MACKINAC ISLAND – A Republican businessman and a Democratic education leader will lead Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s new group focused on developing strategies to reverse decades of Michigan’s stagnant population growth.
Whitmer formally announced the effort Thursday at the Mackinac Policy Conference, naming John Rakolta and Shirley Stancato as co-chairs of the new 28-member “Growing Michigan Together Council” that will include other business, labor and education officials.
By picking bipartisan leaders who have worked together before to solve problems in Detroit, Whitmer said she hopes to take “politics out of the conversation so that we can be focused with a team Michigan mentality.”
GOP legislative leaders criticized the plan, however, because the Democratic governor will have exclusive authority to appoint the council’s 21 voting members, which must include two Republicans from the Michigan Legislature, according to an executive order Whitmer signed Thursday.
The council follows a report released last month by the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan and nonprofit consulting organization Altarum that warned Michigan has “fallen behind other states in population growth, jobs, earnings, health, educational achievement, and the quality of public services at the state and local levels.”
And a new statewide poll suggests challenges ahead: Only 55 percent of voters between the age of 18 and 29 believe they will still be living in Michigan a decade from now, according to a public opinion survey by Glengariff Group Inc.
Rakolta, president of the Detroit-based Walbridge construction firm, is a GOP megadonor who served as a U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates under former President Donald Trump. He told Bridge Michigan he planned to meet with Republican legislative leaders later Thursday to outline plans for the council and stress the importance of “intellectual tension.”
In the global competition to attract and retain residents and businesses, Michigan has a number of advantages, including hard workers, strong universities and an abundance of fresh water, Rakolta said in a press event overlooking the Straits of Mackinac.
But the state’s disadvantages, he said, “are striking.”
“We have vastly underperformed the nation in terms of K-12 education,” Rakolta said. “We have an infrastructure that, quite frankly, is collapsing. And most important to me is we lack the cultural cohesion (of both political parties, business leaders and labor aligning on a goal despite differences) that it takes to compete on a global basis today.”
While the council is designed to outlast Whitmer, Rakolta and Stancato hope to publish an initial report by the end of the year that is expected to include some policy proposals.
“Population growth is the most urgent challenge facing Michigan,” Stancato said at the press conference. “… We have a collective responsibility to reverse the tide.”
The group is expected to initial focus on three areas:
- Jobs, talent and people: The council will be tasked with setting a population goal for 2050, create a “model for growth” and a plan to attract and retain workers, Whitmer said
- Infrastructure and place: With Michigan roads still projected to deteriorate despite Whitmer’s $3.5 billion bonding program, the governor wants the council to look at long-term funding opportunities for infrastructure, she said
- Education: “The council will develop recommendations to track and improve student outcomes at every level and measure our progress against top states,” Whitmer said.
Michigan, the 10th biggest state in the nation with roughly 10 million people, has ranked 49th out of 50 for population growth since 1990, exacerbating a national worker shortage and costing the state power in Washington D.C. through the loss of congressional seats.
“That has to change,” Rakolta said.
GOP leaders criticize plan
House Minority Leader Matt Hall and Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt had urged Whitmer to give Republicans an equal number of appointments to the council, and criticized the governor’s final plan for failing to incorporate their recommendations.
“I think we missed an opportunity, because this truly could have been bipartisan,” Hall, R-Richland Township, told Bridge. In a separate statement, he blasted what he called a “heavily-skewed, partisan commission.”
As the owner of a construction firm, Rakolta “provides a lot of valuable insight in this space,” Hall said. “But to me, a bipartisan commission is working together legislatively with us on something that’s balanced, and that did not happen here.”
Under the governor’s executive order, she will select a Republican lawmaker from both the House and Senate to serve on the council, which will include 21 voting members. At least one member must be under 25 years of age.
Nesbitt, R-Porter Township, questioned the need for the council, noting lawmakers and the governor are elected to propose and vet policy solutions of their own.
“It looks like she just wants a group saying, ‘You guys need to pass a huge tax increase (to fund roads or education),’ which I don’t think is going to help with population,” Nesbitt told Bridge.
While Whitmer will appoint members to the council, the administration has made clear that GOP leaders are welcome to suggest potential appointments, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist told Bridge.
And there’s no doubt that Rakolta, the council’s co-chair, “is a blood-red Republican,” Gilchrist said.
Rakolta, who told Bridge he is not entering the process with any predetermined policy outcomes in mind, has a long history in Republican Party politics.
He’s a GOP megadonor who in October personally contributed a maximum $7,150 to Whitmer’s general election opponent, GOP nominee Tudor Dixon. But after Whitmer coasted to re-election last fall, his Walbridge firm in December donated $10,000 to Michigan Strong, a nonprofit that paid for the Democratic governor’s second inauguration.
Trump in 2018 nominated Rakolta to serve as an ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, a role he held in 2019 and 2020. He previously worked as a national finance chair for Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, and in 2021 donated $100,000 to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ 2021 re-election campaign, according to federal records.
Despite his political pedigree, Rakolta also has a history of working across the aisle on policy solutions, and most recently has been urging state political and business leaders to form a coalition over the economic threats to Michigan over the auto industry’s shift to electrification.
Stancato and Rakolta began working together in the 1970s through New Detroit Inc., a racial justice organization and community coalition formed in the wake of the city’s 1967 riots. Stancato led the nonprofit for nearly two decades before retiring at the end of 2018. Whitmer appointed her to the Wayne State board in 2019 and she won election in 2020.
They worked together again on the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schools, which in 2016 convinced a Republican-led Legislature to approve a $617 million bailout for the city’s debt-ridden public schools system.
“I don’t think that this effort is any less difficult, but I think it’s necessary,” Rakolta said of the new population council.
Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan and former lieutenant governor in Rick Snyder’s administration, said the council’s goal of long-term consistency will be critical to its success.
“For Michigan to start growing, it first has to stop shrinking,” Calley said. Retaining people who are here should be a goal set by the council, he said, including the small businesses and entrepreneurs who choose the state for their growth.
While there could be some large-scale recommendations, such as prioritizing housing growth and community college performance, Calley also cautioned that there is no magic to finding solutions, and that expectations of fast action will be unrealistic.
Instead, population growth will result from “dozens — maybe hundreds — of small steps, done well over time for modest change.”
Ani Turner, a researcher at Altarum, one member of the research team that led the population study released in mid-May that is spurring much of this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference discussion told Bridge that she’s encouraged by the emphasis on how the population work will go beyond Whitmer’s administration.
“We need a long-term plan and vision that goes beyond one administration or the next,” she said. “That’s been part of our problem.”