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The real divide at the Mackinac policy conference

Jack Lessenberry

I ran into John Rakolta late Tuesday afternoon, as he was arriving on Mackinac Island for the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual policy conference.

Nobody could possibly question Rakolta’s conservative credentials. He’s raised millions for GOP candidates over the years. He was a national finance chair of Mitt Romney’s first presidential campaign and was state finance director for Rick Snyder.

He has a graduate degree from Harvard Business School, and is the CEO of Walbridge, the giant century-old construction firm that has been owned by his family for decades.

Yet Rakolta is passionately committed to education and saving Detroit’s schools. He not only supports Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan to spend $715 million to give the schools a new start, he thinks that isn’t enough.

“There are 65,000 skilled jobs in Michigan right now that employers can’t fill,” he told me while walking up to the Grand Hotel.

“Sixty-five thousand!” He added that our schools weren’t turning out students with the skills to take them. Rakolta is a conservative, but one who both has a conscience and who believes we need to plan for the future. He came to Mackinac primarily to be on a panel this morning,“Kids Reap Rewards When Leaders Leave Comfort Zones to drive Detroit Schools Reform.”

Rakolta is something rare in Michigan today. He is a true leader, a man approaching 70 who has spent his entire life in the private sector, a conservative who recognizes the need for a public sector that can help prepare our kids for the future.

I’ve never asked him why, but perhaps that’s because all four of his grandparents came from Romania, a country that was one of the worst hellholes on earth under Communism. They came to a place where public education helped them make it.

Rakolta is not alone; there are other business leaders who recognize the need to save the schools. Some of this is likely enlightened self-interest; it is hard to plan for the future when you can’t find workers who have basic math and literary skills.

When I first attended a Mackinac Conference in 1988, there was a clear and obvious divide between business and labor; Republicans and Democrats.

Today, you might say the split is more between the rational and irrational, between those honestly seeking solutions and those consumed with irrational ideologies, fears and hatreds. However, not many of the latter are at this rather expensive conference. Most of the attendees are undoubtedly Republicans, but my educated guess is that very few wanted Donald Trump.

Nobody, in fact, is talking much about the presidential election. They are focused on Michigan. They know this has been a grim year. Flint has largely ruined the career of the governor who had always been hugely popular with this group. Additionally, it has sounded a clear warning about this state’s aging infrastructure.

Michigan has devolved in the last three decades from one of the nation’s richest states to one among the poorest. Education is in crisis, not only in Detroit but statewide, income inequality is stark and growing, and our political system seems paralyzed.

With that backdrop, those attending this conference are struggling to find a way forward for Michigan to have a future.

We need to wish them luck.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. 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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