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COVER STORY - November 7, 2001

Hollister: 'I Still Believe Myself to be a Hard-Working, Honest Liberal Democrat'

by Debra Hart

Hollister in the 60s

Hollister during his Sr. yr. at Eastern High School

I moved to Lansing in the spring of 1990. It was not a terribly impressive place to stumble upon, but I had landed a great job, began making friends and, with no solid intent, have remained here nearly 12 years. In ’90, Michigan Avenue east of the Capitol was a seedy stretch of real estate with few exceptions. The place looked rundown and grimy, and there didn’t appear to be any grand plans to change it. Business seemed stagnant. Municipal leadership at the time was less than impressive. And then it got ugly with the city’s scandalous early retirement debacle, with then-Mayor Terry McKane smack in the middle of it. The antics provided great fodder for the media, but little sense of confidence in our local government.

Enter David Hollister.

Hollister High School Sr. Year

Hollister's yearbook photo, Sr. year

Hollister, an idealistic MSU grad who had worked for civil rights in Mississippi, was a fire-breathing liberal teaching high school in Lansing when he was elected one of three Democratic Ingham County commissioners in 1968. By the time he was elected a state representative six years later, he had helped put the commission on the road to Democratic control.

As a legislator, he continued to invoke his ‘60s values, eventually as chairman of the social services subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee for 10 years. "I came out of there with a reputation of being a hard-working, honest liberal Democrat., and I still believe myself to be a hard -working honest liberal Democrat."

Hollister 1968-1974

Hollister as Ingham County Commissioner, 1968-1974

He took that reputation to the voters in Lansing in 1993, when he ran against incumbent Mayor Jim Crawford. Crawford had ascended to the mayor’s spot when his predecessor, Terry McKane, a three-term mayor himself, retired early in 1992, setting off a scandal. Council had approved an early-retirement plan for civil servants. McKane decided the plan covered him, too. "That so angered me that I jumped into the race for mayor," says Hoillister, who still fumes about the circumstances. Crawford received the endorsements of big business and the Lansing State Journal. "I was not even endorsed by the local labor councils even though I had a 100 percent record in the legislature on labor issues for 20 years." He put together an effective coalition anyway and beat Crawford. Within 30 days, he had revoked McKane’s early retirement package, a move the courts have uphold.

Hollister as State Rep.

Hollister as State Rep. 1975-1992

Lansing voters, those who bothered to visit the polls, elected Hollister again Tuesday. We’ve done so three times now since 1993 – and have the option of doing so again and again if we choose, as there are no mayoral term limits here in our state capital.

But whether Hollister ever stands for re-election again as mayor – a job he clearly thrives on – will depend on his health. In March, Hollister announced he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a neurological disorder with symptoms that typically include hand and leg tremors. With no fallout as a result of the news, he ran and won the Democratic nomination for mayor in August, then beat Republican Eugene Buckley Tuesday.

Hollister in 1994

Hollister at an employee picnic, 1994

I recently sat down with the mayor to discuss where he’s been, where he’s going and how he’s taken us along for the ride – and an interesting ride it’s been.
What is quite apparent about Hollister is that the health of this city and its people truly matter to him. My deep impression is that he is in no way in the game for the power or glory – he absolutely does it because it matters to him. I acknowledge that I’ve been misled by individual intent before, but I would bet my life I’m right on this perception. It almost seems this job, or one like it, is something he must do.

Off the top of his head, what he’s most proud of in his political tenure is "sponsoring hospice legislation and the Open Meetings Act…shoveling the first dirt for the new GM plant…throwing the first ball at Oldsmobile Park … and tutoring for the past five years in Lansing elementary schools." He acknowledges that there is a great deal of criticism that comes with the job, regardless of what you do accomplish. "Every day you make decisions that might anger somebody…" and the frustrating part is that no matter what you do, there will always be some level of malcontent among those who pay attention to politics – and you’re likely to lose some one-time supporters along the way.

Hollister, 2001


Among them are former Council members Ellen Beal and Howard Jones, who have been vocal opponents. "Rain fees," says Hollister, are what began to turn allies against him. Following the recommendation of a committee he had appointed to study the issue, Hollister decided to assess a fee on everyone to pay for sewer separation. "The thinking was it rains on everybody," he said, "and therefore everyone ought to pay for it" – it being a $130 million project mandated by the federal government that the previous administration had dumped in his lap without a plan to finance it. "There were others, including Ellen, who felt you should target it more toward your big consumers and businesses, " said Hollister. Mindful of the stagnant economy he had inherited, he disagreed and implemented the fee.

Rain fees have probably been the biggest downer in the mayor’s two terms. The court eventually ruled it a tax, not a fee, and threw it out. That wasn’t a full victory for opponents, however. The court said the city doesn’t have to refund the money.
The rain fee flap has deeper significance for Hollister: It was the first time fellow liberals began to wonder if Hollister was still one of them because of his reasoning that taxing businesses would be bad businesses. Then came General Motors.

"We had the fight over tax abatement for General Motors," the mayor said. "To build the new Alero, they were going to take this old plant and invest $600 million in it. To get that investment, they were asking for a $24 million tax abatement. To me that was a good business decision, but it polarized Council. Howard (Jones) got really mad. He lectured the UAW leadership that came down here to support the abatement, saying Walter Reuther would turn over in his grave if he knew our local labor leadership was supporting an abatement for General Motors. One of reasons we had this win with this new Alero was a good history of labor management relations in this city, and Howard was coming out of it as more someone of the ‘60s in a confrontational mode and characterizing it as corporate welfare. And (Councilman) Rick Lilly, who was another ally at the time, made the statement that we’d be better off without General Motors, that we’d be more like Ann Arbor, that we’d be more of a wine and quiche town instead of a beer and bowling town.

"Well, that comment just polarized the Council and the community, and it was at that point that I created the blue ribbon committee to keep GM and went aggressively to try to change that attitude, because that headline about not caring about GM being here got a lot of attention in Detroit. (GM vice president) Mark Hogan made it very clear that after 2003 there was no product guarantee for Lansing. After all, if we didn’t want them, they would gladly go away and go some place else, to which Howard responded that they’ve invested too much here and can’t afford to leave -- not realizing that 60 miles is a good example of what happens if you don’t build that relationship.
"So with the rain fee and the tax abatement, they then characterized me as pro business and giving up my ‘60 values and selling out."

Hollister said he holds the same values today but that his style is and always has been to be a consensus politician. "That’s what I did as a legislator for 20 years, and that’s what I do as mayor. I don’t have an ideological agenda as mayor. I have more of an administrative role, and I think I have demonstrated that I do that very effectively."
One area in which he did not build consensus, however, was the controversy over Edward Swans. Swans was a black man who died in Lansing’s jail in 1996 while police were restraining him. The March for Justice formed to protest what it saw as a wrongful death with overtones of racism. Hollister, backed by the results of police and FBI investigations, tried to convince the protesters that the city was innocent, but to no avail. And even now, after a court has declared it a wrongful death and ordered the city to pay Swans’ family $12 million, the mayor is unapologetic. He remains convinced it was an "unfortunate accident."

And he sees some good that has come out of it, such as diversifying the Police Department. "I said that within three or fours years we would have as many minorities (as a percentage) within our department as we have within our population. We’ve exceeded that."

Another area in which Hollister has faced some criticism more recently is historic restoration after the downtown YWCA was torn down for a parking lot. The downtown YMCA seems headed for the same fate; developer George Eyde has suggested covering up the classic deco décor of the old Knapps Department Store building, which he owns. (Hollister said he is meeting with Eyde this week and will ask him "to preserve it if we can.") Efforts to declare segments of downtown Lansing as historic districts in order to preserve the homes in them have stalled.

Hollister chafes at any criticism of his record on restoration. Beginning after his first election, he made restoring and revitalizing North Lansing – renamed Old Town by him – a top priority, and small-business loans from the city have helped put Old Town on a new path, he said. He also points to the improvements on Michigan Avenue between Clara’s restaurant and the Capitol as another good example. "Historically, this city has not promoted itself as a capital city the way a lot of capital cities do, and we needed to build a better relationship with the state and build on the Capitol itself. It’s the new symbol of the city," he says, gesturing at the image of the Capitol woven into his office rug, "not a dead tree being chopped down."

And there is the "seven-block area" on the southwest side of the Capitol that "had resisted development for years." While every other community that applied for one of Gov. John Engler’s renaissance-zone designations sought it for industrial areas, Lansing alone pursued it for a residential neighborhood, he said. "If you go over there now, some of those homes were demolished, but a lot of them have been rehabbed, and there are homeowners instead of absentee landlords. The whole neighborhood has come back alive." Hollister added that he intends to continue support for the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition and similar organizations. "The Housing Coalition was rehabbing 10 houses a year when I came into office. Now it’s doing 50, and we’d like to see it do 100."

Other goals for Hollister in the next four years are to replace GM’s Verlinden and Townsend plants and convince GM to puts its e-GM headquarters here. The division is responsible for all of GM’s Internet efforts and would fit in nicely with Hollister’s desire for Lansing to become something more of a wine and quiche town in pursuit of more information-technology business. Hollister said the head of e-GM, Mark Hogan – the same executive Hollister had to convince earlier that Lansing still wanted GM – likes Lansing "because it’s far enough away from Detroit that it can be independent, but it’s also close enough that you can get there in a hurry." Hollister believes there’s a pretty good chance of getting a piece of e-GM, and says, "If we can get that, that will put us on the map worldwide." A blue ribbon committee on information technology and the digital economy recently completed a focus group to determine how to lure technology wizards in their mid-20s to mid-Michigan. Our community already possesses some of the things they want: a 15-minute commute, inexpensive housing, golf courses (we have 36 in a 50- mile radius) and a Big Ten university (life-long education is essential to this group). Some of the things we need to work on are capacity to deliver wide-band, high speed Internet service and "enhanced lifestyle." Evening entertainment was a hardly surprising issue raised in the IT study. Hollister thinks a downtown performing arts center would help. "This has been on the city agenda for a few years now. The state did allocate a half-million dollars to fund a serious planning project to build the center" as a precursor to getting more money from the state. Once the renderings were completed, 2001 was to be the year that the legislature was lobbied for funding. The plan was to seek $15 million from the state; the city would cover the other $25 million via a regional bond. This was on track until the economic downtown and is on hold for another year or two, he said.

Improving the schools is another target for Hollister. He declares himself ready to lead the charge for another bond issue, if school officials want him to, after voters rejected a $388.5 million bond issue in May.

Hollister declared making Lansing a "world class city" his goal when he was elected in 1993. He says today that knows that it will be a long task to achieve that goal. "It’s not going to happen in five years, or seven years, or maybe even in my lifetime. I believe…that the resources are present in the community to reach that goal if it’s made a priority. General Motors has decided it’s worth investing in two new plants here."
How much longer will Hollister be able to lead Lansing toward that goal now that he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s? "I’m not on medication, so right now it’s diet, exercise and doing everything I can to reduce stress and postpone the symptoms," none of which he has yet. "Doing everything" includes full-body massages, he says. "I never thought I’d do that…always thought it kind of weird." His doctor recommended it and though quite reluctant at first, he now gets them every two weeks and notes the restorative, relaxing and reaffirming side effects. "You see that (former U.S. Attorney General) Janet Reno is running for governor, and she has a much more advanced case than I do. It doesn’t impact your intelligence. It does impact your stamina to some degree. I’m here for as long as the people will have me and as long as my health holds up."

Debra Hart is co-host of the Tim and Deb Radio Show on Classic Rock 94.9, WMMQ. She’s also host of "Sci-Fi Sunday" on WLAJ-ABC53. You’ll occasionally find her on-stage at the Spotlight Theatre in Grand Ledge, in yoga class, or trying to find another form of media to invade. Additional reporting by James Brazier and Berl Schwartz.

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