August 13, 2014 at 1:00 am

Calley is tea party's ally

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley has proven his conservative credentials, and the tea party should view him as an ally, Fink writes. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)

Wes Nakagiri is seeking the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor against incumbent Brian Calley. Nakagiri’s campaign says Calley “works for the governor” and has “betrayed” his conservative supporters.

But this race isn’t about Brian Calley.

First Michigan Tea Party Alliance — a hub for 20-30 groups statewide — endorses Nakagiri.

Alliance spokesman Gene Clem said last week: “I don’t think it’s about Calley specifically. The point is, if we have someone from outside, who has clearly conservative credentials, it will create more excitement for the ticket.”

Here is what’s odd: “Someone from outside” with “clearly conservative credentials” perfectly describes Calley.

Calley has the grass roots, citizen-statesman story that excites a ticket. He was a banker in Ionia County — teaching Sunday school and raising his family — who got fed up with Lansing and threw his hat in the ring, first in Ionia County, and then as a state representative.

He quickly became known as a young talent in Lansing. He championed conservative principles on gun rights, spending, anti-abortion legislation and term limits. He gained the reputation of “expert” on the tax committee. Michigan’s Small Business Association named him 2008 “Legislator of the Year.”

“He is a very brilliant young man, and I appreciate his counsel,” said state Rep. Ken Kurtz, R-Coldwater, who represents conservative Branch and Hillsdale counties.

Calley’s conservative credentials haven’t diminished as lieutenant governor, but his role is more nuanced since he’s not casting many votes or making decisions. As president of the Michigan Senate he has made only 10 tie-breaking votes.

Not-so-nuanced is Calley’s support of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, a piece of legislation — passed last September — that outraged conservatives and continues to loom over incumbent Republicans who voted for it.

If Calley were governor, it is likely the bill wouldn’t have passed. But as lieutenant governor, Calley saw the inevitable and teamed up with senators to craft the bill.

“It’s not a perfect bill, but I am confident that my work made this a more conservative option than what otherwise might have passed,” Calley wrote in July.

Where Nakagiri envisions being a rogue lieutenant governor, openly opposing the governor when they disagree, Calley exhibits the perseverance and diplomacy of a statesman. His finesse is what makes him influential in a nearly powerless seat.

“I have always been a principled conservative voice inside the administration, but when the governor makes a decision I will support and help implement that decision,” he wrote in 2013.

Calley’s loyalty has earned him the governor’s trust. Gov. Rick Snyder broke longstanding practice to move Calley’s office next door to his own. It was three floors away.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Brian Calley has the governor’s ear on issues that are important,” Kurtz said.

So why is Nakagiri running if it’s not about Calley? Because the true target, Snyder, is out of reach.

If Nakagiri wins at the convention on Aug. 23, the excitement will quickly fade. A lieutenant governor needs prudence, loyalty and rapport to be in Snyder’s inner circle, where ideas are shared and debated. Calley has proven himself. No one knows how Nakagiri might do, but taking out the governor’s hand-picked lieutenant isn’t a promising start.

In 2010, while gaining momentum for a state Senate seat win, Calley dismayed conservatives by accepting the lieutenant governorship, typically a curtain closer for politicians. He’s proving otherwise.

Calley might ride shotgun, but he’s been a driver on Michigan’s road to recovery.

Lauren Fink is teaching journalism at Hillsdale College this fall. She lives in Ypsilanti.

Fink