Calley toughens tone as governor candidate

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A recent visit to Ionia was a homecoming of sorts for Brian Calley. 

As the lieutenant governor went door to door on a warm afternoon in May, he was greeted by a man who knew Calley's sister, a woman who knew his physician father and a retired bus driver who met him early in his political career. 

But if recent campaign mudslinging is any indication, the Calley running for governor is quite different than the boy from Ionia or Gov. Rick Snyder's soft-spoken running mate. The 41-year-old Portland Republican hasn't hesitated to attack his leading GOP opponent or take a hard stand on a polarizing issue.

Calley has jabbed the front runner, Attorney General Bill Schuette, about purportedly politicizing his prosecutions of Snyder officials in the Flint water crisis investigation. He has criticized Schuette for selling inherited property in the Virgin Islands that supposedly violated his "blind trust" promise. And he has chided the attorney general for using staff to witness sales of that property.

“For Bill Schuette to have one standard of justice when it fits his politics and another standard of justice when it doesn’t, that’s just an abuse of the system,” Calley told The Detroit News. 

Schuette’s campaign has said the personal real estate holdings did not represent a conflict of interest, and office staff who signed or notarized the real estate documents only took minutes to do so.

The lieutenant governor has his own ghosts and potential political weaknesses to wrestle.

Schuette has targeted Calley for missing a third of Senate session days while obtaining his masters of business administration at Harvard University in 2013 and 2014 — which the lieutenant governor dismissed with a Twitter counter-attack questioning whether the attorney general was attacking him on taxpayer time.

Conservatives have criticized his tie-breaking Senate vote in 2015 for a 15-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax hike that didn't become law. And Calley pledged to break a potential tie in the Senate over expanding Medicaid under President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, another bete noire for conservative primary voters.   

Michigan's eight-year economic comeback under Snyder has included the deployment of Calley to Flint, where he dealt with the aftermath of the state-caused lead contamination crisis. 

Calley said he’s proud of the work he and the governor have done and is optimistic about his prospects in the Aug. 7 primary election.

Political consultant David Forsmark isn't as confident. Calley’s aggressive campaign is out of character and, in a race where "authenticity matters," the change in tone might hurt his chances in August, Forsmark said.

The lieutenant governor might have been better served by leaning solely on his message of "continuing the comeback," he said.

The Portland Republican had raised about $1.3 million through December 2017, less than half of Schuette’s $3 million haul. Calley has invested his money in radio spots and television ads, which tout the state's turnaround. 

A pro-Calley super political action committee has run television ads criticizing the "blind ambition" of "Shady Schuette." Another TV ad, paid for by Snyder's Relentless Positive Action political committee, features Snyder's endorsement for his right-hand man. 

"Brian Calley's been invaluable to our comeback," the governor said in the ad. "He's the next generation. Smart, conservative, soft-spoken but tough."

Arts to banking to politics

Calley was more interested in the stage than the podium as a youngster in Ionia. He liked theater and music, one of the reasons he’s hoping to add an ‘A’ for arts to the technical-based STEM education push. 

“The arts were huge for me,” Calley said in an Ionia coffee shop. “…The thing that motivated me, that got me up, excited to go to school was choir class.”

Calley still plays the piano at his Portland church and performs “on a fairly regular basis” in a classic rock band.

He married his high school sweetheart, state Rep. Julie Calley, at 19 and the couple celebrated their 22nd anniversary in May. They have three children.

Calley pursued his business administration degree at Michigan State University while working full-time. After working for a time at an Ionia nursing home, he started in the mail room of Ionia County National Bank. In 10 years, he had worked his way up to vice president of commercial lending.

It was in that role, in 2005 and 2006, that he saw businesses struggling to survive and parents lamenting their children who moved away for work.

“I looked at state government and I thought, man, we have a state that the entire economic development strategy seems to be how do we convince somebody from someplace else in the world to come in here and save us, as opposed to building an environment of success around the people that were already here,” Calley said. 

He ran for state representative in 2006 and won a spot in the Democrat-controlled House, where his party’s minority status was an endless cause of frustration that nearly led Calley to retire from politics.

“That’s when I met Rick,” Calley said.

First mate to 'tough nerd' 

Snyder and Calley met through a mutual friend in 2010. At their first meeting, they talked tax policy and the things holding back Michigan.

“I walked away thinking it’s too bad he doesn’t have any chance of winning because I think he would make a great governor,” Calley said.

But after his surprise primary upset, Snyder called Calley as he was scooping mint chocolate chip ice cream at the St. Johns Mint Festival. He wanted to gauge the Portland Republican’s interest in being lieutenant governor.

“This was the time,” Calley recalled thinking. “The state had fallen so low. It needed to be badly reinvented. We had a real change agent.”

Calley dropped his run for state Senate. In the next few months, he tagged along with Snyder to events, attended town halls and wrote policy papers that he said would help drive the governor’s agenda.

Calley measures the administration’s achievements in consistently balanced budgets, reductions to state debt, reforms in unfunded pension liability and benefits from the state's right-to-work law. The addition of 540,000 jobs in Michigan since 2010 has lifted the state’s profile at home and across the country, he said.

“People are bullish about Michigan,” Calley said.

When the Flint water crisis unfolded in January 2016, Calley essentially moved his office to the city, where he worked on infrastructure changes, early childhood education, health services and job development. As he's recounted in debates, he spent so much time there that, at the end of the year, he filed a Flint city income tax return.

“There were enough people pointing fingers and looking backward and arguing about the past,” Calley said. “One thing I couldn’t do was change the past, but I could help the city to move forward.”

But Calley's association with Snyder is a liability with some primary voters since the governor has "questionable popularity even in his own party,” said Bill Ballenger of The Ballenger Report.

And Calley's decision to rescind his endorsement of Donald Trump in October 2016 —  after audio surfaced of Trump making lewd comments 10 years earlier about grabbing women by the genitals without their consent — could spell trouble in August, he said. Calley later said he voted for Trump that year as part of his straight-ticket vote, but Trump has endorsed Schuette.

Most Republican primary voters "are pretty knowledgeable about politics and Republican politics in particular," Ballenger said. "And I think they’re going to find Calley’s rationale or excuses hard to accept.”

'A low-key guy'

The Calley name is widely recognized among Ionia folks; some associate it with Dr. Calley before connecting it with his son, the lieutenant governor.

At an Ionia coffeeshop, John Kincaid flagged down the Portland Republican and chatted with him. The 73-year-old retired corrections officer described Calley as “down-to-earth and logical.”

“He’s a low-key guy,” Kincaid said. “He’s not a showboat like some others.”

Ionia resident Mary Groom had tough questions for Calley when he came to her door in May in jogging clothes and with a retinue of campaign staff in “Calley for Governor” T-shirts.

The 63-year-old retired bus driver wanted to know Calley’s stance on auto insurance reform and the Medicaid work requirement that, at that time, was not yet law.

“Certainly, he would be on my list because he’s a conservative,” Groom said, when asked who she was supporting for governor. “But I want to make an informed decision.”

Gordy Conrad, a 57-year-old Ionia resident, said he'd vote for Cally, who he deemed a "pretty good quality guy.”

Campaigning for the future

While Calley has sparred with Schuette, the lieutenant governor maintains he’s all about the “politics of addition” and “continuing the comeback” begun under Snyder.

“What we need for the future is different from what we needed in the past,” Calley said.

To prepare for that future and fill new jobs, the state needs to focus on education, he said. Part of Calley's plan relies on Snyder's Marshall Plan for Talent, a program in which educators and employers collaborate on innovative ways to prepare students for career success.

Calley proposed integrated asset management to address road issues, a plan that would coordinate road projects among city and state agencies to save money and ensure roads aren’t constantly in a state of construction. Calley also wants to invest more in quality projects that have a longer shelf-life than current efforts.

“We can’t just wish better roads,” Calley said. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work. It’s been 40 years of neglect, maybe even longer.”

He’ll attack no-fault auto insurance by breaking the task up into smaller pieces, instead of addressing the issues with one bitter legislative pill. Calley wants to create a fraud authority to identify bad actors abusing the system and he stressed that more transparency is needed for officials to have a clearer understanding of how auto insurance fees are assessed.

Calley, who has a daughter with autism, has long been an advocate of students with disabilities, as well as better mental health and addiction services and post-incarceration opportunities.

That's the "politics of addition," Calley said, "the idea of building coalitions, bringing people together, to reach out to groups that maybe aren’t as engaged as others in the political process but share the same type of values.”

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About Brian Calley

Age: 41

Hometown: Portland

Family: Wife Julie, three children

Professional: Banker for 10 years

Political: State representative, 2007-10; lieutenant governor, 2011-18