Party of One

At work with Michigan's "marginal" power broker


Last fall, Michigan legislator Greg Kaza made headlines when, in a colorful protest against the corrupt culture of state politics, he held a free lottery to give away all the gifts he'd gotten from lobbyists since taking office. (The booty included tote bags, towels, and a foot-shaped mug from a podiatrists' lobby.) About the same time, he announced that constituents visiting Lansing may use his free parking place if they need to—just call and let him know in advance, OK?

At 33, Kaza is the youngest representative from the Metro-Detroit area and the second youngest in the House. Elected in 1992, the Rochester Hills Republican has acquired a reputation as a maverick, quick to buck the Republican leadership when it deviates from his libertarian principles or his district's interests. Youth, principle, political independence—in many states, this would be a recipe for marginality. In Michigan, it spells power.

Until January, the Michigan House was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans; the Democrats have since lost three seats, but legislative battles are still tightly contested. As a result, Kaza and a handful of other independent-minded Republicans have gained more influence than one might expect from such a heterodox crew.

This swing-vote power came to the fore early in 1993, when Lansing Republicans proposed a crime package that would have given police the power to enter private property without announcing themselves. Republican Gov. John Engler and the GOP leadership expected opposition from liberals, but not from Kaza, whose anti-tax, anti-spending record had led many to peg him one of the most conservative voices in the House.

But Kaza quickly teamed with Ann Arbor Democrat Lynn Rivers to pass an amendment requiring two judges to approve a no-knock warrant. For crossing party lines when they did, Kaza, along with Caro-area Rep. Dick Allen, are generally credited with sinking the bill. The middle-of-the-road Ann Arbor News praised their informal, bipartisan Bill of Rights Caucus, editorializing that their principled fight for "the just cause" was "refreshing."

Kaza believes his success represents the triumph of a new sort of politics. He says that, in a state such as Michigan, where voters have approved term limits for state and national officials, traditional political oligarchies are losing power. "There's no incentive anymore, with term limits, for legislators to sit there biding their time and wait 10, 20, 30 years to get the committee chairmanship that they want, to get the big legislation they want," says Kaza. "The incentive to be complacent and follow the party bosses is gone. The people who get their agenda enacted are the people like me, who are independent and make a lot of noise and fight."

While Kaza is far from enacting his agenda—The Oakland Press has noted that his "libertarian-Republican caucus adds up to, well, one"—he has engineered victories besides the crime package win. When the feds threatened to withdraw $500 million in transportation money if Michigan failed to adopt an EPA plan for centralized auto-emissions testing, Kaza helped lead a revolt against Washington—and won. And he was instrumental in creating the bipartisan coalition that repealed Michigan's inheritance tax in October 1993, three years earlier than the plan endorsed by Gov. Engler.

At other times, his strategically proposed amendments have undercut a seat-belt law and knocked down dubious education policies. Kaza also managed to eliminate a lavish retirement package for employees of the state's recently privatized Accident Fund, Michigan's answer to worker's compensation.

Even some of his losses have led to better things. In December 1993, Kaza proposed taxing legislative pensions at the state income tax rate. Not surprisingly, the bill went nowhere. But Kaza pressed the point, and this June, the legislature eliminated its tax on private pensions instead.

To be sure, he is usually a voice almost alone. In letters sent out to supporters, Kaza documents extensively just how often he's on the losing side, typically by votes of 94-3, 88-9, and 91-10. He was the only representative to vote against Michigan's 1994 military affairs appropriation. (No, the state isn't guarding against an invasion from Windsor, Ontario; its military monies go partly to the federal government and partly to veterans' groups.) And, when voters last March were given the choice of raising either the state income tax or state sales tax to fund school reform, Kaza was the only state legislator who refused to support either proposal. (See "Engler's Angle," August/September.) He explains his position with a quote from Shakespeare: "There's small choices in rotten apples."

Kaza's independence has not exactly endeared him to the GOP leadership. Gov. Engler avoids criticizing his party's mavericks publicly. When asked about them, he likes to remark, "We don't have a room where we stamp legislators' heads and tell them how to vote." Republican Speaker Paul Hillegonds also prefers to put on a happy face, commenting that he'd "rather have people who are representing their constituents and thinking creatively." In private, though, Engler's aides are reportedly less sanguine about the dissenters. William Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, says plainly that Kaza "has been spurned by the Englerphiles as a pariah."

Because of his willingness to buck party lines, Kaza is a cipher to most mainstream political observers. To quote the Detroit News, "While lobbyists and leaders acknowledge that Kaza is bright, they say he is tough to figure out." (One lobbying group that has figured him out is the Michigan Education Association. In 1992, they gave one of Kaza's opponents more PAC money than any other legislative candidate statewide; this year it has again targeted Kaza for defeat.)

Kaza is a Republican from a generally well-off district, a former vice president of the pro-market Mackinac Center, and a devout Christian. But he also keeps his car radio tuned to alternative-rock station 89X, is a fervent civil libertarian, and is happy to work with groups such as Common Cause on open-government issues. Before he worked at the Mackinac Center, his investigative journalism appeared in Detroit's Metro-Times, a left-wing weekly. (His first piece, a 1984 article about police corruption in Monroe County, helped defeat a sheriff who'd been in office for 32 years.)

While lobbyists and legislators find Kaza puzzling, voters feel comfortable with him. In this year's Republican primary, Kaza defeated his only challenger, 83 percent to 17 percent. He is very much a known quantity to his district, largely because he makes a point of being accessible to constituents.

That's something he learned when he entered politics in 1991. State Republicans suggested he run as a sacrificial lamb in one of three safe Democratic districts. Instead, he decided to take on Gordon Sparks, a wealthy establishment Republican who'd represented the 42nd District for 10 years. Sparks withdrew and endorsed a crony, leaving an open race. Kaza knocked on more than 10,000 doors, bringing his platform of tax relief, term limits, and limited government directly to the voters. Most told him that he was the first candidate ever to come to their door. A few demanded identification. Kaza wound up drawing 51 percent of the vote in a four-way primary.

In the general election, Sparks endorsed Kaza's Democratic opponent, who proceeded to run a very negative campaign ("Kaza styled himself 'a libertarian.' The Libertarian Party's national platform calls for…"). Kaza stuck to his strategy of door-to-door campaigning and won with 65 percent of the vote.

Kaza still goes door-to-door, dropping off personalized invitations for constituents to call him—at home, if they'd like—with problems related to state government. He spends most of his working hours dealing with mundane constituent problems, such as trouble getting tax returns and permits.

For the immediate future, Kaza's agenda is filled with open-government issues such as giving citizens the right to vote on lawmakers' pay raises; getting "none of the above" on the ballot; abolishing political slush funds; putting the legislative process on-line; and having the legislature operate part-time. One of Kaza's highest priorities revolves around the restructuring of the Department of Natural Resources, Michigan's environmental protection agency. Engler has eliminated many of the department's public commissions, and Kaza, aided by several liberal Democrats, is fighting to ensure the remaining administrative processes are covered by the Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act.

Such populist measures are enormously popular right now and Kaza believes that the country is at a watershed in electoral politics, especially with the passing of term limits. "The days of political smoke-filled back rooms and power brokers and party machines electing people to office—that whole reactionary system—are gone because of term limits."

Perhaps. But how replicable is even Kaza's limited success? Few states, with or without term limits, have legislatures split between the major parties, with the extraordinary swing-vote power that situation brings. The spectacle of largely impotent libertarian-oriented legislators in New Hampshire and other states suggests that Kaza's successes may owe as much to luck as to pluck.

The young lawmaker prefers optimism. Kaza believes that more mavericks, more independents, and more libertarians will be elected. "We're the future," he says.

Jesse Walker is assistant editor of Liberty.