Election 2014: Mark Schauer keen on 'voter contact'
Mark Schauer has mounted a stronger-than-expected campaign against Gov. Rick Snyder's re-election bid and turned the Nov. 4 election into a toss-up even though the Battle Creek Democrat has been unknown around the state for much of the year.
Schauer, a veteran of nine campaigns for public office ranging from city commission to Congress, has a reputation among allies as a tenacious campaigner. It is a stark contrast with Snyder, the former computer company chief executive who prefers town hall events.
The former longtime state lawmaker is in his element on the stump — shaking hands, posing for pictures and rattling off a disciplined set of talking points he believes will put him in the governor's office.
"There's a serious case of buyers' remorse," Schauer recently said about the Republican governor to a group of Democratic volunteers in East Lansing who nodded in agreement.
Republicans have countered by saying Snyder has revived Michigan's economy and Schauer lacks a plan for improving the state.
"Once Mark has a goal and a focus, he is dogged," said Ken Brock, Schauer's longtime legislative aide who is an unpaid adviser to the campaign. "He's one of those people who gets energy from talking to folks."
During a campaign stop Sept. 13 at Cafe Con Leche in southwest Detroit, Schauer heard stories from a supporter about the disconnect between Snyder's claim to have increased education funding and crowded classrooms in Detroit Public Schools.
"He's a liar," Detroiter Christina Guzman said of Snyder.
Schauer spoke to some customers in Spanish, which he studied at Albion College.
But Schauer also encountered a young voter who was apparently unimpressed with his schtick.
"I think he kind of blows a lot of smoke," said Jason Ramon, 20. "For someone looking to gain the trust of the people, he could be a little more interested."
TV ads gave a boost
Six months ago, Schauer was virtually unknown to most Michigan voters. His name identification and campaign message that Snyder's economic policies have only benefited the wealthy got a boost this summer from nearly $5 million in TV ads paid for by the Democratic Governors Association.
The commercials helped Schauer introduce himself as the son of a teacher and nurse from Howell.
Schauer, 52, got his start in political activism during a college internship in inner-city Philadelphia. He won his first elected office in 1995 on the Battle Creek City Commission and captured a seat in the state House the next year.
In 2002, he was elected to the state Senate, where he was minority leader from 2007 until the end of 2008, when he defeated Republican Tim Walberg for a seat in Congress from south-central Michigan's 7th District.
After benefiting from President Barack Obama's election in 2008, Schauer was swept out of office in 2010 when voters put Snyder and Republicans in control of state government. Walberg reclaimed the seat.
Schauer then worked for a labor union and pushed for expansion of renewable energy. Schauer's jobs plan calls for requiring Michigan utilities to get 30 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2035, up from the current 10 percent mandate.
In December 2012, Schauer was among the nearly 10,000 union workers and supporters outside the state Capitol who protested Snyder's signing of the right-to-work law making union dues voluntary. Schauer was pepper-sprayed by police — which GOP critics say shows he's a partisan Democrat above all else.
"Mark Schauer's claim to fame is busting through police lines at the state Capitol," said Saul Anuzis, the former Michigan Republican Party chairman. "... He ought to be running for state party chairman, not for governor."
Largely defends Granholm
Schauer touts his legislative experience as a skill set Snyder lacks, even with Republican majorities in the House and Senate. He said part of Snyder's problem in gaining consensus on big issues such as a new bridge to Canada or road funding is that the governor still lives in Ann Arbor, lacks close relationships with lawmakers and has never represented a House district of 90,000 people before.
Schauer largely defends Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and declined to offer a specific critique of her leadership from 2003 to 2010. He contends Granholm raised college graduation rates, pushed for expansion of renewable energy production, subsidized the state's fledgling film industry and tried to develop advanced automotive batteries.
"It's unfair to blame the near death of the auto industry and related loss of manufacturing jobs on Jennifer Granholm and me," Schauer said. "She did all she could in an attempt to diversify Michigan's economy."
Schauer is unapologetic for voting for the Michigan Business Tax, which Republicans once hailed as an improvement over the former Single Business Tax. Snyder called the MBT "the dumbest tax in the United States" before eliminating it.
Republicans have zeroed in on Schauer's last years in the Legislature.
In 2009, then-Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land slapped Schauer with the largest campaign finance fine in state history. In 2006, he used the Senate Democrats' election committee as a conduit to improperly transfer more than $200,000 of his own campaign cash to a candidate he was trying to get elected.
Schauer still contends Land ignored "similar" instances of fellow Republicans passing donations through multiple campaign committees to exceed the $20,000 contribution limit.
"There was complete transparency there," Schauer said about the money shift during a wide-ranging interview with The Detroit News.
Long days on campaign trail
For nearly 16 months, Schauer has spent 12- to 15-hour days in the passenger seat of his 2009 Saturn Outlook XE, making fundraising calls between stops navigated by his driver, Eli Isaguirre.
The process has been repeated nearly daily as Schauer rides in an SUV he is quick to boast was built at General Motors' Lansing Delta Township plan at the height of the Detroit automakers' financial crisis.
"It's like 'Groundhog's Day' without Bill Murray," quipped Schauer, who quit his job with the Laborers' union last year to run for governor.
He has focused his bid on "pure voter contact" as he tries to energize nearly 1 million Democratic voters who tend to sit out non-presidential elections. Schauer hopes to get more Democratic support than Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero did against Snyder in 2010.
During a stop at a Michigan Democratic Party office in Brownstown Township, Schauer was greeted with hugs from volunteers who were ready to spend a Saturday afternoon knocking on doors on his behalf in Downriver communities. "If those folks vote, I become governor," Schauer told canvasser Cindy Jovanoski, pointing to a subdivision map plotting out the homes of reliably Democratic voters. "No pressure."
Many recent public opinion polls have shown the race is a toss-up. A Sept. 3-5 Detroit News-WDIV-TV poll of 600 likely voters preferred Snyder 44-42 percent — within the survey's margin of error of 4 percentage points.
"Mark Schauer has done a very good job, especially in the last 12 weeks, of articulating (his theme) to the voters," said T.J. Bucholz, a Democratic political consultant not working for Schauer.
Schauer's theme forced Snyder to respond with TV ads this month saying the economy will benefit everyone "soon," Bucholz said.
"I feel the momentum," Schauer said."It is palpable."
Former Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, who served with Schauer in the Legislature, said Schauer's feelings are misplaced.
"It's not Mark Schauer momentum," said Bishop, a Rochester Republican running for Congress. "He's banking on the fact that his base is going to go in and pull one lever."
No 'specific solution'
Schauer is trying to make the election a referendum on Snyder's record. He bashes the governor as another "bean counter accountant" who "can't see the people beyond the beans."
"His trickle-down (economic) policies have produced the third worst unemployment rate in the country," Schauer recently told a crowd of 350 African-American Democrats in Southfield.
But Schauer's game plan for running state government remains ambiguous — something consultant Bucholz criticized.
Schauer opposes Snyder's efforts to increase the gas tax and vehicle registration fees, but he's vague about how he would fill Michigan's $1.5 billion annual road funding deficit. "I'm not going to prescribe the specific solution," Schauer said as his driver navigated a pock-marked road in Calhoun County.
Schauer, who voted for the last gas tax hike in 1997, said businesses that received a $1.8 billion tax cut under Snyder "need to be part of the revenue solution" for roads.
Schauer vows to repeal Snyder's "unfair job-killing pension tax," noting a handful of Republican lawmakers are abandoning the governor on the issue because of its unpopularity. "It's going to be the easiest thing I do," he said.
Eliminating Snyder's pension tax would leave an estimated $350 million hole in the state budget.
Schauer says he'll find the money through an audit of state agencies, cutting new furniture for state offices and ending a troubled prison food service contract the Snyder administration says is saving taxpayers $14 million a year.
Education funding remains a hot-button issue. Schauer rails against Snyder for proposing a $1 billion reduction in his first year that never materialized. Overall education funding has increased $1 billion since Snyder took office, though most of the money is being spent to bolster an underfunded teacher pension fund and expand a preschool program for low-income families.
Schauer calls the governor's actions "a shell game."
If elected, Schauer said he'll create a task force to study Michigan's K-12 school funding system. Until then, he's not pushing a specific solution. "I don't pretend to have all the answers," he said.
Hometown: Bedford Township (north of Battle Creek)
Family: Wife Christine, the Calhoun County treasurer; three stepchildren; five grandchildren
Education: Bachelor's degree from Albion College in 1984; master's degrees from Western Michigan University in 1987 and Michigan State University in 1996.
Background: Business development representative for the Michigan Laborers-Employers Cooperation & Education Trust Fund and national co-chair of BlueGreen Alliance clean energy jobs campaign, 2011-13; U.S. House, 2009-10; Michigan Senate, 2003-08; Michigan House, 1997-2002; Battle Creek City Commission, 1994-96; previously worked as an urban planner, community action agency director and county human services