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Alma Wheeler Smith: A Real Progressive Runs for Michigan Governor

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Say what you will about Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith, but the lady has guts.

She would almost have to, having been born in segregated South Carolina in 1941 and being the daughter of the first (and only) African-American mayor of Ann Arbor. Her parents were community organizers who "didn't believe in babysitters," so Alma and her sisters were baptized into politics at an early age.

The mother of three has lived an extraordinary life. Although she's twice run for governor (2002 and 2010) and been in public office for three decades, few people know the details. Some are absolutely haunting.

When Smith was 2, she watched her twin sister, Lucille, die after her dress caught on fire.

"The ambulance was called and came and (the first responder) looked at my family and said, 'We can't help you,'" she recalled. "The family was black and they were not going to take her to the hospital because the service was white. So she died in my mom's arms."

I don't know how you get over that. But the passionate Smith says that's one of the reasons "I do what I do."

So while downtown Lansing resembled a ghost town this Thanksgiving week, replete with tumbleweeds dancing down Capitol Avenue, Smith was busy working.

The Salem Township Democrat called for a tax increase, but that's not the big headline. It's that her tax plan actually makes fiscal sense.

Smith wants to enact a graduated income tax, eliminate the hated Michigan Business Tax (MBT) surcharge and some loopholes, and lower the sales tax rate and extend it to services. She also wants a new income tax credit that would give students a full ride to both preschool and state colleges.

This is a sound and relatively painless way to raise $6.5 billion - something worth considering as we're set to hit a $10 billion deficit in seven years. Our tax code is hopelessly outdated, engineered for the 1950s manufacturing economy. Yes, changing things up means some people will pay more and others less, although Smith's spreads the pain around in a much fairer fashion that what we have right now.

But fear of creating new winners and losers shouldn't mean embracing terrible policy, just because it's the status quo. That's where conservatives often go awry.

Of course, if the Smith plan ever had a chance of passage, some business groups more concerned about their adherence to obsolete right-wing economic theory than representing their members, would declare the apocalypse was at hand.

Yawn. The real flaw in Smith's proposal is that it ignores big government reforms desperately needed for decades. The biggest concern about electing another Democratic governor, besides House Speaker Andy Dillon, is that s/he won't slay this elephant in the room.

Conventional wisdom says you don't talk tax hikes in an election year (like it or not, the 2010 election started months ago). But Smith has never balked at going against the grain.

She has emerged as perhaps the most vocal Democratic critic of Gov. Jennifer Granholm, whom she ran against in '02 on a ticket with former U.S. Rep. David Bonior.

"People kept saying, 'Why didn't you support Granholm?'" Smith recalled. "And I said, 'Because I don't think she has the knowledge of the process or the issues or how to work it to get it done.'"

You'd have to be high to argue that Smith was wrong on that account. Even the governor recently admitted that her lack of legislative experience was her biggest flaw.

But those words haven't endeared Smith to party poobahs who have flocked to support Lt. Gov. John Cherry's still-undeclared campaign. And they've hurt her with Granholm's liberal blogging fan base, which generally pretends she doesn't exist, even though Smith's politics align perfectly with theirs.

Smith doesn't go out of her way to fisk the state's CEO, unlike Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, who probably falls asleep thinking of new ways to slam the woman he only refers to as "this governor." But when I interviewed Smith this spring, she couldn't hide her disappointment with Granholm's lack of vision in office:

"This administration has had some interesting challenges. But we have a governor who has terrific charisma, an ability to speak and change people's minds about issues and give them hope. I've seen a lack of organization coherence -- am I going to get in trouble for this. Daring? I just don't think we've been bold when Michigan needed bold leadership."

Smith is the anti-Granholm - bold, experienced, but not afraid to compromise. Just witness her excellent working relationship on prisons with Sen. Alan Cropsey, one of the most conservative Republicans in a very conservative Senate.

"I am a liberal; I have no qualms about telling people that," Smith told me. "But I do understand this process and I know that I don't have all the answers, and people bring other ideas to the table that, working in conjunction with what I have as an idea, can make a much better package."

You couldn't ask for a better defense of the l-word.

More than half of Democrats are undecided on the governor's race. Those who have long dreamed of a Granholm governorship with teeth need look no further than Alma Wheeler Smith.

She's the kind of change progressives should believe in.

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