Thomas J. Cleary was 32 years old, married with six kids to feed, and out of a job through no fault of his own. Prowling the empty halls of the Hollister Bldg. on Allegan Street in downtown Lansing, he wondered, “How did I wind up here? Can I turn things around?” He did, and here’s how it happened:
When voters on April 1, 1963, narrowly adopted the general revision of the Michigan Constitution approved by delegates to the 1961-62 Constitutional Convention, the office of state Treasurer — after Dec. 31, 1964 — would no longer be elected statewide (as it had been since 1908 under the state’s basic charter). The new Constitution passed by little more tan 7,000 votes — closer than the Blanchard-Engler gubernatorial race of 1990.
No matter. Article V, Section 3, in the new Constitution made Treasurer an appointed position by the governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate. Eliminated as elected officials were not only the Treasurer, state Auditor, and state Highway Commissioner, but also the Superintendent of Public Instruction — a move strongly opposed by Democratic delegates at Con-Con. But the Dems were in the minority at Con-Con, so their arguments didn’t prevail. Were their views based on principle? Maybe, but Democrats also knew that, beginning in 1954, they had swept all these offices and repeated the feat in 1956, 1958 and 1960 (they did it in 1962 as well).
Under the new Constitution, all four elected Democrats were wiped out:
— Treasurer Sanford A. “Sandy” Brown (1909-1986), from Bay Port in the Thumb’s Huron County, where he had been a farmer and lumber company owner. He had first been elected in 1954 and won re-election every two years through 1962. After he left the Treasury, however, he never won elected office again.
— Billie Sunday Farnum ( 1916-’79), who had grown up on a farm in rural Watrousville, also in the Thumb. He had been the elected state Auditor for four years when he was ousted. He went on to be a one-term Democratic Congressman in 1965-66 (one of the so-called “Five Fluke Freshmen”) and, later, a secretary of the state Senate (from 1975-’79). The Senate office building in Lansing is named after him.
— John C. Mackie (1920-2008), born in Canada but raised in Detroit, he had been the state’s elected Highway Commissioner since 1957 after serving as Genesee Co. Surveyor from 1952-’56. He recovered from his constitutional ouster by also being elected, like Farnum, to Congress for a single term before being defeated by a young Republican challenger, Donald Riegle, who eventually changed parties and became a three-term U.S. Senator from Michigan as a Democrat. Mackie consoled himself on his Warrenton, Virginia, horse farm, never returning to Michigan.
— Lynn Bartlett (1904-1970), who had been the elected Supt. of Public Instruction since 1957 after a long career in the Grosse Pointe public schools. Perhaps his best-known act as school chief was refusing to allow Gov. George Romney to address the Citizens Conference on Education in 1963. After Bartlett was kicked out office by the Constitution, not the voters, he was named by President Lyndon B. Johnson as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Education and then Assistant Secretary of Education at the old U.S. Dept. of Health, Education & Welfare.
Democratic Treasurer Brown was replaced by Romney in 1965 with Republican Allison Green, who hailed from another quasi-Thumb county, Tuscola. Green had been Speaker of the House in the 1963-64 session of the Legislature. In August, 1964, Green narrowly lost the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor to William G. Milliken, a state senator from Traverse City, at the Republican state convention. In November, 1964, Romney and Milliken were on the ticket for the first time as a governor/lieutenant governor tandem, as provided for in the new Constitution. Following his defeat for the LG nod, Green was nominated by the GOP at the same convention to be the party’s nominee for Secretary of State against the popular incumbent Democrat, James Hare. Hare walloped Green in the November general election massacre featuring President Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide win over Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. Republicans lost everything in Michigan that year — except the governorship (with the LG in tow). Romney/Milliken bucked the Dems’ tide to win easily. Romney didn’t forget Green, either, and the former legislator lasted in the Treasurer’s post until 1978 under Gov. Milliken.
However, not only was Sandy Brown out of a job, but so was his young deputy state treasurer, Tom Cleary. Tom was a native of Escanaba. in the U.P. After his high school graduation, he served in the U.S. Air Force. Cleary attended Marquette University in Milwaukee where he received his degree in business administration. Tom’s dad had been Delta Co. Democratic Party chairman for two dozen years, and Tom carried on the family tradition by squiring Sandy Brown around the south-central UP during one of the Treasurer’s campaigns. A little later, Brown called Tom up and asked him to be his deputy. In June, 1959, Tom arrived in Lansing to take the job. The Treasury Dept. wasn’t very large in those days — Michigan didn’t even have a state income tax in 1959.
After Brown’s political demise at the end of 1964, Tom, realizing that his fellow Democrats actually controlled the Legislature for the first time since 1938, hung out his solo lobbyist shingle. His first client was the dog racing industry, but then it hit him: “Why only one? Why not more?” Soon, he reeled in other clients. Later, he not only lobbied for, but also administered, clients like the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. He named his new outfit Michigan Legislative Consultants. In 1979, another sharp Lansing operative, Fritz Benson, joined the firm. In 1987, ex-state House Minority leader Mike Busch (R-Saginaw) joined up. Today, Cleary’s brainstorm is in its second generation of leadership with Tim Ward and Brendan Ringlever as the firm’s partners.
Few realize today that what Cleary did was all new at the time. Before Cleary, the Lansing lobbying scene had been dominated by relatively small, “single-interest” trade associations, professions or occupations like the “chain stores” or “funeral directors” or “auto dealers” or “CPAs” or “distributors and vendors.” Sure, all those groups still have their own lobbyists today, but that’s not all they have. They need even more help, and Cleary and others paved the way for what was about to happen. Today, most interest groups and associations feel they need a multi-client firm working for them as well, and perhaps a public relations outfit, too.
If Cleary might be given credit for starting the first “multi-client” lobbying firm, he was soon superseded by James “King Jimmy” Karoub, who launched Karoub Associates at the tail-end of 1968. Karoub was a former Democratic state Rep. from Highland Park who had been defeated in a 1968 primary. If Cleary’s first client was the dog racing industry, Karoub made his reputation representing horse racing, which was still a big deal in Michigan at the time. Cleary and Karoub arrived on the scene just when the Michigan Legislature was evolving from a part-time to a full-time enterprise. It was also a period of Democratic Party dominance in the Legislature, and Karoub’s clientele grew exponentially. He hired “young guns” like Joe Garcia, Jack Schick (still truckin’ after nearly half a century), Greg Eaton and Mike Ranville, most of whom survived almost to the present day and eventually became the firm’s owners. Karoub’s operation is now in its third generation with Scott Faustyn, Jim Crawford, Shelly Stahl, Murray Brown and Jim Curran, all of whom have been ranked among Lansing’s top lobbyists in various surveys conducted over the years.
Then came Public Affairs Associates (PAA), founded in 1971 (just a couple of years after Karoub got started). The inspired business partners were Emil Lockwood, a former state Senate Majority Leader (1967-70), and Jerry Coomes, executive director of the Michigan Catholic Conference, who billed it as the first major “bipartisan multi-client firm.” Another major player who joined the firm was Ed Farhat, also of the Catholic Conference. A second generation of lobbyists and later partners — some Democrats, some Republicans — joined the firm in the 1980s and ’90s such as Tom Hoisington, Bruce Ashley, Becky Bechler and Bill Wortz. Tyrone Sanders and ex-state Rep. Jim Ryan (R-Redford) joined the firm as the 21st Century kicked in. The firm, now transitioning into its third generation of partners, built its clientele like Karoub — size mattered, and the outfit’s many clients meant access to many political action committees (PACs) which parlayed those firms by the late 1970 and ’80s into the forefront of legislative fundraising in Michigan.
A decade later, that bipartisan model continued with the establishment of Governmental Consultant Services, Inc. (GCSI) in 1983 when Democratic Speaker Bobby Crim and Republican Senate Leader Bob VanderLaan joined forces after leaving office. GCSI became, along with Karoub and PAA, the Big Three of Michigan multi-client lobbying firms. The next generation of GCSI leadership retained PAA’s bipartisan model — the new chiefs became Gary Owen (D-Ypsilanti), a former state House Speaker, and Pat Laughlin, originally a state House Republican staffer and later the president of the Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association. They in turn have been succeeded by a third generation — Nell Kuhnmuench (Owen’s ex-chief of staff, who finally retired last year after years of being ranked as Lansing’s top female lobbyist), Mike Hawks, Steve Young, Kirk Profit and Ken Cole as directors and owners.
Another ostensibly bipartisan outfit, although not as big, started about the same time — former state House GOP Leader Dennis Cawthorne (R-Manistee) and ex-state Senate Majority leader Bill Fitzgerald, the Democrats’ 1978 gubernatorial nominee — founded a firm that, years later, has become known as Kelley Cawthorne after ex-Attorney General Frank Kelley joined it in 1999.
Then, in 1987, Dennis Muchmore, a former state Senate Democratic staffer who had lobbied for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and GCSI, set out on his own to form what became Muchmore Harrington Smalley & Associates. After building the firm up with ex-state Rep. Pat Harrington (D-Monroe), Muchmore exited the business but proved to be a failure at retirement. First he tried his hand as an executive recruiter, then he became head of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC). Finally, he was hired by new Republican Gov. Rick Snyder in 2011 to be his chief of staff (he lasted till early this year, which was a pretty good run).
Other multi-client lobbying firms have arrived on the Lansing scene since the mid-1980s, but this pioneer story of Tom Cleary’s fledgling Michigan Legislative Consultants and the rise of other, even larger outfits all share a common history:
— They’ve grown to represent a YUGE number of clients — more than a hundred apiece, in the case of the “Big Four,” with many so-called “mid-size” firms not far behind.
— During this era, the Legislature became not only full-time but the third-highest-paid in the entire country. Partisan control of the chambers switched back-and-forth (except, after 1983, the Senate, which has been consistently Republican).
— PACs have come to dominate legislative political fundraising.
— After 1998, term limits has increasingly affected lobbyist-legislative relationships and the role of caucus leadership.
— A common institutional structure has asserted itself, observes Lansing elections/campaign finance guru Bob LaBrant, who for years was general counsel and senior Vice President for Political Affairs at the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. Many of these firms are now, or soon will be, into their third generation of ownership. In this way, the multi-client firms have followed the law firm model of continuity. The next generation of partners buys out the previous generation, and the firm continues generation after generation.
It all started when Sandy Brown was kicked out of office, and Tom Cleary set out on his own.