Can Mackinac confab make political civility cool again?

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Mackinac Island — Miles from the mainland clash between Republican President Donald Trump and the liberal resistance, Michigan business and political leaders will gather this week on an idyllic island with horse-drawn carriages to talk about restoring civility in American politics.

More than 1,600 attendees are expected at the Grand Hotel for the annual Mackinac Policy Conference hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber, which hopes to encourage business and civic leaders “to restore the art of compromise for progress in today’s polarized political environment.”

This year’s confab will convene late Tuesday and run through Friday amid growing chatter over the political posturing that has already begun for 2018 election cycle and escalating tensions at the federal and state levels. Proposed national health care overhaul legislation and Michigan teacher pensions reforms have continued to divide Democrats and Republicans.

Michael Beschloss

“People who disagree, people with different backgrounds, people with different political perspectives, we come together at the Mackinac Policy Conference for a civil discussion,” said Chamber CEO Sandy Baruah, “and we think that is an art and an ethos that is being lost in our society today.”

Restoring political civility is one of three “pillars” or themes of this year’s conference that seeks to stimulate statewide policy conversations. Others include “winning the race in connected technology” and “increasing economic opportunity” for all Michiganians.

Elected officials scheduled to speak include Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, Democratic Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and congressional members from both sides of the political aisle.

Organizers began developing the conference themes last year before Trump won the general election and before opponents began staging massive protests over his presidency and clashing at congressional town halls.

“I don’t think any of us forecasted a year ago where we would find ourselves right now,” said Brad Williams, regional chamber vice president of government relations, but it was already clear then there was “a civility problem.”

“Even though we hadn’t gotten into the throes of the general election, we’d sat through a primary season, particularly on the Republican side, where civility was something thrown by the wayside.”

The conference will feature a keynote address from Julie Winokur, executive director of Bring it to the Table, an interactive video project that encourages Americans to “stop bickering about politics” and examine their own biases and assumptions.

Julie Winokur

Other keynote speakers include Walter Isaacson, former chief executive of CNN who now heads up the non-partisan Aspen Institute for educational and policy studies, and presidential historian Michael Beschloss, who is expected to provide perspective on political discourse and how presidents have shaped it.

Two years after releasing a bipartisan “action plan” centered on protecting the Great Lakes and preserving defense operations around the state, Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Republican U.S. Rep. Fred Upton of St. Joseph will return to the island amid speculation that Upton could challenge her for the Senate in 2018.

Despite the political intrigue and differences on contentious health care legislation, Stabenow and Upton continue to cooperate on other issues. Both are scheduled to join Snyder, U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, and others for a tour of the nearby Soo Locks on Friday to stress its economic importance and need for federal support on a planned modernization project.

Upton, Trott and Democratic Reps. Debbie Dingell of Dearborn and Brenda Lawrence of Southfield will discuss their working relationships during a conference panel focused on “cutting through the politics.”

While organizers will encourage political civility from the stage, the annual conference cannot shake its ties to the rough and tumble world of election politics.

With 2018 about seven months away, dozens of declared and potential candidates are expected to crash the party for the chance to mingle with influential guests on the hotel’s sprawling porch.

Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Calley is scheduled to make a “major” announcement on the island Tuesday and another Thursday as he sets the stage for a potential gubernatorial run. He will also attend the conference and is scheduled to be part of a Thursday panel discussion.

Democratic governor hopefuls Gretchen Whitmer and Abdul El-Sayed are also registered to attend. They have no formal role in the conference but plan to meet contacts and conduct media interviews on the island.

Attendees are sure to be talking about the 2018 U.S. Senate race. Stabenow will be at the conference, as will her first declared Republican challenger, Lena Epstein, a businesswoman who co-chaired Trump’s Michigan campaign in 2016.

Mackinac is a great place for candidates to “try to create a buzz,” said GOP public relations expert John Truscott, who will join Democratic colleague Kelli Rossman for a Friday morning gubernatorial election talk.

“You’ve got a lot of leaders in a very confined space, so word spreads very quickly through that crowd.”

Conference policy does not allow for any candidate announcements, said Tammy Carnrike, chamber chief operating officer, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen outside the official event.

Several potential gubernatorial candidates are expected at the conference, including Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette and Democrats Mark Bernstein, an attorney, and Shri Thanedar, a businessman.

State. Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, is considering a run for governor but made the decision not to attend the conference.

“I’m not going. I’ve got work to do back here,” Colbeck said.

“Every single year we have the same thing. It’s good stuff, and I’m sure there will be a lot of good discussions up there, but there will be a lot of good discussion here, too.”

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