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Memoirs of Pac Man

Jack Lessenberry

Liberals aren’t always as good at winning elections as conservatives, but they usually are more inclined to write about politics – and better at getting others to write about them. But there’s an interesting new memoir from the conservative side of the spectrum. The name Bob LaBrant is well known in politics and government here. For more than thirty years he headed political affairs for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

He was their senior vice-president, general counsel and chief lobbyist. His book is called “PAC MAN: A Memoir,” subtitled “A personal political history of the Campaign Finance, Redistricting, Ballot Question, Recall and Judicial Election Battles in Michigan,” since 1977.

The book is all that, and more. It is the story of his life, from his boyhood in Wisconsin through a stint in Vietnam untill he arrived in Michigan soon after he turned thirty.

His personal stuff is interwoven with the professional in a way that occasionally gets in the way of the narrative, but the book is still a highly worthwhile read. I talked to Bob LaBrant about what motivated him yesterday.

He is undeniably Republican through and through. He is very conservative, though as he told me, he has no use for the likes of Dave Agema and the anti-vaccination crazies. He acknowledged that Michigan politics have become far more partisan and polarized since he arrived during the Milliken era.

LaBrant told me that he too, originally sought bipartisan solutions, but as time went on, he realized that the Democratic Party was controlled by organized labor.

So he felt it was only fair that business interests had the tools to compete. He was a pioneer in making the Michigan Chamber of Commerce a major political player in everything from campaign finance laws to legislative redistricting proposals. And he and his causes have been stunningly successful. One of the early cases he supported laid the foundation for the creation of today’s “super” political action committees and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allows unlimited corporate campaign spending. 

Since Bob arrived, while Michigan Republicans have had an abysmal record of failure in U.S. Senate contests, they have gained a near-hammerlock on the legislature and have usually held the governorship, in no small part due to his efforts.

He told me his proudest achievement was keeping Democratic chair Mark Brewer’s proposed constitutional amendment called Reform Michigan Government Now off the ballot seven years ago.

Now semi-retired, LaBrant was a superb tactician who was present at most of the major strategic political battles of our time, and he offers a valuable perspective, regardless of what side you may have been on. I wonder, however, if he is fully aware of how much the spectrum has shifted since the seventies. Organized labor is far weaker than it once was.

But today’s Republicans seem increasingly more driven by social issues and radical ideology than by business and chamber of commerce concerns.

In any event, his career has been a fascinating ride. From 4:30 to 6 this afternoon, he will be talking about the book and signing copies at the Sterling Corporation Conference Center in Lansing, and if you are nearby and fascinated by politics, you might well want to go.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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