A year of apologies, tax fights and presidential barbs

Detroit News staff

Michigan politics were rocked this past year by tax fights, unusual high-level apologies, lawmaker misconduct and presidential campaigning.

Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican-controlled Legislature went on a year-long, roller-coaster ride over a $1 billion road funding increase after voters handed them a crushing 80 percent defeat of a sales tax increase in a May 5 special election. After months of wrangling, they finally assembled a $1.2 billion road funding plan in November that included tax and fee hikes.

Presidential candidates visited the state throughout the year, sometimes making national news for their eyebrow-raising comments on the stump.

State Sen. Virgil Smith, D-Detroit, faces felony charges for alleging shooting up his ex-wife’s car after she apparently found him in bed with another woman.

And the Republican tea party duo of Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat saw their 8-month careers in the Michigan House of Representatives end in September after The Detroit News exposed Courser’s failed attempt to cover up their extramarital affair and misuse taxpayer resources.

Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat

Gamrat became just the fourth member of the Legislature in state history to be expelled for misconduct in office — and Courser resigned to avoid an all-but-certain expulsion. Voters in Allegan and Lapeer counties subsequently rejected Gamrat and Courser’s attempts to reclaim their seats in a special Nov. 3 primary.

As the Legislature dealt with internal issues with its members, Snyder’s agenda focused on criminal justice reforms, rewriting the state’s energy policy and overhauling Detroit’s fractured public education system stalled out and will carry on into 2016.

Meanwhile, Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette did some rare apologizing.

Here’s a look at 11 quotes that defined Michigan politics in 2015:

■ “I said I was sorry and there’s no excuse for that. It should not have happened. It will not happen again. ... I’m not throwing nobody under the bus, that's not what I do.” — Attorney General Bill Schuette said March 12 after apologizing to journalists who were subpoenaed by his department for information gathered on allegations of juvenile prisoner abuse in state prisons.

■ “You could fire everybody in central administration and it wouldn’t put a dent in the deficit.”Jack Martin, former emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools, on the deficit-ridden school district’s high per pupil administration expenses.


■ “Right now, I’m in a pothole several feet deep. We’ve got to dig ourselves out, dust ourselves off and get back to work.”Gov. Rick Snyder said May 6 after voters rejected by 60-percentage-point margin a 1-cent sales tax increase he promoted in a bid to generate $1.2 billion more annually for road repairs.

■ “Vice President Joe Biden. You know the nice thing? You don’t need a punch line. I promise you it works. The next party you’re at, just walk up to someone and say, ‘Vice President Joe Biden’ and just close your mouth. They will crack up laughing.” — Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz said June 3 during a speech in Howell. Cruz made the Biden joke four days after the vice president’s eldest son, Beau, died of brain cancer. The Texas senator quickly apologized after the comment went viral on social media.

Sen. Ted Cruz was contrite about ridiculing Joe Biden soon after the death of the vice president’s son.

■ “It takes some gall, some incredible intestinal fortitude to roll up astronomical debt in another person’s name and then make it illegal for them to pay it off.” — State Sen. Coleman Young II, D-Detroit, in a June 30 floor speech slamming a Republican-sponsored bill prohibiting Detroit Public Schools from tapping an expanded emergency loan fund for schools.


■ “I need an over-the-top story that’s obscene about me. It will make anything else that comes out after that — that isn’t a video — mundane, tame by comparison. I need a controlled burn.” — Former state Rep. Todd Courser, R-Lapeer, in a May 19 meeting with House aide Ben Graham, plotting to send fellow Republicans an anonymous email claiming he was caught having sex with a male prostitute behind a Lansing nightclub to divert attention from his extramarital affair with then-Rep. Cindy Gamrat, R-Plainwell.

■ “Resigning would have been a whole lot easier, I’ll tell you that. But sometimes the easy roads aren’t the best roads to take.” — Then-Rep. Cindy Gamrat pleading with House members not to expell her at 4 a.m. Sept. 11. Moments later, the House voted 91-12 to make Gamrat the first female legislator in state history to be ousted.

■ “I thought he was going to go kicking and screaming.”Rep. John Chirkun, D-Roseville, on Courser’s decision to resign moments before his own expulsion vote at 3 a.m. on Sept. 11.

■ “In Sen. Smith’s case, there’s an open police investigation and some possibility of a felony (conviction). ... Pending adjudication of those charges, we should wait to take any action.”Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, on why the Senate has not disciplinedSen. Virgil Smith for felony firearm charges while the House moved swiftly the boot Gamrat and Courser from office without any criminal charges. At Senate Democratic Leader Jim Ananich’s urging, Meekhof stripped Smith of his committee assignments and office staff.

■ “She was going to beat Obama. ... She was favored to win, and she got schlonged. She lost.” — Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trumpat a Dec. 22 campaign rally in Grand Rapids using a Yiddish term for a man’s genitalia to describe Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary loss to Barack Obama. The billionaire real estate tycoon later defended the remark by claiming it meant Clinton was “beaten badly” in the 2008 primaries.

■ “I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened. ... I know many Flint citizens are angry and want more than an apology. That’s why I’m taking the actions today to ensure a culture of openness and trust.”Gov. Rick Snyder in a Dec. 29 statement about the state Department of Environmental Quality’s failure to require the city of Flint to use corrosion controls before drawing drinking water from the corrosive Flint River.

Car dealer on ballot

A California car dealer made Michigan history by becoming the first candidate to make the state’s presidential primary ballot by gathering enough signatures through petition.

Most candidates for the major parties are put on the primary ballot by a state party chair or the secretary of state. But the Michigan Democratic Party declined to do so for Roque “Rocky” De La Fuente, a suburban San Diego Cadillac dealer, so he mounted his own, de facto write-in campaign.

On Tuesday, the Board of State Canvassers approved the petition signatures for the 61-year-old De La Fuente and put the self-proclaimed conservative Democrat on the March 8 primary ballot along with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. He gathered 3,647 more verified signatures than the minimum number required, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

De La Fuente’s campaign was quick late Tuesday to note that the car dealer had overcome the political establishment and the odds to get on the ballot. He played up his political and business credentials in a press release, noting he was the first Hispanic superdelegate for California at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. His campaign also claimed De La Fuente is on the ballot in more states than O’Malley.

“Rocky is passionate about listening to everyone and providing them the voice in Washington, D.C. that they have been missing,” the De La Fuente campaign said in a statement. “... It is time for the Democratic Party, which prides itself on being inclusive, to include its only minority candidate in the debates.”

Contributors: Chad Livengood and Richard Burr