Rewind for just a spell, back to 1997. When I was 15-years-old, I awoke at my old house in Redford during spring break to use the bathroom around 3 a.m. I arose way too quickly and, by the time I had walked the 15 feet or so to my destination, a head rush prompted me to pass out, crack the soft tissue behind my right ear on the corner of the bathroom sink and wake up in a pool of my own blood.
My mother and two younger sisters — now 25 and 28, respectively — were visiting family in Wisconsin, so it was just my dad and I. He had to toil at Ford Motor Co. the next morning so, not wanting to wake him, I soaked up the blood on the patterned cream tile with what seemed like about four rolls of paper towel, waited for my yawning head wound to coagulate, and went back to sleep in my bed in the basement — which sounds sort of Quasimoto-like, but it’s where my room was, and I liked it.
When I woke up — careful not to get up too quickly — I called my dad at work.
“I think I need to get some stitches when you get home tonight. Do you mind?”
He rushed back early to our ranch house on Woodworth, a J-shaped pothole petri dish south of 7 Mile Road, and we scurried to Providence Hospital in Southfield. It might have been Botsford, come to think of it. Anyway, “Concussion,” the good doctor told me. “And also, don’t ever go to sleep with a concussion again. You could die.”
“Duly noted, doc,” I replied.
He slipped a needle in the crescent-shaped laceration grinning behind my ear as carefully as I like to think a veterinarian would slip one into a sad, old dog’s foreleg as he gently put it to sleep. He injected a local anesthetic — which hurts like hell in a head wound, even when done delicately, particularly if the blood has long-since dried and started flaking away — and sewed me up.
Wednesday, Sept. 7 felt a little bit like that, as if I was concussed but didn’t know it at the time.
Arrival: Coffee stains and parking garages
A man who looked like an Ernesto grinned a watermelon wedge of a grin at me tucked behind a cash register at Ernesto’s General Store in downtown Lansing as I placed my singular purchase on the counter before handing him my debit card for a credit union account I’ve had since I was 11-years-old.
“It’s that kind of morning, huh,” Possibly Ernesto asked me.
“Well, we’ll see,” I responded, smiling back at I’m-Thinking-This-Is-Probably Ernesto as I signed the receipt for the instant stain remover I was purchasing ($5 seemed a little steep for a small tube of the stuff, but I bought it anyway).
I cocked my head a little to the side and put my right hand in the air to signal my departure, gave Almost Certainly Ernesto the proverbial “Thanks for your help” — even though he didn’t really help me at all — and walked out into a slightly chilly September morning, laptop bag straddling my shoulder.
It was windy. My cell phone rang. I was late.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been clumsy; I have scars to prove it, and that day was no different. I had spilled coffee on my black dress pants and, for whatever reason, thought it may show. It didn’t really, at least hopefully not too noticeably, but I wanted to have my bases covered for when I walked into Mike Kowall’s office about 20 minutes later after meeting up with Amy Lockard, the Spinal Column Newsweekly staff photographer.
We were in the state Capitol for a story, although what the story was, we didn’t quite know. I pitched the idea several months before; I thought it had only a marginal chance of getting approval, but it was given a thumbs-up anyway. We had a general idea of what we wanted — go to Lansing and report on a typical day, if there is such a thing, in the life of a state legislator — but beyond that, it was pretty open-ended.
I liked that.
I told Susan Fancy — who officially became our boss when our publisher, Jim Fancy, her father, passed away in July — about the idea. It doesn’t have an angle, I told her when she asked. We’ll make the trek and see what we find, I said.
The first thing I found was the parking garage that Mike Murray, Kowall’s chief of staff, pointed us to at Allegan and Capitol streets, where I spilled my black coffee on my black pants. “Early Bird Special, $7, in before 9 a.m., out by 6 p.m.,” the parking garage sign read.
It would be one of the shortest work days I’ve had in nearly a year, and it may also have been one of Kowall’s shortest.
Welcome to 305 Farnum Building
You’d be hard-pressed to find a tick-tock, a blow-by-blow, of Kowall’s schedule. Sure, there’s a general idea of what the day will encompass: Senate session at 10 a.m., committee hearings, meetings throughout the capitol. But that doesn’t mean that it’s always followed to the letter.
The first-term state senator representing all but one of the communities in west Oakland County has an office that seems as fluid as it is inviting, as if it’s saying to anyone who walks in, “Welcome. Take a seat. Here’s a bottle of Fiji water. The senator will be right with you.”
(Full disclosure: I had three bottles of Fiji water that Kowall’s office gave to me throughout my time in Lansing; after the first one, I figured I would just fill it up with water from a drinking fountain, but his staff continually offered new ones.)
Punctuated by black leather sofas and armchairs, the first thing you see when you walk into the office is a table by the main entry. Publications for constituents and visitors alike peek up at you, asking for your attention; I give them none. Staffer Natalie Matthews’ office has a view of that table and anyone who walks in.
On the walls are photos of Kowall with lawmakers and governors at bill-signing ceremonies. Legislation Kowall is proud of is framed on a waiting area wall. It begs to be read, but I just glanced.
Down the hall is the office of David Biswas, a lawyer by training who has spent years doing legislative work for lawmakers, including former state Senate Majority Leader Michael Bishop, a Rochester Republican.
Beyond Biswas’ office, you reach Murray’s office. He is taller than I am, eager to learn about Amy and I when we sit down for lunch at a decent-sized conference table in Kowall’s office, which is at the end of the hallway.
“How did you come to work at the Spinal Column,” he asked both of us after the two-hour Senate session. I told him, and so did Amy.
“What was your favorite story to cover? What was your favorite photo to shoot?”
We responded to those questions, as well, eating sandwiches and potato chips, sipping a soda or water after the first meeting of the full state Senate’s fall legislative session.
A mostly calm beginning to the new session
Very rarely do I use the word “ennui,” but it was one of the only ones I could conjure up during the Sept. 7 session of the state Senate, its first day back for the new round of the legislative jamboree. Yes, there were some big issues before the upper chamber that day — for example, a package of dog-fighting bills from state Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge) and a trio of bills in front of the Senate Economic Development Committee dealing with the brownfield tax credit — but excitement is often countered by what we journalists consider its ugly mistress, a generally slow news day.
The vast majority of the legislation up for consideration that day was passed in a bipartisan manner. No real political gamesmanship there, which, on one level, is great: Lawmakers working together across party lines to get things done. And I like that. Truly.
But I was expecting a frenetic (Kowall called a typical day in the state Senate “like a Chinese fire drill”) and contentious back-and-forth between super majority Republicans and super minority Democrats; instead, the most heated the session became was when a non-binding resolution — of all the silly things — demonstrating the Senate’s support for a Canadian oil pipeline prompted a fierce, albeit somewhat tongue-tied, Senate floor speech from state Sen. Coleman Young II (D-Detroit).
Like father, like son, perhaps.
He was wearing a red button-up shirt with his black suit. He looked a little out of his element while giving the retort, like season-opener jitters for a rookie point guard.
But still, ennui. Here’s another one: Quotidian. In other words, “Ho-hum.”
After the speech, which lasted just a couple minutes, Young approached the desk of state Sen. John Proos (R-St. Joseph), the chief sponsor of the Canadian oil pipeline fluff, and said something to him. While I was far enough away in the designated press area — perhaps 100 feet or so — to mute any discussion the two had, it looked amiable enough. Young walked away from the conversation smiling, as if he had just played one-on-one with his best friend and lost.
“Great game, buddy,” he might as well have said. “Let’s go grab some lunch. Beers later?”
Bills were approved by the upper chamber largely unanimously. Senators watched the electronic board that tallied their votes; many turned their heads to the left like gazelles looking out for predators to watch each senator’s name change to a color designating their support or opposition to a particular piece of legislation.
It was perhaps 11:30 a.m. and I had been awake for nearly seven hours. This wasn’t blood-sport politics; it was something I haven’t yet found the word for. And I know a lot of words.
Kowall: ‘Eating lunch is kind of a luxury’
Kowall, elected to the upper chamber last November in don’t-mess-with-me-in-this-district fashion, is looking to continue his winning streak by securing the GOP nomination for U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter’s Congressional seat, and then — in a strongly Republican area — taking his persona, his brand of Republicanism (which isn’t, perhaps to the surprise of many, purely party-line bloviating and partisanship), and his Detroit-reared but Oakland County-nurtured ideals to the nation’s capitol.
He will likely make his official campaign announcement this weekend at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference, although we have known he will be seeking the 11th Congressional District seat since July.
After a 1:30 p.m. Senate Economic Development Committee hearing — “Usually, committee rooms are a lot more crowded,” Kowall said — I met back up with Kowall around 3 p.m. in his third-floor Farnum Building office. It looks like a plum location: He has what I think is a decent view of the Capitol Building and Capitol Square, where over 1,000 medical marijuana advocates were rallying that day. A handful were arrested, Kowall said, but otherwise they seemed mostly peaceful, if perhaps boisterous.
In addition, Terry Jones, the mustachioed anti-Shar’ia pastor from Florida, was rumored to be in Lansing (I never saw him there), and oral arguments were set to begin in the Michigan Supreme Court’s hearing on Gov. Rick Snyder’s pension tax, portions of which are set to take effect Saturday, Oct. 1.
“This (day) was surprisingly quiet,” Kowall said.
There’s a degree from Telesup University in Peru behind his desk. An old TV and what looks like a VCR flanks the other side of his desk — perhaps it’s a closed-circuit unit. Hard hats adorned with insignias of various groups are also behind the desk. On a certain level, months after taking office, things still look somewhat unpacked.
“You have a few minutes to chat, Mike?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “C’mon in.”
A typical day, he says, is one in which he is lucky to have the time to sit down for a sandwich; most days, he said, he eats it while walking to and from any number of meetings scheduled throughout the day.
“Eating lunch is kind of a luxury,” he said. “That was a good thing today.”
Lisa Brown’s children like that she has “homework” — stacks and stacks of paper to pour over each night at the dinner table. The second-term representative whose district includes West Bloomfield, Commerce, and Wolverine Lake said that on Sept. 7. The Democrat interrupted a meeting, donning “Where’s Waldo?”-type glasses, to talk to me for a couple minutes.
I liked that, too, particularly after showing up at her office — which is adorned with drawings from kids in her district and is in the same hallway as the offices of state Rep. Eileen Kowall (R-White Lake, Highland), Kowall’s wife; state Rep. Hugh Crawford (R-Walled Lake, Wixom); state Rep. Chuck Moss (R-Orchard Lake); and virtually the rest of the lakes area’s state House delegation — essentially unannounced.
“There is nothing typical about a typical day in Lansing,” said state Rep. Bill Rogers (R-Milford), whose district largely includes Livingston County (and whose office is not on the 8th floor of the House Office Building like the rest of the lakes area’s delegation). “I affectionately say on many occasions we are dealing with 100, 150 topics at any given time, and schedules change constantly.”
An early night home for him, when factoring in commute time, is 9 p.m.
“I don’t think people realize that you’re on 24-7,” he said. “Even when you’re not working, you’re working. You find yourself going to church and the guy behind you poking you, saying, ‘Tell me what’s going on with the bridge.’ To me, it’s just part of the job. If you don’t want to be involved all the time, then don’t do it. But it is wearing. It’s kind of fun sometimes to see if you can go somewhere and nobody knows you.”
David Robertson, a first-term state senator with a district that includes Waterford Township, got married three years ago. His wife, a web designer for Blue Cross/Blue Shield works at the Renaissance Center in Detroit; he makes the trek to Lansing. Together, I suspect, the pair are frequent customers of Uncle Ed’s.
But Robertson, like Kowall, has institutional memory. Both served in the state House prior to their election to the upper chamber.
“The legislative calendar is like a soap opera,” Robertson said. You can watch it constantly, stop watching for six months, and the same old debates are going on, he said. “The issues never go away. It’s very circular.”
Universally, lawmakers debunked a common misconception that they only work Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays — when the House and Senate are actually in session.
“My Monday and Fridays … I have had a meeting as early as 6 a.m. because that’s when the individual could make it,” said state Rep. Gail Haines (R-Waterford, West Bloomfield). “I’ve had a meeting as late on Friday at 8 p.m.”
But she, and other state lawmakers I spoke with, both Democrats and Republicans, unanimously said they love the job — its rigors, its debates, the opportunity to do the people’s work.
“This is not just hyperbole,” Robertson said. “The best kind of job that you can have in the world is one where it doesn’t feel like work. I love serving in the Legislature so much that it really doesn’t feel like work. It’s never dull. It’s always interesting. I love the interaction with people.”
Attempting to ‘bridge’ the divide on DRIC
A man and woman are at a desk in the building that houses Lt. Gov. Brian Calley’s office. Kowall, Murray and I hand them our IDs shortly before 4 p.m. and are each given name tags written by hand; mine reads “Kirk Anthony” because the woman mistook my middle name for my surname on my driver license. I point out the error to her, but she says everything is fine; I don’t need an accurate one, for whatever reason.
I vaguely remember cracking a joke — which went over about as well as the Hindenburg — about the mishap to her. We continued down a hallway, through some doors, and sat down in a room with dim lighting — four chairs arranged facing each other, with Kowall and Murray on one other side, me on the other.
A blonde woman whose name slips my mind walks in and sits down next to me; she joins us in the meeting.
Former U.S. Sen. Daniel Webster was once offered the vice presidency by President Zachary Taylor. Knowing the toils of what was then chiefly a ceremonial position, Webster declined: “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin,” he said.
Calley, like other modern second-in-commands, is no Webster. He’s been in the forefront of a variety of crucial — and contentious — issues Snyder has championed, including the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC).
I don’t know the protocol for addressing a sitting lieutenant governor. I don’t call him “Brian” like I call Kowall “Mike,” of course. I settled on “Mr. Lieutenant Governor” as an honorific a split-second before shaking his hand, introducing myself, and taking a seat away from a conference table where the five settle in to talk shop.
I also don’t know the exact media policy for this meeting: Could I take notes on my laptop? Pen and paper only? No notes whatsoever? I’m writing this off of memory.
We are pow-wowing with Calley about the process for Kowall’s Senate Economic Development Committee to hold hearings this fall on the contentious DRIC. Also called the New International Trade Crossing, it’s a key plank in Gov. Rick Snyder’s policy platform, one the “tough nerd” — and Calley — says will create jobs and help with trade between the U.S. and Canada.
At least a dozen hearings will be held this fall on singular, specific issues related to the proposed project, Kowall tells Calley. Various groups with vested interests in the endeavor will testify, whether it’s in favor of or against the bridge.
Good, Calley says, nodding.
The conversation veers to this weekend’s upcoming Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference, where Calley will be playing the keyboard with a band. All tunes by artists with Michigan ties, Calley says.
Kowall didn’t know Calley’s musical inclinations, and neither did I.
The meeting ends after about 30 minutes or so with the two saying they’ll keep in touch about the timeframe for hearings.
In retrospect: A 148-mile journey
It’s Tuesday, Sept. 13. A little less than week later, I sit down on the couch for a spell after a 12.5-hour work day putting out the Sept. 14 edition of the Spinal Column Newsweekly and reflect a bit more on the day in Lansing.
In the week that has passed since the 148-mile roundtrip journey, I have been represented by two state senators (neither senator is Kowall), two members of the state House of Representatives (neither representative is Kowall’s wife, Eileen), two county commissioners, and many more local elected officials than I care to count from two different communities.
My girlfriend and I have moved in together in an old house in Pontiac, one with character and charm and ethos and any number of places for tchotchkes we have accumulated over the years. Photos, hundreds upon hundreds of books, local art, framed poetry broadsides, mementos of long-dead dogs we loved and lost and continue to love and love and love, ad infinitum. Here, in our little historic Pontiac enclave, the sounds of ice cream trucks and ambulances merge into a medley of the youthful and the dire.
Like our new rental home in Indian Village, the Capitol Building has its ghosts — not real ghosts, not the scary kind, mind you, but instead the specters of ages when things were as different from today as circle and square, primary and secondary colors. Architecture has advanced like an army battalion. Styles and beliefs and political ideologies evolve and morph into the unrecognizable. But with those two structures, memory and history remain almost static, mostly alive but still gripping onto the past like a vise.
The history, not the histrionics, of Lansing
I like to think the Capitol Building, a massive Victoria Era nod designed by Illinois architect Elijah E. Myers and dedicated on Jan. 1, 1879, has many of them. The first capitol building was located in Detroit, but a somewhat quirky provision in the 1835 Michigan Constitution — not to mention defense from British soldiers stationed in Windsor — necessitated its relocation; the Detroit capitol building was destroyed by a fire in 1893.
Hello, “howling wilderness.”
Originally called “Michigan, Michigan,” (I’m not joking), what is now known as Lansing was incorporated as a city in 1859 and was ostensibly barren, prompting that description from some observers and opinionistas at the time. The proposed location ticked off Michigan’s 19th century lawmakers something fierce, each one lobbying for the state capitol to be moved into their respective districts. Powerful land speculator James Seymour floated Lansing Township as a site for the state’s seat of power, a decision that was finalized on March 16, 1847. But there was no capitol building to speak of at the time, so a roughshod wooden structure was erected in late 1847; that, too, burned to the ground on Dec. 16, 1882.
Hello, strange coincidence.
Hello, portrait of 24-year-old former “Boy Governor” Stevens T. Mason. Hello, Lewis Cass, namesake of Cass Lake. Hello, Austin Blair, Michigan’s chief executive during the Civil War. Hello, Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolution. Hello, paintings of you all.
Hello, inexpensive materials dolled-up to look like elaborate and pricey decor (a $1.43 million price tag back then required a bit of fiscal scrimping). Hello, senators’ walnut desks. Hello, four chandeliers hanging above, made of brass, lead crystal and fire-hardened glass.
Hello. My name is Kirk Pinho. It was nice to meet you.
See you again soon.