Power for the People

A media mogul with a forceful name is seeking grassroots support for political moderation

Phil Power takes Michigan’s motto to heart: If you seek a beautiful peninsula, look about you. But the former newspaper mogul also spotted a little blight here and there.

So he dived right in. After selling his newspaper chain, Power formed The Center for Michigan, a “think-and-do tank” to create bipartisan common ground designed to get Michigan through its current crisis. Dubbed Michigan’s Defining Moment, the effort aims to ignite a grass-roots citizens’ movement to pressure the political system.

“What kind of Michigan do you want?” Power asks. “What would bring your kids back from Chicago, and what would keep your grandkids here? Once people talk about that for a while, then it’s easy to pivot. If this is the vision you want, how can we get there?”

The nonpartisan center is finding out with scores of “conversations” around the state to plumb groups for ideas for a new state agenda. “I don’t have any wild expectation that this will make a huge difference right now,” Power says. “That’s why we’re aiming at the election of 2010, which is a watershed election — the governor, 31 of 38 state senators will be term-limited out, probably half the House will turn over, and the secretary of state and attorney general will be due.”

Jack Lessenberry, who’s known Power for years, calls him an aggressive moderate. “He could sit home, play with his dog, and do whatever the hell he wants, but he’s pouring money into trying to save the state of Michigan,” says Lessenberry, the senior political analyst on Michigan Radio (WUOM 91.7 FM) who also teaches journalism at Wayne State University, writes several newspaper columns, and contributes frequently to this magazine.

As an aside, Lessenberry, once a vice president in Power’s company, remembers how his boss assured a favorite retriever’s access to company headquarters: “The dog had his own ID badge to get into the building and usually came to the executive meetings.”

That same bit of eccentricity sometimes played out in other aspects of his business. In the 1970s, Power eyed adding the weekly Plymouth Mail to his newspaper chain, then called Observer Newspapers, Inc. So he strolled into the Mail’s office and said he wanted to buy the paper. A clerk nodded to a stack and said that would be 25 cents. “I said, ‘No, I want to buy the whole paper,’” says Power, who eventually merged the sheet into his growing empire.

Power, 69, likes to meet problems head on. In 2004, he sold his company, HomeTown Communications Network, (with 63 newspapers), to Gannett Co. Inc. for an undisclosed sum. But figure millions upon millions.

Rick Cole, chair of advertising, public relations, and retailing at Michigan State University, recently had 40 seniors write short autobiographies and imagine where they’ll be in 20 years. Of those, only two expect to be in the state in 2027.

The Center for Michigan wants to retain talent, improve public discourse, and dampen bitterly divisive politics, like those in Michigan’s 2006 governor’s race.

“One of the worst things about 2006 was how this whole budget debate that everybody knew was coming didn’t get debated before we went to the polls; that’s wrong,” says John Bebow, executive director of The Center. “Instead, that election was about irresponsible, childish cartoons of Dick DeVos floating to China and screaming headlines on whether Madonna gave money to the governor.”

The center finds itself amid a national trend. “What Phil Power is doing is part of a much wider movement in American public life to get people talking about central issues in an honest, practical way,” says James Tobin, an author and historian who researched the matter for the center. There are more than 20 similar organizations around the country taking a similar approach, he said.

Nolan Finley, editorial page editor of The Detroit News, says Power’s proposed middle ground could give lawmakers political cover. “There is no absence of ideas in Michigan,” Finley says. “There’s absence of political courage. He’s trying, as much as anything, to gin up the courage quota.”

Former state lawmaker Paul Hillegonds points to the impact of instant electronic communication on modern politics. “Passion and polarization is reinforced by the choices we have in our media, cable networks that reinforce what we believe. Talk shows on radio do the same,” says Hillegonds, now a senior vice president at DTE Energy.

“I think that all contributes to a more ideological debate and more difficulty in reaching middle-ground solutions,” he says.

EPIC-MRA pollster Ed Sarpolus credits Power as one of the first leaders “to go vocal with the fact that Michigan is sick and needs to be saved — to be honest about the problems and to bring people together.

For advisers, Power roped in former Gov. William Milliken, Lessenberry, Cole, Hillegonds, and others. Hundreds more attend the center’s meetings around the state. Still others sign up at thecenterformichigan.net.

“We’re seeing an incredible thirst for sane leadership,” Bebow says. “At the same time, we meet with legislators. And we’ve come to believe that a lot of them are awfully sane, too. But they’re in this crazy system.”

At least until 2010.