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The Political Education of Chris Ward

by Susan J. Demas
November 16, 2008

Photos by David Trumpie

Sweat and fatigue contaminated the Capitol last fall. It was a primal, frat-boyish scene of half-empty pizza boxes rotting in offices, lewd jokes in the caucus rooms and cigarette ashes from nervous staffers coating the outdoor steps. No one ever seemed to leave, as lawmakers wrestled over a politically tough budget and tried to avoid a stalemate that would shut down state government.

As usual, House Minority Floor Leader Chris Ward was at the center of the storm. He was the rare Republican willing to compromise to patch the state’s $1.8 billion budget deficit, even if it meant raising taxes.

After another futile all-night session, Ward trudged back to his main-floor Capitol office only to find the man plotting to boot him from his job snoring on his floor. Not that it shocked him. His office was the nexus of activity, and Leon was a buddy who was always welcome.

That’s Leon Drolet, the fast-talking head of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, who was threatening to recall tax-hiking lawmakers like Ward with the help of his billboard-size prop pig, Mr. Perks.

Politics makes strange bedfellows, so the cliché goes. But perhaps none as strange as the Ward-Drolet pairing last year.

The duo had bonded over their mutual love of Barry Goldwater while serving two terms in the House together. “When you’re stuck in a caucus room full of exceedingly boring speeches, it helps to sit next to someone who’s funny,” notes Drolet.

Ward, already in his final two years under term limits, seemed to make his peace with the surreal situation, though it certainly unnerved others on the target list. “If they want to do that and waste that money, then fine,” he says, looking back. “There are more important things in life than being a state representative. These crises come about once in a lifetime, and I stepped up, rather than sitting back and hoping someone else would solve the problem. I have no qualms about that whatsoever.”

In the end, the Brighton lawmaker was one of two Republican reps to “walk the plank” and vote to raise the state income tax rate to 4.35 percent from 3.9 percent late into the night of September 30, 2007. That act cost him his leadership post, his swanky office and a few friends.

The recall against Ward never materialized, and Drolet admits: “I definitely would not have enjoyed it.” Ward is still friends with him, however, and doesn’t hold a grudge. “I never get mad at people for doing their day job,” Ward says, flashing a knowing smile. “And Leon’s day job is to be a conservative rabble-rouser.”

In his six years in the House, Ward has been the ultimate deal-maker, the shining star of his class, bar none. Even Rep. Kevin Green (R-Wyoming), who petitioned to oust Ward from leadership after the tax vote, pours on the praise. “Chris is one of the most brilliant strategic minds we’ve ever had in Lansing. He’s so strategic, has great skill sets and is so quick on the spot,” he says.

Political analyst Bill Rustem says Ward’s appreciation of nuance and statesmanship set him apart, a rarity in a time of term limits. “In an era where the unwritten rule was not to talk to the people on the other side, he ignored those rules and suffered for it,” says Rustem, president of the Lansing-based public policy firm Public Sector Consultants.

The party purge cost Ward something more. He says he’s spent; he has no intention of ever appearing on a ballot again. At one point he had “very vague thoughts” about running for Secretary of State but sighs, “I just don’t have fire in the belly for that.”

Retirement and relief
 “Forgive my Joe the Plumber look,” Ward grins, gesturing to his day-off ensemble of baggy jeans and an olive hooded sweatshirt.

It’s Halloween and in two short months, his legislative career will come to an unceremonious end. (“I’m 34 and this is my 16th year in elective office,” he offers matter-of-factly.) There’s no anger in his voice as he looks back, no wistfulness.

Chris Ward is relieved.

“I am, because I just don’t feel like we’re getting a lot accomplished here and it’s pretty frustrating,” he unloads. “When you look at how the state’s in such terrible shape and at our inability as a whole in Lansing to rise to the occasion, it’s depressing, to be frank with you.”

His new office — appropriately tucked away in a dark alcove on the Capitol’s third floor — is empty (even the candy dish), with no staffers in sight. They’re all off on the campaign trail, but their desks are bare, betraying the fact that they’ve already moved on. Such is life in politics.

Ward hasn’t been knocking on any doors, but he has been reading a lot on Napoleon. He’s delved into Robert Asprey’s two-volume set, which has given him some perspective. “The whole budget crisis thing looks like nothing when you’ve dealt with the Reign of Terror,” he cracks and muses about folks erecting a guillotine outside the Capitol. “It might not have been a bad idea,” Ward decides, blue eyes twinkling, as they do when he lands a punchline.

“We could have put the pig in it, anyway.”

History is what drew Ward into politics, and he counts Winston Churchill chief among his heroes, which also include Daniel Webster and John Quincy Adams. “Congress mattered a lot more back then,” he declares. “The debates were … the rhetoric is just stunning to read.”

It’s Churchill’s certainty and fortitude that he admires most.

“I could never read enough about Winston Churchill,” he says. “Fascinating guy. Served in the last cavalry charge in history and was prime minister at a time when they had nuclear weapons. Changed parties a few times. Survived a few career-ending political messes … Had a great sense of humor.”

Ward was perhaps born under a sign. It was 29 years to the day after Churchill resigned for the first time as prime minister that Ward made his debut in Livonia on May 23, 1974.

Rising star
Ward rode into Lansing during the heyday of the GOP majority in 2002 with 73 percent of the vote from his district.

He promptly became chair of the Local Government and Urban Policy Committee. “Never been to a House committee in my life and was handed a gavel,” Ward says, shaking his head before launching into a familiar critique of term limits.

Still, the 28-year-old was hardly a political neophyte. He’d been working on campaigns since turning 13, the first of which was George H.W. Bush’s 1988 run. Having lived in blood-red Livingston County since the age of 3, Ward was always a Republican (“It’s sort of genetically bred into you,” he smiles.). Indeed, his office is dotted with crystal and marble elephants and, most strikingly, a bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln.

He did a stint as state chair of the Michigan Teenage Republicans from 1991 to 1992. After graduating from Brighton High School in 1992, he promptly won election as a township trustee and was elected clerk four years later. Ward also filled out his resume as chair of the county Republican Party from 1998 to 2001.

A year before his election to the House, Ward earned his bachelor’s in business administration from Cleary University, “the Harvard of Howell on the mighty banks of the Grand River,” he crows in another burst of self-deprecating humor.

Why did he run? “A lot of people expected me to do it,” he shrugs. “It just seemed obvious.”

Ward maintains he’s not a “political animal.” “I don’t think I’m a very good politician. I don’t think I’m a very good political mind. But I really enjoy being in the legislature and the legislative process. And I enjoy public policy.”

His colleagues from both sides of the aisle beg to differ. “His legislative mind goes with the best of them in the last 20 years,” declares House Minority Leader Craig DeRoche (R-Novi).

“He’s a very powerful legislator,” says Majority Floor Leader Steve Tobocman (D-Detroit). “When you get into a negotiation with Chris Ward, you better expect he’s going to call you out, see through any covert efforts, any bluster.”

Ward has, by all accounts, undergone a remarkable transformation. In 2003 he sauntered into the House as a baby faced twenty-something and now leaves goateed and grizzled. He points to the election consolidation legislation he worked on his first term as his crowning achievement, but he wanted to see far more sweeping changes in early voting and campaign finance reform. Nonetheless, his work propelled him to win the post of majority floor leader as a sophomore, teaming up with DeRoche to run what Democrats snidely termed their own reign of terror.

Then-House Minority Leader Dianne Byrum would frequently castigate Ward for hardball tactics like hiding the daily agenda. But after watching his leadership on the budget last year, even she can’t bring herself to say an unkind word about him. “I think Chris was just being a good foot soldier. It was coming from the speaker’s office,” she says now.

Falling apart
“If you are going through hell, keep going,” Churchill once advised.

Between the messy budget debacle and a messier divorce, Ward has had a taste of purgatory. His split from wife Nicole was finalized in 2007 after two years and one foreclosure. She and their three kids, 12, 10 and 9, have moved to Ypsilanti. “That’s another great legislative tradition,” he says ruefully. “Gotta have one or two in the House every session, I think.”

As the final papers were signed, Ward threw himself into tackling the worst fiscal crisis the state had faced in decades. However, he soon parted from the rest of leadership, particularly DeRoche.

“I wouldn’t necessarily call (Ward) a moderate,” says Tobocman. “He’s a pretty solid conservative, but he has a unique ability to listen to all sides of an issue, and I think that enhances his effectiveness.”

The split wasn’t a matter of ideology, but one of tactics. Ward fought to keep taxes low, win the most spending cuts and enact the most governmental reforms as part of the budget package. But he recognized a tax increase was in the offing, given the state of the crisis, and sought to cut the best deal he could. Meanwhile, DeRoche and Michigan Republican Party Chair Saul Anuzis decided the tax hike was the perfect cudgel with which to bludgeon Democrats in the next election, and they eschewed any compromise.

That was something that Ward, the self-described “solution-finder,” couldn’t comprehend. “It’s not that I changed overnight to become a liberal Democrat,” he scoffs. “I was trying to accomplish what I thought were conservative Republican viewpoints and values.”

Caucus meetings often deteriorated into “ideological inquisitions,” he says. Those who didn’t walk the party line could be ridiculed as RINOs – Republicans In Name Only.

“What seemed to be missing is the kind of leaders that we’ve had in this state in the past that would recognize the higher calling that a crisis like that bring you to,” he laments. “And from the Republican standpoint, the lack of willingness at the leadership level to recognize that we needed an outcome — and needed to get the best outcome we could from a conservative Republican standpoint, as opposed to taking the political route and having the least number of our people vote for a solution. It’s a shame. And I think the outcome betrays that strategy.”

The standoff started in January and lasted well beyond the September 30 end-of-fiscal-year deadline, as lawmakers fiddled into December with budget cuts and swapping business taxes. State government even shut down for a few hours when there was no budget in place. During the frenzied meetings and all-nighters, Ward forged perhaps a better working relationship with House Speaker Andy Dillon than with his GOP comrades.

“Chris was always someone to go to, to get a straight answer,” says Dillon (D-Redford Township), who ended up beating the only recall attempt that made it to the ballot.

When Ward talks of the speaker, he could be describing himself. “He keeps his word. I think he’s honestly a guy who tries to find centrist, common-sense solutions. He’s not a political animal by any stretch of the imagination.”

For Ward, the bizarre night of September 30 was a turning point. Deals were flying back and forth and he and Dillon agreed to dump an ill-conceived 6-percent tax on selected services in favor of a higher income tax. Rep. Ed Gaffney (R-Grosse Pointe Farms) would vote for the income tax; Ward’s green light wasn’t needed on the board. But he voted for the bill anyway, sticking his thumb in the air with weary defiance. It was an act of solidarity with Gaffney and one of faith in Dillon.

“I took this Hail Mary pass and threw it to the Senate and things didn’t come together,” Ward assesses. In the end, Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) said it was too late and ushered the unpopular service tax (later repealed) through to the governor’s desk.

Ward’s vote didn’t endear him to constituents back home, says Livingston County Republican Party Chair Alan Filip. “If you look at millage votes, Livingston County tends to be very fiscally conservative when it comes to taxpayer money,” Filip notes. “It wasn’t a popular vote.”

Ward says he has no regrets — even when the House minority whip promptly circulated a petition for his ouster. Kevin Green quickly amassed 16 signatures.

The issue, Green says, is that Ward promised to vote no and didn’t keep the caucus informed of his deal making with Dillon. Still, Green isn’t eager to appear as Brutus to Ward’s Caesar. “The thing got legs,” he insists. “I never intended to be the center of that.”

With the long knives out, Ward took some time to reflect on his time in leadership.

“When I was elected floor leader, especially in the majority, I felt like I was the human shield in my caucus,” he recalls. “I took a ton of abuse, did a lot of things that, looking back on, I probably shouldn’t have in terms of trying to win our agenda, pull our caucus together and protect our members from bad votes. Even as minority floor leader for the first 10 months of this term, I was pretty aggressive for them.”

He looked back at the e-mails and phone calls from members praising him for doing the right thing. Many of their names were scrawled on the petition.

And Ward decided to step down.

“I don’t want to serve those people anymore, to be frank,” he admits. “I don’t think that’s unfair. At that point, being in leadership wasn’t about making me feel any better. It was about serving my caucus and there were a lot of them I didn’t really want to serve anymore. Guess that’s the bottom line.”

After watching the sad scene unfold, Rep. Lorence Wenke (R-Richland) started his own petition to dump Green from leadership, but failed. Ward left a token on his desk — a figurine of a rhino, of course.

The voluntary demotion could have relegated Ward to the basement of the House Office Building, but Dillon found him a Capitol office and let him keep his staff. “Andy was great,” he says quietly. “He took good care of me, even though he didn’t have to.”

Ward glances around at the east-facing office he’ll soon have to pack up and leave. Most of his books are already at home, stacked on the floor, as his bookshelves are bursting. “I like this place a little better, anyway,” he decides. “It’s harder for people to find me, which isn’t so bad after all.”

Looking ahead
The GOP bloodbath at the polls on November 4 didn’t catch Ward off-guard. Not one Democrat lost a seat over the 2007 tax hike vote; in fact, the party added nine new legislators. His assessment of his Republican caucus is brief, but brutal: “Not only did we have bad policy, but it turned out to be bad politics, too.”

Time is short and the lame duck session is flying by, but Ward isn’t done yet. Though visibly demoralized, he’s pressing on, trying to cobble together a compromise on Corrections reforms and eliminating the Michigan Business Tax surcharge. “It would be nice to break the tradition of dumping all your problems on the next group,” he says.

Wenke sits next to him and has grown used to the constant foot traffic, helpfully pulling up a chair for those seeking Ward’s counsel. “Nobody gets the number of visitors Chris does,” he notes.

Shortly after the election, Green’s arrest for drunken driving hit the press and he was forced to withdraw his bid for minority leader. He says he’s reached out to Ward a couple of times since the caucus civil war and appears duly chastened. “I still think the world of Chris,” Green offers. “I hope Chris will be able to forgive me.”

Ward prefers not to dwell on his frayed friendships, but his acerbic wit surfaces when it comes to Green’s recent issues. “I guess there is such a thing as karma,” he says.

As for the future, he’s looking at public policy, but hasn’t settled on anything. For the first time in Ward’s adult life, he won’t be a public servant, retiring as “career politician“ long before his mid-life crisis is supposed to hit. One thing’s for sure — the shine’s definitely off the Capitol dome for Ward, who says he’s weary from “banging my head against the wall” for the last few years. The budget debacle still weighs on his mind.

“The outcome was disappointing, the process was disappointing, the lack of leadership in so many different ways was terribly disappointing.” Ward shakes his head. “We could have and should have done a much better job. There’s plenty of blame to go around for that, and I’ll take my fair share.”

Ward stops himself, suddenly aware of how jaded he sounds. “I sound like Eeyore,” he groans.

His colleagues lament his insistence that his campaign days are over. “It is a big, big loss for the Republican Party that he’s sort of disengaged from politics and doesn’t intend to run for anything in the future,” Wenke says. “The Republican Party desperately needs Chris Ward.”

He could still change his mind. He’s young, he’s smart and he still “wants to do the right thing,” as Dillon says.

And more than anyone, Ward knows Winston Churchill’s most famous quote by heart: “Never, never, never give up.”

Susan J. Demas is a 2006 Knight Foundation Fellow in nonprofits journalism and a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service.

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