LANSING — When Tim Bledsoe was elected state representative for District 1 in 2008, he went to Lansing hoping to effect change.
“I thought I could make a difference,” he said earlier this month over coffee in Grosse Pointe Farms.
But the Grosse Pointe City Democrat — who lost his bid for a third and final term in the August primary, which pitted him against another incumbent in a newly drawn District 2 — is leaving the state capitol this month feeling more than a little disheartened.
“I think the partisan warfare is at such a level, it’s impossible to get past (it),” Bledsoe said. “Every reform idea out there is evaluated based on its impact on a partisan basis. … When everything is considered in the context of a partisan climate, it means almost nothing gets done, in terms of political reform.”
Bledsoe, 59, might have been a newcomer when he first ran for office in 2006, when he was defeated by Republican incumbent Edward Gaffney, but he was hardly naïve about politics. He was a political science professor at Wayne State University for nearly 20 years before he took office, and taught at the University of South Carolina before that, where he specialized in urban, legislative and American politics. And his father served on the City Council of his small boyhood town of Lake Village, Ark.
For Bledsoe, the biggest surprise was “just the whole business of how everything is sort of consumed by a partisan agenda, the real inability to build any kind of coalition in the middle.” And what’s going on in Michigan is a microcosm of what’s happening on the national political scene.
Gerrymandering — the process of drawing district boundaries that favor one party over another — hasn’t helped, Bledsoe said. While his old district was politically competitive — although it was Republican for many years, by the time Bledsoe ran for office, it could have gone to either party — the new districts that the Grosse Pointes and Harper Woods find themselves in are solidly Democratic. That means the real contest takes place in the primary, where only the most partisan voters tend to cast ballots. Bledsoe said representatives elected under such circumstances are less apt to be moderates.
Besides redistricting reform, Bledsoe said the state’s term limits need to be amended. He said the maximums now — a state representative can only serve three terms, or a total of six years, for example — “encourage extremism” and don’t give officials time to learn how to navigate the political waters. And with people knowing they’ll need a new job in just a few years, they may be more likely to cater to the lobbyists forever knocking at their doors, since those same firms are known to hire former legislators.
“Every day in Lansing, we make dozens of decisions,” Bledsoe said. “There’s no way you can read every word of every bill, so you’ve got to learn who you can trust … and who you can’t. It’s something that takes time, and it’s something that’s really truncated by term limits.”
Bledsoe also feels voters would be better served by an open primary system like California’s, where all of the candidates compete in the same primary and the top two vote-getters go on to the general election, regardless of their party affiliation. He said this could lead to more centrist candidates and more independents.
After the most recent lame- duck session, during which Republican legislators in power were able to push through several controversial bills, Bledsoe said a change with regard to what can be done in the final weeks before new legislators take office needs to be considered.
“This idea of a legislative body meeting in a lame-duck session, where most (of the officeholders) are not going to face voters again, is just outrageous and undemocratic,” he said, suggesting that legislation proposed after the November election should require a two-thirds majority so that only items that need to be accomplished would be approved, and voters wouldn’t see “an agenda rammed through at lightning speed.”
“I am so put off by what I’m seeing in Lansing right now that I can’t wait to get out of that nuthouse,” said Bledsoe, after a week that saw massive protests throughout right-to-work legislation that was approved along party lines in the state House.
Bledsoe survived what he called “vicious attacks” on his record by the Michigan Republican Party in 2010 — including an allegation that he voted to raise property taxes, which he said was false — and then faced a recall attempt last year. The recall — led by Grosse Pointe Woods Republican John Hauler, a two-time congressional candidate — was said by Hauler to be about Bledsoe’s voting record, but Bledsoe argued that it was “nothing more than payback” for the unrelated recall of a Genesee County Republican, pointing out that several other Democrats were the targets of similar efforts.
Although the recall failed to make it to the ballot, Bledsoe needed to retain a lawyer to contest it, and when he said his own party refused to cover his attorney fees, the only state legislator to have funded his campaigns solely through individual contributions found himself needing to accept political-action committee money.
There were a few bright spots. Although he was only in Lansing for four years, Bledsoe does have one bill to his name — something that some legislators don’t achieve even during longer tenures. A package of three bills Bledsoe introduced in 2010 gave Grosse Pointe Shores residents a chance to vote for their municipal court judge and to run for this position, and also enabled the Shores — which changed from a village to a city in 2009 — to partner with any Grosse Pointe on its municipal court. The Pointes are the only Michigan cities that still have municipal courts, and while state officials weren’t willing to allow the Shores to create its own, new municipal court, they did agree to enable the city to retain that form of court structure. Bledsoe’s bills passed unanimously in the state House and Senate, after which the governor signed them into law.
For these efforts on the Shores’ behalf, Bledsoe was honored with a proclamation by Grosse Pointe Shores Mayor Ted Kedzierski during a Dec. 18 City Council meeting. Besides the municipal court legislation, Bledsoe also assisted the city during the governor’s review of the new Shores charter. The Shores may be a Republican stronghold, but Kedzierski didn’t see those party differences, when it came to issues like these.
“He wasn’t a Democrat, he wasn’t a Republican — he was a Grosse Pointer,” Kedzierski said of Bledsoe, as he presented the representative with the framed resolution.
And Bledsoe’s colleagues have been impressed with his work during the last four years.
“We are certainly going to miss Tim,” said state Rep. Diane Slavens, D-Canton, before a meeting of the Natural Resources Committee earlier this month in Lansing. “He represents his district well.”
State Rep. Harold Haugh, D-Roseville and a former Roseville mayor, agreed. Haugh is the minority vice chair of the Natural Resources Committee, on which he served with Bledsoe.
“I’m going to miss him a lot,” Haugh said. “We have a lot of conversations. He has a wealth of knowledge (about how the real world) collides with the academic world. He’s been a pleasure to work with.”
Haugh said Bledsoe brought a unique combination of skills to his work as a representative.
“He’s extremely analytical,” Haugh said. “He knows his material. You can’t ask for more of a colleague.”
That’s important — because legislators have to be quick studies on any number of often technical issues, from finance to the environment.
“To be a successful legislator, you have to know a lot about everything,” Bledsoe acknowledged from his Lansing office. “You’ve got to learn fast.”
You’ve also got to be there, said Bledsoe — a legislator who only missed one day on the House floor, to attend the funeral of his daughter’s godfather.
Bledsoe is proudest of “connecting people to their own government” — something he feels he accomplished by publishing a newsletter every two weeks, having office hours at different places in the district, and organizing several town hall forums on issues of local importance, including his last one, which addressed changes in state regulations with regard to controlling and eradicating invasive phragmites.
“If I feel good about anything, it’s not about what I did in Lansing — it’s about what I did in the community,” he said.
At this point, he said there’s “not much prospect of me ever running for office again,” but Bledsoe said he might one day write a book about his foray into politics. He said he’d also like to teach a class about running for office. His wife, Mary Herring, is a WSU political science professor, and their daughter, Daisy, is a student at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio.
Bledsoe hopes to return to the classroom at WSU in January.
“I’m really looking forward to dealing with students after dealing with legislators and lobbyists and special interests for the past four years,” he said.