Opinion: Colbeck's book takes on the swamp
State Sen. Patrick Colbeck is running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Michigan. I know Colbeck because he’s sponsoring campus free speech legislation based on the model bill I coauthored and published through Arizona’s Goldwater Institute.
As part of his campaign for Michigan’s Republican gubernatorial nomination, Colbeck has written a fascinating and highly accessible political autobiography, "Wrestling Gators: An Outsider’s Guide to Draining the Swamp." It's not a typical campaign biography because Colbeck is not a typical politician. Colbeck is literally a rocket scientist, an aerospace engineer with no political background drawn into electoral office by the tea party wave of 2010.
He has consistently refused to play by the rules of the Republican political establishment in Michigan, and he's been punished for it. What makes "Wrestling Gators" notable is that it tells the behind-the-scenes story of these battles.
Feeling called by his faith to run for office and without any funds or the means to raise them, Colbeck liquidated his personal savings and retirement accounts (paying the 10 percent penalty for early withdrawal) and auctioned off many possessions — including a Star Trek uniform from his geeky engineering days designing the International Space Station, and pieces of the Berlin Wall he’d collected in East Germany in 1990. This is not your typical approach to campaign finance, and helps explain Colbeck’s later clashes with Republican leadership.
When Colbeck entered politics he was a complete novice. He had his small government principles, and little else. Subsequently Colbeck became a leader in the successful drive to make Michigan a right-to-work state. It’s characteristic of Colbeck that he immediately favored the idea on principled free association grounds, then made himself an expert on the economic implications of the change.
What infuriated Republican leadership in the Michigan legislature was Colbeck’s insistence on carrying forward conservative positions on key issues where the leadership had moved left — particularly Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act and adoption of the Common Core. Colbeck not only opposed Medicaid expansion against the wishes of leadership, but moved to suggest and promote positive alternatives. This threatened to seriously undercut leadership’s position.
As a result of that and similar moves, Colbeck was barred by leadership on several occasions from even entering the State House chamber to press his position with other legislators. He was also barred from committee chairmanships and stripped of committee assignments as punishment for his refusal to back off of conservative stands when leadership was ready to cave.
This feuding has freed Colbeck up to say more than the public usually hears about legislative sausage-making at the state level. "Wrestling Gators" gives a short course in “how government really works.” There we learn that donors often dictate key legislative committee assignments and which bills get brought up for a vote. Given donor influence — and despite Republican control of the legislature and governorship — bills aligned with the Republican platform often go nowhere while bills opposed to it often move. Colbeck sees money in politics as a serious problem and sympathizes with everyone — right and left — who shares that concern. Yet he doesn’t think campaign finance laws are a solution. “Getting money out of politics” would only favor incumbents of both parties, he says. It would also favor the political left, he adds, since the left already gets its message out for free via biased media and the schools.
Using his own example and that of others, Colbeck shows how leadership on both sides of the aisle wields its power to keep independent legislators from bucking entrenched interest groups and donors. Colbeck’s race for the governorship is a David and Goliath battle, but his message deserves attention. Grapple with "Wrestling Gators" and you’ll discover that the people of Michigan are lucky to have Colbeck as a public servant, in whatever capacity that may be.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.