A lawmaker from the Upper Peninsula says every region in the state could benefit from a strong and vibrant Detroit. Republican state Senator Tom Casperson has become an unlikely advocate for a regional transit system in southeast Michigan that would connect Wayne, Macomb, Oakland and Washtenaw counties.
Casperson’s district in the U.P. would not benefit directly from the transit system. But the U.P. could benefit long term from newfound political ties to Detroit.
As last year’s legislative session drew to a close, a handful of senators stood to make their remarks about the year that was 2011. But only one floor speech drew reverent silence.
“Being a Michigander, there is a special place in my heart, for Detroit,” said state Senator Tom Casperson, a Republican from Escanaba, very far away from Detroit. Casperson told his colleagues about a trip he took to Detroit to see how effective the city’s bus system is, and what needs to be improved. He said the trip opened his eyes to the beauty and plight of Detroit, and taught him something about his own district as well.
"The Upper Peninsula has struggled, and I would hate to think that my downstate colleagues would turn their back on us, give us the cold shoulder and make us face those difficulties alone," Casperson said. "I am not going to turn my back on those below the bridge.”
“Tom’s speech was so good that he made me sit down because I just didn’t want to be—I didn’t want to end on a negative note,” said Democratic state Senator Bert Johnson from Detroit.
Johnson had planned to make a speech the same day as Casperson to denounce the Republican policies of 2011. But he decided to stay quiet. Johnson was Casperson’s host on his trip to Detroit and they rode the bus system together. Johnson says his working relationship with Casperson began with a simple conversation about transportation.
“He said, ‘Well what’s it like to be on a bus in Detroit?’ and I said ‘Why don’t you come down and try out?’ and he did,” Johnson said.
“I could not believe how beautiful the buildings were and the history and everything that’s there," said Casperson. "And I walked away that day just convinced that we’re not doing ourselves any favors if we just keep talking about the bad things.”
But the connection between lawmakers from Detroit and the U.P. goes back far before Casperson and Johnson’s bus ride that day.
“It’s been a longstanding tradition in Michigan," says Bill Rustem.
Rustem is a key advisor to Governor Rick Snyder, and a former advisor to Governor Bill Milliken in the 1970's. Rustem says the alliance between lawmakers from the U.P. and Detroit faded away because of term limits. But he says 40 years ago lawmakers from the two regions bonded over shared hardships – declining population, withering coal and automotive industries, and increased urban and rural poverty.
“The fact that these two geographic areas of Michigan were in a position of economic decline, and how to figure out how to make them both work and working together, they were able to accomplish some things that were very important to either Detroit or the Upper Peninsula,” Rustem says.
Rustem says cooperation between the two regions centered around the then-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Dominic Jacobetti from the U.P., and another member of the committee, Morris Hood, Jr. from Detroit.
“When Mr. Jacobetti passed away, my dad was crying… And he told me the U.P. was just like Detroit," said Hood’s son, Morris Hood III.
Morris Hood III followed in his dad’s political footsteps and is now a state Senator. He says his father and Jacobetti worked closely together for so long that they had an understanding with each other and about the needs of each other’s communities.
“Those are the types of things that we don’t have any more because of term limits," Hood says. "You don’t really have a chance to get to know someone.”
Coincidentally, Morris Hood III office at the state Capitol is next door to that of Senator Tom Casperson from the U.P. They both say having offices next to each other has made their working relationship stronger and built up trust between them.
In Casperson’s office, the U.P. lawmaker sits at a wooden meeting table with a boldly stained inlay of the Upper Peninsula. He says after the day he spent in Detroit with Senator Bert Johnson, he invited Johnson to swap districts with him for one week. Casperson says now that he has begun to see the unique beauty and needs of Detroit, he hopes Johnson will see the unique beauty and needs up north.
"The hope is is that some of those walls will start dropping, and who knows, we might start agreeing on more things than we thought we could,” Casperson says.
Senator Bert Johnson says, “He’s a Republican, I’m a Democrat – we don’t agree on everything politically. But for some reason he was able to sort of put aside political ideology, and say, ‘Look, I’d like to do something substantial to help Detroit, and maybe this regional transit conversation is the way to start.’”
Senator Casperson is the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, and his bill to create a regional transit authority in southeast Michigan has Johnson’s full endorsement and support. Both lawmakers say they hope to collaborate on more legislation in the future.