The Michigan Capital has almost become antiquated. The Governor might enjoy a better-equipped office in his home. The chambers for the Senate and the House of Representatives might as well be replaced by online meeting rooms. Why should the legislators from the Upper Peninsula drive to Lansing when they could vote from a chair in their study and be close to their constituents? The capital functions well as a museum.The exquisite landmark built in the age of steam has monuments on the lawn honoring Michigan's Civil War soldiers and preserves the flags the troops carried into battle in cases around the rotunda. The Civil War might have been fought for many economic causes and yet, by the time it was done, slavery had been made illegal in the United States. A just cause that triumphed has been honored here.
On Monday, sixteen electors paid a visit to the capital to cast ballots for the next president. A friend and I drove from the lakeshore, invited to protest on the marble steps leading up to the building's great doors. The protest had been allowed to set up a podium with a public address system on the steps. Standing in the cold, the small audience listened to three speakers who addressed the small gathering. One demanded that Barack Obama act to assure the future of D.A.C.A youth, children of immigrants without American citizenship, beneficiaries of a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The next speaker felt afraid for her life under the next administration. She demanded protection for all those residents who live LGBTQ lifestyles. The audience that cheered her supported her and yet, was rapidly losing power to guarantee safety for LGBTQ people and her as the inauguration approached.
The third and final speaker I caught up with inside the rotunda, among the civil war flags. Dressed in camo bib overalls, he had introduced himself as Grandpa Bob. I congratulated him on his stirring speech and wanted a bit of the chewing tobacco he was enjoying. He wasn't spitting on the glass panel floor as men in the days of Charles Dickens did. He admitted he had not planned on speaking, but no one had stepped up to address the appointment of Betsy DeVos to the Department of Education.
Grandpa Bob said he hasn't made a dime from public education. He felt it was his duty to help tutor children, assisting teachers he admired as hard working, self-sacrificing professionals. He took a day off from his post as a volunteer Grandfather at the poorest school district in Michigan, Godwin Heights next door to his home in Kentwood. He worried aloud that we could lose public education in Michigan unless we all wrote a letter, "with ink pen and stamp", to our elected officials. Grandpa Bob doesn't have any fact checkers, so when he claimed that Florida allows businesses to funnel tax money away from the public school system, his claim must be researched.
When the protesters entered the capital building, all had to put aside their signs at the ground floor entrance. A small detachment of Michigan State Police officers looked over the men and women arriving well-bundled from the cold, but it was more simple a passage than going through security at an airport. We lined the floors of the rotunda, leaning on the round rail, pounding on the concrete rings of the railtops. The rotunda echoed with chant for more than an hour, taking up one issue after another. "DACA Youth are Here to Stay". "Vote Your Conscience". "Unfit to Serve".
I walked the levels of the rotunda, regarding the portraits of governors. My grandmother campaigned for Romney. She treasured her staff identification card. Bill Milliken served many terms, from the time I started elementary to the time I began sophomore year at Michigan State. Jamie Blanchard came next, the man who brought us Autoworld in Flint who also left office with the treasury in blue chip shape. And then came John Engler, famous for his Oldsmobile, whose victory by approximately 17,000 votes surprised most in the know. Call him Engler the Harbinger because with Engler came the new attitude of the Republican party. What was that new attitude? Republicans began to ignore the elected on the wrong side of the aisle. As the Monday protest in the capital was largely ignored. We could have as well chanted, "Ape has killed ape" for all the influence we had on proceedings. Engler was looked at as a Vice Presidential pick by Bob Dole and passed over for Jack Kemp. Ignored.
After three terms of Engler came two terms of Jennifer Granholm. Then Rick Snyder beat Virg Bernero in 2010 and Mark Schauer in 2014. Engler first made use of emergency managers. Granholm named seven emergency managers. Snyder has fifteen emergency managers to his name, five named for Flint. Snyder's portrait has yet to be raised in the rotunda, but he might be interviewing painters now as he cannot run again, due to term limits. As the votes were cast and tallied, the capital staff broadcast C-Span to the protesters singing "We Shall Overcome". I found myself asking, "Is Snyder even wearing a tie with his jacket"?
Standing in the chamber with electors might be as close to the presidency as Snyder will go. Trump brought the Governor of Indiana to the White House. I didn't think to ask for admission to the gallery of the senate chamber. As far as I could see, no one offered a seat to the protesters, and the small group that persisted until the vote would have fit on that balcony.
I went as high as I could in the rotunda, looking at governors depicted in their suits from a time before my birth. I remembered that the recount of Michigan's ballots had been halted by a panel of judges who didn't believe Jill Stein was an aggrieved party. I heard the judges were Republican in sentiment. Was the recount squelched to prevent discovery of voting irregularities in cities with large African-American voters? That has become a point for historians to decide now that Donald J. Trump has collected all sixteen of Michigan's votes. I wished the recount had proceeded so that I didn't feel alienated from the proceedings in the senate chamber. Bill Milliken might have insisted on a recount had he the power. The historians have the chance to ask him his opinion as he still has his eye on the state, an elder statesmen in his nineties.
I found two young men on ladders, touching up the stenciling of the fourth-floor ceiling. Anthony had time to talk, a graduate of Kendall College of Arts and Design. The two men from Grand Rapids work all year round working on the rotunda interior and other state painting projects. We talked about our mutual friends, and I was glad for their company at that moment. Before I descended the cast iron steps to rejoin my friends I studied the eight muses painted at the zenith of the rotunda, representatives of agriculture, art, science, commerce, education, industry, justice, and law keeping eye on the proceedings in the mansion. The painter gave equal status to the muses of science and commerce. In 2003, proof arrived that attributed the paintings to Tommaso Juglaris, an Italian. Good to know the truth for the truth, especially in so public a building.
The eyes of the muses will not blink. For the next four years, neither will the eyes of those who feel disenfranchised by this election.