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A short history of politicians’ declarations of independence

Welcome to our post-Independence Day edition of It’s Just Politics and, today, we’re talking Independents.

This week, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel let it be known he wants the “D,” for Democrat, stripped from the column alongside his name in the Macomb County directory. Hackel told The Macomb Daily that he doesn’t think being a Democrat, or a Republican for that matter, really makes a difference in his job as county executive. And, that he doesn’t really consider himself a party person.

This certainly isn’t the only incarnation of Hackel’s independent streak. He has refused to endorse the presumptive Democratic candidate for governor, Mark Schauer. Nor, will he utter an unkind word about Governor Rick Snyder; and he’s been silent on the controversial right-to-work law.

But this latest episode did prompt a statement from Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson, who embraced Hackel and praised his service to the Democratic Party.

We should be clear: Hackel is not making noises about leaving the Democratic Party. But there is a history in fickle Macomb County – Michigan’s hotbed of political disharmony – of Democrats bailing.

State Representative Sal Rocca served for decades as a Democrat before he bolted to the Republicans. His son, Tory, is currently a Republican state Senator from Macomb. Then, there’s Gil DiNello. In the 1990s, he was a Democratic state senator, also from Macomb, who wasn't just Independent but, also, openly hostile to his party. In fact, he was so hostile that then-state Senate Majority Leader, a Republican by the name of John Engelr, made DiNello a committee chair. Eventually, DiNello did switch to the Republican Party.

Currently, Michigan does have an Independent serving in the Legislature. State Representative John Olumba was a Democrat from Detroit until February, when he formed the one-person Independent Urban Democracy Caucus. “It’s high time that we start thinking independently and acting independently, and the people know where I’m at,” Olumba said. Interestingly enough, in the last session of the Legislature, the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter ranked Olumba as the most-liberal member of the state House. But now, Olumba is voting a lot more with Republicans. He even voted with Republicans - and against Democrats - for a budget that cut money for services to people in Detroit.

But, while John Olumba is making an alliance with the Republican majority, he is still a caucus of one. He's lost a lot of institutional support. That’s because Republicans and Democrats help with policy research, campaign support, and fundraising. Olumba has always had an attendance problem. Now, there's no one to excuse his absences; something party caucuses in the legislature do for their members.

However, going independent typically is not the path to power (just ask Presidents John Anderson and Ross Perot). But we can’t forget U.S. Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont. In 2001, his switch from the GOP to an Independent put the Senate under Democratic control. Then, there’s Joe Lieberman. He lost his “Joe-mentum” (yeah, we said it) and the Connecticut Democratic primary for his U.S. Senate seat. So, he rain for reelection as an Independent – and won. But, then, there’s Florida Governor Charlie Crist. When it looked like he wasn’t going to win the U.S. Senate primary in 2010 against Marco Rubio (this was after Crist’s infamous hug with President Obama) Crist became an independent… and, lost to Rubio anyway.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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