes, regulation and the size of state government.

"I hear over and over and over again from people who have wanted to invest and grow jobs in the state, and the bureaucracy has come up with some reason to say, 'No,' " he says.Saying Michigan's next governor must have the skills to work with both parties in the Legislature, Hoekstra cites his track record of working smoothly with such Democrats as U.S. Rep. Jane Harman of California on intelligence matters.

"I can go into Lansing and create an atmosphere to facilitate getting things done," he says.

On education, he'd push for state tax credits for parents and push Congress to let Michigan opt out of federal No Child Left Behind mandates.

He says he'd fight to get the state a better rate of return on gas taxes to fund more road repairs. After 18 years representing a district with 200 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, he promises to fight to clean up the Great Lakes and keep out invasive species.

And he'd seek to repeal the federal health care overhaul, which he believes will overwhelm the state budget and Michigan businesses.

Immigrant, state roots

He insists on being called Pete and sleeps on a couch in his Capitol Hill office as a reminder that his home is in Michigan. He's kept close to his Dutch roots, snacking on salty black Dutch licorice and putting a "Welkom" sign on his office door.

As the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, he's a familiar face on national TV news talk shows, boosting his name recognition beyond the western side of the state.

Hoekstra's roots to Michigan date to the mid-1950s, when he arrived at age 3 from the Netherlands, not speaking a word of English, with two siblings and his parents, bakers hungry for the American dream after the suffering of World War II.

The Hoekstra household was full of political debate, which Andy Hoekstra credits for his younger brother's love of politics.

After college, Pete Hoekstra was hired at Zeeland-based Herman Miller, where his boss and mentor, Philip Mercorella, says he quickly stood out.

"People always tended to underestimate him because he was very modest and a nice guy. He was the surprise guy," Mercorella says. "He goes into everything with huge energy. He really did his homework."

Hoekstra was known as an astute listener, who sought diverse ideas before committing to a plan.

"Pete thrived in the environment of problem solving," Mercorella recalls. But Hoekstra stunned colleagues by challenging Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, a 13-term incumbent and power player. Hoekstra believed Vander Jagt had lost touch.

"It was really important to Pete to give it a shot," wife Diane recalls. "He really thought voters deserved a better congressman."

Intelligence focus

Hoekstra became a lieutenant of Newt Gingrich, who crafted the Contract for America and led Republicans to control of the House after the 1994 elections.

"He was very aggressively driven by a desire to be a reformer," recalls the ex-House speaker, who has endorsed Hoekstra. "He was clearly one of the most effective ideas-oriented members."

In 1997, Hoekstra, then chairing the oversight and investigations subcommittee, launched a probe into the fraud-ridden 1996 Teamsters' election of Ron Carey as president. Hoekstra won praise for exposing wrongdoing and overseeing a rerun that led to the election of James P. Hoffa.

The Teamsters returned the favor in 2000 by endorsing Hoekstra, despite his largely anti-labor voting record. And last week, the Michigan Teamsters endorsed him.

The solid relationship he developed with Teamsters, he says now, would help him as governor of a heavily unionized state.

In the late 1990s, he was part of the House Republican team that produced balanced budgets four years in a row.

Hoekstra developed a reputation as a maverick, opposing President George W. Bush on No Child Left Behind, for example.

In 2008, he voted for the $700 billion bank bailout and for the $14 billion rescue of General Motors and Chrysler. In 2009, he voted against the $787 billion stimulus bill, and in March opposed the health care overhaul.

His biggest legislative accomplishment was a 2004 bill that revamped the nation's intelligence system in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

But he has had a few high-profile spats, such as when the White House accused him of hypocrisy for gushing to constituents about a "very generous" home-buying incentive in the stimulus bill, which he opposed.

CEO of Michigan

Underscoring his commitment to be a governor who listens, Hoekstra came up with the "Idea Bus" that he drives around the state, asking voters for their ideas. He's halfway through a pledge to bike 1,000 miles around Michigan to meet voters.

His believes his economic plan -- including scrapping the Michigan business tax and the personal property tax, while expanding the sales tax -- would "get government out of the way" so businesses can create jobs.

"The overall impact would be people in Michigan would be paying less in taxes," he says.

Charles Ballard, an economist at Michigan State University, likes Hoekstra's idea to get rid of the MBT, but says a net reduction in taxes would be a mistake.

David Littmann, senior economist at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, dismisses Hoekstra's plan as "more of the same" without enough specifics.

But Hoekstra is banking on his ideas and those he gathers to turn the state around. "If we create a great economic climate, I am ready to be surprised by who is going to do extremely well."

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On the issues

Abortion : Opposes, except to save the life of the mother
Embryonic stem cell research : Opposes
Detroit River International Crossing : Supports public-private partnership for second bridge
Tax on services : May support as part of tax system overhaul
Affirmative action ban : Supports
Part-time Legislature : Supports, but it's not a priority
Gas tax increase for roads : Prefers other ways to raise revenue for transportation
Arizona-style immigration law for Michigan : Supports Arizona's effort, but says Michigan's immigration challenges are different

Pete Hoekstra seeks cuts to taxes, regulation and government to create a business-friendly climate in Lansing. / David Guralnick / The Detroit News